Norm-busting presidents with authoritarian impulses

David French argues that a “cycle of partisanship  has truly corroded our institutions.”  It’s not just another case of “whataboutism.”

As a Republican, I have always felt as though our greater affection for the small-r republican circuit breakers built into the system placed us at a disadvantage in the hand-to-hand battles.  On many occasions I can recall the choice:  we could stop what was happening but it would cost us one of our cherished small-r principles.

Feels different now, with President Trump.  Like we too have slipped that leash.  Here’s French:

Fact is, we’ve had (at least) two norms-busting presidents with authoritarian impulses in a row. Both believe in ruling with a pen and a personality, and disregarding process whenever it suits their political purposes. One was a thoughtful-sounding charismatic force and a talented fibber, a virtuoso at erecting strawmen and offering false choices. He pushed his party farther to the left than it has ever been. The other is a clumsy and transparent fibber, an incompetent novice pushing his party into whatever ideologically untethered position is catching his fancy at the moment. Only one of these men, however, was given a free pass by most people in the institutional media because his progressive ideological outlook pleases their sensibilities. Democrats’ newfound adoration of checks and balances simply isn’t credible.

You don’t trust Donald Trump to name an FBI director, even though it’s within his purview to do so? Well, I don’t trust Barack Obama to enter into faux treaties with a bunch of nations without Senate approval, or to unilaterally legalize millions of people without Congress. I understand that you find those unilateral decisions morally comforting, but if process and norms matter, they should always matter.

While there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, Democrats’ newfound adoration of checks and balances simply isn’t credible. And once that trust has been eroded, it’s difficult to regain. Most Americans aren’t impressed by procedure. So why would they surrender power when they’re certain you will abuse it again four years from now?

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The ruthlessness required for socialism?

In Camino de Servidumbre, Kevin D. Williamson argues that no one should be surprised by the recent developments in Venezuela.

In his classic monograph on central planning, The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek noted something that seemed like a paradox: “Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove,” he wrote. He argued that “the old socialist parties were inhibited by their democratic ideals” and that they “did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task.”

But that was not always to be the case: For every “liberal in a hurry” there is a V. I. Lenin, a Fidel Castro, a Mao Zedong, a Ho Chi Minh, a Che Guevara, an Erich Honecker ready to roll up his sleeves and start slitting throats.

Our so-called democratic socialists and their progressive allies always pronounce themselves shocked by this, though of course they have long indulged it, well past the point of being able to plausibly pronounce themselves surprised by any of it. From the New York Times’s heroic efforts to not notice the repression and terror in the Soviet Union to Senator Ted Kennedy’s working on behalf of the KGB, from Noam Chomsky’s denial of the Cambodian genocide to modern Democrats’ love affair with Fidel Castro, there is no gulag brutal enough and no pile of corpses high enough to stir in the modern progressive the sort of outrage he might feel upon, say, learning that General Electric took advantage of an accelerated capital depreciation schedule for tax purposes.

Nice summary of The Knowledge Problem:

That was what concerned Hayek and his colleagues in what has become known as the Austrian school of economics, Ludwig von Mises prominent among them. They believed that the central-planning aspirations of the socialists were not simply inefficient or unworkable but impossible to execute, even in principle, owing to the way in which knowledge is dispersed in society. Drawing on more recent work in fields ranging from physics to computer science, modern complexity theorists have expanded enormously on those insights, arguing that markets, like evolution, are complex beyond comprehending even in principle, hence unpredictable and unmanageable. As he famously summarized it: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” From this Hayek, an old-fashioned liberal, concluded that while there might be room in a free and open society for a broad and generous welfare state, the project of providing benefits to poor and vulnerable people must be understood as distinct from the socialist project, which is to put economic production under political discipline. And this has been born out in our own experience: Sweden is simultaneously a free-trading, entrepreneurship-driven capitalist society and a society with a large and expensive (and recently reformed) welfare state. Sweden, sometimes held up as the model of good socialism, has in fact been following a policy of privatization and libertarian-ish reforms for 20 years, with an explicit commitment of moving away from an economy of government planning to an economy of market choice.

What’s that old quip about “Communism starts with bayonets at your door, Socialism ends with bayonets at your door.”

But men do not like being told that they cannot do that which they wish to do, and this is particularly true of men who have a keen interest in political power. Hayek believed that efforts to impose central planning on economies were doomed to fail, and that this failure would not be met with humility but with outrage. When socialist policies produced their inevitable economic consequences, the first reaction would be to try to pass laws against the realization of those economic consequences. We saw a good deal of that in Venezuela, for instance with the imposition of currency controls when excessive social-welfare spending produced hyperinflation.

But those efforts are of course doomed to failure as well, which leads to outright political repression, scapegoating, and violence.

Is Socialism merely the unluckiest movement in history, and next time it’ll be different?


Socialism is either the unluckiest political movement in the history of political movements, one that just happens to keep intersecting with the careers of monsters, or there is something about socialism itself that throws up monsters. There is nothing wrong with Venezuelans, and nothing unusual about them: Here at home, our own progressives dream of imprisoning people for holding unpopular political views, nationalizing key industries, and shutting down opposition media. They have black-shirted terrorists attacking people with explosives on college campuses for the crime of holding non-conforming political views. And they aren’t averse to a little old-fashioned Stalinism, either, provided there’s a degree or two of separation: Bernie Sanders, once an elector for the Socialist Workers party, remains the grumpy Muppet pin-up of the American Left.

“Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove,” Hayek told us.

Are we really so sure?

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Health care is physical, not metaphysical

Kevin D. Williamson offers an intriguing thought experiment:

You have four children and three apples. You would like for everyone to have his own apple. You go to Congress, and you successfully persuade the House and the Senate to endorse a joint resolution declaring that everyone has a right to an apple of his own. A ticker-tape parade is held in your honor, and you share your story with Oprah, after which you are invited to address the United Nations, which passes the International Convention on the Rights of These Four Kids in Particular to an Individual Apple Each. You are visited by the souls of Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa, who beam down approvingly from a joint Hindu-Catholic cloud in Heaven.

Question: How many apples do you have?

You have three apples, dummy. Three. You have four children. Each of those children has a congressionally endorsed, U.N.-approved, saint-ratified right to an apple of his own. But here’s the thing: You have three apples and four children. Nothing has changed.

Declaring a right in a scarce good is meaningless. It is a rhetorical gesture without any application to the events and conundrums of the real world. If the Dalai Lama were to lead 10,000 bodhisattvas in meditation, and the subject of that meditation was the human right to health care, it would do less good for the cause of actually providing people with health care than the lowliest temp at Merck does before his second cup of coffee on any given Tuesday morning.

Health care is physical, not metaphysical. It consists of goods, such as penicillin and heart stents, and services, such as oncological attention and radiological expertise. Even if we entirely eliminated money from the equation, conscripting doctors into service and nationalizing the pharmaceutical factories, the basic economic question would remain.

We tend to retreat into cheap moralizing when the economic realities become uncomfortable for us. No matter the health-care model you choose — British-style public monopoly, Swiss-style subsidized insurance, pure market capitalism — you end up with rationing: Markets ration through prices, bureaucracies ration through politics. Price rationing is pretty straightforward: Think of Jesse James and his “Pay Up, Sucker!” tattoo on his palm. Political rationing is a little different: Sometimes it happens through waiting lists and the like, and sometimes it is just a question of money and clout. American progressives love the Western European medical model, but when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi needed a pacemaker, he came to the United States to have it implanted.

He then asks, “After we are done lamenting the unfairness of it all, what do we do?

Ideally, we’d plant some apple trees. We would find ways to invest in medical care with an eye toward making it more effective and less expensive. There is no substitute for abundance. And the great enemy of abundance is the bias against profit. There is something deeply rooted in us that instinctively thinks we are being abused if someone else makes a profit on a deal. That is a dumb and primitive way of thinking — our world is full of wonders because it is profitable to invent them, build them, and sell them — but the angel is forever handcuffed to the ape.

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A solution to the health care muddle

Another good Holman today:

The philosophical premises of the Republican and Democratic individual mandates could not be further apart. The original Republican mandate, hatched by the Heritage Foundation in 1989, was aimed at making sure would-be free riders paid their fair share, no longer transferring their financial risk to the taxpayer or other health-care consumers.

ObamaCare turned the mandate into a tax—a way to overcharge the young, healthy and (let’s face it) male to generate funds to subsidize voter blocs Democrats wanted to subsidize.

How much more realistically the once-upon-a-time Heritage mandate corresponds with research and experience showing millions of Americans won’t willingly spend their own money on health insurance no matter how favorable the pricing. It also accords with a new reality: To a lot of non-customers, ObamaCare became “free” insurance—it was there if they needed it.

We’ll say it again, now for the Senate’s benefit: Apply a few GOP-style fixes and ObamaCare, or something like it, becomes a solution to America’s health-care muddle. You could phase out every other federal program, including Medicare, Medicaid and the giant tax handout to employers, and roll their beneficiaries into ObamaCare.

Congress could start making rational judgments about whom to subsidize and whom not to subsidize. Do all seniors need a handout, or only the poor ones? And surely no Congress would re-up to the current employer tax benefit, which gives its biggest handout to the highest earners while producing all the pathologies the employer-centric payment system is heir to.

All this lies in the realm of potential, we hasten to add. But it pays to take a long view. Down this road lies hope that Americans will stop channeling extravagant gobs of their income to the medical-industrial complex. Down this road Medicare could be rethought, perhaps with rational Democrats lending a hand. We know these things will have to happen anyway. Otherwise the country is bankrupt.

P.S. Don’t kid yourself that Democrats have a plan other than blindly defending more and more subsidies for more and more health-care consumers. Single-payer is not a plan. It’s an invitation for the health-care industry—doctors, hospitals, the research establishment—simply to turn their full attention to serving the self-paying rich.

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To wander around America is to discover…

David French writes, “Don’t fire Colbert, fire his crowd.

To wander around America is to discover the happy reality that most liberals and most conservatives are perfectly nice, not particularly smug, and seldom if ever vitriolic,” Conor Friedersdorf recently observed in The Atlantic. Yes indeed. And to wander around a college campus is to discover the “happy reality” that most students and faculty members dislike rioters and radicals, and just want to finish their degrees or immerse themselves in their research.

The problem is that this silent majority is largely irrelevant to the prevailing discourse. Our political and cultural agenda is typically dictated by those who care the most, and right now those who care the most also tend to hate their opponents on the other side with a fiery, reflexive passion. Colbert’s crowd may be smaller than, say, the less-political Jimmy Fallon’s, but it is much, much more likely to set the terms of the American discussion.  In short, the people who truly care move this country, and the people who truly care are truly angry. Their anger is so all-consuming that it often forecloses the possibility of a debate about ideas.

One of the more remarkable things about the 2016 election was that it was simultaneously the most vitriolic of my adult lifetime and the least ideological. Trump and Clinton were and are extraordinarily malleable, driven by self-interest above all else. Trump shifts positions almost daily. Yet the partisan devotion remains.

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Air guitar

Excellent piece over at The Daliy Beast, by John McWhorter.  Several excerpts:

It is painfully obvious that shutting people down is incompatible with the basic principle of free speech. No one at Berkeley could possibly miss the tragedy of refusing to allow views to be expressed near exactly the Sproul Plaza where Mario Savio totemically spearheaded the Free Speech Movement at that very school. No one contests John Stuart Mill’s point that even noxious ideas must be aired regularly so that new generations can be taught their flaws and the rest of us can be reminded of just what they are. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued, to widespread agreement, that treating disturbing ideas as intolerable psychic injury goes directly against the principles of psychological therapy, as in what most would call dealing with real life.

Of course, speech cannot be entirely free. For reasons of pragmatism and civility, an advanced society need not endlessly rehash why genocide, slavery, male-only suffrage, or open and institutionalized bigotry are not the proper ways to go. However, the people being witch-hunted off of today’s campuses are hardly arguing otherwise. Or, if their ideas could be construed as enabling such revanchist notions to pervert societal procedure, one must consider whether or not these ideas have in fact done so.

The only way this thuggery in the name of enlightenment does make logical sense is if we realize that these people are protesting in quotation marks. The chasing people off of campuses, seemingly so unreasoning, is a physical enactment of the mental process of disagreement, manifesting itself physically as ejection. The assertion that controversial ideas must not even be given an airing performs the sentiment that an idea is noxious, befouls the air, would ideally be absent. Note a common conversational gesture on such topics in which one waves one’s hands as if warding off a stench.

Yes, there is always an element of the theatrical in protest. One makes signs, one speaks loudly, one seeks attention. But these new campus developments are something different. The environmentalist crafts slogans and raises their voice, but their concern for the state of the planet is concrete, based on a literal fear of impending biological catastrophe. One is arguing from different grounds to disallow someone to even give voice to an argument that the police help more black people than they kill, or that the state of the employment market is not the only reason people may be poor, or that our nation’s immigration policies are too lax. Whatever one’s take on those views, to insist that they are equivalent to those of Hitler or a Southern segregationist displays a shocking blindness to simple proportion—unless one’s actual intentions are different than we are assuming. They are.

Obviously, the goal here is the indication of one’s awareness, not a proactive sociopolitical objective.

Thus to truly understand what is happening here, we must see these protesters not as seeking a safe space, but “seeking a safe space,” warning us not of fascists but of “fascists,” “fostering oppression” and threatening “impending resegregation.” Oddly, the kayfabe concept in professional wrestling is the appropriate analogy, a tacit contract under which fans pretend something staged is real. In wrestling the payoff is entertainment; with the new protest movement the payoff is that we all demonstrate our heightened sociopolitical awareness—our faith, as it were. These episodes are religious services of a sort, which is part of why they now occur so regularly.

I do not mean to imply something so simplistic as that these protesters are willfully faking. They are sincere, within their bounds. But the bounds are important—the religious comparison is useful in that the religious person seals off a certain region of their reasoning from the ABCs of pure logic, for what they perceive as a higher purpose. However, we must understand that the protesters are proceeding from just such a cordoned-off area of consciousness, in order to comprehend their refusal to heed calls to observe Enlightenment-style convictions regarding the nature of discussion and the complexities of society.

recapture the frission of those awesome 1960s, described in some places as “Selma envy.”

What has made it feel so normal for students to wield protest as a kind of performance art, adopting the turned-up-to-11 tone justified in someone protesting police murders but now against someone invited to their campus to talk in an auditorium for 45 minutes and answer some questions?

Surely part of the reason is a desire to make a difference in a time when the issues are usually more abstract than battling legalized sexism and segregation. No protester in Selma or Birmingham took to the streets as a performative gesture, none smiled, and none based their participation on the possibility that anyone was abstractly “fostering” or “implying” anything. Today, one may seek to follow in the footsteps of the elders, and may even feel responsible for reproducing their fury. But reality interferes: The racism a James Baldwin knew was more immediate than the institutional racism, microaggressions, and cultural appropriation most of concern today…

When footage of recent protests is endlessly available in everyone’s pockets, the visceral impact of the reproduction as show can take precedence over the substance of the issues that were involved. The event, in its passion and vibrancy, becomes something you want to imitate, to be part of, to “do,” just as one often identifies with movie and musical performances. Our protesters are, in their way, like teenagers playing air guitar.

At heart, it’s “I want to do that.”

So how best to help them understand the other point of view, to wake them to what’s going on?

Because these protests are at heart a kind of acting, sober objections about the nature of free speech and intelligent inquiry argue past the participants. These protesters are quite aware that shutting down the expression of ideas does not eliminate those ideas from society, and if anything, only calls more attention to the speakers in question. All of these protesters are people who would bristle at any charge that they lack strength or self-regard, so fragile as to be constitutionally incapable of hearing dissent from their own beliefs.

Rather, we are watching people who have internalized a sense that to mime white-hot and even violent indignation, against expressions of ideas rather than against actions, demonstrates one’s moral sophistication in modern society. Logical argument will be as powerless against this new practice as it is irrelevant to its motivations.

That is, unless university administrators and professors revise the kind of logical argument they are presenting, and face a responsibility sadly difficult to step up to in our current atmosphere. If we are to allow a reasonable conception of free speech on today’s college campuses, then student protesters of this purging impulse must be told that despite the imperfections of society, their position on right-wing speakers will be neither accommodated nor sanctioned, not only because it threatens free speech and civility, but because it is a histrionic pose based on stark exaggeration.

Short of that—and let’s face it, all indications are that we shall be short of it—it would seem that we are in for a future in which controversial speakers stop even venturing to speak on college campuses, such that collegetown life becomes even more of an echo-chamber than it already was.

What lovely times we live in, in which we not only have a “president” on the right, but also a campus climate in which “progressivism” successfully exterminates the expression of all views rightward of The Nation—as in, most of the spectrum of human opinion.


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Making hate great again

30 years ago, when the counter-culture was Left, it asked of the Establishment, “Who are you to impose your values?”  Now that the Left has become the Establishment, it is busy imposing its values with a zeal that would make a Puritan blush.  The list of taboos is different but the impulse is the same.

In Malign Marcuse David French writes about a vital piece of the intellectual underpinnings of that project: Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.”

To get to know the modern campus radical is to lose respect for him. When you’re face to face and he’s screaming, there’s a certain strange gleam in his eye. It’s something beyond moral certainty. Anyone who has spent time around the “most religious” person in church has seen that look. No, it’s moral certainty linked with ignorance, combined with an odd kind of pain, and culminating in a kind of feral desire to hurt you, to cause as much pain as he can.

I saw it in my worst “arguments” (if you can call them arguments) during my time at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s. This was the time between the violent campus unrest of the 1960s and the “intersectional” unrest of the 2010s. This was the time when campuses actively and proudly discussed implementing “speech codes,” when the in-class shout-down was a favored tactic of the radical Left, and when your own colleagues and classmates would do their best to ruin your career if they found you sufficiently odious.   …

(T)o greater or lesser degrees we all [owe] our plight to the ideas of one man, captured succinctly in one 1965 essay that rocketed around the Left during his time and that today afflicts the body politic like a recurring cancer. The man is German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The essay is “Repressive Tolerance.”

I make no pretension to being a scholar of Marcuse or of the so-called Frankfurt School of critical theory. Others can write (and have written) about the malignant effects of critical theory on the American academy. I want to focus instead on a simple idea of his that still resonates with the Left today — unleash the forces of censorship and repression for the sake of the new tolerance to come. It is good (necessary, even) to be intolerant in the name of tolerance. There is no virtue in what the mainstream culture defines as “tolerance” if that tolerance will preserve the status quo. Instead, achieving true, new tolerance will require driving out the old. Here’s how Marcuse began:

This essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.

What followed was a dense and wordy exploration of a few central themes. Among them: Toleration of free speech is empty if there is intolerance of revolutionary action. That toleration of free speech ends exactly when speech contradicts or inhibits revolutionary goals:

This tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.

Critically, Marcuse also believed that the “distinction between true and false tolerance” could be made “rationally on empirical grounds.” Grounding his ideology in rationality meant that Marcuse saw his opponents as inherently irrational. Labeling opponents as irrational makes it all too easy to reach his conclusion, that liberating tolerance means “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”  …

Whether explicitly conscious of Marcuse or not (likely not; you can read any number of modern apologetics for campus censorship without seeing his name), the concept of intolerance for the sake of true tolerance had struck, and if the Constitution meant that public agencies, including state universities, couldn’t be instruments of “liberating tolerance,” then private citizens and private corporations most certainly could.

A university may be unwilling to fire a dissenting professor, but how many dissenting professors are willing to stay at jobs where they may face — as Nicholas and Erika Christakis did at Yale when Ericka had the audacity to defend the right of adult college students to wear the Halloween costumes of their choice — screaming gangs of furious students demanding that they leave the school? In corporate America, how many conservatives are willing to risk their mortgage or their kids’ college tuition to raise even the slightest objection to uniformly orthodox expressions of progressive values?  …

Intersectionality puts a premium on “experiential authority.” That is, the person experiencing the “oppression” gets to define both the oppression and the remedy. The role of less-oppressed allies, typically white progressives, is to defer to the experience of the more oppressed, learn from them, and support their struggles. That can mean that even liberals in good standing are blindsided by controversy, such as the Claremont McKenna dean who resigned amid protests and hunger strikes when she had the audacity (in a sympathetic e-mail) to tell a Latina student that she strove to serve those students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

You cannot question the victim. You must support the victim. And (here’s the hidden shout-out to Marcuse) intolerance in the name of tolerance works to advance social justice.  …

But this we do know: that Herbert Marcuse still afflicts America, and even activists who have never heard his name live in the activist culture he helped create. Every shout-down, every screaming fit, every hunger strike, every economic boycott, every social-media shame-storm, and every riot furthers his legacy. It turns vice into virtue, makes hate great again, and creates new generations of men and women who want to hurt their enemies and feel morally righteous as they do it. Lurking behind the rage is his singular idea, which we should not allow to curse us forever, that America’s “tolerant” citizens should be the most intolerant of all.

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