Tag Archives: John Holbo

You Already Know The Words To That Old Janis Joplin Song

David Boaz at Reason:

For many libertarians, “the road to serfdom” is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think. They (we) quote Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” We read books with titles like Freedom in Chains, Lost Rights, The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, and yes, The Road to Serfdom.

The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.

And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not.


Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:

Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.

I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.

Take a more recent example, from a libertarian. Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation writes about the decline of freedom in America:

First of all, let’s talk about the economic system that existed in the United States from the inception of the nation to the latter part of the 19th century. The principles are simple to enumerate: No income taxation (except during the Civil War), Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, economic regulations, licensure laws, drug laws, immigration controls, or coercive transfer programs, such as farm subsidies and education grants.

There was no federal department of labor, agriculture, commerce, education, energy, health and human services, or homeland security.

Then he writes:

Why did early Americans consider themselves free? The answer is rooted in the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. As Thomas Jefferson observed in that document, people have been endowed by their Creator with certain fundamental and inherent rights. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But wait. Did “early Americans consider themselves free”? White Americans probably did. But what about black Americans, and especially the 90 percent of black Americans who were slaves? Slaves made up about 19 percent of the American population from 1790 to 1810, dropping to 14 percent by 1860. (In that period the number of slaves grew from 700,000 to about 4 million, but the rest of the population was growing even more rapidly.) Did Mr. Hornberger really forget that 4 million Americans were held in bondage when he waxed eloquent about how free America was until the late 19th century? I know he isn’t indifferent to the crime of slavery. But too many of us who extol the Founders and deplore the growth of the American state forget that that state held millions of people in chains. (I note that I’m not concerned here with self-proclaimed libertarians who join neo-Confederate organizations or claim that southerners established a new country and fought a devastating war for some reason other than the slavery on which their social and economic system rested; I just want to address libertarians who hate slavery but seem to overlook its magnitude in their historical analysis.)

Will Wilkinson:

What Boaz calls “thoughtless and ahistorical exhortations of our glorious libertarian past” is a central element of the fusionist conception of traditional American identity. But it’s just wrong. I call the syndrome of questionable conservative cultural assumptions and habits of thought that continue to pervade the libertarian movement the “fusionist hangover.” I say it’s time to sober up.

Eugene Volokh

Doug Mataconis at Below The Beltway:

Does that mean that the infringements of liberty and encroachment of the state that we see today is acceptable ? Of course not, but it does mean that we need to recognize that the idyllic American past never really existed and that the fight for liberty is a fight for the future, not the dead past.

Roy Edroso:

at Reason David Boaz suggests (albeit gently) that maybe America wasn’t more free, in the way libertarians like to think about it, back when it was full of slaves. The Perfesser reads Boaz’ piece, and is much more concerned with the tragic loss of American liberties under Jimmy Carter.

Also funny: the Hit & Run commenters to the story. I especially liked the guy who says the Donner Party was “perfectly libertarian” because “they were free to make a bad decision, made it, and suffered the consequences.” I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

Boaz points out the obvious omissions to this false nostalgia, women and slaves, and wisely asks of his fellow libertarians to have a little historical perspective: “Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying ‘Americans used to be free, but now we’re not’ — which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.” It’s all well and good to have a conversation about whether taxation and the federal bureaucracy are infringing on freedom. But compared to the struggle to simply gain equal recognition as human beings — there’s simply no contest.

Jacob Hornberger at Reason:

Boaz raises another point that needs addressing: He attempts to diminish the significance of what our American forebears achieved.

It is true that the principles of liberty on which our ancestors founded the U.S. government were not applied to everyone, especially slaves; and there were, of course, other exceptions and infringements on freedom, such as tariffs and denying women the right to vote.

But should those exceptions and infringements prevent us from appreciating and honoring the fact that our ancestors brought into existence the freest, most prosperous, and most charitable society in history?

I don’t think so. I believe that it is impossible to overstate the significance of what our American ancestors accomplished in terms of a free society.

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

Will Wilkinson responds:

Nope. Sorry.

How about the female half of the population? By 1880 coverture laws, which basically denied married women any meaningful property rights, were still in place in many states. (Coverture laws persisted in some states until the 1920s.) And there were  plenty of further paternalistic regulations on the sort of work women were allowed to undertake. Of course, women in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.

Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong. The economic and political rights of blacks were severely curtailed under the various antebellum state Black Codes and then under the Jim Crow laws. What formal rights Southern blacks did have were often denied in fact by extralegal enforcement of racist norms by lynch mobs and other campaigns of terror.

By 1880, most of the the U.S.’s imperialist efforts to secure North American territory against the claims of competing European imperial powers were complete. But the government’s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.

One could go on and on in this vein in gruesome detail. But this is enough to establish the point: 1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze.

It’s just plain wrongheaded to cast the libertarian project as the project of restoring lost liberties. Most people never had the liberties backward-looking libertarians would like to restore. I know the rhetoric of restoration can be very seductive, especially in a country unusually full (for a wealthy liberal democracy) of patriotic traditionalists. But restoration is a conservative project and liberty is a fundamentally progressive cause.

Boaz responds at Cato:

I am a great admirer of the Founders, as I write on many occasions. When I talk about the progress we’ve made in expanding freedom for blacks, women, gays, and other once-excluded groups of people, I often say that we have “extended the promises of the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to more and more people.” I love and respect those promises, I appreciate the extent to which the Founders made good on them immediately, and I am glad that they have indeed been extended.

I share Hornberger’s commitment to a world with no income tax, no alphabet soup agencies, no central banking, no drug laws, and so on. I’m just not sure that the world of 1880 — much less the world of 1850 — is actually more free, on balance, for Americans as a whole, than today’s world. But that’s a reasonable argument, and I am happy to engage Hornberger and others in it.

Of course, the world is full of unreasonable arguments, too. In case anyone’s been reading some of them in the Reason comments or elsewhere on the Web, let me make just a few comments: I did not “attack” or “malign” Jacob Hornberger; I criticized an article he wrote. In fact, I took pains to call him one of the “libertarians who hate slavery” in distinction to some self-styled libertarians who sound like neo-Confederates. I did not say that “we have to accept” the Civil War, anti-discrimination laws, the income tax, or anything else as the price of abolishing slavery; I just said that we shouldn’t overlook the crime of slavery when we write paeans to 19th-century freedom, and that on the whole we may very well be freer today than in antebellum America. I did not say that “it was necessary to reduce everyone’s freedom drastically before we can morally allow anyone to have more freedom than another.” Here’s a tip: If you’re shocked by what someone says my article said, please read the article.

OK, that’s all for this topic. I have a D.C. power-elite meeting to go to, and then a Georgetown cocktail party.

Arnold Kling:

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

Wilkinson responds to Kling:

What I really, really care about is liberty. If the culture and the law denies liberty to some groups, then I think we ought to fight culturally and politically to win equal freedom for the members of those groups. If people have been denied liberty on the basis of group membership, caring about liberty then entails caring about the “group status issues” standing behind historical oppression.

I am not scared of the fact that older Americans are more racist, sexist, and homophobic that younger Americans. I regard this as a hopeful sign that historic inequalities in status and freedom are on their way out. And I’m not frightened of the Tea Party movement (which is not especially old.) In fact, I hope it helps deliver divided government by helping Republicans win a bunch of seats. I just don’t think it’s very substantively libertarian. It is a populist movement centered on a certain conservative conception of traditional American identity. Libertarian rhetoric is definitely part of that, but rhetoric is rhetoric.

By contrasting the Tea Party with “ruling intellectuals,” Arnold seems to recognize that it is as a populist movement, and he seems to prefer it for that reason. But, contrary to what Arnold implies, a distaste for conservative identity politics and a disinclination to see much real libertarian potential in the Tea Party does not leave the libertarian with no alternative but to “slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.” One thing a libertarian might do is to publicly set forth persuasive arguments that over time shifts the balance of both elite and popular opinion. Why Arnold thinks that straightforward persuasion is possible only through some kind of subterfuge or seduction eludes me.

It is true, though, that you’re more likely to be taken seriously by “ruling intellectuals,” and lots of other people besides, if you acknowledge that the rights and liberties of women and historically persecuted minorities really do count. And rightly so. But I have the sense that Arnold thinks that this is not rightly so, and that a libertarian would only acknowledge this sort of “group status issue” strategically, as a way of sucking up to elites so that they will be more likely to listen to your free-market ideas. Please tell me I’m wrong Arnold.

John Holbo:

Obviously Kling and Hornberger could not have done a better job of proving Boaz’ original point. It’s tempting to accuse them of just not caring about liberty for anyone except white men. How else could they miss this stuff? But I doubt that’s it. (Anyway, aren’t they Jewish? It’s hard for me to imagine men named Kling and Hornberger seriously believe they, personally, would be made more free by being transported back to the late 19th Century.) It seems to me the most probable explanation of this truly bizarre blind spot – it really is bizarre and there’s no other word for it – is a sort of strange entrapment in the conservative ‘restoration’ narrative, but perhaps induced by Hayekian rather than conservative rhetoric. If the 20th Century was the Road To Serfdom, it can hardly have been a long march to increased freedom. If progressives and liberals are the authoritarian enemy, it can hardly be that their victories have, on the whole, made us more free. Since the 20th Century was when the bad stuff really got going, how can it NOT be appropriate to be thoroughly nostalgic for the 1880’s as a Lost Golden Age?

I guess I’ll leave it at that. Libertarians really ought to know better than to try to argue against the utterly obvious points Boaz made in that post. That’s just basic intellectual hygiene, surely.

Orestes Brownson at FrumForm:

Fair enough; one can easily see that ending slavery certainly ought to have been a libertarian end.  However, it was accomplished with stunningly anti-libertarian means (not that I’m complaining; I’m not a libertarian), and by a political coalition — the Republican coalition — that held no other libertarian ends.

Look, the Republican party was anti-free trade, for “corporate welfare” to railroads, for a national bank, for expansive executive powers, and wanted to use the federal government’s powers to ban marriages not between one man and one woman during the polygamy controversy.  Once the Civil War was over, they pretty much got what they wanted.

So, some liberties and alleged liberties went by the wayside, to create a greater liberty.  ”A new birth of freedom,” even.  But what I don’t see among a lot of libertarians today is the same willingness to make tactical compromises to accomplish their greater ends.

Mark Kleiman:

The main occupation of the U.S. Army between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Spanish-American war was “Indian fighting,” or, as we call it today, “ethnic cleansing.” Of course Wilkinson blames it all on “the government,” as if much of the work hadn’t been done by free individuals exercising their right to keep and bear arms in defense of the private property they were engaged in stealing.

But even if we look only at heterosexual males of European descent, and even if we agree to treasure such rights as the right to grow up without schooling and to be free of employment discrimination against eight-year-olds, the right to consume adulterated food and drugs, and the right to starve to death if incapacitated from earning a living by misfortune, disease, or old age, in one respect the 1880s were much less free than, say, the 1950s. In 1880 any attempt to form a labor union was treated by the courts as a criminal conspiracy. It was also likely to be met with extra-legal violence by the Pinkertons (and sometimes the national guard). Today, however, the right of workers to organize is an internationally-recognized human right (except in El Salvador and Libertarianland).

In practice, the right to unionize has been under siege from union-busing consultants, aided by capital mobility and a complaisant NLRB. But even post-Reagan, American workers remain free, in principle, to try to bargain collectively with their employers. This is not, of course, a right that libertarians cherish; Brink Lindsey lists the collapse of private-sector unions as a gain for liberty. But the utter helplessness of a railway worker, textile operator, or coal miner of the 1880s (who enjoyed, thanks the the “fellow sevant” doctrine, the right to be injured at work without receiving compensation) in the face of the tyranny of the boss and the foreman is not a condition to which all of us aspire to return.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

Which model provides a better starting point? Should a libertarian prefer a decentralized republic along broadly Jeffersonian lines, but without slavery and government discrimination (though this may mean tolerating private discrimination) or a large and centralized rights-enforcing government akin to the New Deal state but with an emphasis on personal liberties instead of redistribution? And of these two models, is one more inclined than the other to decay into its illiberal form? That is, would slavery or segregation re-emerge in a restored Jeffersonian republic more readily than redistribution and other evils would arise in a purified New Deal state?

It seems to me that the tutelary ambit of the modern progressive state logically inclines toward providing for the basic material necessities of its wards as well as for the protection of their rights, and to ensure provision of needs and protection of rights a great educational apparatus may be desirable. The freedom of the tutelary state is the freedom of a free-range dairy cow: in exchange for care and protection, you pay your taxes and may frolic in the fields as much as you please. It’s a timid sort of freedom, but it is freedom of a kind.

An alternative based on the older American tradition, by contrast, need not logically lead to a slave-state; indeed, most of the Founders recognized that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of their system. That system, even in its most benign form, would not be purely libertarian, of course: there too state schools would be desired to inculcate proper values into republican citizens. Private discrimination would be permissible, and if states or localities adopted unfair or unjust laws, one would have little recourse to federal remedies. But you could move to a different jurisdiction more in keeping with your ideas of liberty. It’s an uneven but robust freedom.

This is what libertarians who laud the old America have in mind. Why slander them as being ignorant of slavery, when liberaltarians do not want to be slandered as social democrats? If the socio-political order that libertarians like Hornberger desire really does naturally incline toward the sorts of injustices Boaz names, then make that case and argue against the model on those grounds. But I don’t think Boaz even believes that, let alone that he can present a convincing argument for it. On the other hand, those who believe that the modern state naturally tilts toward social democracy or worse have frequently and cogently made their case –not least in that “great book” Boaz mentions in his first paragraph, The Road to Serfdom.

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

We can only think to ask such a question if we radically discount the experiences of nearly all other people in society. And this violates one of the fundamental formulations of libertarian political thought, the law of equal freedom:

Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.

Language issues aside, under a standard like this, it’s impossible to justify, for example, the fact that marital rape was never a crime in the nineteenth century. Or that women surrendered all of their property, present and future, to their husbands at marriage. Or that women at marriage couldn’t have a legal place of residence separate from their husbands. Or that children were presumed in law to belong solely to the husband, and never to the wife. Or that (contra Bryan Caplan) contracts between husband and wife were typically invalid under law, so one couldn’t escape the shackles by contracting around them with a well-intentioned husband. Or that cohabitation without marriage — another attempt to escape the bind — was plain illegal. Or that divorce was exceptionally hard to obtain.

To put it bluntly, the white men of 1880 were for the most part brutes and tyrants. Even if they didn’t want to be, the law forced them. They either claimed, or had foisted upon them, all kinds of “freedoms” that intrinsically infringed on other people. And I’m not even talking about what they did to blacks in the South or Asians in the West, though I easily could.

I certainly wouldn’t want everyone today to be in the same position that white men had in 1880. Putting them there would require that we find some rather large population for them to personally oppress, to rape, to steal property from, and to hold in permanent thrall.

Neither slave nor master has any place at all in utopia.

Bryan Caplan:

I largely agree with David Boaz’s recent attack on libertarian nostaglia.  While many Americans were freer in the Gilded Age than they are today, plenty were not.  But precisely who belongs on the list of people who have more libertarian freedom in 2010 than they did in 1880?

Boaz mentions “Jews, blacks, women, and gay people.”  For blacks, his case is obvious and overwhelming: Slavery was finally over, but blacks still suffered from both Jim Crow and private racist brutality.  The case for gays is similarly strong: If you were openly gay in 1880, you probably would have been prosecuted under the sodomy laws – and lived in fear of private violence even if the law left you alone.  However, it’s hard to see why Jews belong on the “freer than they used to be” side of the ledger; 19th-century America not only had legal religious toleration, but as far as I’m aware, pogroms and other private anti-Semitic violence were virtually absent.

It’s when we get to women, though, that things get interesting.  Women are more than half the population.  If they’re freer today than they were in the Gilded Age, we can truly say that most people in America are freer today than they were before the rise of the welfare state.  On reflection, though, this is a very big if.

Without a doubt, women lived much harder lives in 1880 than they do today.  So did men.  In those days, almost everyone endured long hours of back-breaking toil.  But of course the standard libertarian take on this is that while freedom causes prosperity in the long-run, prosperity and freedom aren’t the same.

In what ways, then, were American women in 1880 less free than men?  Most non-libertarians will naturally answer that women couldn’t vote.  But from a libertarian point of view, voting is at most instrumentally valuable.  Will Wilkinson seems aware of this when he writes:

[W]omen in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.
Yet the fact that women were unable to vote in defense of their “basic liberty rights” doesn’t show that American political system denied them these rights.  Did it?

Caplan responds to critics. More Caplan and more Caplan. And even more Caplan

Will Wilkinson:

Kerry Howley sensibly suggests that we approach the question of how much “libertarian freedom” women enjoyed in the late 19th century by looking to see what a libertarian woman of that era had to say about it.

Kerry suggests this passage from Voltairine de Cleyre’s Sex Slavery (1890):

He beheld every married woman what she is, a bonded slave, who takes her master’s name, her master’s bread, her master’s commands, and serves her master’s passion; who passes through the ordeal of pregnancy and the throes of travail at his dictation, not at her desire; who can control no property, not even her own body, without his consent, and from whose straining arms the children she bears may be torn at his pleasure, or willed away while they are yet unborn.

I would not characterize this as an illustration of one form “libertarian freedom” might take. But Bryan Caplan might persist in arguing that women were in some sense free to opt out of this sort tyrannical arrangement. If de Cleyre could opt out, other women could as well, right? I don’t think it’s that easy. Bryan is unjustifiably ignoring the developmental prerequisites for autonomous or robustly voluntary choice. One way to deny an individual the ability to choose really freely is to raise her in a way that constantly cultivates and reinforces a set of preferences and expectations that fit comfortably within a social and legal order of paternalistic control and systematic inequality of status and rights.

One time-honored criticism of paternalism is that it infantilizes adults and leaves them unprepared to make wise choices on their own behalf, thereby reinforcing paternalistic laws and norms by making them seem necessary. I wonder if Bryan thinks this is an ineffective criticism of paternalism? I take it that he would be unwilling to endorse slavery even if slaves could be conditioned from childhood to consent to their chains?

John Holbo on Caplan:

Having made one non-libertarian-related post, I can now say, with a good conscience, that Bryan Caplan has responded to his critics. It is a wonder to behold.

I will make two notes. (No doubt you yourself will come to have your own favorite moments.) First, a lot of the trouble here obviously rotates around the issue of systematic social oppression. Caplan barrels straight through like so: “there’s a fundamental human right to non-violently pressure and refuse to associate with others.” That hardly speaks to real concerns about violence. But beyond that Caplan doesn’t notice that, even if he’s right about this fundamental human right, he’s no longer even defending the proposition that women were more free in the 1880’s, never mind successfully defending it. He’s defending the proposition that there is a fundamental right, which can be exercised, systematically, to make women much less free, that was better protected in the 1880’s. So if women value this libertarian right more than freedom, they might rationally prefer that sort of society. But even so, they should hardly regard themselves as more free, for enjoying this right. Rather, they should regard themselves as (rationally) sacrificing liberty, a lesser value, for love of libertarianism, a higher value and separate jar of pickles altogether

DJW at Lawyers, Guns and Money

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist

Tyler Cowen:

Bryan Caplan set off a debate which has spread to many corners of the blogosphere.  I have no interest in recapping and evaluating the whole thing but I’d like to make a simple but neglected point: negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable.

Here is one simple scenario.  Let’s say the government tells me I have to buy and place a five-foot ceramic grizzly bear statue on my front lawn.  How bad an act of coercion is that?  If I have an upper-middle class income, it’s an inconvenience and an aesthetic blight but no great tragedy.  If I have a Haitian per capita income, it is a very bad act of coercion and it will impinge on my life prospects severely.  I either give up some food or they send me to jail.

In other words, even theories of negative liberty — purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter — require standards for degrees of coercion.  Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty.  Negative liberty standards can’t help but seep into a concern with consequences.

Fast forward to said debate.  When people are poor, apparently small interventions can be quite crushing and quite coercive.  To cite the “smaller” interventions of 1880 doesn’t much convince me.  The real impact of the depredations against women was very, very large, even from some “small interventions” (and I don’t think they were all small).

(Also, I would not in this case take the *legal* oppressions to be a stand-alone or exogenous variable, separable from more general societal attitudes.  There were various male desires to oppress women, which took a mix of legal and non-legal forms.  Asking how bad the “government-only” restrictions were is an odd division of the problem, since the governmental and non-governmental restrictions were an integrated package which worked together in non-linear fashion.)

Every negative liberty theorist is a positive liberty theorist in disguise and this comes out once they start citing degress of outrage, degrees of harm, degrees of coercion, and the like.

UPDATE: More Holbo

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Filed under Feminism, Go Meta, History

American Enterprise Institute: Now With 100% Less Frum

David Frum at FrumForum:

I have been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute since 2003. At lunch today, AEI President Arthur Brooks and I came to a termination of that relationship.

Below is the text of my letter of resignation.

Dear Arthur,

This will memorialize our conversation at lunch today. Effective immediately, my position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is terminated. I appreciate the consideration that delays my emptying of my office until after my return from travel next week. Premises will be vacated no later than April 9.

I have had many fruitful years at the American Enterprise Institute, and I do regret this abrupt and unexpected conclusion of our relationship.

Very truly yours,

David Frum

Frances Martel at Mediaite:

The announcement comes shortly after Frum received a rush of criticism for a column suggesting that the passing of health care reform was the Republicans’ “Waterloo,” and that they “suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.”

The “Waterloo” piece, as well as subsequent criticism of the Republicans, was a deviation for Frum, who had been reliably supportive of the conservative cause throughout his career. While he received plenty of criticism from many on the right– most prone to dismiss him as a relic of the neo-conservative 2000s– and even got his old bosses in hot water with Rep. Darrell Issa, he managed to get the increasingly mellow Bill O’Reilly on his side despite saying the only people on the right who would benefit were those in the “conservative entertainment industry.”

Greg Sargent:

I just got off the phone with writer David Frum, and he says the conservative American Enterprise Institute assured him today that he isn’t being fired because of his recent blistering criticism of the GOP, as has been widely speculated this afternoon.


But Frum says AEI president Brooks at lunch today actually lauded him for making so much noise with that post.

“He said the thought might occur to me that this had to do with that,” Frum says. “He wanted to ally my anxieties on that score. He was very empatic.” Frum adds that Brooks said he “welcomed and celebrated” the debate he’d stirred up.

“He asked me if I’d like to work for AEI on a non salary basis,” Frum added. “He said it had nothing to do with my work and that after all these are hard times.”

“Big bad conservative think tank axes writer for criticizing GOP intransigence” is a seductive storyline for our times, but it may not be true.

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time:

I caught up with Frum after the meeting. “Arthur Brooks insisted that this had nothing to do with my writings,” Frum said, adding that Brooks also did not challenge Frum’s fealty to AEI’s three core principles, which are described on the AEI website as, “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.”

An AEI spokeswoman, Veronique Rodman, sends over this statement: “While AEI makes it a practice not to discuss personnel matters, I can say that David Frum is an original thinker and a friend to many at AEI. We are pleased to have welcomed him as a colleague for seven years, and his decision to leave in no way diminishes our respect for him.”

So it goes. Is the timing a coincidence? Hard to tell. I guess one can take Arthur Brooks at his word. Or not.

As irritating as Frum can be — and he can be very irritating — most of his policy positions, as far as I know, are reliably conservative. True, he’s a fan of RomneyCare, but then, er, so is the guy who’s at or near the top of the polls right now for the GOP nomination in 2012. And yes, I know, it’s predictable that a Chamberlain-esque RINO candy ass such as myself would defend a guy who whines about Rush Limbaugh at every opportunity, but Bartlett’s point about rigid conformity is well taken. Frum’s still a hawk, at last check; he was a McCain voter in 2008 and prefers market solutions in most cases, from what I know. He’s wrong about the GOP having mishandled O-Care and he’s annoying with his endless scolding of right-wing media, but hopefully it’s still possible to be a conservative who’s wrong (occasionally) and annoying (frequently) and nonetheless employable by a conservative think tank. Currently AEI has as a fellow one of the geniuses who helped craft McCain-Feingold. Ornstein’s conservative enough, but not David Frum?And yes, of course, AEI should be free to employ whomever it wants. Doesn’t mean they should be free from criticism, though, assuming that the suspicions about their motive here are confirmed. Oh, and a reminder to the media, which is surely polishing Frum’s new halo as I write this: When it comes to excommunicating conservatives, he knows whereof he speaks.

Bruce Bartlett:

As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

Conor Friedersdorf

To sum up: The implication in Mr. Bartlett’s piece is that lots of people at AEI favored most aspects Obamacare — so many people, in fact, that AEI scholars were ordered against commenting on the subject at all. But lots of people at AEI did write publicly on the subject. Put another way, even if a few pro-Obamacare scholars had been silenced, Mr. Bartlett’s piece would be inaccurate as written. Perhaps he misheard Mr. Frum, or else Mr. Frum was mistaken or speaking imprecisely. I’ve followed the work of both men, and I’ve never known either to lie, so I presume there is some good explanation for the mistake.

Were any AEI scholars told to shut up about health care? Was there unspoken pressure? I sent an e-mail to all the folks listed on the think tank’s Web site, offering anonymity to anyone who requested it. I remain willing to expose even a partial vindication of Mr. Bartlett’s charge.

As yet, however, I’ve gotten only a lot of replies like this one from Charles Calomiris:

In all the years of my association with AEI no one ever suggested, much less ordered, that I say or not say anything. Quite the opposite; I was specifically told never to expect any guidance and I was guaranteed it in advance, which is why I was comfortable being involved with AEI for many years. The culture of AEI is completely contrary to attempts at control of academic thinking or speech. Freedom of thought is sacrosanct. I can tell you from personal knowledge that in many other think tanks in Washington that is not the case. At AEI, however, it is hard to imagine that these accusations could be true.

Or this one from Jack Calfee:

I have long admired Frum’s work, although I confess to not having paid much attention to his critiques of Republicans and conservatives. Speaking as one of the AEI health policy scholars, however, the notion that we have been muzzled on health care reform is bizarre. So many op-eds, so many AEI pubs, so many media appearances and interviews and quotes . . . I have to wonder whether David was quoted correctly on this point.

Or this one from Sally Satel:

I have never, ever been instructed/hinted/cajoled on what to say or write.

Or this from Edward Blum:

It has been my experience that AEI does not censor, discourage, or micromanage the work of its scholars and fellows or how they communicate with the press.

Or this from Rick Hess:

i’m curious about the sourcing of the Bartlett claim. i certainly never heard any such thing.

i do know that in my own field (K-12 and higher education), no one at AEI has ever attempted to steer, stifle, or influence my writing or speaking. this is particularly relevant, as much of my own work has been flagged over the years as heartburn-inducing by Bush administration proponents of No Child Left Behind and conservative proponents of school choice. indeed, AEI scholars writing on questions of education– including Charles Murray, Lynne Cheney, Christina Hoff Sommers, Mark Schneider, Andy Smarick, and myself have consistently reflected diverging and oft-contradictory views regarding policy, practice, and aims in our written and spoken work.

indeed, i’ll simply say that in my eight years at AEI I have felt far less intellectually constrained (through formal clearance mechansims or informal social norms) than i did in my previous role as a professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.

Does anyone at AEI have a different experience to relate? The offer of anonymity remains, even if you’re someone who already wrote me expressing a different opinion on the record. Meanwhile, all the folks who ran with the Bruce Bartlett angle — I’m looking at you, Howard Kurtz — should note that whatever else happens at AEI, good or bad, it is undeniably the case that various folks there have been commenting on health care.

Incidentally, the think tank is foolish to lose the talents of David Frum.

Bartlett responds:

To begin with, I think the important thing about what David told me is that I believed it instantly because it seemed very plausible for two reasons. First, I know from personal experience and from private comments by people I know in the conservative think tank community that there is enormous pressure to follow the Republican Party line. Those that dissent keep their mouths shut lest it cost them their job, a promotion, friendships or just because they don’t like to be hassled by those they work with. I’ve known people who shifted their specialties so they wouldn’t have to work in areas where they had objections to the party line that may have only involved tactics.
Second, I knew that there were a great many conservative health analysts who have long accepted the idea that universal coverage without a single-payer system basically requires some sort of individual mandate. Here, for example, is some testimony that Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation gave on this topic a few years ago before the party line changed. Sensible conservatives understand that you can’t cover preexisting conditions without a mandate and you can’t have a mandate without subsidies that have to be paid for. That leads logically to the system Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts that is virtually identical to the legislation that has just passed Congress.
So it didn’t surprise me at all that some AEI health specialists would have agreed with much of what Obama was proposing. Nor did it surprise me that the media and fundraising people at AEI might have suggested that they avoid making public comments supportive of the Democrats’ health plan. Before I was fired by NCPA I was often told that my comments critical of George W. Bush were unhelpful to fundraising even though they agreed that I was right on the substance.
I don’t have access to Nexis to check and see what comments AEI fellows might have said in the months before David made his comment to me and things may have changed afterwards. I have no way of knowing what things AEI people may have avoided saying or said off the record or on background to a reporter and were identified as a conservative health expert or whatever. Perhaps David was just wrong and that every AEI health expert was in fact opposed to every provision of the Democratic health plan and completely agreed with the Republican Party line that it was a huge step on the road to socialism that would completely destroy the American health system. I only know what he told me and that it rang true at the time he said it.
If it turns out that I misheard or misunderstood what David told me I promise a full retraction and public apology to AEI. In the meantime, my inclination is to believe anything David tells me and treat with deep skepticism anything I hear from AEI to the contrary. The organization has lost an enormous amount of credibility by firing him and hiring Republican political hacks like Marc Thiessen. That’s a statement I will never need to retract.

Jacob Heilbrunn at Huffington Post:

The banishment of David Frum from the American Enterprise Institute may be one of the best things that’s happened to him. He’s become a cause celebre. As a newly hot commodity, he’ll get gobs of publicity — a New Yorker profile must now be in the offing — and website hits for his fledgling FrumForum. But it’s not good for the conservative movement, which has regarded his efforts to drag it into modernity with increasing consternation.

Frum has long had the right stuff for the right, working at the Wall Street Journal and for the Bush administration. In recent months he’s been staking out somewhat heterodox stands, at least in the context of the conservative movement. Even mild dissent, however, is apparently too much for it to swallow. It has reached the point where, in Bolshevik fashion, it’s devouring its own children.

Is Frum really an apostate, a ranks-breaker? No, he isn’t. I haven’t seen any evidence that Frum, a vigorous polemicist, has fundamentally deviated from traditional conservative positions when it comes to Israel or tax rates. What he has argued for is a more modern Republican party that doesn’t stage a gadarene rush to the far right, but tries to come to terms with environmental issues, health care, and so on. Writing in the Washington Post on Thursday, Anne Applebaum observed that much of what Frum represents is a no-brainer for conservatives, who, like the British Tories, may well find themselves in the wilderness for many years if they refuse to acknowledge new realities.


It is not like we are in love with David Frum, coiner of “Axis of Evil,” and general lover of war. But at least you can have a conversation with the guy, hypothetically!

Whenever we see an article or book from a Reasonable Conservative saying, “We need to tone down the rhetoric and stop following Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh,” though, it never takes the next step: how? Where is the implementation plan? These terrible scourges don’t come out of nowhere; everything follows a system of incentives, the biggest of which would have to be money, followed by short-term power. How do you make the exploitation of fear and constant outright lying and insanity less profitable, and less able to deliver short-term gains? The only solutions seem to be ones that would have the Republican party concede they’re following a failed ideology and must fold permanently or accept general minority party status for the next 25 years.


More Friedersdorf:

On the subject of David Frum, I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ll begin by disclosing a personal story. In January 2009, I had a particularly bad day: the Washington DC based web magazine where I worked folded; and immediately afterward, I got a call informing me that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, and would soon undergo a significant surgery. I am unsure how Mr. Frum heard about the magazine closing, but he e-mailed to ask if I would call him. On doing so, he offered condolences on a professional disappointment — a nice gesture, especially since I had precious little to offer him as a professional contact, and wasn’t a friend — and when I revealed why the lost job hadn’t been much on my mind, he spoke to me for perhaps twenty minutes longer, conducting himself in a most gentlemanly fashion.

Understand that I hardly knew Mr. Frum. I’d met him perhaps thrice in person, always in a room full of people. Even now I’ve met him perhaps six times. Upon calling me that day, I am certain he didn’t expect me to say that my mother had cancer — what does one even say to a professional acquaintance in that situation, beyond a mumbled, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I still don’t know, because I can’t remember what Mr. Frum said, except that it consoled me greatly at the time, reassuring without being prying or presumptive: It was a polite, well-mannered, graceful, kind-hearted gesture, and it demonstrates two things. 1) The way Mr. Frum conducts himself isn’t intended to ingratiate himself to Washington DC’s liberal elite — he regularly demonstrates social graces on all sorts of occasions utterly unconnected with politics. 2) Probably Mr. Frum isn’t aware of how much he raised my spirits that day, which is another way of saying that being a gentleman — and striving to avoid shrillness, intolerance and boorishness — are commendable virtues and bedrocks of civil society. It is execrable to make civility into a vice, let alone an ideological signifier, as if most Americans don’t value these things regardless of their political beliefs, or benefit from a world where they are practiced.

Of course, David Frum is uncivil sometimes. I recall a line in Newsweek about Rush Limbaugh’s dimensions and manifold personal flaws that he phrased somewhat more harshly than was necessary (talk radio hosts bring out the worst in all of us), I’ve seen him scrap in the blogosphere, as so many of us sometimes do, and I object strongly to some of his rhetoric during the Bush era, when he questioned the motives of Iraq War opponents. But it is to his credit that he tries and usually succeeds in tempering the bad impulses that shadow us all in political argument. And it speaks poorly of anyone who criticizes not his rare failures, but his constant effort to resist them. What normal person wants to be like a boorish, mercenary talk radio host, for goodness sake? Since when are these qualities how conservatives define themselves “aesthetically”?

Other critics say that Mr. Frum is egotistical, disloyal, arrogant, self-important. Beyond the fact that these same people unselfconsciously laud Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — self-important folks with out-sized egos if ever there were any — it is noteworthy that these criticisms are always offered as though they refute the arguments Mr. Frum is making about a given issue, or a politician, or conservatism, or the future of the Republican Party. It is an intellectual coward or a fraud who tries to discredit ideas by pointing out the alleged, totally irrelevant personality flaws of their advocates.

Love him or hate him, Mr. Frum has been around Washington DC a long time. He possesses knowledge on political history, policy, and politics that is broad and deep. He has an especially curious mind, and a willingness to flout the conventional wisdom, which influences him less than most people. Were movement conservatives less childish, irrational, and defensive in the face of dissidents, they’d learn something — even when he is wrong, he often raises worthwhile points that inform my thinking, much as I might disagree with his ultimate conclusions.

Paul Krugman:

David Frum* has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute; one has to assume that this is a response to his outspokenness about the Republican failure on health reform.

In discussing the Frum firing, Bruce Bartlett asserts that AEI has muzzled its health-care experts, because the truth is that they agree with a lot of what Obama is proposing. I find this quite believable; back in 2003 Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, which is supposedly harder-right than AEI, proposed a health care reform consisting of … drumroll … an individual mandate coupled with subsidies to make insurance affordable. In short, Obamacare.


*I’m informed, by family members, that Frum is a distant cousin of yours truly.

Mike Allen at Politico:

EXCLUSIVE: David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

We talked at length afterward with an AEI official in an effort to get a specific response to Frum’s charge. But the group apparently doesn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with Frum, and stuck to this earlier statement from Brooks, blaming Frum for his departure: “David Frum is an original thinker and a friend to many at AEI. We are pleased to have welcomed him as a colleague for seven years, and his decision to leave in no way diminishes our respect for him.” Ask other AEI scholars how they felt about David’s mail and packages piling up outside his office. Frum, who will be 50 in June, had been on the payroll since leaving the Bush White House in 2003. He acknowledges he was very seldom at the office. But he maintains he developed and spread conservative ideas — AEI’s stated goal — with the 300,000 words a year that he writes for his blog, FrumForum.com; his weekly columns for CNN.com, The Week, and the National Post of Canada; his biweekly offerings for TIME and American Public Media’s “Marketplace”; and his three TV and three radio appearances in a typical week. He also landed Canadian Finance Minister James Flaherty for an AEI retreat last month that included donors. Frum tells us that regardless of his dismay with the party, he’ll stay registered GOP.

Charles Murray at The Corner:

I have known and liked David and Danielle Frum for many years, and what I am about to write will end that friendship. I regret that. But his statement goes beyond self-serving. It is a calumny against an organization that has treated him not just fairly but generously.

Regarding donor pressure: The idea that AEI donors sit down to talk with AEI’s president about who should and shouldn’t be on the staff, or what the staff should write, is fantasy. David has never seen the slightest sign of anything like that at AEI. He can’t have. He made it up. AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom. As for the reality of that intellectual freedom, I think it’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about. I’ve pushed it to the limit. Arthur Brooks is just as adamant about preserving that culture as Chris DeMuth was, and Chris’s devotion to it was seamless.

I do not have any certain information to convey about David’s departure, except what Arthur Brooks has already said publicly: David resigned. He could have stayed. But I will tell what is common knowledge around AEI: David got a handsome salary but, for the last few years, has been invisible as a member of the institute. Being a scholar at a think tank (or any institution) is not just a matter of acknowledging your affiliation in your books and op-eds. It’s also a matter of blogging at the institute’s blog, not just your own blog (David had a grand total of 3 posts on AEI’s blog in the year since it began), reviewing colleagues’ drafts, reacting to their ideas, contributing chapters to their books, organizing scholarly events, participating on the institute’s panels, attending the institute’s conferences, helping out with fundraising, serving on in-house committees, giving in-house seminars, and mentoring junior staff. Different scholars are engaged in these activities to different degrees. Full disclosure: I’m on the left-hand side of that bell curve (I make the trek from Burkittsville so seldom that I don’t even have an office at AEI). But David was at the left-hand tail. If I had to guess — and that’s what I’m doing, guessing — David’s departure arose from something as simple as this: Management thinks that an employee is not as productive a member of the organization as management thinks he should be. The employee disagrees. They part company.

I think that’s what happened. I also think that for David to have leveled the charge that Arthur Brooks caved in to donor pressure, knowing that the charge would be picked up and spread beyond recall, knowing that such a charge strikes at the core of the Institute’s integrity, and making such a sensational charge without a shred of evidence, is despicable.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up

Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

Danielle Crittenden at FrumForum:

We have both been part of the conservative movement for, as mentioned, the better part of half of our lives.  And I can categorically state I’ve never seen such a hostile environment towards free thought and debate–the hallmarks of Reaganism, the politics with which we grew up–prevail in our movement as it does today. The thuggish demagoguery of the Limbaughs and Becks is a trait we once derided in the old socialist Left.  Well boys, take a look in the mirror.  It is us now.

David of course doesn’t need my defense–and a defense coming from his wife probably isn’t worth much (although I can categorically state this has been posted without his authorization, approval or even, um,  knowledge–he’s flying somewhere over the country right now).  My role right now is to pass him the flask in the trench.

But to return to Washington and dogs: Along with the bile, there has been an equally considerable outpouring of support and defense, from friends and foes alike, who–whether they agree with David or not–are horrified by the guillotine that is being set up in the public square of democratic debate.  They understand that nothing good can come of this, for anyone of any political stripe.

For this support, we are both very grateful.  And while I wouldn’t have thought it possible to admire David more than I do, I have to say he is still turning this old girl’s head–now more than ever.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads

More Frum

More Bartlett

Christopher Buckley at The Daily Beast

Daniel Larison

John Holbo

UPDATE #2: Anne Schroeder Mullins at Politico

Maggie Gallagher at The Corner

Mark Schmitt at The American Prospect

UPDATE #3: Henry Farrell and Brink Lindsey on Bloggingheads


Filed under Conservative Movement, New Media

My, That Is An Exceptional 6 Train

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review:

The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.

Matthew Schmitz at The League:

Lowry and Ponnuru seem to believe that mass transit is a “socialistic program” and an “infringement on our liberty.” Presumably they think this because mass transit is built and administered by the government and supported, quite often, by taxes. But the exact same thing is true of highways. Would Lowry and Ponnuru denounce the Interestate system as socialistic on the same grounds?

Their casual slander also dishonors one of the recently passed heroes of the conservative movement, Paul Weyrich. Weyrich co-founded the Heritage Foundation and founded the Free Congress Foundation. Lowry and Ponnuru, who both probably knew him, also know that he was as American and un-socialistic as they come. Weyrich realized that transit was, in some cases, an eminently reasonable way of transporting people. If  Lowry and Ponnuru are unsettled by the fact that Europeans have more transit than we do, they should look back to the time when America had both more transit and less government than Europe did, or than it does now. If you’d like to read more on the conservative case for transit, see David Schaengold here.

Matthew Yglesias:

But of course they have nothing to say about genuine infringements of liberty like minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc. that are mainstays of America’s centrally planned suburbs. That’s because to them what really matters isn’t socialism or liberty (certainly nobody who cares about liberty could be as enthusiastic about torture as National Review writers are) but Americanness. Even here, though, their critique falls badly flat. The world’s largest subway systems are in Japan and South Korea—not socialistic Europe—followed by New York City right here in the United States. Multiple-unit train control was invented in Chicago, as part of the world’s first electrically driven railway. I believe that all of the world’s 24-hour rapid transit systems (NYC Subway, Chicago L, NY-NJ PATH) are in the United States of America.

Brad DeLong:

Can people please stop bringing forward Ramesh Ponnuru as a “reasonable conservative” now?

Damon Linker at TNR on the rest of the essay:

Lowry and Ponnuru’s thesis—that President Obama is an enemy of “American exceptionalism”—is hardly original. It is so widely held and so frequently asserted on the right, in fact, that it can almost be described as conservative conventional wisdom. Still, NR’s treatment of the subject stands out. Lowry and Ponnuru aim for comprehensiveness, and they maintain a measured, thoughtful tone throughout their essay, marshalling a wide range of historical evidence for their thesis and making well-timed concessions to contrary arguments. It’s hard to imagine this key conservative claim receiving a more cogent and rhetorically effective defense. Which is precisely what makes the essay’s shortcomings so striking. While its authors clearly mean it to stand as a manifesto for a resurgent conservative moment, the essay far more resembles a lullaby—a comforting compilation of consoling pieties set to a soothingly familiar melody. The perfect soundtrack to a peaceful snooze.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with definitions. Lowry and Ponnuru aim to convince their readers that the President of the United States denies the idea that lies at the core of American identity: that the country is exceptional. But what makes America exceptional? This is what the authors tell us: Americans affirm a creed that upholds “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.” These principles then combine with “other aspects of the American character—especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force—to form the core of American exceptionalism.”

Some of this is faintly ridiculous. (Is anything less exceptional in human history than a country’s willingness to defend itself by force?) As for the rest, it’s either a string of American banalities and clichés—or an abstract of the Republican Party platform. The next several paragraphs of the essay make it very clear that it’s the latter. That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru expect their readers to believe that what makes our country exceptional is that large numbers of Americans affirm the ideology of the modern conservative movement. But that’s not quite right. Through long stretches of the essay they go much further—to imply that America is exceptional because the nation’s creed is the ideology of the modern conservative movement.

Follow the bouncing ball: the fact that “a profit-seeking company” founded Jamestown and that Puritan merchants wrote “In the name of God and of profit” at the top of their ledgers; that, in a “telling coincidence,” Adam Smith’s “free-market classic” The Wealth of Nations was published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence; that Benjamin Franklin’s name “comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property”; that Abraham Lincoln supposedly hated few things more than “economic stasis”—all of these and many other anecdotes are supposed to add up to an endorsement of “the American economic gospel” (read: libertarian economic gospel) about “wealth and its creation.” Meanwhile, other cherry-picked facts in later paragraphs serve to highlight the American fondness for democratic elections, the country’s incorrigible patriotism and religiosity, and its “missionary impulse” to “export our model of liberty” to the world, often at the point of a gun.

More Yglesias:

In this telling, there’s something insidious about asking if they don’t do something better someplace else. But of course another way of looking at it is that you by definition can’t find examples of alternatives to the US status quo by looking at the US. That’s why you regularly see the Cato Institute touting Chile’s pension system or Heritage extolling the virtues of Sweden’s K-12 education or David Frum talking up French nuclear power. After all, we’ve never attempted to shift from a guaranteed pay-as-you-go pension system to a mandatory savings one in the United States. Nor do we have any examples of widespread operation of public elementary schools by for-profit firms. Nor do we have a robust nuclear power sector. So if you want to explore these ideas—ideas that conservatives often do want to explore—you need to look at models from abroad.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! So why isn’t it okay for liberals to talk about French health care or Finnish education or Danish energy policy? As Barack Obama once said, when you look at the right sometimes it’s like they’re proud of being ignorant.

Mark Murray at MSNBC:

And the cover story in the latest National Review, entitled “Defend Her: Obama’s Threat to American Exceptionalism,” contends: “The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation.”

Of course, Obama was asked whether he believes in American exceptionalism while visiting Europe during the NATO summit. His response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.”

That question Obama was asked defined American exceptionalism as the United States being “uniquely qualified to lead the world.” Historians typically regard American exceptionalism as why the U.S. didn’t have socialist revolutions or strong working-class movements like most of Europe did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet the conservative definition of American exceptionalism — particularly in the National Review article — is aimed at Obama’s efforts to reform the nation’s health-care system, enact cap-and-trade (which, ironically, is based on market principles), etc. Here’s National Review summing up what American liberals want: “Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, the like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?”

But if you read Obama’s speeches — from the president campaign and now as president — you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America’s unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union. “This union may never be perfect,” he said in his famous ’08 speech on race, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given,” he said in his inaugural address. “It must be earned.”

Here’s what he said in his Berlin speech during the presidential campaign: “We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived — at great cost and great sacrifice — to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world.”

So it’s not that Obama doesn’t think America is an exceptional nation; his own words debunk that critique.

Rather, it’s that conservatives and liberals have two very different ideas of what “exceptional” means.

UPDATE: Matthew Lee Anderson

Samuel Goldman at PomoCon

James Poulos at PomoCon

UPDATE #2: Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

Victor Davis Hanson at The Corner

Friedersdorf on Hanson

DiA at The Economist

Greg Scoblete

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #3: Lowry and Ponnuru responds to critics

John Holbo on the reponse

Matthew Yglesias on the response

UPDATE #4: Friedersdorf responds to the response

Goldman responds to the response

Schmitz responds to the response

UPDATE #5: More Larison

UPDATE #6: Peter Lawler

UPDATE #7: James Poulos and Robert Farley on Bloggingheads

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Filed under Go Meta, Infrastructure

And Then Ronald Reagan Tugged At His Suit And Said “Make It So”

Mike Potemra at The Corner:

Palace sources say Patrick Stewart is about to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. It turns out he is an avid supporter of Britain’s Labour party; his support must be especially welcome in this, one of Labour’s darker hours. Coincidentally, I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility). I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.

More Potemra:

A prominent conservative writer, who wishes anonymity, offers the following analysis: “Jean-Luc Picard . . . was deeply conservative, in the finest Burkean tradition. Picard embraced the conservative Gaullist ideal that ‘institutions can only be preserved if they are constantly renewed’ and was therefore, as Paul Johnson admired in De Gaulle, someone who was modernist and even futurist precisely because he was conservative. Picard preserved all through his travels that love of “la France des villages”; of old books, ancient plays, and classical music. This conservatism was often and prominently highlighted. Even his admiration for [the preternatural wise-woman character] Guinan was conservative at the root: He was intellectually modest enough to know that there were things he could not understand, and would have to leave to trust — perhaps ‘faith’ is a better word. . . . [Picard] had, as Paul Johnson said of De Gaulle, the historian’s capacity for seeing events sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity, which is perhaps the very most conservative way to view the great stage upon which we are all merely players.”

This last part, about the conservative way to view temporal events, reminds me of the serene detachment of Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. (I came to the Bhagavad Gita, as so many other Westerners did, through T. S. Eliot, who was a big fan.) It is your duty to fight, but with an eternal perspective that relativizes the passion with which you fight. It is in selfless action that we find our true self; which is the core of Advaita (non-dualist) Hinduism, and an essential part of Christian thought also (“whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it,” Luke 17:33).

John Hood at NRO:


I think you are correct that while Captain Picard comes off well in TNG, the series as a whole is left-leaning. A while back, I wrote about the ideological divided between Star Trek and Star Wars, and I stand by the analysis. Assuming that the Christmas season might motivate the Corner overlords to suspend their ban for a moment, here are some examples:

• In Star Trek, law enforcement is armed with phasers. Officers stun people, then lock them up, then subject them to intensive psychiatry until they are “cured” of their criminal impulses. In Star Wars, law enforcement under the Galactic Republic appears to be the job of Jedi Knights who try to avoid violence but, if pressed, will cut you in half with a light saber.

• In Star Trek, evil characters are frequently considered to be the product of a poor environment, a bad childhood, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. It turns out that Captain Kirk and the other original cast members just didn’t understand the Klingons, for example, or the Romulans. The Gorn, a lizard-like race that does a Pearl Harbor on the Federation and kills many innocent people, are later excused from culpability because they say that they saw peaceful Federation colonists as “invaders” in their territory. Killer clouds of space gas or giant space amebas threatening the lives of billions turn out to be lost children or mindless things just trying to survive. Even the Borg, a great source of villainy from The Next Generation, are humanized in subsequent stories.

In Star Wars, evil characters have been seduced by the dark side of the Force. They have given into temptation, and are held accountable for their actions. The Star Wars movies are really morality tales, and have a strong religious component in spite of themselves. No one argues that Sith Lords might have turned out differently if they had just been enrolled in a quality preschool program.

Kevin Drum:

From Mike Potemra, over at National Review Online:

I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era — peace, tolerance, due process, progress….

You know, conservatives don’t usually confess straight up to finding peace, tolerance, due process, and progress so disagreeable.  But I guess they slip up every once in a while.

Adam Serwer at Tapped:

Two things: One, this is startlingly honest, two, I love that a party that preaches “personal responsibility” for the most vulnerable in society can use “skepticism about human perfectibility” as a reason to dodge something as essential to democracy as due process. The rule of law — it’s just too hard to adhere to!

As for “tolerance” and “peace” — these things interfere with the quest for national greatness, which can only be achieved through ethnic, gender and religious hegemony and with ceaseless wars of choice.

John Holbo:

Kevin notes it is not every day you get conservatives to admit they oppose (or at least dislike) peace, tolerance, due process and progress. But the hole Potemra digs is deeper, and I think there’s actually a (semi) serious point to make here. Poterma forges on: “I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.”

But surely the proper conclusion to be drawn, then, is that being an ethically upright and generally virtuous person is, however surprising this result may be, consistent with being tolerant, peace-loving, even with upholding due process. And there is no particular difficulty to the trick of being in favor of progress while being skeptical about human perfectibility. I say this is a semi-serious point because I think, for some conservatives, the main objection to a somewhat vaguely conceived set of liberal values really is a strong sense that they are inconsistent with a certain sort of hardassery in the virtue ethics department. End of story. But then Star Trek TNG ought, by rights, to be the ultimate anti-conservative series. At least for the likes of Potemra.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias:

I think the right way to say this is that Picard is a conservative person living in a liberal socialist utopia. That’s not to say that he’s a closet version of an early 21st century American right-winger, someone who secretly yearns for the reintroduction of capitalism, religion, and the routine use of lethal violence. Instead, he’s a characterological conservative, someone who believes deeply in authority and tradition and who’s not inclined to subject the basic political values of the Federation to a lot of scrutiny.

But of course this is the trouble with basing your political value system on things like authority and tradition. It’s always changing! William F Buckley’s determination to stand athwart history yelling stop led him to a robust defense of apartheid as a system of government for the American South. At times in different countries, authority and tradition has meant backing absolute monarchy or vicious dictatorships. Or maybe conservatism means women can’t vote. Eventually, you wind up defending the United Federation of Planets just like Captain Picard. Earlier this week TNR did a fun look back at various instances of social progress that the right swore would doom America. By Picard’s time, it’s bound to be a much longer list.

Razib Khan:

The question then shifts: have all the enthusiasms of the Left since the Enlightenment been unmitigated goods which they would accept wholeheartedly? No errors where a few eggs were cracked to create a progressive omelette? The Left is wont to critique the unsubtle and manichean vision of the Right which divides the world between Good & Evil, but when looking at themselves all such necessity for subtly and moral complexity is lost. History marches on!

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For The Love Of Helvetica


Alice Rawsthorn at NYT:

Dirt. Noise. Crowds. Delays. Scary smells. Even scarier fluids swirling on the floor. There are lots of reasons to loathe the New York City subway, but one very good reason to love it — Helvetica, the typeface that’s used on its signage.

Seeing the clean, crisp shapes of those letters and numbers at station entrances, on the platforms and inside the trains is always a treat, at least it is until I spot the “Do not lean …” sign on the train doors. Ugh! There’s something not quite right about the “e” and the “a” in the word “lean.” Somehow they seem too small and too cramped. Once I’ve noticed them, the memory of the clean, crisp letters fades, and all I remember are the “off” ones.

That’s the problem with loving typography. It’s always a pleasure to discover a formally gorgeous, subtly expressive typeface while walking along a street or leafing through a magazine. (Among my current favorites are the very elegant letters in the new identity of the Paris fashion house, Céline, and the jolly jumble of multi-colored fonts on the back of the Rossi Ice Cream vans purring around London.) But that joy is swiftly obliterated by the sight of a typographic howler. It’s like having a heightened sense of smell. You spend much more of your time wincing at noxious stinks, than reveling in delightful aromas.

If it’s bad for me (an amateur enthusiast who is interested in typography, but isn’t hugely knowledgeable about it), what must it be like for the purists? Dreadful, it seems. I feel guilty enough about grumbling to my friends whenever I see this or that typographic gaffe, but am too ignorant to spot all of them, unlike the designers who work with typefaces on a daily basis, and study them lovingly.

Kevin Drum:

A couple of comments here.  First, Helvetica is a fine font, but hardly something to swoon over.  I mean, come on.  Second, the “e” and the “a” in the subway sign look fine to me.  Am I just not observant enough?  Are there some bad signs and some good ones?  Did the offending sign have some crude repairs on it?  Or what?  I’m a little stumped here.

On the other hand, Rawsthorn also includes some interesting stuff about the misuse of typography on Mad Men, which prides itself on period authenticity.  Who knew that all the office signage was done in Gill Sans?

John Holbo:

Following up his comment about how bemused he is that font enthusiasts bother to get bothered about anachronistic signage in films and on TV, may I recommend these pages from one of the folks quoted in the piece, Mark Simonson: Typecasting, and Son of Typecasting. It’s pretty amusing and comprehensive pickiness. (I think I remember reading an interview with one or the other half of the Hoefler/Frere-Jones type team in which the interviewee groused mildly about how it’s almost impossible for him to immerse himself in period films because there is usually some glaring type anachronism at some point. Like that guy in the Far Side cartoon, complaining about the SF film, only this time he’s shouting at the audience ‘they couldn’t possibly have Helvetica yet, because it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away from Switzerland!’ Simonson, on the other hand, is pleased one of his own fonts got used, in passing, in Star Trek. But that’s totally different. It’s in the future.)

I really ought to find that passage from Nietzsche to plug in here but I can remember where it is. Ah well. The wages of a hyper-refined type sense (I am not speaking from experience here) is apparently a kind of inky hemophilia, through which you are capable of bleeding profusely from a minor cut. The world fills up with little letter-y fishhooks that snag your eyes, painfully, but leave the ordinary mass of readers untroubled in their reading passage. Being able to appreciate truly great typography means sacrificing the capacity to find sloppy typography to be perfectly legible. A common enough trade-off, in a sense. Coming to appreciate really good anything means becoming annoyed by merely mediocre samples of the same. But it’s a bit different when the thing is such an everyday functional item. It’s one thing to like really good beer, and come to hate cheap beer. It’s another thing to come to appreciate why a particular sort of hammer is really well-made, and be rendered slightly butterfingered by any $9 hammer from the hardware store ever after. Not a major paradox, I do concede, but kinda funny.

Homam Hosseini:

Honestly it’s the first time I ever looked at typography from this point of view. I can feel her view about typographical errors, usually I feel similar when I see a scientifically incorrect assertion in a movie for example.

Sometimes I think movies are not textbooks, they just should not be too wrong. But changing the truth to make it more cinematic has been OK with me. If we want Hollywood appreciate scientific values, we have to realize its rules too.

For now, I’m just enjoying reading this article.

Jordan Mattox


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Curious About The Apple, Even More Curious About The iPhone


Stanley Fish in the NYT:

When God told Adam he could eat of all the fruits of the Garden of Eden, but not of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, he placed what has been called a “provoking object” in Adam’s eyes. The provocation was to go beyond the boundaries God had established and thereby set himself up a rival deity, a being with no limits on what he can conceive, a being whose intellect could, in time, comprehend anything and everything. Such a being would imagine himself, God-like, standing to the side of the universe and, armed only with the power of his mind, mastering its intricacies. Those who engage in this fantasy, says Thomas Aquinas, think “they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiosity and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world; so great a pride is thus begotten, that one would think they dwelt in the very heavens about which they argue.”

Another churchman, Lorenzo Scupoli, put it this way in 1589: “They make an idol of their own understanding” (“Knowledge puffeth up,” I Corinthians 8:1). Pascal said it succinctly: “Curiosity is only vanity.” Jonathan Robinson, writing in this century, makes the same point: “What we are talking about is the desire to satisfy our curiosity on any and every conceivable subject that takes our fancy” (“Spiritual Combat Revisited”).

Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitalize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”

That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life” (“Reason and the Reasons of Faith”). The prescriptions come in the form of familiar injunctions: follow the inquiry as far as it goes, leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better. “In a world where curiosity rules,” Griffiths declares, “unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device . . . amounts to nothing less than a . . . radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

Griffiths builds on the religious tradition in which curiosity is condemned because it distracts men from the study and worship of God, shackling them, says Augustine, “to an inferior love.” But curiosity can also distract men from secular obligations by so occupying their minds that there is no room left for other considerations. These men (and women) fail to register the pain of animals subjected to experiments in the name of knowledge, pay no heed to the social consequences of their investigations, and take no heed of the warnings issued in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (not to mention the myth of Pandora and the Incredible Hulk).

Peter Lawler at PomoCon:

For Pascal, it’s nothing more than the vanity of beings in love with their own capabilities. It distracts us from the duties that should flow from love of God and each other. Curiosity can easily morph into love of diversity or losing oneself in the pursuit of endless mental diversions. Curiosity properly channeled, though, can lead us to think about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. But the idea that “there’s always more to know” can also lead us to conclude it’s never time to do. The postmodern, conservative view is that curiosity–being a natural capability–could hardly be merely a vice, but it isn’t the true foundation of even intellectual virtue.

John Holbo:

I just got Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak [amazon]. It’s great. Inspired mash-ups of classic cartoons/comics with Great Literature. Batman and Crime and Punishment. Wuthering Heights and Tales From the Crypt. Blondie and The Book of Genesis. Peanuts and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. Bazooka Joe and Dante’s Inferno. Little Lulu and The Scarlet Letter. Here’s a preview from D&Q. Above and beyond the perfect-pitch mimicry, I like the symmetry of the moral critique – of Dostoyevsky and Batman equally, and so forth. You can learn from this stuff. For example, if Stanley Fish had read Sikoryak’s “Blond Eve”, it might have occurred to him that familiar, blanket critiques of curiosity may not make self-evident moral or rational sense. Going a step further, this whole business of condemning curiosity tout court, in the strongest terms, all up and down the scale, in ordinary life, morally and scientifically, concerning matters large and small, can seem downright peculiar. Some sense of the diversity of human impulses and activities that would fall foul of a ban on ‘curiosity’, hence some sense of the problematic character of such a ban, might have crept into his column in some way. Alas.

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right:

I’d expect no less from a professor of divinity, but how sad…and what a useful reminder of what a block to progress (suspect word, but it’ll do in this context) certain types of religious faith (and their accretions and superstitions) can represent.

Speaking of which, I wonder what that Senator Brownback has been up to recently….Ah yes.

Massimo Pigliucci at Scientific Blogging:

Fish reminds his readers that curiosity is not a universal value, or an unqualified benefit. Let us parse these two claims. The quintessential example — to which the good professor devotes an entire paragraph of his column — is of course god’s prohibition to Adam from eating of the fruit of knowledge. The idea, apparently, was to test Adam’s faith and ability to self-impose limits. Disobedience was interpreted by god as human arrogance, with the results we all know. I always thought this tale was one of the best reasons not to be a christian: there it is, folks, right at the beginning of your so-called sacred book, god is despotic, narcissistic, engages in arbitrary and cruel punishment, and — of all things — prohibits you from learning. Need anything more be said?

Apparently, yes. Fish goes on quoting Thomas Aquinas as chastising human curiosity as a form of pride, and even the obscure 16th century churchman Lorenzo Scupoli, who contemptuously said “They make an idol of their own understanding,” all the way to the contemporary author Jonathan Robinson, who disapproves of curiosity and labels it a (apparently despicable) pursuit of “every conceivable subject that takes our fancy.” And what, exactly, is wrong with that, esteemed churchmen and assorted religious apologists?

Paul Griffiths, author of Reason and the Reasons of Faith explains: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life. … “In a world where curiosity rules, unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device … amounts to nothing less than a … radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

Wow! In other words, curiosity is bad because it distracts us from worshiping and studying god (Fish’s words), and even from our secular obligations because our minds are obsessed by it and find no time for anything else. Perhaps Fish and his buddies are confusing pornography for curiosity, because I’ve never encountered a “secular” person so obsessed with curiosity that he/she became dysfunctional in everyday life. On the other hand, I have encountered plenty of religious bigots whose utter lack of curiosity about the world leads them to incredible fits of mental gymnastics aimed at denying evolution (basic science) or that condoms are crucial in the fight against AIDS (applied science).

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Having A Rational Discussion About Rationing Is So Hard These Days


We’re going to tie in two Bloggingheads founders in one post.

Mickey Kaus:

From out here on the West Coast, it sure looks as if OMB Director Peter Orszag is the Donald Rumsfeld of the looming health care quagmire, in the sense that a) it’s his strategy that’s failing–at least failing to win over public opinion; and b) it’s hard to see how the strategy changes with him in the position he’s in, and c) he’s a logical fall guy in any case. … What did he do wrong? His insistence on–and insistence on talking about–long-term cost-bending successfully scared off a large segment of the American electorate by raising the issue of rationing. Hearts and minds. And it was all unnecessary, if (as he claims) health care reform can be deficit neutral over the next ten years without the curve bending. If the curve can be bent it can be bent later. Or at least more quietly …

Mickey Kaus also thinks Palin has a point. He links to this piece by William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection:

These critics, however, didn’t take the time to find out to what Palin was referring when she used the term “level of productivity in society” as being the basis for determining access to medical care. If the critics, who hold themselves in the highest of intellectual esteem, had bothered to do something other than react, they would have realized that the approach to health care to which Palin was referring was none other than that espoused by key Obama health care adviser Dr. Ezekial Emanuel (brother of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel).

The article in which Dr. Emanuel puts forth his approach is “Principles for Allocation of Scarce Medical Interventions,” published on January 31, 2009. A full copy is embedded below. Read it, particularly the section beginning at page 6 of the embed (page 428 in the original) at which Dr. Emanuel sets forth the principles of “The Complete Lives System.”

While Emanuel does not use the term “death panel,” Palin put that term in quotation marks to signify the concept of medical decisions based on the perceived societal worth of an individual, not literally a “death panel.” And in so doing, Palin was true to Dr. Emanuel’s concept of a system which

“considers prognosis, since its aim is to achieve complete lives. A young person with a poor prognosis has had a few life-years but lacks the potential to live a complete life. Considering prognosis forestalls the concern the disproportionately large amounts of resources will be directed to young people with poor prognoses. When the worst-off can benefit only slightly while better-off people could benefit greatly, allocating to the better-off is often justifiable….When implemented, the complete lives system produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.”

Put together the concepts of prognosis and age, and Dr. Emanuel’s proposal reasonably could be construed as advocating the withholding of some level of medical treatment (probably not basic care, but likely expensive advanced care) to a baby born with Down Syndrome. You may not like this implication, but it is Dr. Emanuel’s implication not Palin’s.

Michael Crowley at TNR (entire post):

Arguing (cheekily, one hopes) that “Palin had a point,” Mickey links to this guy, a Cornell Law Professor named William Jacobson, who offers an embarassingly lame defense of Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase “death panel,” in quotation marks, in her Facebook attack on Obama’s health care plan. Quoth the legal scholar:

“Palin put that term in quotation marks to signify the concept of medical decisions based on the perceived societal worth of an individual, not literally a “death panel.””

Oh! Not literally a death panel! Funny how some people misunderstand quotation marks as indicating precision and literalism. So, when I write that William Jacobson is in favor of a new “greedy insurance industry price-gouging scheme,” people should understand the nuanced concept signified therein.

P.S. Jacobson doesn’t even bother trying to defend the other phrase Palin puts into misleading quotation marks–“level of productivity in society”–which as far as I can tell has no connection to any proposal authored or even imagined by any Democrat currently in a position of power. Presumably that’s another concept the currently-unemployed Palin didn’t have time to spell out.

Eugene Robinson at WaPo, via Robert Wright at Sully’s place:

[…] reform is being sold not just as a moral obligation but also as a way to control rising health-care costs. That should have been a separate discussion. It is not illogical for skeptics to suspect that if millions of people are going to be newly covered by health insurance, either costs are going to skyrocket or services are going to be curtailed.

The unvarnished truth is that services are ultimately going to have to be curtailed regardless of what happens with reform. We perform more expensive tests, questionable surgeries and high-tech diagnostic scans than we can afford. We spend unsustainable amounts of money on patients during the final year of life.

Yes, it’s true that doctors order some questionable procedures defensively, to keep from getting sued. But it’s a cop-out to blame the doctors or the tort lawyers. We’re the ones who demand these tests, scans and surgeries. And why not? If a technology exists that can prolong life or improve its quality, even for a few weeks or months, why shouldn’t we want it?

That’s the reason people are so frightened and enraged about the proposed measure that would allow Medicare to pay for end-of-life counseling. If the government says it has to control health-care costs and then offers to pay doctors to give advice about hospice care, citizens are not delusional to conclude that the goal is to reduce end-of-life spending. It’s irresponsible for politicians, such as Sarah Palin, to claim — outlandishly and falsely — that there’s going to be some kind of “death panel” to decide when to pull the plug on Aunt Sylvia. But it’s understandable why people might associate the phrase “health-care reform” with limiting their choices during Aunt Sylvia’s final days.


Mickey Kaus has been pushing this meme for awhile, but I guess now that it’s moved from the Slate-blog part of the Washington Post empire to the newpspaper-op-ed part, we should take it seriously. It may give too little credit to the ruthlessly efficient messaging machines of the Republican party and the health-care industry. I don’t think Obama had to dwell long or loudly on cost containment for them to sense and exploit its perverse political potential. (And, on a similarly cynical note, I don’t think it matters much, politically speaking, whether Jon Cohn is right in saying that Obama’s plan would indeed control costs.)

I certainly agree that Obama’s emphasis should have been more on the immediate personal benefits of reliable health coverage and less on distant, collective fiscal benefits. I’m just not sure this would have saved us from Sarah Palin’s death panels.

More Wright:

In Palin’s fantasy, the death-panel “bureaucrats” were going to pick winners and losers based on a judgment about their “level of productivity in society.” Well, if you view income as a gauge of a person’s productivity in society—and God knows there are Republicans who do—then the quality of health care is already correlated with “productivity in society.” Obama’s plan, by making health care more affordable to lower income people, would make that less true.

This is just another way of making a point already made by Peter Singer in response to less delusional concerns about the possibility of rationing under Obama’s plan: we already ration health care; we just let the market do the rationing.

Any government health care plan will bring some new form of “rationing,” since no government can afford to guarantee everyone all possible medical treatment. But let’s be clear: the people who are trying to sabotage reform by telling mind-boggling lies about its hidden rationing agenda seem, in fact, pretty content with rationing; they seem happy with a system in which the least “productive” members of society get bad health care, including, occasionally, health care so bad that it leads to death.

Megan McArdle:

But there is also a real difference between having something rationed by a process and having it rationed by a person. That is, in fact, why progressives are so fond of rules. They don’t want to tell grandma to take morphine instead of getting a pacemaker. It’s much nicer if you create a mathematical formula that makes some doctor tell grandma to take morphine instead of getting a pacemaker. Then the doctor can disclaim responsibility too, because after all, no one really has any agency here–we’re all just in the grips of an impersonal force.

But this won’t do. If you design a formula to deny granny a pacemaker, knowing that this is the intent of the formula, then you’ve killed granny just as surely as if you’d ordered the doctor to do it directly. That’s the intuition behind the conservative resistance to switching from price rationing to fiat rationing. Using the government’s coercive power to decide the price of something, or who ought to get it, is qualitatively different from the same outcome arising out of voluntary actions in the marketplace. Even if you don’t share the value judgement, it’s not irrational, except in the sense that all human decisions have an element of intuition and emotion baked into them.


Also, the market doesn’t deny you a hip replacement or a pacemaker because someone in government thinks your political views are “un-American.” Given the cronyism and thuggery we’ve seen with the bailouts, etc., I’m not confident this would hold true under a government health program. And I’m absolutely certain there would be a special track for insiders and favorites.

John Holbo:

She has apparently mistaken concern about an underfunded public mandate for a public mandate of private underfunding and sort of mashed them together in her mind. That is, she thinks the government will drive doctors to sell shoddy aspirin and at the same time (very likely? surely?) forbid the sale of better aspirin on the private market. But where the hell is that second bit coming from? Unless I’m missing something, it’s as crazy as the ‘killing old people’ alarmism, because it’s just as divorced from any potential motive lawmakers might have. What possible motive could legislators have to force people not to top up their own healthcare on the private market to the degree that they deem prudent? What would be in it for the legislators, even the most Machiavellian of them? “If you design a formula to deny granny a pacemaker, knowing that this is the intent of the formula …” Now here McArdle has to be talking, not just about a formula that omits to promise granny a pacemaker, but a formula that positively forbids it to her – removes it from the market. Gives her a ration book without a pacemaker ticket. And says only ration book tickets may purchase health care items. McArdle might come back and say she actually meant the other thing, that some piece of legislation might merely not promise a pacemaker. But hell, most legislation doesn’t do that. Practically everything congress has ever done doesn’t give granny a pacemaker (usually because it isn’t about healthcare at all). We don’t say it follows that almost all acts of congress are attempts to ration pacemakers. That’s a crazy way to use the word ‘ration’.

And yet here is Megan McArdle, complaining about people overusing the word ‘ration’. It’s a funny old world, I say.

Conn Carroll

Matt Yglesias

UPDATE: More Kaus

UPDATE #2: More Holbo. McArdle responds. Holbo responds.

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The Revolution Was Not Televised


The text of the Declaration Of Independence

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Henry Clay at New Majority on Sean Hannity’s reading of the document:

Hannity explained:

We do believe as a country that all men are created equal, that we were endowed by our creator, that we do have certain unalienable rights, that these are God-given – life, liberty, pursuit of happiness – and that governments often get in the way.

Not exactly.

Americans did argue in the Declaration that all men are created equal and that they possess certain God-given inalienable rights.

But the Founders did not then conclude that government threatens these rights.

Rather, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

Our forefathers justified revolution because the government instituted to secure their rights had failed in its duty and was actively undermining personal liberty. The Founders did not argue that government as such was an impediment to liberty. Quite the contrary, a society without government quickly devolved into a state of war where no rights were secure.

Daniel McCarthy at TAC:

After 230 years the American Revolution and our Founding Fathers have become shopworn things, leached of much of their character, reduced to mannequins to be dressed up in the intellectual fashions of the day. Idealized portrayals of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the rest still find a mass audience, resisting revisionist pressure. But as objects of reverence, the Founders cease to be what they were-revolutionaries, men who took up arms against their government and spilled blood for their rights.

If alabaster Founders survive at the popular level, clichés of a different sort prevail in academia, where perpetual debunking is the fate suffered by these men-and that they were men is part of the problem. But only part: Washington was rich as well as white and male. And he owned slaves. So did Jefferson, who slept with one of them, too. Because of the gulf between his life and his ideals-that “all men are created equal” stuff-Jefferson has become a particular target of censure. But the others get their share as well.

Not that all scholarly treatments of the Founders fall into that mode. Just as pervasive, and just as off base, are those scholars who find in the Federalist and other papers of the founding generation far-sighted statesmen who anticipated the modern world of competing interest groups and lobbyists scrambling over one another like beetles after the main chance. Political parties and pork-barrel politics are what America has always been about, in this view, right back to the Constitutional Convention.

TNR’s collection of articles on the Founding Fathers

John Holbo recalls Captain America.

Since I’ve been pondering creative rights and copyright extension, I’ll take this patriotic occasion to remind you of that famous scene in Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles in which Cap travels back in time only to have the design for his uniform become the original inspiration for the US flag. Cap is upset. Why should Betsy Ross get credit, after all? A creative continuum conundrum. (via Bully.)


Some are celebrating the 4th by pondering Lincoln:

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

Lincoln invited Douglas’s audience to return the next evening for his reply to Douglas’s speech. Lincoln’s speech of July 10, 1858, is one of his many great speeches, but in one respect it is uniquely great. It concludes with an explanation of the meaning of this day to Americans with matchless eloquence and insight in words that remain as relevant now as then.

“Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration [loud and long continued applause], and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. [Applause.]

Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of “don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down” [Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” position on the extension of slavery to the territories], for sustaining the Dred Scott decision [A voice—“Hit him again”], for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! [Voices—“me” “no one,” &c.] If it is not true let us tear it out! [cries of “no, no,”] let us stick to it then [cheers], let us stand firmly by it then. [Applause.]”

Sean Wilentz in TNR at Lincoln

Statue of Liberty in Paris 1886

Tyler Cowen gives a list of other events of July 4th.

Dorian De Wind in Moderate Voice:

Hope that henceforth Americans will be able to celebrate every Fourth of July once again with joy, pride and confidence—as the United States of America, as the most respected and blessed nation on earth.

Finally, a very special hope for our brave troops who are still in harm’s way.

You are the same magnificent men and women who served so heroically under the previous administration and who are continuing to serve equally heroically under the present administration.

You are the dedicated men and women who, in Iraq, are helping the new administration implement the terms of the agreements negotiated by the previous administration, and who, in Afghanistan, are continuing the just battle that was thrust upon us on 9/11.

I hope that you’ll accomplish your missions quickly and successfully and that God will bring you safely home.

Six Foot Skinny: “The Fourth In Iraq”

I was there as a spectator, sitting in one of Saddam’s palaces on the 4th of July.  While my friends roll out of bed at the lake to have a beer, prepare the fireworks, start the potato salad.  While Iraqis struggle with sovereignty.  While American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen struggle with Iraqis struggling with sovereignty.  It was surreal, but so much of this experience is surreal that the word starts to become cliché.  I was in good company – 237 servicemembers ready to become citizens, General Ray Odierno, and Vice President Joe Biden.  Not going to lie, it was pretty cool.  A Soldier in my unit, a native of Kenya, was there to be sworn in, and I was there as the unofficial/official unit photographer.  I am not a Public Affairs Officer (PAO) or a Combat Camera guy, just a joe with a nice camera that likes to take pictures.

My standing room along with the rest of the crowd was not going to afford me much of a vantage point, so I bided my time and waited for an opening.  I snuck past the chains, was approached by the head military press honcho, apparently answered the questions correctly by lying through my teeth (I am a PAO now), and I was in.  I struck up casual conversation with a civilian photographer with the usual question: “So, who do you shoot for?”  The answer:  “The New York Times.”  Wow.  OK, so I’m in the big time now.  I figure I was there to take pictures of my guy, and I was doing what I could to make that happen.  All good.  I ended up ringside for a truly special Independence Day.

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The Internet Is A Place For Ponies and Pol Pot


Lawrence Lessig in HuffPo:

Helprin’s argument (to the extent there is one in these 232 pages) begins with an objection similar to the objection I’ve launched against him: his critics, Helprin insists, didn’t read his op-ed carefully. He did not argue, he maintains, for perpetual copyrights (as many who criticized his piece, including I, summarized his position to be). He had instead explicitly stated that the Framers’ limits had to be respected. Sure, he was arguing that Congress should extend the copyright term again. But there’s a difference, he insists, between “infinite adjustment” and “infinite extension.” (44) (“That your Barcalounger may be infinitely adjustable does not mean that it will take you into other universes.” (44)) The extent of proper protection, Helprin tells us, is a “question … of degree.” (30) It must be a balance, and of course, nothing he said was meant, Helprin insists, to be unbalanced. “I don’t know how this could have been misunderstood,” he rages, “unless one reads my further comment that ‘the genius of the Framers in stating this provision is that it allows for infinite adjustment.'” (44)

Robert VerBruggen in National Review:

The book began as an article for the New York Times, in which Helprin made his point regarding the 70-year law. Helprin’s case, outlined again in his book, is an interesting conversation starter — but it’s not really suited for changing minds in the current debate.

Helprin is on strong ground logically. He points out that if someone spends his life building a business, he can leave it to his heirs, who pay any required inheritance tax and go merrily on their way. If someone spends his life creating books or songs, however, the government simply makes those assets worthless after 70 years. It’s certainly unfair, at least insofar as it can be unfair to inherit less money than one might have otherwise.

This is an odd way to defend copyright in 2009, though, for several reasons. For starters, in terms of strengthening copyright (as opposed to fighting the weakening of it), the issue today isn’t so much policy as enforcement. New releases are pirated almost immediately, and from time to time, unreleased material even hits the Internet. Royalties 70-plus years down the road pale in the face of such flagrant, rampant violations. And very, very few copyrights are worth anything after the better part of a century anyway.

It also helps to remember that the Constitution defined the purpose of patents and copyright as, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” In that regard, what good is done by further delaying expiration? Will someone write the Great American Novel if his great-grandchildren will receive royalties, but not if only his grandchildren will?

More problematic are Helprin’s mean-spirited attacks on groups of people whose tastes he doesn’t share. He likens the enjoyment of violent video games to mental illness. He slams anyone who reads a thriller, even just for a plane ride.

Ross Douthat in NYT:

The novelist Mark Helprin is the latest distinguished writer to come undone this way. In 2007, he published an essay in the Op-Ed section of this newspaper arguing for the continuing extension of copyright, so that the rights to a novel or poem could be passed down not only to the author’s children, but to his children’s children’s children as well. Since a more latitudinarian copyright regime is a cause célèbre for a certain class of Internetista, his argument ignited a storm of criticism, and the comments appended to the online version of the article ran into the hundreds of thousands. And since this was, after all, the Internet, most of them were stupid.

Helprin could have ignored the barrage; he could have sifted it for arguments worth replying to. Instead, he decided to write a furious treatise against the comment-happy horde. The resulting book, “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) Helprin can be a wonderful wordsmith, and there are many admirable passages and strong arguments in this book. But the thread that binds the work together is hectoring, pompous and enormously tedious.

“One could write a Talmud,” Helprin notes at one point, “in reaction to the oceans of material supplied by commentators who either deliberately or otherwise (probably otherwise) cannot grasp the meaning of a simple sentence.” True — but this does not mean that one should. In particular, one should never, ever write a book that includes, in its footnotes, “Posting No. 12” from thelede.blogs.nytimes.com, or “Posting 3:41” from missnemesis.blogspot.com — or comments by “Peep,” “Constantine” and “Anon,” from Matthew Yglesias’s blog. Helprin acknowledges the peculiarity of arguing with anonymous commenters rather than training his fire on more intellectually serious targets. “Why talk to the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room?” he wonders, quoting Churchill; the answer, he explains, is that in this case only the monkeys really matter. “The philosophical basis of the war on copyright is crackpot and stillborn,” and “apart from unavoidable forays, it is best to stay out of such thickets.” Instead, the battle should be waged “wherever the gnats in their millions crudely make real the musings of the Mad Hatters.”

As the tone of that last line suggests, alas, it’s hard to write a polemic premised on the assumption that your opponents are monkeys without sounding like a particularly high-vocabulary monkey yourself. Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

Now on Douthat’s piece, David Rothman

At least Douthat emphasizes that we should narrow copyright’s scope. “Leave the Tolkiens the rights to ‘The Hobbit’ in perpetuity, but not the right to prevent two enterprising film companies from going forward with competing adaptations.”

The frustrating thing is that Heprin and Douthat aren’t entirely wrong in defending copyright. I’m all in favor of copyrights that last decades. But just how robust will the idea of copyright be in a true democracy if the property zealots prevail in the short term—merely because their corporate allies have bought up the U.S. government with campaign donations? Consider the possibility of a Reign of Terror against copyright if or when this commerce ends.

Matt Y on the book:

These kind of arguments really do tend to be self-refuting in my opinion. The underlying conceit behind a lot of this sort of complaining seems to be that the traditional crop of professional writers—full-time journalists and, in Helprin’s case, novelists—are the only well-informed people on the planet. In reality, a great deal of what you see on blogs is writing by people who aren’t or weren’t professional writers but who—unlike most journalists—have actual subject matter expertise. You can get a take on events in Iran from Gary Sick and Juan Cole and Daniel Drezner and Steven Walt. You can read dozens and dozens of blogs by lawyers and economists. It’s Helprin rather than, say, Larry Lessig and Tyler Cowen and Tim Lee who doesn’t know how to seriously evaluate the issues relating to intellectual property law.

That said, “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge” is a great turn of phrase.

UPDATE: John Holbo

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Ils Ne Font Pas Des Notes d’une Falaise Pour Cela


So the French ask different questions on their tests than we do.

Charles Bremner in the Times

The philosophy test, or rather torture, is still the “royal subject” of the baccalauréat, the national high school examination that opens the way to university and adulthood. Apart from students in trades and technical schools, all pupils are obliged to take the philosophy exam.

Literacy may be declining in France like everywhere else but it says something about the intellectual skills still required of the young that about half of all late teenagers in France earn a baccalauréat that includes philosophy.

The bac, with its centralised, simultaneous examinations is a ritual of a rare kind. For weeks the media have built up to the big moment of the bac philo — the opening test — with tips on subjects and handling stress and bac memoirs from celebrities. Today, television and radio are reporting from the school gates.

The philosophy questions have just been released. My son, who’s just 18, was required to dissert on one of the following two questions: What is gained by exchange ? (Que gagne-t-on à échanger) and Does technological development transform mankind?  (Le développement technique transforme-t-il les hommes ?).

Arthur Goldhammer has the questions in French.

Alex Massie provides some of the questions in English

For the Science Stream:

1) Is it absurd to desire the impossible? 2) Are there questions which no science can answer?

Well, is it absurd to desire the impossible?

Matthew Yglesias

And from the science series:

— Are there questions that are un-answerable by science?

The correct answers are no, no, I don’t know anything about Schopenhauer, and yes. Apparently there’s also a question asking if it’s absurd to desire the impossible. I think it is.

Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Barack Obama’s nowhere near turning us into France.

Dana Goldstein in Tapped

Okay, so there is no country quite as philosophique — and, at times, absurd — as France. And to be fair, Le Bac is a college entrance exam, not a high school graduation exam. Still, the majority of French high school students sit for the test. Could you ever imagine the SAT or ACT asking students to write an essay on such complex, intellectual topics? Matt Yglesias spent a semester studying in France as a high school student. He tells me via instant message: “It was hard. Even their English class seemed hard.” And Matt, as you know, is really, really smart.

Michael C. Moynihan in Reason

Well, I certainly hope the average 17 year-old American won’t be asked if “language betrays thought” as a college entrance requirement. But a few points here: Many students sit for the test, but just how well do they do? As London Times correspondent Charles Bremmer notes (his son took his Bac exams today and Bremmer complains that “The French curriculum and teachers are slanted solidly to the left,” demanding that his son tailor answers to political fashions), the tests have been dumbed down (or graded on a significant curve) since the 1970s, when a paltry 20 percent managed to pass. Indeed, if one looks at international ranks from PISA and OECD French scores are pretty mediocre (but still better than American scores), despite massive expenditures on education and the chin-stroking college entrance questions that ask if it is “absurd to desire the impossible.”

Also, is it just me or does Goldstein sounds more like Alan Bloom than a liberal writer at the American Prospect? As Bremmer points out, some critics contend that “The baccalauréat is too elitist” and is unfair to both immigrants and members of the proletariat. Sure, we can use the test as a political and cultural cudgel (“Europeans are so cultured, so smart, so philosophique, compared to us lunk-headed Americans!”), but how would the Prospect brigade react to this uncomfortable statistic, provided by The Times: “Fewer than half the children of working class parents earn the certificate that gives passage to university.”

Julian Sanchez

The common thread I see is that almost all of these  sound rather lofty and, well, French as they are. But they can all be pretty easily paraphrased to sound less highbrow without materially altering the question. Once we’ve done that, they look an awful lot like the essay prompts on comparable American tests: Allowing the brightest students to spread their wings, but also capable of acceptable if rather more workmanlike answers. Now, probably someone like Dana looks at these prompts and immediately starts imagining the kind of complex answer that she, as a college-educated adult, would give to a question like that. Once you make that move, of course, it’s natural to think: “My God, that’s what they expect of their 18-year-olds?”  But it’s probably not—it’s what the question leaves space for the brightest of the 18-year-olds to attempt , not the baseline for an acceptable answer.

UPDATE: John Holbo

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