Reagan and Rand

It is easy to forget that Ronald Reagan was a radical. He was guided by conviction rather than consensus. Reagan is remembered for revitalizing the economy and for his bold determination against the Soviet Union, while less is said of his intellectual and philosophical foundations. Free markets, the moral supremacy of capitalism to socialism and an insistence that the citizen is above the state; these ancient principles had been steadily traduced over time by those who believed them anathema to egalitarianism. They were radical principles for their time because in order to reverse the postwar drift towards democratic socialism, radical change was needed.

In many respects, the modern conservative revolution was a visceral backlash to the systematic undermining of the American ideal. The “postwar consensus” that reigned in the western world until 1979 centered around managed economies and massive state subsidization. Democratic capitalism had only served to unleash dangerous elements of nationalism and profit-seeking which inevitably culminated in disastrous war. This idea was so prevalent among elites that the thought of a different way never really emerged. In Britain and the Unites States, this consensus led to stagnation, inflation, and loss of confidence. A neutral observer would have been hard pressed to conclude during the seventies that the Soviet Union was destined for defeat.

The left reacted to the Reagan agenda with horror because they understood that it was different from prior Republican agendas. Unlike his predecessors, Reagan sought to weaken progressive government creations such as the punitive income tax rate and activist regulation. His proposal to freeze domestic discretionary spending went against the very fiber of bureaucratic being. “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” was an indictment of the administrative state, and as a result the left were painfully aware that the Reagan agenda was an assault on decades of progressive achievement.

Time has dampened the decibels of Reagan outrage and we are now far enough removed from the eighties that defiance has been replaced by begrudging acceptance. Outside of Bernie Sanders, no one in the Democratic Party is clamoring for a return to the seventies and its high inflation, gas shortages, price controls and general malaise. No one on the left openly complains about the west’s triumph in the cold war or makes nuclear weapons a cri de coeur. “Reagan Democrats” has no modern corollary with the right, much as our media would like to rewrite history to include a corollary in the form of Clinton or Obama Republicans. But they don’t exist. Naysayers like Paul Krugman continue to distort the legacy, but for the most part the left has abandoned its Reagan defamation project and settles now for another narrative besides Reagan the Failure. Now it is Reagan the Moderate.

It is an irresistible trolling device for partisans out to make conservatives squirm. Saying “Reagan couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican Party” because of the extremism of the Tea Party is guaranteed to gall the right, not because it is an uncomfortable truth difficult to square with Reagan mythology but because it is a lie. When Reagan challenged incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 GOP primary, the establishment freak-out was immense. Reagan was the standard-bearer for the Goldwater remnant, that leftover segment of stubborn holdouts to mid-century collectivism that balked at every bipartisan expansion of government. Needless to say, Goldwater conservatism did not enjoy establishment cache. It did not play well in 1964 – this ad might have had something to do with it – but neither did defeat signal its doom. Reagan’s bold ruffling of establishment feathers in ’76 likewise did not achieve overnight success, but it planted an ideological flag in the ground. By the time he reached the Oval Office Reagan’s conservative agenda finally proved accessible thanks to the tumult of the seventies amounting to one long primal scream for a different course. The electorate’s embrace of Reagan’s message was not a product of the candidate moderating his positions or of “moving to the center” but an explicit endorsement of the radical experiment on offer.

Rand Paul’s agenda for 2016 is as radical as Reagan’s in 1980. It commits to eliminating elements of the Washington Leviathan; not curbing, not managing more efficiently, not making leaner at the margins, but eliminating. The mission is to make parts of the administrative state go the way of the parrot. Among those agencies that will cease to be in a Rand Paul administration are the Departments of Education, Commerce and Energy. Expect the IRS, EPA and Departments of Labor, Agriculture and Interior to do with smaller budgets and fewer workers. Beyond the paring of departments and bureaucracy, Paul proposes a 14.5% flat tax with only a couple deductions as well as elimination of the payroll tax. He aims to “turbocharge the economy” by lowering the tax burdens for all while ending crony privilege and special interest prominence. Paul is not a perfect embodiment of the free market ideal, but neither was Reagan. However, each represents the vanguard of conservative rebellion at their respective times and speaks on behalf of intellectual and grass roots conservatives. Ultimately, what makes Rand the modern version of Reagan is the moral imperative threaded through his government critique.

Nowhere is this moral clarity more on display than in Paul’s focused drive to rehabilitate the Bill of Rights in popular Americana. Libertarians hold the founding principles particularly dear for their discrete, almost obsessive concern over the separation of powers. Far from the greedy landed gentry of progressive fever dreams, the founders were consumed by questions of unchecked authority. The point of the constitutional project was to limit the powers of the state. It was not to proscribe what freedoms Americans could enjoy at the mercy of the state. The ninth amendment to the Bill of Rights is an explicit reminder that American freedoms extend beyond that list of prohibitions on government action and intrusion. From this philosophical tradition do libertarian-minded conservatives like Paul derive their convictions and through this lens should Paul’s efforts at unconventional outreach be judged. Despite being a target for attack from both sides, there can be no doubt that on matters from criminal justice to the regulatory state to surveillance to education, Rand Paul is sincere. No candidate in recent memory has shined such a focused spotlight on the Bill of Rights, and even in this cynical age the reception he gets when addressing fundamental nonpartisan American freedoms shows the sustainability of constitutionalism. Liberal Joe Klein is impressed enough by Paul to note admiringly that “by the time his 15-minute stump speech is over, he has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution.”

True convictions are not welcome in Washington, where elites hew to the dubious wisdom of Lord Keynes: in the long run we’re all dead. While Keynes’ pithy comment was in regard to his economic theory, it applies just as well to an establishment ethos which elevates short term considerations of lobbyists and interest groups while ignoring real exigencies such as debt and slow growth. Call it the normalcy bias; the tendency to shrug off systemic long run concerns afflicts establishments on both sides and perpetuates a status quo beneficial only to the connected.

Reagan is beloved by conservatives because he fought against this bias and won. But it was no cakewalk and, as Jeffrey Lord wrote in 2010, he faced as much opposition from his own party as from the left. “They didn’t like him. To be more precise, they thought him an extremist, un-electable, an ultra-right wing nut, dumb, ignorant and, more to the point, not one of their crowd. One out of six was absolutely correct. Ronald Reagan was not one of their crowd. Ever.” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley decided to work for the RNC in 1982 at the behest of Reagan allies concerned that the organization was dominated by George H.W. Bush loyalists, the same cohort that looks askance at Rand Paul today. Reagan’s agenda was so unsettling to the guardians of the status quo that Beltway Republican reaction to Reagan popularity was similar to Paulene Kael’s vexation that Reagan could win when she “did not know a single person who voted for him.” By going full speed ahead with his agenda and in the process convincing large swaths of the public on the merits, Reagan led a revolution. By the ’84 election there was little doubt his agenda had been a smashing success.

In times of economic uncertainty restless citizens tend to forego tribal passions and seek brave, articulate “political athletes” to rouse the country from its doldrums. In his failed bid for the White House Goldwater paved the way for radical conservative solutions the country was not yet ready to embrace. Reagan’s triumph built on the Goldwater gambit and thus upended the existing order for close to thirty years. The conservative rabble had finally heisted the keys to the kingdom from the establishment squishes, who remained in the shadows of the Reagan Revolution quietly dismayed by the sudden loss of power and prestige. Given the longevity of cabinet officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Reaganites who became establishment, it is understandable that conservatives and libertarians would accuse the Bush presidencies of squandering the Reagan era. Today’s Tea Party-establishment contretemps is not a new phenomenon, but what is remarkable is the degree to which the Bush family has stood at the vanguard of establishment Republicanism since the seventies, usually in mild to open defiance of the Reagan ethos. No one understands this better than Rand Paul.

Paul attended the GOP convention as a thirteen year old in ’76 when the rancor over Reagan challenging an incumbent was at its peak. Sitting with his father in the Texas Reagan delegation, Paul witnessed first hand how passionately party bigwigs worked against the principled conservative in the race. It showed him that the powers that be on his own side were not exactly keen on returning to a focused free market constitutionalism. Is it any wonder then that Paul seems to relish taking on the same forces today that bedeviled the likes of Goldwater and Reagan in the past?

Rand Paul will not be alone in claiming Reagan lineage during the primary, but there is no candidate who better wears the label of principled rebel outsider. Like Reagan, Rand has establishment and partisan forces arrayed against him, left and right. Like Reagan, Rand has a passionate and growing following inspired by classical liberal principles and an appreciation for market supremacy over the distorting whims of the state. Like Reagan, Rand understands that not every fight is our fight, but you better believe we will retain the world’s strongest defense in perpetuity. Above all, Rand most resembles Reagan because he approaches the problems of the day with the most clear-eyed and radical prescriptions for our afflicted republic. Cronies and bureaucrats who are comfortable with the system the way it is will screech and bawl over Rand’s proposals just as they did Reagan’s. Like Reagan, Rand is best equipped to make an impassioned, articulate, inspiring case that persuades the electorate.

If conservatives wish to do more than just talk about the perils of the administrative state, the runaway executive under both parties and the costs of big government to human ingenuity and dignity, they need to move beyond reminiscing about Reagan and go ahead and nominate the guy who is the closest incarnation. If Republicans wish to emulate Reagan boldness in order to meaningfully win again, they should look to Rand Paul.

“In Quiet Areas, This is Something We Talk About”

pastor corey brooks

Corey Brooks is on a mission to leverage his influence as pastor of New Beginnings Church on the south side of Chicago. He wants to open a dialogue between the community and Republican politicians, an all but endangered species in the inner city. Brooks is asking questions about poverty and political representation, questions that make Democrats uncomfortable for a simple reason. According to Brooks, the Democratic Party has failed the black community.

The question seems permanently on Brooks’ mind. He asks what loyalty to the Democrats has given the south side of Chicago: “We have a large, disproportionate number of people who are impoverished. We have a disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated, we have a disproportionate number of people who are unemployed, the educational system has totally failed, and all of this primarily has been under Democratic regimes in our neighborhoods. So, the question for me becomes, how can our neighborhoods be doing so awful and so bad when we’re so loyal to this party who is in power? It’s a matter of them taking complete advantage of our vote.”

Brooks invited all Republican candidates to the south side to speak and to offer alternatives, an offer taken up so far only by Rand Paul. Brooks’ exasperation at the lack of community improvement and the failure to produce opportunity through the years eventually forced him to realize that “[Democrats] have a failing plan. A business owner wouldn’t allow the person who runs it to remain in charge for 50 years, constantly running it into the ground.” Brooks is open to a new plan, but are others so inclined?

The answer depends on who you ask. Anyone affiliated with Democratic politics is not open to any new plan, as even an acknowledgement of the need for new plans is an indictment of the old one. But if you ask struggling minority households locked into abysmal school districts where even the local McDonalds is out of business, they are more open-minded to doing things differently. Witness the thousands of inner city youth dragged from New York to Albany by their parents to brave the frigid cold in order to tell their governor to leave their charter schools alone. That is real activism, as opposed to the petty identity politics “activism” of narcissists. Single mothers in New York or Chicago (or any major city) fighting for their child’s education is urgent activism, with meaning. The same cannot be said of social media crusaders who think they’re fighting injustice by forcing Mars rover-landing scientists into tearful apologies or by waging war against geeks and gamers. If you’re a social justice warrior with a cause, you need a hashtag. The activism inherent in reforming the criminal justice system, ending the War on Drugs and civil asset forfeiture, reducing mandatory minimums, and offering enterprise freedom zones to boost employment is likewise more consequential than anything associated with “black lives matter” or “hands up don’t shoot.” What is becoming truer by the day across all strata of American life has been true for African-Americans for a long time: the disconnect between politicians and ordinary folk is deep and getting worse. That this is the obvious consequence of an overreaching and intrusive government is of course entirely lost on the left; that is, the politicians, media and elites who form leftist opinion simply refuse to believe the evidence. Among the rank and file and particularly among African-Americans however, the consequences of having big government/public employee union machine dominance in urban America are becoming obvious, and the question is to what degree this translates into political change.

Louisville pastor Kevin Cosby is concerned with the same issues as in Chicago, and like Brooks he likes what he hears from Rand Paul. Judging the senator’s outreach sincere, Cosby declared “NO ONE in this country is crafting a better message of uplift for the African American community than Rand Paul.” Is it a coincidence that black leaders motivated to effect positive change are responding favorably to Rand Paul? While “Nixon Goes to China” is perhaps a stretch, Paul’s efforts to expand the Republican tent by going where few Republicans dare are being treated mostly as genuine and earnest. Others sneer that this is all so much opportunism and besides, have you heard what he said to Maddow about the Civil Rights Act five years ago? Increasingly though, the sneers are dwindling as much of the community for whom Paul aims to chart a better course see the failure of progressive politics more pronounced each day.

Of course, if Paul’s ideas for the black community continue to gain traction or if he wins the nomination, the left will orchestrate such a mind-numbing campaign of “Paul the Racist” that it will make their treatment of Romney’s career at Bain look like they were pulling for the guy. And no one should be under any illusions that the moment for paradigm-shifting political upheavals is necessarily upon us. Electoral transformations don’t happen overnight and anyway the dream scenario for Paul probably includes something approaching a quarter of the vote. That would be up from Romney’s six percent share of African-Americans but still a minority of the black population. But anything even in the ballpark of twenty five percent for Paul would ignite a firestorm in Washington, especially among Democrats, because such a feat would not only guarantee a Paul win but would blow up the Democratic coalition and send it into total chaos. It is remarkable that imagining such a disruption occurring in 2016 is even possible, but it is. And given how the left paints conservatives as helplessly retrograde bigots, the fact that a small but growing segment of African-Americans are expressing frustration with the Democratic model by flirting with Republicans and inviting shrieks of Uncle Tom! and sellout! shows that we may soon cross the Rubicon. If the left’s racial politics begin to peter out and the black vote becomes less monolithic in the years to come, it will stand as an historic triumph of reality over rhetoric.

Corey Brooks hopes to see the reality of Democratic failure prevail upon the minds of his neighbors and friends. It will come as no surprise to learn that he still faces a mountain to climb. When he bravely endorsed Republican Bruce Rauner for Illinois governor he was met with the usual denunciations and even death threats. Perhaps Rauner’s unprecedented victory in the heart of machine union politics heralds a bright future where more than a few people living in poverty – of all backgrounds – are open to the message of actual hope and change that both Corey Brooks and Rand Paul are selling. “In quiet areas,” says Brooks, “this is something we talk about.”

May the conversation continue.

Freedom Under Law

Last night the Senate failed to advance an extension of the Patriot Act’s Section 215. Rand Paul objected to Mitch McConnell’s efforts at passing any short-term extensions and suddenly it looks like the legal authority for the Patriot Act’s phone metadata collection program may actually expire June 1st.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now, and I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”

So said Rand Paul at the outset of his 11 hour pseudo filibuster on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to be moved by the language. If there is a quality I admire most about the Senator from Kentucky it is his maniacal obsession with restoring checks and balances to our government. In order to have any success at reining in executive power the public must first agree with the premise on which the reform rests. If you’ve paid attention to Paul in the Senate you know the thread that runs through his speeches and through his marathon performances on the Senate floor is the separation of powers. Drones and NSA spying were not background concerns per se, but neither were they the true focus of the filibusters. At root is a fundamental objection with the flagrant expansion of executive power under every administration since World War II, but especially since 9/11.

Why are separation of powers so important? To hear Paul tell it, the sanctity of divvied powers was best championed by French philosopher Montesquieu, who warned that tyranny would ensue whenever the executive moved to legislate. Likewise, separating the judicial branch from both executive and legislative was imperative for the security of habeus corpus and other natural liberties. Embedded in small government philosophy is a staunch suspicion of planning and expertise, a wariness born during The Enlightenment and which reflected the conflict between the regal old guards and the new class of individual-minded bourgeoisie. For eons the word of the state was the final word on society; decrees from on high carried down to the masses for them to follow. However, the individual conscience rights that began taking shape in the Middle Ages became more widely disseminated during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. With the expansion of knowledge and individual agency the feudal system gradually gave rise to market economies fueled by spontaneous order. The consequent loss of power and influence for the aristocracy was a product of capitalism providing the vehicle for political participation by ordinary folk. Schumpeter’s insight that “the princess was always able to wear silk stockings, but it took capitalism to put them within reach of the shop girl” put the lie to the Marxist conceit that free enterprise would destroy the middle class. Voluntary exchange under a legal framework that respects the individual and cherishes his right to profit from his own labor is what created the middle class.

As the Western world moved methodically toward social appreciation for the citizen’s sovereignty over the state, the question of democracy became crucial: how to organize a free society of, by and for the people when for so long power and authority were hereditary and monarchical? Fortunately the British and ultimately the Americans did not need to hunt for a guiding principle. We already got one and it’s embedded in Magna Carta. The great charter signed at Runnymede marks its 800th anniversary this year and yet remains relevant as ever. Habeus corpus, jury trials, property rights and a common law that precedes and preempts man-made law; these natural rights discovered by our English forebears provided the blueprint for the individual based free society. They also declared for the first time in history real restrictions on the power of the state or king, which would prove a launching point for our founders as they set to establishing a government that would pit ambition against ambition as a means of separating and counterbalancing the powers of the state. The best encapsulation of this radical vision for upending centuries of authoritarian rule is inscribed on the monument commemorating Magna Carta: “freedom under law.”

Freedom under law is what the entire debate over NSA and executive power overreach is all about. National security state defenders will often say there’s no evidence of abuse currently and besides, don’t you want to be safe? But that is not the point. The point of a freedom secured by law is that the law is the law, and it is supreme. John Adams said we strove to institute a “government of laws, not men.” When executive authority runs afoul of the law it is supposed to be a big deal. When successive administrations of different parties expand executive power to the degree that natural rights are abused, it is supposed to be a huge deal. But in the name of fighting terror and keeping the country safe the Bush and Obama administrations have treated the 4th amendment like so much garbage.

In attempting to take Rand Paul to task Andrew McCarthy of National Review runs the gamut of talking points before insisting that “the depiction of national-security agents who are trying to protect American lives as seventies-style rogues tearing the Constitution to bits is a smear.” But Paul is not doing that; instead he is arguing that the Patriot Act and its especially problematic provisions open the door for abuse at any time. It may not be now, or in the next administration or the next but the point of freedom under law is that we eliminate this risk altogether by forcing fallible men and women to swear oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. The founders were explicit about making the law supreme and they further divided power to guard against the transient passions and fears that inevitably come to challenge man and his commitment to law. As challenging and daunting as it is, the jihadist threat of modern times is exactly the kind of passionate, fearful moment in time the founders knew would inevitably materialize. If they knew that only two hundred some odd years later American political discourse would include such penetrating insights as Chris Christie’s you can’t enjoy your civil rights from a coffin, they would have folded up shop and abandoned the revolutionary project full stop.

The Patriot Act is what happens when laws are passed out of fear instead of sober deliberation. Freedom under law was always meant to keep that from happening, like the abstract, intangible version of standing athwart history yelling stop. The founders knew too well the propensity of man to govern arbitrarily; thus the principle aim of the new republic was to build a system that takes arbitrary and consolidated power out of the equation and lifts the Constitution up as the final arbiter on what government can do.

Dictator for a Day

Today is the day! Executive Order day!

This is an amazing moment in American politics, not just because the President of the United States is poised to become Thomas Friedman’s benevolent dictator for a day, but because of what it says about the progressive left.

Via MacGruber, er, Jonathan Gruber, we have stone-cold confirmation that Obamacare was sold through a year long campaign of comprehensive deception from top to bottom, involving everyone in the Democratic orbit from the White House to Congressional leaders to media sycophants. At every turn conservatives, libertarians and anyone else inclined to balk at naked expansions of federal power were shouted down and mocked by the progressive amen chorus led by the likes of Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn. And Gruber was used in virtually all of the left’s petulant, smarter-than-thou harangues against opponents of the bill as unimpeachable evidence that “independent, unbiased” voices had confirmed that the magic being promised in the ACA was in fact real.

And these revelations come on the heels of one of the more historic re-balancing acts of political power the country has ever seen. No president has presided over such a demolition of his party’s fortunes as has Obama. 59 Senators down to 45. 270 House Dems down to barely 180. But the real story is in the states, where the GOP now dominates in state legislatures and governorships, and for a very simple reason: voters in all states are wary of the public sector model that delivers nothing but high taxes and higher costs of living and are thus making sure that, at the state level at least, the progressives are as far from power as possible.

All of this, and the Borg hive mind that defines the left comes up with “Obama should act like a king.”

It’s amazing, but not surprising if you know where the hard left is coming from, which is from a place where the ends forever justify the means, so long as those ends involve increasing the presence of the federal government in more and more Americans’ lives. It is the will to power and nothing else. All the gauzy platitudes you hear are simply just different forms of #Grubering. “Social justice,” “fairness,” “equal pay,” “clean environment,” “jobs”…. the left don’t believe in any of it. They believe in power and growing the bureaucracy, the instrument through which they project their power.

And so we arrive at today’s immigration executive order. My contempt for this action has little to do with the substance or with immigration overall. The issue is with the process, and the president’s and his cheerleaders’ utter disregard for constitutional propriety. Obama will not be invoking “prosecutorial discretion” today when he announces his order, but rather a pronounced end-run around the will of the legislature; said legislature having made its voice heard by expressly NOT passing the Senate version of the immigration bill that we hear so much about.

This idea that because one body of Congress has passed something while the other has not, yet because the President wishes it were passed then the onus is on the chamber standing against the measure to change its mind and pass whatever the other party wants, or else…. is really the stupidest argument I can imagine concerning the machinations of how our government is supposed to work. But it’s the principal argument being used as a cudgel by everyone on the left, and it’s a shameful disgrace to witness such wanton disregard for process and the rule of law. As Charles Cooke put it so eloquently:

The great virtue of the rule of law is that it separates means and ends, thereby preventing individuals from appealing only to the outcome of a given action and ignoring entirely how it was achieved. In the United States, it is simply not enough for a reformer to cry “it was a nice thing to do”; he also has to demonstrate that what he did was both legal and that it was in keeping with the essential tenets of ordered liberty. That way, the people can reasonably expect to predict what the state will do at any given point, and are accorded a certain recourse if it declines to follow the rules. Whatever progressives might think, “good” and “kind” and “necessary” are not self-evident, but sit firmly in the eye of the beholder. Ensuring that we have broad agreement as to which actions comport with those values and which do not is why we have a system in the first instance. We do not judge virtue on the basis of what the ostensibly virtuous can get away with.

The modern left, to borrow from The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, are now the Eric Cartman Democrats.

I do what I want!

I would add to Domenech’s penetrating insight my own pop culture analog for the American left: Cersei Lannister. Her bemused “is this meant to be your shield?” scoff at Ned Stark’s royal parchment carrying the King’s own decree is exactly in line with the Democratic Party’s opinion of the Constitution. Both are mere pieces of paper that mean nothing compared to their own ambition. Cersei shreds the document without an ounce of regret, just as progressives have shredded the Constitution in their century-long odyssey to remake a self-governing republic into a stagnant and tired welfare state.

How to Help the Poor

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum laments the Democrats’ worrying trend with working class white voters and traces the discontent to lingering unhappiness with the Democratic tax and spend welfare state model. Drum accurately highlights how liberal obsession with food stamps, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and Obamacare can alienate working class whites as they see more and more assistance going to their marginally less well-off neighbors while they get nothing. Personally I think race has very little to do with what is really an economic and a government problem, but since the left can’t tie their shoes without noting the latent racism involved in shoelace production, they have to identify their middle and working class voter problem as one to do with the “white working class.” Fine. Whatever gets them to any level of introspection is only good news for the debate going forward.

In getting to his conclusion that he has no conclusion for how to solve this electoral dilemma, Drum offers this precious piece of liberal self-congratulation:

“Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it.”

I wonder if the left will ever understand observable reality and change its mind on what constitutes helping the poor. Everyone with a conscience, left or right, wishes to see the plight of the poor improve, the question is how to achieve improvement. I (kinda, sorta) accept Drum and liberals at their word that their aim is true when they advocate for these government programs for the poor; my problem is with their stubborn refusal to be accountable and admit that the ambitious War on Poverty was a failure, especially if viewed in terms of trajectories – American poverty was steadily declining between 1945 and 1965, only to flatten after the Great Society was introduced. The line has remained flat for a generation.

us poverty graph

It is an insult to basic intelligence to suggest these programs were successful at eradicating American poverty. Possessing noble intentions does not automatically translate into good policy, but seeking well-intended results through government is guaranteed to create bad policy because government is inherently inefficient (and likely inherently stupid too).

Whatever merits progressives assign to the Great Society are dwarfed by the incontrovertible fact that its biggest legacy is likely to be the destruction of the black family in America. And not just the black family, either. One of the more fundamental disagreements between left and right is over the matter of incentives. The left doesn’t bother with incentives because, if I may be so bold, they typically don’t care about how their policies cause people to behave; they just care that a policy they came up with is made binding on others. Or if you want to be more generous: the left doesn’t focus on behavioral incentives in law because they don’t believe such things exist. Since most leftists come from academia, they are used to theoretical models that deal in static data. The real world, however, deals in dynamic data, in that there is no way to account for the variable known as “human behavior” in academic models of society or the economy.

Laws create behavioral incentives because humans are not robots. Just because it makes sense on paper to increase government spending in order to stimulate aggregate demand does not mean such policy will work in practice. In fact, we know it does not work because rudimentary market economics informs us that government intervention into the economy only creates distortions and mis-allocation of resources. The left has never understood this basic premise when it comes to – well, everything – but especially when it comes to helping the poor.

By aggressively inserting itself into the lives of inner city and rural constituencies the federal government has wildly distorted the markets for labor, education, spouse and dignity in America’s poverty-stricken regions. Government intrusions in the form of food stamps, unemployment and Medicaid sound benign at the outset. But consider how these benefits alter incentives for the beneficiary. Is a worker in the inner city more or less likely to ardently search for work when 99 weeks of unemployment are on the table? Is a struggling shop-owner looking to hire two extra workers on the cheap (offering them an opportunity out of poverty, perhaps) going to be more or less likely to do so when the price of labor is arbitrarily raised on him via a minimum-wage increase? Most crucially, are a couple with children more or less likely to stay together when there are no consequences to family dissolution thanks to the ubiquitous welfare state that allows single mothers to collect plenty of money with none of the dignity attached.

The $64,000 question is whether the American left, facing its worst political moment in a century (the 1920’s were the last time the party had so few seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the state legislatures – they were wiped out the last two midterms), chooses to double down on welfare statism or decides to speak honestly and culpably about the failures of their grand experiment in leveraging the public sector to fix poverty. If Democrats really want to speak to the white working class again, or for that matter, the poor and underclass who they today purport to serve, they need to accept that there is one – and only one – proven tool for lifting masses of people out of dismal economic conditions: capitalism.

So that’s where we are. The left’s future as I see it depends on their developing a non-transparent and believable appreciation for what makes economies grow. The fact that the global poverty rate fell from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006 due primarily to the introduction of free enterprise and free trade to the rest of the world is entirely lost on the inhabitants of America’s faculty lounges. If they are even aware of this remarkable 80% decline they shrug and attribute it to government aid or something (seriously). Empowering individuals through trade and entrepreneurship is not some fashionable dream concocted by libertarians but the cold hard reality of the how wealth and prosperity are made. The middle and working classes in America aren’t eager to join the poor in the ranks of the dependent class. The poor themselves do not wish to be pandered to and showered with candy while no observable improvements are made in their communities. People are ready for something different, above all in the country’s approach to economics, employment and welfare.

The good news is that, for all the lefty hand-wringing (and really, there ought to be more than there is) over losing the white working class, there is no way they are going to suddenly become champions of capitalism and that means the right is well positioned to cast some much needed light on the plight of overlooked and left behind Americans.

world poverty since 1970

Like Clockwork

Rand Paul penned an op-ed in The Daily Beast on Monday that lays out his overarching critique of expansive government. For Paul, the most egregious sins of the past two administrations involve the reckless expansion of executive power. For the founders, the separation of powers and the checks and balances that maintain them were arguably the most important paradigm for representative government. They were surely the most sacred. Though a man of sweeping intellect and depth, James Madison left a singular legacy in his dogged advocacy for diffuse, separate and opposed factions across government; federal, state and local.

That legacy served conservatives (Jeffersonian Democrats, Whigs, Republicans) well until the end of World War II, when a new internationalism emerged with Dwight Eisenhower’s triumph over Senator Robert Taft in the race to define the future of the Republican Party. Since then, it has been a festival of bipartisan abuses of executive power and expansion, as Taft’s defeat meant the end of any meaningful right wing foreign policy based on realism and restraint. It is not wholly outrageous that the spectre of the menacing USSR caused Americans of all stripes to adopt a utilitarian approach to the Cold War, ditching principle and tradition in the name of security from existential annihilation. After 70 years of this approach, is it not sensible to reflect and consider an alternative strategy?

Every time Rand Paul attempts to enunciate his foreign policy, one or two neoconservatives affiliated or aligned with the last Bush administration lashes out with a vicious, often unhinged diatribe against the Senator and his supposed “isolationism.” That Jennifer Rubin is Queen of The Demagogues, let there be no doubt. But Michael Gerson, Pete Wehner, Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, David Frum, Stephen Hayes, Jonathan Tobin, David Adesnik and Elliott Abrams (and more!) also love to fling “isolationism” around with the same justification that progressives have when shouting “science!” No Valerie Jarrett style enemies’ lists here, just an objective identification of the culprits behind what is an orchestrated, dishonest smear campaign against someone with whom they disagree. That kind of behavior deserves to be called out and evidence is easy to find because, like clockwork, a new hit piece is guaranteed almost every day.

Today’s entry comes from John Yoo, the lead legal apologist for every last ounce of executive abuse and expansion undertaken by President Bush, where he says “Congress enacted in 2001 an authorization to use force against any group connected to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks. If the Islamic State is linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, as it appears to be (though this depends on the facts), they fall within the AUMF.” He goes on to belittle Paul and suggest he should remain in the Senate and should never be President. The tone of the piece is desperate and angry. The substance is even worse. Is anyone else flabbergasted that we have an impenetrable elite bipartisan consensus in Washington surrounding the AUMF’s authorization of force? The document from thirteen years ago which had nothing to do with third-generation offshoots of Al Qaeda but actually and explicitly only pertained to… Al Qaeda?  I really shake my head when I read the WSJ or some other reputable conservative outlet make this case; that the resolution we passed in the wake of 9/11 somehow relates to today. I understand their argument about asymmetric warfare and how “we don’t get to decide” when the war is over and all that. Yes, yes. But it is categorically not too much to ask that we fight this interminably long war by adhering to our standards and our rules. And I don’t care how Orwellian the foreign policy fetishists on the right go in their zeal to convince me that 2+2 = 5, I can never be convinced that Article II of the Constitution is more important than Article I.

The looming big debate over foreign policy will be a lot more productive and enlightening if it is conducted with civility and forthrightness. Unfortunately, the opponents of any reevaluation of the status quo have signaled that they have zero intention to play nice with Rand Paul. They genuinely hate his father, and are projecting their worst fever dream scenarios onto Rand and insisting all will be lost and the locusts shall plague us should the man who believes in the Constitution and separation of powers come to be Commander-in-Chief.

Below is my response to John Yoo and his fellow travelers in the conservative movement, based on an advanced reading of George Will’s column tomorrow, which I posted in the comments of his piece at National Review Online.


George Will has a column tomorrow (available online now) headlined “Rethinking US Foreign Policy” in which he tiptoes close to endorsing Rand Paul’s position without actually doing so. But he does offer this for Mr. Yoo to consider:

“The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

The Wilsonian-Bush approach to foreign policy is past its sell-by date, and the level of unhinged vitriol spewing from establishment (mostly from the Bush cabinet) organs towards Rand Paul is evidence of this. Any wonder why the factions currently losing the argument screech and squeal the loudest? Just look at the progressive left right now. But the fervor with which the Bush people have tried to knock down Rand Paul (and have so far failed at every turn) speaks to how cornered they feel. They wish that everyone would shut up and be scared of Islamists to the point that we forget the follies of their agenda and just blame Obama enough that the Bush Boys over at Commentary get to waltz back into power like nothing’s changed.

There wasn’t supposed to be an articulate voice against the uber-interventionists while Obama was in office. To their eternal chagrin, Rand shows up and starts moving people and changing the debate. No doubt George Will gets some stern emails for having the gall to give Rand a hearing before writing him off based on lame, hysterical arguments such as Yoo’s.

Feeling Good on a Wednesday

“Yeah yeah, feeling good on a wednesday. Sparkling thoughts, gimme the hope to go on. What I need now is a little bit of shelter.”
-Randy Marsh

Few things delight me like the sight of elite liberal handwringing turning to meltdown on CNN and MSNBC during an electoral beatdown such as the one they suffered last night. Republicans fared better than punditry predicted, particularly in governors races in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions where Democrats typically reign supreme. Turning state houses red in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts while maintaining important governor holds in Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Nevada, Ohio and Florida means that whoever is the Republican nominee for 2016 will face a friendlier environment in many important states.

The big story of course is that Republicans took over control of the Senate, relegating Harry Reid to minority leader and assuring that his legacy be forever tainted with the just imprimatur of “worst Senate leader ever.” He really will live in infamy as the most god-awful majority leader our hallowed deliberative body has ever seen. The demagoguery and flaunting of Senate rules and traditions are already stuff of legend, but his real sin lies in the comprehensive undoing of regular order he presided over, where the agenda was jealously guarded in order to protect the president and his vulnerable members from any accountability whatsoever. Amendments were virtually extinct in the Reid Senate, as were debate and appropriations. In lieu of anything substantive happening, the Reid Democrats instead spent their time and energy on such pressing matters as goading a professional sports franchise into sacrificing its nickname on the altar of political correctness. That and insisting on a daily basis that a couple of rich libertarian private citizens were a pernicious threat to democracy. Koch-shaming, like the “war on women,” climate change and race-baiting, failed to motivate people to vote Democrat and, if there is any cosmic justice, will mean the end of these cheap, dishonest, painfully cynical political tactics for the foreseeable future (I know it won’t, but a man can dream).

It was just a thorough repudiation of progressivism across the board, from federal to state to local. Sure there was the vexing and annoying fact that minimum wage measures won in several red states, resulting in just an epic face-palm. But fine, if the left thinks that the minimum wage is their silver-lining in this election, let them. I hope they try to make it the chief plank in Hillary’s platform, just to watch Rand Paul or Scott Walker or whoever calmly and judiciously explain why it is economic malpractice. But what does it say when this is literally the best news the left can take from last night’s election? It means the entirety of the modern progressive governing model (expansive government, robust public unions and government employment, high taxes and regulations, etc) is being given the thumbs down. The Democratic governor-elect of Rhode Island ran on an explicitly anti public union/pension reform platform and won. Eventually, even progressives and their kin in blue states get mugged by economic reality, and while they aren’t necessarily all ready to renounce membership in the identity politics tribe, they are apparently ready to give Republicans the reins in several of the darkest blue states. I say ten years until 90% of these United States have Republican governors.

The progressives got embarrassed last night, look embarrassed today, and should go to bed embarrassed tonight. Meanwhile, I am indeed feeling good on a wednesday. Ya ya ya.