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End of Civility?

July 25, 2011

Downfall of civility? Not so fast.

The political stasis surrounding the debt-ceiling debate has provoked many to lambast Washington’s climate of hyper-partisanship. Numerous pundits caution that we have entered a new age — one of forever-compromised civility and respectability. A good example of this is the backlash ensuing from the recent West vs. Wasserman Schultz skirmish.

There is no doubt that the state of our political climate is both regrettable and unacceptable. We seemingly jump from crisis to crisis as harsh rhetoric replaces substantive reform. However, the lack of civility certainly apparent today is far from new. In fact, it is as old as our republic and, historically speaking, much tamer.

We often look to the founding fathers as men who, understanding the necessity of compromise, were ultimately able to forge and maintain a union. This is true, but they were not afraid to truly speak their mind in the process. John Adams widely characterized Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler” and “the Creole.” George Mason joined in suit, stating Hamilton did “us more injury than Great Britain and all her fleets and armies.”

Thomas Jefferson, with the assistance of his hired gun, James T. Callender, was arguably our founding father of negative campaigning. Utilizing this pamphleteer/political operative, Jefferson spread vicious rumors about his political enemies (Hamilton and Adams), including a particularly damning claim that Hamilton was a consistent adulterer. Additionally, Hamilton was sure to respond. Under the pen namePhocion, Hamilton penned over 25 essays attacking Jefferson — most notably, an accusation of Jefferson’s multiple affairs with slaves.

The most contentious and personal political spat may have been between Adams and Jefferson in the election of 1800, widely held as one of our nation’s dirtiest campaigns. In this period, Adams designated Jefferson as “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw,” while Jefferson responded that Adams was “a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

And this political climate didn’t solely exist on a national level, as famously exemplified by the conflict between Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon. Lyon, who, in 1789, declared himself the voice of the common man on the House floor to the mocking rebuke of Roger Griswold, in turn spit in his face. Two weeks later, Griswold responded. Not with a stern email or call for resignation. But rather twenty blows to the head of Lyon with a wooden cane (it would have been more if Lyon had not fire tongs to defend himself).

All in all, our political punditry could use a little historical perspective before launching into hyperbole. Should we like that our politicians think of each other so poorly, as displayed by Congressman West and Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz? Of course not. But this isn’t a product of a soon-to-be lost era. It’s our system, and, more importantly, it has worked. So let a few eggs be cracked to make an omelet. As long as canes/fire rods are staying off the House floor, I think we’ll end up all right.

“The Founding Fathers and Campaign Civility” – HuffingtonPost

The Car Economy?

July 20, 2011

Judging from the major trend of political rhetoric this summer, one could reasonably conclude that the majority of politicians have moonlighted at Pep Boys at one point in their career. The progress of the “summer of recovery” (or lack thereof) has been documented by a series of analogies based on “the car.” Apparently, this car – our economy – has been stuck in a ditch as Democrats and Republicans fight over the keys to get it out.

Barack Obama is credited with starting this rhetorical parallel: “Republicans were driving the economy like a car, and they drove it into the ditch. And this is a very deep, steep ditch… And just as we’re about to go, suddenly we get a tap on our shoulders. And we look back. Who is it? It’s the Republicans. And they’re saying, ‘We want the keys back.’ We can’t give them the keys back. They don’t know how to drive!”

Republicans, in a recently aired RNC ad, have seized upon the metaphor themselves: “He promised to change direction… Left turn after left turn, America’s headed the wrong way fast. ”

Amid this back and forth, politicians seem to resemble squabbling siblings in the back seat rather than any semblance of responsible drivers, as the nation grapples with crippling 9.2% unemployment and foreboding default.

As Republicans and Democrats fight over the wheel, the right step may actually be to ditch the car. This isn’t to say do nothing and leave it there. Instead, recognize that the car doesn’t exist and never has. This isn’t a frustrating experiment in classroom deconstruction philosophy. Rather, the metaphor itself contains an underlying economic fallacy – that the economy has a singular “engine,” which can be jump-started and controlled.

Frederick Hayek exposed this myth twenty years ago in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order.”

A recent report by the Wall Street Journal underscored this very point, demonstrating the diverse nature of our economy. While some industries are shedding jobs, others are actually hiring in large numbers and performing quite well. Over the last twelve months, restaurants and certain health care sectors have added over 150,000 jobs, while industries like insurance carriers and telecommunications have continued to make deep cuts. America is unquestionably in a jobs crisis, but the picture is more complex than the general statistics would let on.

There is no doubt that the status quo is unacceptable, but we ought to heed Hayek’s advice: “Before we can try to remold society intelligently, we must understand its functioning.” The economy is an organic, diverse organism far from the singular nature of an “engine” or a car for that matter. Centralized attempts at “jump-starting” it have been, and continue to be, acts of painful futility. As Washington attempts to hack away at this Gordian knot, perhaps we ought to question their premises.

David Brooks, in a recent column, criticized both Democrats and Republicans for buying into this “magic lever,” be it tax cuts or stimulus spending, as single solutions to our economic woes. As a general principle that there is no single-solution cure to an economy, he is spot on. But all “magic levers” are not created equal. Cuts to the size of government and lower tax burdens are steps towards the restoration of a natural, prosperity-driven economy.

For political figures, particularly those on the right, to repeatedly engage in this car metaphor only legitimizes the underlying fallacy of the left’s economics. If metaphors are necessary for this election cycle, may I suggest a horse and buggy – just with 305 million horses. Or, for all of our sake, just stop with the terrible, terrible wordplay…

“Where’s the ‘Car’?” – Ricochet

Nozick and Friedman

July 18, 2011

To steal, partially, from the lead-in to Law&Order: there are two separate, yet equally important branches of conservative economics – those who oppose redistributive measures philosophically and those who maintain that such measures are counterproductive and damaging.

But unlike in the criminal justice system, these branches are far from mutually exclusive. I hold myself in both, as I’m sure many Ricochet members do. However, as the rhetorical battle lines are drawn for 2012, the need for clarity and concision should compel conservatives to choose one argument as the crux of their case.

As Gregory Mankiw noted in the New York Times some months back, Barack Obama has his argument set – John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: “the main goal of public policy should be to transfer resources to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.” Americans in general are wary of Robin Hood economics, and attacking Obama here on principle may prove beneficial.

In fact, one of the most influential political philosophers on Yale’s liberal campus is Rawls’ intellectual rival – Robert Nozick. It came to my (pleasant) shock that after reading Anarchy, State and Utopia, the vast majority of my decidedly liberal discussion section voted as morally opposing the estate tax.

Nozick’s thesis, powerfully introduced in the opening line of his book, is clear: “Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited, to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified, but any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified.”

Unfortunately, Nozick’s brand of argument would most likely be marginalized in a general election as “protecting the rich” and “attacking the middle class”. The principles Nozick lays out, which Milton Friedman certainly shared philosophically, can have weight in a primary but would be dangerous to carry beyond.

The Friedman brand of argumentation is more accessible: “I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.” Republicans can make a simple pitch – we seek the same goals, but we embrace the necessary realism to get us there. This is the true compassionate conservatism independents love to hear about. Friedman showed us this from protecting student well being against teacher’s unions to helping American families by addressing the welfare state.

Playing Reagan clips (despite how much we love them) and repeating, “government doesn’t work” will not carry on a national platform. The argument must be polished and substantiated. The crucial variable in play is the draw to empathy. Conservatives must display the disastrous impacts that Rawls’ good intentions would have on the world. It is a rare tactfulness – the one of Friedman – that can inspire man once displaying all of his natural limitations and constraints. But, in the face of lofty promises and empty calls for “hope”, that has never been more necessary.

All in all, it would be foolish to expect another Milton Friedman. But perhaps some candidates can start pretending.

“Nozick and Friedman” – Ricochet

The Coolidge Model

July 17, 2011

During the fireworks and barbeques of the recent 4th of July celebrations, a small minority of Americans took time to celebrate another birthday — that of Calvin Coolidge.  Coolidge’s legacy, regrettably unknown or forgotten by most, is a paradigm of conservatism that can serve as a valuable guidepost amid today’s political tumult.  In an age dominated by rhetorical flash and personal charm, principle and genuine character drift into lesser considerations.  But they defined Coolidge, both as a statesman and, more importantly, as a person.

When one thinks of modern conservatism, essential tenets of governance come to mind: low taxes, low regulation, federalism.  Coolidge certainly shared this worldview.  He once famously quipped: “Four-fifths of our troubles would disappear, if we would only sit down and keep still.”  Coolidge revered and supported the light touch of the state.  As Governor of Massachusetts, he described his role as “to walk humbly and discharge my obligations.”  As president, Coolidge reflected that “[p]erhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”

And these ideas had results.  The economic measures enacted by President Harding and, later, President Coolidge turned around the depression of 1920-1921 and ushered in the roaring twenties.  Under Coolidge, the federal budget was cut, the national debt decreased by almost half, and standards of living, from literacy to wealth, increased across the board.  From a 20% high in 1921, unemployment under Coolidge came down to an average of 3.3% a year.  American prosperity stemmed directly from Coolidge’s belief in free enterprise: “Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort.”

The example of Coolidge’s record extends beyond fiscal matters, particularly regarding his commitment to the rule of law and belief in states’ rights.  As governor, Coolidge (who opposed prohibition) vetoed a popular law allowing the sale of certain alcoholic beverages, citing the necessary respect and adherence to 18th Amendment of the Constitution — despite personal convictions and countervailing reason.  Furthermore, as president, Coolidge was commander-in-chief during the Great Misssissippi Flood of 1927.  When faced with a dilemma similar to Katrina, Coolidge saw the federal government’s job as ancillary, assisting the state and private charity, but not overburdening the effort with the complications of federal intervention.

The policies and results of Coolidge are a secondary to the larger point of his legacy.  Conservatism today, due to the major points of Republican rhetoric, is understood solely as a theory on the proper role of the state.  The points mentioned before (low taxes, low regulation, federalism) have grounding, though, beyond empirics.  These are means to a greater end — the understanding and preservation of organic, natural society.

Conservatism is lost, currently, as a political philosophy.  The fundamental values of men like Burke are unaddressed, leaving them undefended in the marketplace of ideas.  We look to the Founding Fathers as axiomatic truths, but fail to explain why.  The constancy of human nature, the fallibility of man, the role of tradition in guiding social structures — the very ideas that lead to our founding — seem irrelevant or unimportant to our politicians.

Take the question: is there progress in history?  It is a near-certainty that almost all politicians, on both sides of the aisle, would answer, “Of course!”  We are wealthier, smarter, and healthier than we were one hundred years ago — it’s a no-brainer, right?  Here, though, lies the problem in a style of governance divorced from its underlying philosophy.  Democrats and Republicans, while advocating for different methods, use the same metric of material well-being (a legacy of the enlightenment).  This is not the conservative answer, cognizant of a larger purpose.  Coolidge explained:

It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.  But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter.  If all men are created equal, that is final.  If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final.  If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.  No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.  If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.  Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress.  They are reactionary.  Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

The Coolidge Model is one of principle and practice.  His record as a leader is undoubtedly admirable and worthy of emulation.  However, today, Coolidge’s conservatism of character is far more valuable, for it is lost and forgotten.  As our society is bogged down in economic turmoil and worldly danger, conservatives cannot engage in the reactionary rhetoric of “what should we do?!” when they fail to re-examine why they are here.  True leadership will not come from a seasoned economist, but from those who first tackle this necessary question.  Here lies the true gift of Coolidge’s legacy and the lessons he passed down.

This is a long, gradual process, but our national identity requires a re-evaluation of purpose.  Perhaps the first move, as Coolidge said, is a simple step towards humility: “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”

“The Coolidge Model” – American Thinker

Ohio’s Prison Reform Lessons

July 17, 2011

The world is currently gripped in a push towards austerity. From the debt-ceiling debate, to the Eurozone crisis, to state shutdowns, it seems almost every governing body is forcing itself to make cuts. Those fighting against cuts label them “painful” and “immoral” while those pushing for lower spending characterize them as “necessary” and “ultimately beneficial.” However, as Ohio Governor John Kasich is showing, this may, in certain instances, be a false choice.

Governor Kasich recently signed into law prison-sentencing reform (one of his campaign goals) with bi-partisan legislative support. Under the law, non-violent lesser-degree offenders will be transferred to halfway houses rather than prisons. Furthermore, prisoners will be offered more earned-credit opportunities to lessen their sentence and prisoners will have greater chances at parole after serving 80% of their time.

Ohio, whose prisons before Kasich were at 131% capacity, will benefit greatly from Kasich’s reforms. Ohio sentencing laws are now smarter, as low-level offenders are not meaninglessly thrown in jail, but rather rehabilitated through a set of mutually beneficial community-based programs. It’s important to underscore that criminals, in this increased emphasis on rehabilitation, are not given a free pass, as Governor Kasich emphasized: “I don’t want anyone to think we’ve lost discipline… You do bad, we’re locking you up. But for someone that wants to do better, we’re giving you a chance.

Kasich’s sentencing reform represents a welcomed presence of pragmatism in governance. While there are in theory moral qualms with shifting state funds from law-abiding citizens to criminals (rehabilitation), the ultimate consequences of over-incarceration bear a far greater weight on the community. Most importantly, this is a necessary budgetary move for a state in dire financial straits. Kasich’s reforms will save Ohio, over the next three years, almost 50 million dollars.

Ohio’s reforms ought to serve as a model for other states and the nation as a whole. America’s justice system suffers from a rampant problem in over-incarceration. The International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London reported that the United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, compared to 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and 32 in India. Our large prison population is a huge drain on budgets, and to little apparent gain – a Pew Research study showed that 75% of the forces causing drops in crime were attributed to factors outside sentencing.

On a larger note, Kasich underscored two major principles: 1) addition by subtraction, and 2) the merits of federalism. Conservatives, in the upcoming months, must make the case that more can come from less, and prison-reform is a key example. Additionally, Kasich’s flexibility to address and reform local budgetary problems effectively speaks to the value of a more decentralized system.

“Kasich Cuts Costs with Prison Reform” – FrumForum

Waiting for Palinurus

July 11, 2011

Conservatives often do not need to look beyond the classics of Greece and Rome to reaffirm their belief in the constancy of human nature. Pertaining to the debt crisis, perhaps the Aeneid can provide some insight.

In Book V, as Aeneas attempts to navigate his fellow Trojans to the shores of Italy, he is continually harassed by Juno, who was bent upon stopping their quest due to her grudge against the Trojans. Venus (Aeneas’ mother) guards over her son’s quest, thus pitting herself against Juno in a divine squabble over the course of the epic. As Aeneas struggles to lead his men ashore, Venus ultimately turns to Neptune, god of the sea, for assistance. Neptune agrees to guide Aeneas’ men to Italy, thereby ending this prolonged naval dispute, but holds that one life must be lost for the others to be saved. That turned out to be Palinurus, the ship’s helmsman, who, overcome by the god Somnus, was cast overboard at the dead of night.

Perhaps we can follow a similar course. After a few human sacrifices out at sea, our national crisis will be over! But as we pray to Neptune, the left pushes for “shared sacrifice” – an equally unproductive option. Clouded by irrelevant issues like corporate jet taxes, national attention is being distracted from a clear economic truth – our crisis is due to a fundamental, systemic problem with expenditures. But, Democrats still look to “revenue raising”, pointing to a small, faceless (yet wealthy) minority to solve our crisis – our economic Palinurus.

The magic bullet of taxing the rich has never existed and is in its least applicable state now. Economist Walter E. Williams underscores this fact: “If Congress imposed a 100% tax, taking all earnings above $250,000 per year, it would yield the princely sum of $1.4 trillion. That would keep the government running for 141 days, but there’s a problem because there are 224 more days left in the year.” We wouldn’t close the deficit even if we liquidated the wealthy and their businesses. Moreover, talks of taxing the rich ignore the detrimental consequences on our wealth-creating mechanisms.

Nevertheless, we still seek our Palinurus – a small group that, with minimal impact to us, can alleviate this national burden. Bernie Sanders’ recent petition to President Obama encapsulates this tactic, comprised of blanket characterizations against this faceless body of wealthy bourgeoisie. The idea to bleed the few to save the many is, at first glance, tempting. But its pursuit and implementation has been historically detrimental to all. We ought always to be mindful of our mythology, both literary and economic.

“Waiting for Palinurus” – Ricochet

Founding Documents: Left and Right

July 6, 2011

A couple of days ago, we all saw the standard fanfare that surrounds the 4th of July – apple pie, fireworks, Bald Eagles, etc. There were flags waving on TV and politicians holding barbeques. Interspersed amongst this was some history, celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


This all got me thinking (and reading). As one reviews the text of the Declaration of Independence, the rich history of political philosophy that it draws from becomes readily clear. The Declaration of Independence, and later the Constitution, is one of the few true culminating documents of the Western canon.


While it’s fair to say that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t belong to either political party, one is hard pressed to argue that the document transcends the left/right philosophical divide.


The right, as I understand it, is the spectrum of political philosophies that accept natural inequality (therein the constancy of human nature and a reverence for the organic construction of society). The left holds the human condition as mutable and nature as fundamentally open to human influence. If these definitions are largely accurate, then it seems to me that the Declaration of Independencebelongs to the right, while The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (France, 1789) belongs to the left.


Looking at the text of the former, the Founders’ recognition and adherence to the laws and rights of nature, created and bestowed upon man by our Creator, is apparent. These rights predate and supersede the state and its provisions. Moreover, the emphasis on individuals’ rights underscores the distinction between a society and a government, whereby the government is a means only to a higher end: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”


On the other hand, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the byproduct of Enlightenment philosophy sets a foundation for the evolution of the left. The first article is particularly revealing: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” One ought to note the difference in where rights are grounded – God versus the community. The general good inseparable from the nation inseparable from its governing body, encapsulates the underlying goals of the left – to create a social organization above the constraints of nature (a goal the right holds as undesirable and, more importantly, unattainable).


Here we see the difference between the “powers of the earth” and “the general will” – the battle of ideas during and after the Enlightenment. I’m curious what others at Ricochet think after reading the two documents. May the words of Edmund Burke guide your respective journeys to the past: “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

“Founding Documents: Left and Right” – Ricochet