Obstruction: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I am so sick of hearing Harry Reid and the progressives bitch and moan about “obstruction” by Senate Republicans. It’s almost as if the Democrats are so embarrassed by their own lie that they don’t have the passion to propagate it any longer. And for all intents and purposes, they don’t have to keep up the slanderous distortion, because they’ve gone nuclear already and used “obstruction” as the impetus for doing so.

Republicans have not engaged in obstruction and Republicans have not abused the filibuster.

Republicans did not start the practice of filibustering judicial and executive nominees; Democrats started it in the early aughts after an infamous retreat in 2001 whereupon Democrats resolved to thwart the Republican agenda by being as intransigent and (dare I say it?) obstructionist as possible. They invented out of whole cloth the practice of delaying judicial nominees (see: Miguel Estrada) and they argued (correctly) in 2005 that the nuclear option would be “the end of the Senate” (Reid) and “prayed” that when they regained the majority they would not be so callous as to invoke the nuclear option (Biden). Hypocrisy barely scratches the surface of the chutzpa and hubris exhibited by Reid and the progressive amen chorus in Democratic and media circles. Profound duplicitous malice is probably a more apt description of Democratic conduct.

It’s been amusing to listen to Republican after Republican take to the Senate floor in the wake of the nuclear option and castigate Democrats for their short-sighted strategy and overall neglect for Senate rules or tradition. Old lions of the chamber like Lamar Alexander and Orrin Hatch have channeled their younger colleagues’ zeal and turned the vitriol to eleven. What has Republicans so pissed off is that the so-called “crisis” that was used as an excuse to blow up Senate rules with a bare majority when a supermajority has always been required is entirely manufactured. It is a complete fabrication to accuse Republicans of deploying “unprecedented” (Reid’s term) levels of obstruction or delaying of nominees. During the Bush presidency, five judicial nominees were blocked or delayed until their nominations were withdrawn or defeated. The total number of judicial nominees blocked during the Obama administration to date? Also five. Last I checked, an equal number of blocked nominees as a result of parliamentary shenanigans by both parties hardly amounts to lopsided misconduct by either party. Concerning the length of delays of nominees held up for further inquiry, Reid and his minions claim that here Republican behavior has been just as dastardly, as they have forced many of Obama’s nominees to wait in limbo for exorbitant lengths of time. But any glance at the data shows that this too is a canard. Again, prior to 2000 no president had ever seen his judicial or executive nominees blocked in the Senate. After Bush won his first election, Democrats fretted over the DC Circuit Court of appeals and were so paranoid that Bush was going to stack the court with conservative jurists that they deigned to subject each nominee to interminable delays and blocks. Furthermore, Democrats used the identical argument when they were in the minority as Republicans are now making: that the DC Circuit is under-worked and in no need of additional judges when there are appeals courts throughout the country who do need judicial appointments. Both parties made this exact same argument when confronted with a bullying majority looking to break the rules of the Senate; the difference is that Republicans walked back from the ledge in 2005 while Democrats in 2013 did not.

Why are Democrats so concerned with packing the DC Circuit when there are other courts in the country in need of judges? Two reasons: the DC Circuit is the principle arbiter of our regulatory regime and is also the prime vehicle through which judges ascend to the Supreme Court. Having suffered through a year that Dante would anoint as its own circle of Hell, progressives have become desperate and have adopted a bunker mentality in the face of Obamacare’s epic political maelstrom. Rather than wake up to reality and look for a sensible way out, they have dug in their heels and insisted that Obamacare is fine and there is nothing to see here. Their actions in the Senate however, betray the true aim of implementing the progressive agenda via a legislative end-around. Since the inception of Obamacare caused them to lose the House for what looks to be a long while, progressives have trained their focus on the the judiciary and the executive. The administration will continue to rule by fiat and through its Brobdingnagian bureaucracy will blanket the land with byzantine rules and restrictions. The populace will howl, but the lawsuits will be mere trifles as they die in the DC Circuit and Regulation Nation is allowed to proceed apace.

None of the reasons given for Harry Reid’s reckless decision to pull the nuclear trigger are valid. The sole, cynical reason for nuking the Senate and turning it into a rowdy incarnation of the majoritarian House of Representatives was frustration. The left has been through the ringer in 2013 with a litany of scandals, the surveillance state exposed, an embarrassing and indecisive foreign policy and, of course, the piece de la resistance, Obamacare. Frustration at their own failures combined with a petulant impatience over nominees is the only reason they blew up the filibuster. They couldn’t get their way, so they threw a fit and wrecked the world’s most deliberative body for no apparent reason in the process. Good job guys.

Progress and Imagination

The “inexorable tide of progress” is a mantra beloved by liberals and progressives, and held as a perpetual positive phenomenon of human civilization. That their contribution to “progress” on society is rigidly narrow-minded in its emphasis on identity politics and social issues is lost on the average well-meaning progressive. The overriding mission of progressive government is to establish policies that facilitate social justice and eradicate income inequality. The vehicle for achieving these ends is always and forever the federal government. On economics though, the progressive worldview is anything but a recipe for “progress.” Modern liberalism represents a truer manifestation of reactionary politics in the United States than anything brought forth by conservatives or the Tea Party.  The Democratic Party’s raison d’etre is the dogged and tireless defense of massive (and unsustainable) government welfare programs conceived between 1932 and 1965.  For a party that identifies with terms like “progress,” “forward” and “move-on,” its economic vision sure looks rooted in the past and betrays a real lack of imagination.

Contrary to the established perception of conservatives and libertarians held by progressives (a perception acutely crafted over many years into a product acceptable to a politically correct culture, media and academia), advocates of free market economics and capitalism have been the true champions of progress. America has maintained the world’s most productive economy primarily by adhering to tenets of competition and the free market. Tenets like risk-reward, entrepreneurship, the invisible hand of the marketplace, free trade, property rights and rule of law. Capitalism in its true form carries three prerequisites: ownership of means of production, control of production, and the bearing of commercial risk by the owner. As governments have expanded their regulatory reach, owners of capital have born less risk as the government has extended its intrusion and compliance demands into more and more private commercial affairs. Regulation crushes the small business and the little guy, whereas large financial institutions are mostly exempt from the burdens of regulation. There is a reason that every multinational staffs a small army of “compliance officers.” Even so, politically-connected behemoth corporations don’t bear proportional risk/reward burdens because they evidently operate not on a quarterly basis, but on the timing of the next taxpayer bailout. The paradox of progressive populism is that they correctly identify the problem with crony capitalism but then get the prescription for fixing the problem all wrong. Their solution to big business-big government collusion is to make big government even bigger. They fail to recognize that it is the very bigness of government in the first place that attracts commercial players and lobbyists to its trough. If government were smaller with fewer federal agencies, businesses would lose the incentives they currently have to get in bed with government. It is the pervasive influence of government in our economy that incentives corporations and politically connected to seek out crony deals with the government. If the feds threw less chum in the water, fewer sharks would show up at the public dispensary. With the introduction of this moral hazard into the equation, capitalism has soldiered on in an imperfect state ever since Woodrow Wilson deemed it quaint and amateurish and agitated for a more robust central authority in American economic life. In its various incarnations from FDR to JFK to Reagan to Clinton, capitalism has provided the country and the planet with the greatest system for reducing poverty and lifting millions of people to better stations in life. It is capitalism that defeated Communism; not military might or diplomacy. The thirty year, largely uninterrupted economic boom fostered by Reagan in the early 1980’s ushered in the age of microchips and material girls, start-ups and Silicon Valley. It is no wonder that the country most dedicated to the capitalist principles of competition, freedom to succeed or fail, and rule of law is also the country responsible for the automobile, television, telephone, radio, aviation, cinema, the internet, iPhone, iPod, iPad and whatever else Apple cooks up next.

For the average “millennial,” none of the aforementioned fruits of capitalism register as very meaningful. Conventional wisdom in academia holds that Franklin Roosevelt was an unquestionably great president and that the New Deal was unquestionably good. There exists a persistent and remarkable academic paradigm regarding 20th century American history. When a student is taught about Woodrow Wilson or Oliver Wendell Holmes, he learns of these men and their policies only in the context of the results they produced, but rarely is he taught of the collectivist philosophy or statist ambition that guided these men. Wouldn’t it be useful when teaching the League of Nations to include a discussion on Wilson’s 1913 imposition of the federal income tax? Or to chronicle the acrimony toward the Constitution expressed by Wilson, Roosevelt and the bulk of the progressive cohort? Critically, where is the examination of progressivism and the corresponding treatment of competing ideologies in modern academia? If progressives and their academic champions wish to enlist socialism as their reform ethos, is socialism itself not worthy of scrutiny and debate? Is it not the case that the rise of progressivism at the dawn of the 20th century is taught as a historical inevitability? As if the inexorable tide of progress dictates a logical and orderly transition from laissez-faire chaos to enlightened rule by expert knowledge? If not taught overtly, the message in modern academia is clear: the Progressive Era was Good and Noble because it was when humanity stepped into the modern age where humanistic ideals would compliment science and reason while experts were conscripted to meticulously plan society from the top down. Far from the fairly radical conception of the Founders’ that the State would be subordinate to the individual and that free enterprise would reign, the progressive utopia would produce – as if by magic – equal outcomes. Social justice will have finally arrived and the enemies of progress will have been defeated. This is about the extent of progressive intellectual imagination, but it reveals how, in fact, progressives actually want for imagination.

We have G.K. Chesterton to thank for this gem: “The reformer is always right about what’s wrong. However, he’s often wrong about what is right.” For progressives, very little thought goes into their conception of what is right. All of their energy is devoted to what is wrong. Occasionally, as with civil rights and gender equality and the drug war, progressives are right about what is wrong, and in these cases need not offer any prescription for what should happen once the wrong has been righted. But regarding the rest of public policy, which is to say the overwhelming majority of issues, it is not enough to simply highlight what is wrong. You must also know what is right, and be able to offer a clear-eyed prescription for what right looks like. It takes imagination to appreciate the free market and capitalism writ large. To know the invisible hand is at work is to understand the genius of what Hayek called “spontaneous order.” It takes a bit of imagination to agree that millions of individual transactions based on organic price signals and voluntary exchanges occurring in markets free from coercion and regulation is better than a rigidly planned and expertly diagrammed economy. The first scenario seems chaotic and maddening; how is one to make sense of a free economy where prices and costs fluctuate according to the preferences of millions of individuals? The second scenario sounds like it would be easier to manage and monitor; smart planning and ambitious regulation will keep things in order and and maintain stability, right? On issue after issue, progressives go the latter route, opting for policies and sound bytes that play to lowest common denominator thinking: don’t trust the market because it’s unpredictable and unfair; trust the State because it exists to provide for you! The lack of imagination among progressives is willful. Of course progressives have imagination. Most modern artists and cultural elites are liberals and progressives, nearly by default. This is true more broadly with millennials. Most of entertainment, whether music, film, literature, television or the more outre, avant-garde flare is inhabited almost exclusively by progressives. Clearly then, they are capable of imagination. They are just not capable of political imagination. They can’t allow themselves to imagine a free-market success where the poor are lifted by an influx of jobs and commercial activity (what is right) because all they consider is the rising income gap between the capitalist and the worker (what is wrong). Somehow this posture of incessantly highlighting injustices and inequities while never offering even a slight deviation from big government orthodoxy as a solution has succeeded in making progressives owners of the “pragmatic” mantle. They are just here to protect the noble status quo of entitlements and to intercede on behalf of workers whenever the evil bosses put profits before people, or something.

How have conservatives and libertarians allowed the progressives to occupy this outrageous position on the ideological spectrum? For the truth is progressives and liberals have conned society into believing they do not derive their principles from the outer reaches of the left pole, but that they’re merely levitating in the banal, uncontroversial, pragmatic center, where everyone is simply for “what works.”  The “reality-based community” canard is an ingenious trick designed to convince average Americans that liberals are sober and reasonable, while those in opposition to their common sense approach are “extreme” and “crazy.”  We all know the great Kevin Spacey line from The Usual Suspects about the greatest trick the devil ever pulled; contemporary liberalism mastered the even greater trick of convincing the world that its ideology does not exist.

Lawless

The United States was conceived and founded as a republic governed by laws, not men. James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But as we know, men are not angels and the law is all we have. The idea of a country governed not by men but by law is an ancient one, but it reached its highest emphasis and appreciation among “free born Englishmen,” particularly those who migrated to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Englishman who would become American considered the law to be sacred and inherent as opposed to ephemeral and malleable. The idea that the law predated the men who would codify it was a radical notion first breached with Magna Carta in 1215. Prior to the Anglosphere exaltation of natural and inalienable rights, all the world was governed by some variant of recognizable authority: law of the monarch or law of the church. Usually a king’s law was tied intrinsically to God’s law or the law of the Church, but that was always a veneer that hid the truth that laws were made by men. An 18th century British colonial in America identified as a “free born Englishman” because of the English tradition of liberty and natural rights developed over five hundred years. It was this fealty to liberty coupled with a firm distrust of arbitrary law, along with a remarkable fluency in philosophy, history, politics and law itself that provided the American founders with the vision for our constitutional republic based on limited government.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not mere products of their time, arrived at on whims by the brilliant minds of Jefferson and Madison; they are documents perched at the zenith of Enlightenment ideals, meant to codify forever an ideal of individualism and self-government based on the common law. Even among these brilliant visionaries there were bitter disagreements though; Hamilton and Jefferson were notorious adversaries, and of course Hamilton was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr (Got Milk?), but there was rancor and demagoguery and fierce invective all around. For this reason, it was clear to most that the primacy of law had to be elevated over the whims of man. This is why Jefferson and Madison fought so hard for the Senate to be a place where minority rights are secure and even held sacred. Those of the Hamiltonian and Adams persuasion favored more majoritarian instruments of government, and Hamilton advocated for a more central, stronger federal government with a stronger executive branch than any limited government, diffuse power advocate could stomach. But Hamilton himself largely agreed with Madison that the institutions they were shaping should always be more important than the men inhabiting them. A fealty for rules in the various governing bodies would be the only way to ensure continuity of vision as well as protection of rights of the minority. All of the founders understood that the republic they were building was a fragile and radical experiment, which is why the public engaged in a years long debate over the drafting of the Constitution. That debate was carried out in a series of long newspaper editorials and pamphlets between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. The Federalist Papers, composed anonymously by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay, argued in support of ratifying the proposed Constitution, and in them they often cite the need for the law to be held as sacrosanct, since anything less leaves the law at the mercy of the whims of fallible man. The English tradition of the common law, including property rights, habeus corpus, peer jury trials, representative democracy and right to life and liberty, was the slow-evolving engine of freedom that culminated in the Declaration and Constitution. Our founders, brilliant and radical as they were, did not invent out of thin air the foundations for the one and only creedal country in the world. In fact they did not invent these principles at all. They were simply expanding on the freedoms and traditions they viewed as their birthright as free born Englishmen, and sought to install in the New World an updated and improved version of those traditions. The great Daniel Hannan has a new book (Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World) about the sacred lineage of liberty that runs through the wider Anglosphere, and his thoughts on the unique and lasting influence of English liberty are genuinely inspiring.

William F. Buckley urged conservatives and libertarians in the 1950s to “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop!'” In a sense, this was an invocation to place obstacles in the way of progressives and their transparent desire to see America governed by men instead of by laws. Progressivism is inherently lawless because it recognizes no limiting principle on what it can achieve. It knows no constraints. Armed with emotionalism and a sense of moral righteousness, progressives care far less about what is legal than about what is right and good. This elevation of subjective values that consistently places the utilitarian “good” of the people over the natural rights and wants of the individual is in direct conflict with the more libertarian instincts that flow from the Anglophone conception of liberty. At its root, progressivism (especially in the UK and US) is in constant rebellion against the principles and traditions of its ancestors. Free market capitalism based on voluntary exchange, property rights, and a covenant that lifts the citizen above the State has proved to be the best system so far devised by human intelligence at eradicating global poverty and facilitating widespread prosperity. Since progressives reject free markets out of hand, due to either ignorance or indifference, they are left to root in the wilderness for more egalitarian economic and political systems. To date, their track record is, shall we say, less than stellar. Whether its Marxism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Totalitarianism, Social Democracy, Syndicalism or Monarchy, any system that deviates from a free market that exalts individualism over collectivism is mathematically, scientifically, fatefully destined to fail. And so in their perpetual lurching from one form of statist collectivism to another, the progressives have rallied around one crucial yet rarely uttered revelation: that they are above the law.

Just look at progressive behavior during the Obama era. Democrats rammed through a hilariously awful and stupid health care law using a shady and probably unconstitutional measure known as “reconciliation” to get the bill passed. President Obama made recess appointments to district court seats while the Senate was in pro-forma session. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals smacked that decision down as lawless, and the progressives simply shrugged and moved on. What did they move on to? Oh yes, the nuclear option, which completely eviscerates 225 years of tradition and comity in the Senate by breaking the rules in order to change the rules, using a bare majority “overrule of the chair” technicality to eliminate the filibuster, effectively forever. Obama’s foreign policy reflects a confused kid’s grappling with the difference between Budapest and Bucharest, but what’s crystal clear is his allergy to the rule of law. War in Libya, attempted war in Syria, indefinite detention, sweeping domestic surveillance and extralegal drone wars are pretty big examples of the Commander-in-Chief operating outside legal constraints, not to mention lying when confronted with each transgression. Progs flip the bird at legal constraints because to them, the end truly does justify the means. Once Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson challenged the founding of the country, progressives were free to dream big and ignore the law, since any law that emanates from a flawed and immoral document is not a law to be taken seriously, the thinking goes. Any talk of a “living constitution” betrays the true progressive conceit: that our founding documents are invalid for their lack of “modern” values… and racism, of course.

Progressives covet power and control. By beginning with a premise that our republic is innately flawed, progressives feel empowered to use any means necessary to upend the status quo and bring about utopian change. The goal is to occupy as much of the federal bureaucracy and branches of government as possible, and to exploit them for progressive ends, regardless of established law, rule or precedent. With the executive, progressives enhance presidential power; with the legislative, they flout the rules and ram their agenda through Congress; with the judicial, they pack the courts and build up their cache of case law to fit their aims.

They are lawless because it suits them to be. Nothing is above the agenda. When you’re grounded not in principle or dogma but in the material achievement of tangible power, the law is a mere nuisance. The only way to reverse course in this country is to make the Constitution and our principled traditions of liberty and individual freedom cool again. I think individual liberty and free markets are pretty freaking cool, but they are not self-evidently so. Principles of liberty need to be reclaimed and renewed by the mass American electorate. No government or central planner can make that happen. Only the people can.

Progressives and the Free Market

Progressives oppose free market solutions to modern world problems as an article of faith. Despite their attestations, progressives do not treat the scientific method as sacred, particularly when it comes to ideology. Neither the mining of empirical evidence nor the rigorous testing of hypotheses are of much interest to the progs. Instead, everything is about “consensus.” If nine morons ardently believe our solar system operates on something other than heliocentric orbiting, they may arrive at consensus, but what is the point of consensus if it is flatly wrong? Progressives seem to think they need not bother with the scientific method and its attendant testing of assumptions, because, hey, we have consensus! Another way of describing “consensus” would be to call it group-think. When it comes to progressive consensus, the easiest way to understand how it is arrived at is to think of it as an example of religious faith.

If asked to rattle off a list of progressive policy initiatives, a conservative or libertarian can do so with relative ease. Carbon taxes to combat climate change; increased gun regulations; higher taxes and more redistribution of wealth to combat “income inequality;” an increased minimum wage; pacifism borne out of naivety and wishful-thinking; politically correct “multiculturalism;” and so on. If a progressive can likewise name conservative policies, he is bound to get stuck after mumbling something about how “you guys are just for low taxes for the rich and selfish individualism,” but even if a prog is versed in conservative ideological prescriptions for the country, he is unlikely to grasp the meaning behind the message. This is due to a remarkably arrogant conceit of the left: that conservative ideology and policy doesn’t even merit consideration or understanding because the motives are known and that is enough. People that identify as progressive undoubtedly grow up being taught or told that conservatives are evil and filled with bile and ill-intent, and as a result of these bitter white males and their lingering racial animus the Republican Party has gone “even more extreme” by contenting itself with “dog whistles” and “nativist” “rhetoric.”  If you believe that your political opponents are not merely wrong but unqualified for polite society or civil debate, then you’re probably not going to concern yourself too much with what those “crazies” believe. Through this immature pose of self-righteousness the progressives do themselves a grave disservice. Perhaps they never took Sun Tzu to heart, but knowing thy enemy is a pretty basic tenet of any strategy. And it would be one thing if they wanted to learn more about what conservatism actually stands for but just couldn’t grasp it, but progressives are willfully ignorant about the free market. Maybe it is because they know in their hearts that the free market is always superior to central planning that progressives have to adopt an anti-free market dogma on faith.

Religious zeal for progressive ideology is unique to progressivism because most progressives actively dislike established religions (unless it’s Islam, of course), particularly Christianity. For people of faith, their religion and their politics are separate. Lines will blur and people on both sides will attempt to exploit religion for the occasional political gain, but for the most part religious people generally are able to distinguish between the political and the holy. While there are many religious leftists and progressives, in recent years it has become quite uncontroversial to observe the Republicans as religious and the Democrats as secular. As such, progressives look to politics as their religion and it has always been thus. Ideas like social justice, the income gap and the “moral equivalent of war” are examples of progressives looking to religious principles like justice and charity and giving in order to convince the public that their politics are akin to a holy calling of goodness, or something. When you instill in your politics the language of good versus evil and cast yourselves as the forces for fairness and equality striving to defeat the forces of corruption and avarice, it becomes self-evident why the “good guys” would not even bother to study up on the ideas and principles of the “bad guys.” When you construct your politics in this manner, everything is seen as light versus dark, enlightened versus reactionary. This is pure emotionalism. My view must be right and yours wrong because you yourself are wrong. Progressivism endures only by manipulating its enemy’s narrative. When the opposition is discredited at the outset, whatever follows from it is just noise.

Through this vile caricature of conservative thought and by assuming the absolute worst about conservative motives in any policy dispute, progressives take faith-based approaches in opposing their enemies. If conservatives are moral scum, then there is no legitimate reason to engage their equally scummy ideas. When confronted with empirical evidence that the free market is a success wherever applied, the progressive response is to first and foremost make sure that this truth not be allowed wide dissemination. The last thing progs need is to have their faiths challenged by scientific, tangible evidence. And because they accept on faith that conservatives are evil, and therefore so too is the free market (because those evil bastards seem to like it), progressives simply cannot digest that what the evil bastards are saying could possibly be true. The answer, of course, is to distort the truth, and align reality with their presumptions and preferences, because they can.

And that is the really sad thing. They can. Progressives create myths and religious fables about the wonders of socialism and the perils of capitalism because they can. Claiming seats high in the halls of academia, politics and entertainment, progressive Americans have been on a tenacious odyssey to remake the country in their own image, as the Fabian Socialists of late nineteenth century Britain championed. But I don’t think even the progressives understand what their own image is. They don’t really know what they want because they neglected to heed the other part of Sun Tzu’s maxim about knowing thy enemy… you also must know thyself. And progressives don’t know themselves. Their identity is cultivated on what they are not: Republicans and conservatives. The river of progressive hate for its opposition runs deep and flows red. Maybe if they spent a little less time dogmatically opposing whatever conservatives are for, they could discover something of a positive agenda within. Doubtful.

The same faith-based opposition to the free-market is found in progressive opposition to climate change skeptics, fossil fuels and free choice in anything besides abortion. Progressives object to individual liberty as a sacred principle. How else to explain the bevy of mandates and coercive federal regulations coming out of Washington during the Obama era? Progressives fight passionately to restrict school choice in our inner cities. They claim that narrow choices under Obamacare are better for the consumer, because to paternalists, father always knows best. In every arena that does not include Planned Parenthood, progressives are anti-choice, anti-individual and anti-liberty. They adhere to these insane beliefs thanks to faith and mysticism, not logic or empiricism. Given how frequently they charge conservatives as being “anti-science” and superstitious neanderthals, it is more than a bit ironic that it is they who resort to worship and dogma in the political arena, and that it is they who behave most like brainwashed religious cult followers.

Coercion

“The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory.”
– Kevin D. Williamson

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
– George Washington

The State has only one arrow in its quiver: force. If only more people understood this. Unfortunately it is human nature to seek simple solutions for complex problems, and what is more seemingly simple than a central government with guns and guards and to which we pay fealty through taxes? Surely the State can solve our problems if it can wage war on a grand scale? One of the founding fathers of progressivism, William James, sought to expand the reach of the State by imbuing onto progessive programs the “moral equivalent of war.” Socialists and progressives were in awe of government’s ability to centralize resources and production in times of war while also galvanizing the populace around a nationalistic, “all in this together” theme. Placing the same exigencies that accompany war on peace-time domestic programs quickly became the modus operandi of progressivism in the early 20th century. They needed to instill the same urgency and desire for quick action and results in order to persuade Americans that their statist plans for the economy were the only passable solution to any perceived crisis. Bestowing the “moral equivalent of war” on public policy would be the clever mechanism used to create the income tax, the Federal Reserve, the New Deal, the War on Poverty/Drugs/Terror, and the “entitlement programs” of the postwar era.

The progressive inclination is to use the State to produce desired results for society (or at least for their constituencies), but if the State’s only commodity is force, logic dictates that progressivism seeks to forcibly remake society through the vehicle of the State. A progressive is pro-“C” alright, but the “C” doesn’t stand for “choice.” It stands for coercion.

In a free society or a constitutional republic like ours, coercion is anathema. State coercion is even worse; it is the ultimate transgression on what is supposed to be a sacred covenant between citizen and State whereby the citizen is elevated as master of the State. When you get that equation backwards, as most civilizations have throughout history, you get tyranny, where the State is master of the citizen. And State coercion of the individual or of a more local polity is grounds for the people’s exercising their right to overthrow tyrannical governments. Our nation was founded on exactly this principle. Modern progressives seem to either forget this fact or deem it impertinent as they lurch headlong towards coercive policy prescriptions at every turn.

Progressives know that, given the choice, free individuals will opt for independence and self-reliance over arbitrary intrusions by the State into their affairs. However, progressives also know that humans are adaptable in both directions: they can adapt to better circumstances of course, but they are likewise remarkably capable of adapting to worse circumstances. It is an extreme and probably inappropriate example (of Godwin’s Law, no less), but many Jews willingly boarded trains during the Holocaust. Throughout history there are countless examples of victims being slaughtered without much or any resistance. It is a brutal and sad reality that force and coercion work. As a true as the maxim is that “freedom is won at the tip of the bayonet,” I think it is even more true that tyranny and slavery are established and sustained by force. If humans can be conditioned by circumstance, the progressive aim is to “nudge” people toward a collectivist mindset by making the State a vital component of every individual’s life.

It has worked in other places, but in America, with its traditions and institutions so grounded in ideas of liberty and diffuse power, the progressive aim is constantly being thwarted by realities such as federalism, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. When Woodrow Wilson became the first US president to challenge the the moral and practical underpinnings of the American founding, he was doing so for more utilitarian than philosophic ends. His wasn’t an argument for a principled recalibration of constitutional ideals; it was a purely Machiavellian argument for putting progressives in power. Wilson understood that his comrades could attain a virtual lock on power by following Otto von Bismarck’s example and establishing a welfare state. By embracing a dogma of positive rights, whereby rights come from the State instead of nature or God, the progressives embarked on a century-plus odyssey to erode traditions of American enterprise and self-reliance through a series of State expansions into more and more of the economy and into more aspects of our lives. Today the progressive mantra is that health insurance is a “right” every American should have, and it is government that must provide. Nevermind that the government provision of things necessarily means coercion of some for the benefit of others. Whether it’s through redistributive taxation or more violent forms of coercion, any delivery of a positive right effectively involves an affront to another’s negative right. But it is by being the faction that favors positive rights that progressives have always recognized as their avenue to power. They took Ben Franklin at his word and decided, “we don’t want to keep it!” Constitutional republics are anathema to progressivism because republics are a check on base majoritarianism. Our republic is grounded and restrained by limiting principles and sacred documents and cherished ideals, yet for the other side, our republic has always just been a nuisance. Progressives wish to eliminate all limiting principle from our governance because only with an unrestrained and unaccountable administrative bureaucracy can they freely implement their collectivist vision.

And when the proles resist their benevolent offerings? The progs can make it mandatory. “The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory.” The progressive is the man who will always result to coercion when his preferences inevitably fail.

A Veneer of Tolerance

Progressives love to pat themselves on the back for their rampant and consistent tolerance of everything and everybody. There’s just one problem: progressives are intolerant of anything and anybody who disagrees with their worldview.

Consider the parameters the progressives have set for our debate on cultural issues. There is the politically correct, intellectually conformist status quo that asserts which stances on controversial issues constitute the rational, middle ground. They include being in favor of abortion rights, gay marriage, amnesty for undocumented aliens, dramatic climate change legislation, redistributive taxation and an aggressive regulatory and bureaucratic infrastructure. Being on the opposite ends of any of these is to announce one’s status as an outsider, as one not privy to the enlightened inspiration that governs the benighted progressive and wafts through the corridors of the elite. Conventional wisdom in media and academia likewise stand in united opposition to the following: fracking, Christianity, federalism, diffuse power, the Constitution, fiscal sustainability, the Tea Party, the Redskins, Islamophobia, profit, enterprise, individual liberty, prosperity, wisdom, humility, self-awareness and an understanding of basic economics.

On one level, it’s nice to know that progressives are so unified, since it means they operate in a herd mentality and skew towards solidarity more than they champion policy entrepreneurship. The modern Democratic party is nothing if not disciplined. They all hew to the same script and follow the same marching orders. This is the characteristic of sheep, not of leaders. Human history is riddled with unfortunate examples of the willful mass following of charismatic leaders, and it’s not hard to find the corollary in 2007-8. So from a bird’s-eye view, it’s fairly easy to diagram what has been going on in American politics during the Obama era. A party of committed ideologues galvanized around the gauzy populism of “hope and change” and with impressive operational discipline, has deigned to control its narrative above all else. Nothing that the Obama administration does is done through anything other than a political lens. With the help of a shamefully compliant mainstream media, the progressives in Washington have cultivated a broadly toxic story about their opposition. Whether cast as racists, homophobes or xenophobes, or as the progenitors of epic wars on women and the elderly, conservatives have had to weather a brutal five year storm of invective and demagoguery from media and political elites. All the while, we’re told that we’re intolerant, and thus not fit for serious consideration in PC society. The progressive aim is to consign conservatives to the margins of society by convincing the electorate broadly of their malice and indifference to the plight of the common man. It’s slander as old as Napolean (and probably older, but you can trace the term “ideologue” to a pejorative Napolean coined to discredit his foes), and it can be quite effective (see: 2008, 20012 elections).

It can’t be effective forever though. Sooner or later, the public wakes up. Great Britain sleepwalked through forty years of socialism before it woke up and threw Labour out on its ass and gave Lady Thatcher a chance in 1979.  America had a similar experience with the election of Ronald Reagan signaling its clear discontent with the failed statist programs of the ’60’s and 70’s. Eventually, people fortunate enough to live in places with institutions and traditions that venerate liberty and the cause of the individual over the cause of the state will course-correct. In that vein, the U.S. and U.K. were fortunate that they shared the glorious heritage of property rights and individual freedom, and so were able to tap into those deep wells of national conscience and rediscover their principles. Countries not rooted in Anglosphere traditions of liberty and the free market always find more difficulty in escaping the shadow of expansive, tyrannical states, because most national identities are ethnic or geographic, as opposed to creedal or propositional such as exist in Anglosphere nations. But even the “special relationship” countries, the ones most responsible for global understanding of things like habeus corpus, rule of law and natural rights, have managed to unlearn the lessons of Reagan and Thatcher and have reverted to collectivist form.

When collectivism is ascendant, intolerance follows suit. When people band together under common cause, it is not inherently a bad or dangerous thing. People can gather to thwart tyranny or to peaceably assemble or for any number of other benign incarnations of civil society. But when people gather under the banner of collectivism, whether communism, socialism, fascism or ethnic nationalism, the results are not just bad, they are disastrous. Every collectivist movement starts out with decent enough intentions, perhaps even noble. Injustice, inequality, oppression are all frequently cited as reasons behind the call for collectivism. And often these maladies are real, and the radicals seeking reform are to be commended at the outset for their altruistic instincts. The problem arises in the execution. Every collectivist revolution or government has failed or proceeds apace in a mire of failure, because it holds no limiting principle. Every collectivist sees the state as an instrument for bestowing good and fairness on the land, but without a limiting principle, how does the collectivist know when government has met its goal. How does it know when enough is enough? It doesn’t know, because it can’t know. Hayek wrote about the “knowledge problem” and affirmed that no man or bureaucracy can ever possess total knowledge. Economies are so dynamic and diffuse that it is impossible for any entity to attain all the knowledge that goes into economic operations, which means the proposition that an economy can be centrally planned by experts equipped with total knowledge is impossible. This is just the first crisis the collectivist encounters when charged with operating society. The next involves the harsh treatment of political opposition that every collectivist administration ultimately resorts to. Just as Napolean needed to discredit his “ideologues,” progressives have for over a hundred years used slander, distortion and dishonesty to achieve their political ends. Since a collectivist society can’t work because it can’t run an economy, the progressive impulse is to keep the grand experiment alive at all costs, that the ends justify the means. Aware of the shortcomings of statism but determined to to adhere to the doctrine anyway, progressives know that they have to lie. About just about everything. Only by keeping the proles uninformed and distracted a la Brave New World can the progressives spin enough fantasies and fear a la 1984 to keep the people blind and in favor of a more bloated, comfortable welfare state. And if there is pushback, then unleash holy hell on the dissenters until they break and get in line or until they are defeated or killed. That is quite literally the historical record of collectivism. And it is repeating itself all over again, with rank intolerance and profound derisiveness directed at conservatives and libertarians at every turn, here and across the world. No entities have been subject to more unfair and disproportionate abuse than the Tea Party in America and UKIP in England. That these nascent political movements have the right of it on just about every count is what makes them targets to be destroyed.

The biggest enemies of collectivism are truth and debate. Progressives know that they can’t allow either to blossom in our public discourse, lest they be truly exposed. Every enemy of free speech today is likely a progressive. Ask yourself, which ideology is truly intolerant?

Minimum Wage Morons

The minimum wage hurts the poor. When you set an arbitrary wage floor you ignore market signals. Arbitrary minimum wage laws cannot possibly reflect accurately the dynamic conditions at play in a single market at a given time, let alone multiple markets. The minimum wage purports to know what the wage floor should be across ALL markets, which is why the minimum wage is the height of progressive hubris and ignorance of economics.

When you establish arbitrary minimum wages, you force employers to raise their prices in response. Liberals seem to think you can magically eliminate certain costs, but in this world, you just can’t. I know it’s a bummer that you can’t defy the laws of economics and give everyone a “living wage” just because the idea makes you feel good. The fact is, the minimum wage has the opposite effect of its intent: it prevents opportunities for entry-level job seekers by making it a disincentive for employers to seek out new labor. Without a minimum wage, scores more inner city and poor people would have doors thrown open to them, at which point they would be eligible for promotions, raises and advancement. But with the government setting a minimum wage, employers are loath to hire more people because the cost of doing do is arbitrarily higher than it otherwise would have been had free market conditions been allowed to dictate prices and wages. But with a government-dictated minimum wage, you essentially get government-dictated price increases, which hit consumers. If the fast-food protesters get their way and obtain a $15/hr minimum wage, then the price of all fast food is going to rise. That is the fundamental tenet of Econ 1 that progs just don’t seem to grasp.

If you’re in favor of raising the minimum wage, you’re clueless. The minimum wage should be abolished. All it does is distort the markets in production AND labor. Most often the increased wages are a net wash, as the beneficiary of a higher wage will be met with higher prices as a consumer. If progressives would give up on their fantasy of Leviathan running our lives and having government kindly regulate all risk out of life, and would allow the free market to truly reign, then you would see actual progress in the “war on poverty.” Until then, and as long as government is in charge, malaise and poverty will only persist.

What Do I Think About Iran?

I am not certain. I really struggle with this issue because it is the sternest test out there for a libertarian idealist who also fashions himself a realist. The libertarian impulse is to side with the George Will sentiment that containment is essentially inevitable; sooner or later Iran is going to possess a nuclear weapon, alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and probably others. I think it is consistent with both libertarianism and realism to acknowledge this and to then resort to a cogent and practical containment policy. This worked in the Cold War, so why not apply it to the Middle East? Ah, but Iran and its cadre of certifiably nuts mullahs are a different animal than the godless Communists who wielded their nuclear spear recklessly and maliciously but were nonetheless not suicidal. Maybe. I do not take issue with the notion that the Iranian ayatollahs are irrational actors guided by a fierce and toxic opposition to the peaceful (or any) existence of Israel. I do take issue with the notion that Iran is patently suicidal as a result. Yes, a nuclear Iran will allow the mullahs to dictate policy in the region to a level heretofore unimaginable, but the same could be said (and was, and still is) about North Korea last decade, and yet for all their shenanigans, are the North Koreans really dictating events in the Pacific? Methinks China and the US (with Japan a distant third) will remain the dominant arbiters of sea lanes and territorial island disputes for a long time to come. North Korea’s acquisition of the bomg has done extraordinarily little to alter the balance of power in the Pacific theater.

Oh, but Iran is not North Korea! True again, and yet, also beside the point. Iran is indisputably a bad actor on the global stage, funding as they do both Hamas and Hezbollah while propping up the Syrian regime as it confronts major domestic unrest (to put it lightly). Iran has a vested interest in promoting Shiism in an Arab world largely populated and controlled by Sunnis. In this effort, Iran has created sworn enemies not just in Israel and the West, but in Sunni Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. As much as Khamenei and company hate Israel and wish to see its destruction, they know that by attaining nuclear weapons capability, their Sunni adversaries will commit all their energies to doing the same. The “Arab Spring” has served a clarifying purpose for the world in one important respect: it has revealed that the true cauldron of conflict in the Middle East is not Muslim v. Christian, Arab v. Western, Palestinian v. Israeli or even Islam v. The Great Satan, but is in reality Sunni v. Shia. The Iraq war and its resulting civil strife helped send this message back in 2004-5, but it was largely overshadowed by the dominant narrative of Western, imperial aggression and had been nearly forgotten prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring in early 2011. But if the early stories coming out of Cairo and Tunis were encouraging for their veneer of secular democratic revival, the almost-three year civil war raging in Syria proves that the driving force behind the bloody conflict is less secular, more sectarian. So for all the talk of Iran’s quest to become a threatening and belligerent world hegemon, it seems more likely that a nuclear Iran would be more interested in harnessing its new power to consolidate its position with regard to the Sunnis. Because Iran must certainly know that any aggressive act, particularly nuclear, would be met with overwhelming, and certainly nuclear, retaliation from the United States and Israel. If Iran is so crazy that it sees detonating a suitcase nuke or an ICBM in a Tel Aviv market as its reason for being, then I am just wrong. But if Iran is in fact not so crazy as to engage in a geopolitical strategy that would result in ancient Persia’s being permanently replaced with a radioactive parking lot, then it seems that their desire to acquire nuclear weapons capability is entirely about bluster. Iran knows its influence is waning and the whole shape of the region is in flux, thus is lusts after a nuclear weapon primarily as a status-symbol. Not unlike the North Koreans, if you ask me.

But the realists certainly do have a point about the nature of the ideology that guides Iran. Ever since the U.S. has been involved with Iran, going back to the 50’s, enmity has been the most abundant commodity exchanged between the two nations. The libertarian impulse is to open up to the world via free trade and transparent, honest exchange. The realist counters, correctly, by insisting that only harsh sanctions and an aversion to trade had brought Iran to the negotiating table, desperate for a way out from under their dire, UN-imposed economic hardship. So if you operate from the premise that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, ever, under any circumstances, then of course the sanctions regimen has been wise and appropriate. And that really is the crux of the question for me, one for which I still don’t have an entirely fleshed out answer. But ultimately, despite my strong libertarian preferences for trade and commerce over sanctions and opacity, on Iran I have to slide just a notch over toward the “realist” camp. On Cuba, the U.S. has been slow to evolve from the nasty tensions of early 60’s Cold War machinations, and our stubborn insistence on maintaining trade and travel embargos fifty years hence is theater of the absurd. But as vile and malicious as the Commies were (and still are), the Iranians are indeed a bird of a slightly different feather. I think the realists are wrong when they suggest that a nuclear armed Iran would have no qualms exercising their new power in order to quicker bring about the destruction of Israel or of the decadent West. I don’t think they’re that crazy, as they know a nuclear attack on their end would result in the categorical demolition of their people and culture. And despite an intractable schism between Sunni and Shia within Islam, the mullahs and the Ayatollah are true believers who want to see an Islamic caliphate gradually cover the globe and would thus be reluctant to embark on a course that results in far fewer living Muslims on this Earth than there were before Iran got the bomb.

I side with the realists essentially out of cowardice. It’s scary to consider a nuclear-armed Iran, thus it is easy to wish that they not procure one. And that is pretty much my stance. But I do maintain that, wishing aside, if Iran is able to get the bomb, then the realists need to adjust their posture and forego calls for war by learning to love containment (or something. I really don’t know).