Notes From Babel

Archive for December 2009

2009 Reading List

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Tim Sandefur gave me the idea to log my books read for 2009.  He logged 40 to my 30, but excluding his 11 audio books and accounting for the fact he skipped number 39, I beat him by 2.

1. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand.  This was one of my favorite reads this year.  Great short biographies on John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others, and the Progressivist ideology they founded.  Great insight into the birth and intellectual origins of an evil, evil idea.

2. Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, P. G. Wodehouse.  I am a latecomer to Wodehouse, but I was thoroughly taken by it.  My wife even bought me the Jeeves and Wooster DVD set for Christmas.

3. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy.  Picked up in one of my favorite used book stores before it went out of business.  Fun little book.  Would that those Russian classicists have written more shorter works like this and one of my all time favorites Notes From Underground (to which this blog is a namesake).

4. The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes. Good not great.  I never find analysis and diagnoses of economic policies terribly persuasive.  I accept Shlaes underlying premise, but beyond that, I’ve got no real way to know whether she got all the analysis correct any more than I would if I were to read a Progressive economist’s interpretation.

5. Power, Faith and Fantasy, Michael Oren. A nice, brisk primer on U.S. involvement in the Middle East since our founding.

6. The Great Crash, John Kenneth Galbraith.

7. Blinded by the Right, David Brock.  Another one I picked up at my old used book store.  An autobiography of a formerly conservative journalist, who later went on to found the liberal  The guy who lambasted Anita Hill because, as he would now have us all believe, he was just trying to please his evil Republican overlords.  I found it laughable that he wrote this book believing any intelligent conservatives would take him seriously.

8. The Protestant Ethic and the Virtue of Capitalism, Max Weber.

9. America Alone, Mark Steyn.

10. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell.

11. What’s So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza.  I love D’Souza.  I watched some of his debates with the likes of Hitchens and Dennett after reading this book.  He not only ably debates (and, I contend, bests) them, he is immeasurably more charming.

12. The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom.

13. The Mind of the Market, Michael Shermer.  I heard Shermer interviewed on the John & Ken Show, and was intrigued at his discussions on how our economic decision making plays out in real life.  I found the book to be too anecdotal, though.

14. Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  Same criticisms as with Shermer’s book.  Though this is the much more famous original pop-economic anecdote compilation.

15. Give War a Chance, P.J. O’Rourke.  Quite old (1993), but worth reading just for comedic value.

16. Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke.  Same as above, though even more comedic value, in my opinion.

17. Democracy, Henry Adams.

18. When Gay People Get Married, M.V. Lee Badgett.  See my book review here.

19. Enter Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse.  Never too much Wodehouse.

20. Orientalism, Edward Said. This work is so hyped I had to give it a try.  It almost got the better of me, so filled with references to early century mid east scholars I’ve never heard of let alone read.

21. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe.  I’m almost afraid to comment, this whole topic being such a powder keg.  I’ll say I’m sympathetic to Pappe’s view, that a horrible atrocity was committed at the birth of Israel that accounts for some part of the complex morass of bad mojo that’s harshing everyone’s mellow in the middle east.

22. The Israel Lobby, Walt & Mearsheimer.  Ditto.  Lots of support for the idea that Israel’s not the doting client state that conservatives famously take it for.

23. Democracy in America, Tocqueville.  Not sure why it took me so long to finally read this.  It had been sitting on my book shelf since my second year of law school.  Prompted a lot of blog posts: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and my favorite one here.

24. The Authentic Adam Smith, James Buchan.  Ok.  I preferred Arthur Herman’s work, below.

25. For Us, The Living, Robert Heinlein.  WildJust wild.

26. How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Herman.  A nice history of how we inherited the Scots’ sense of individualism and common sense philosophy.

27. We Are Doomed, John Derbyshire.  This disappointingly lacked the clever wordplay I was expecting from Derbyshire.

28. Root Shock, Mindy Fullilove.  Pass.

29. Abuse of Power, Steven Greenhut.  A nice, accessible, entertaining (if not sickening) tour through the myriad ways your government robs you of house and home—literally.

30. How Progressives Rewrote the Constitution, Richard Epstein.  Title says it all.


Written by Tim Kowal

December 31, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Napolitano Offers Little Consolation on the Failed Terrorist Attempt

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Although DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano insists “the system worked,” she flounders badly at simple questions.  She tries to comfort traveling Americans by reminding us that this was just “one individual of literally thousands who fly.”  But if you watch closely, you can see the light bulb turn on when CNN’s Candy Crowley suggests (at 4:20) that just one individual is all it takes to bring a plane full of people down.

H/T Bainbridge.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Change Isn’t the Solution to Our Problems—Change Is the Problem

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Something occurred to me reading E.D. Kain’s latest post on why he likes the health care bill that looks poised to pass the Senate. That is, the never ending urge to meddle with things.  Meddling is fine when you’re an inventor or an entrepreneur or some other member of productive society.  But when it comes to bloggers and pundits and politicians who don’t have a productive bone in their body, the prospect is much more frightening.

As E.D. points out, the proposed package will be good because “it answers the question about coverage,” and this is important because “the [reason] that drives my own thinking on this issue the most, is that more people who need healthcare will have it.”  Now, this is just plain “to each according to his need” type thinking.  Well and good.  But it’s got no roots in the American constitutional framework.  Politics is dangerously similar to religion.  We demand rational bases for most things, but we often forget to ask—a rational basis for what? Liberty is a good one, and, not coincidentally, is also anchored in our Declaration and in just about every piece of political philosophy that influenced our founding documents.  So is a hard-nosed protection of individual rights and property. But a right to have things at a cost I want to pay?  No sir. Didn’t see that in my last jog through Locke.

I get it.  Lots of hip young power bloggers out there now feel just so strongly about health care.  But so what?  Liberty and property and a sound philosophy of rights were felt strongly by our founders.  They read and wrote scads about these ideas to justify them through the light of reason and natural law, enshrined them in our founding documents, and then established them in blood.

Tossing up some op-eds on WaPo somehow lacks the same effect.

The “hope change” jargon is not just a bunch of throw-away slogans.  The sad fact is, lots of contemporary Americans, particularly the younger ones, are more concerned about the mere fact of changing things than anything else.  There will always be imperfections in any social-political arrangement.  For those of us who lack a deep appreciation of principles rooted in history and philosophy and the study of human nature, the desire to start monkeying around in changing the content of these established terms like “rights” will be too much to resist.  [As Richard Weaver put it:

A conviction that those who perform the prayer of labor may store up a compensation which cannot be appropriated by the improvident is the soundest incentive to virtuous industry.  Where the opposite conviction prevails, where popular majorities may, on a plea of present need, override these rights earned by past effort, the tendency is for all persons to become politicians.  In other words, they come to feel that manipulation is a greater source of reward than is production.  This is the essence of corruption.]

As recently pointed out in the WSJ:

So why the stubborn insistence on passing health reform? Think big. The liberal wing of the party—the Barney Franks, the David Obeys—are focused beyond November 2010, to the long-term political prize. They want a health-care program that inevitably leads to a value-added tax and a permanent welfare state. Big government then becomes fact, and another Ronald Reagan becomes impossible. See Continental Europe.

Government is a one-way ratchet.  Once big government health care gets started, there will be no stopping until it finally completes the loop and pulls in all sorts of unexpected facets of our lives into the giant sucking whirlwind of subsequent regulation and legislation.  [And, in fact, the Senate bill locks it in even further with a super-majority requirement to change regulations imposed on doctors and patients by the Independent Medicare Advisory Boards.]

Besides, has it gone unnoticed that the irrepressible urge to monkey around with politics is what we have states for?

Written by Tim Kowal

December 23, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Posted in Health Care

Now Is the Time for All Good Economists to Come to the Aid of Their Country

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Without suggesting any skepticism over Progressives’ determination to plow ahead with their ideology even if they had no economists signing off on it, one of the big reasons Progressivism is such a dominant force is because people like former economist Paul Krugman keep spiking populist op-ed pages with experimental macroeconomic justifications for more Great Society social programs.  In his latest edition, he explains why, counter to common sense, making it less expensive for employers to hire more workers would actual increase unemployment.  No, let me back up.  Krugman would never put it that way.  How does it say it?  Ah, yes, it would be “contractionary,” he says, leading to a “liquidity trap.”  Deploying those terms makes the whole piece unassailable by readers who don’t have a bunch of letters after their names.

Of course, other economists assail Krugman’s argument.  But the battle has already been won by Progressives.  No one can prove anything to do with macroeconomics.  This stuff is more like religion than science.  Like taste, there’s no accounting for macroeconomics.  That’s why Progressives’ economists don’t need to win the fight, they just need to stay in the ring.  As long as there are folks like Krugman making this stuff sound kinda sorta plausible, Progressives can keep on advancing their egalitarian, utopian agenda, claiming that it’s not just the smurfy thing to do, it’s actually sound economics, dontcha know.  Krugman says so.  And he sort of won a Nobel Prize. Have you sort of won a Nobel Prize?  Didn’t think so.

Hard to win a debate like that.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 19, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Economics

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Moral Values Are Premises, Not Conclusions

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God does not ponder the human race in general.  At a single glance he sees separately all of the beings of which humanity is composed, and he perceives each of them with the similarities that bring [each one] closer to all and the differences that isolate [each one] from [everyone else].

God therefore has no need of general ideas; that is to say, he never feels the necessity of enclosing a very great number of analogous objects under the same form so as to think about them more conveniently.

It is not so with man.  If the human mind undertook to examine and judge individually all the particular cases that strike it, it would soon be lost in the midst of the immensity of detail and would no longer see anything; in this extremity it has recourse to an imperfect but necessary process that both aids it in its weakness and proves its weakness.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Univ. Chicago Press, 2002  (Mansfield and Winthrop, eds.) at 411 (emphasis added).  What a lovely and subtle admonition against over-extending the faculty of classification.  At the heart of libertarianism is the broad, general idea that no law is valid that circumscribes action that does either physically or economically harm another.  This premise is honest, elegant, and powerful.

But it is also an over-simplification.  At its core, libertarianism, in hopes of “purifying” the Law, prevent its subjects from incorporating into it the values of the people that could not be distilled into strictly cause-and-effect terms.  This ignores that many of the important beliefs of a community cannot be articulated in this way.  As Tocqueville said:

Dogmatic beliefs are more or less numerous according to the times.  They are born in different manners and can change form and object; but one cannot make it so that there are no dogmatic beliefs, that is, opinions men receive on trust without discussing them.  If each undertook himself to form all his opinions and to pursue the truth in isolation down paths cleared by him alone, it is not probable that a great number of men would ever unite in any common belief.

Now it is easy to see that there is no society that can prosper without such beliefs, or rather there is none that could survive this way; for without common ideas there is no common action, and without common action men still exist, but a social body does not.  Thus in order that there be society, and all the more, that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of the citizens always be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.

If I now consider man separately, I find that dogmatic beliefs are no less indispensable to him for living alone than for acting in common with those like him.

If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing; as he does not have the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind, to act that way, he is reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself, but that the more able have found or the crowd adopts.  It is on this first foundation that he himself builds the edifice of his own thoughts.  It is not his will that brings him to proceed in this manner; the inflexible law of his condition constrains him to do it.

Id. at 407-08.

This practical epistemology is expressed in our judicial system as the concept of judicial notice.  Generally, facts may be submitted to a court only through a rigid set of procedures to ensure authenticity and veracity.  However, some facts—those that are commonly known in the jurisdiction, and whose truth cannot reasonably be controverted—are exempt from these procedures, and a court will readily take notice of them.  As Singh v. Ashcroft, 393 F.3d 903, 906 (2004) put it:

Every case “involves the use of hundreds or thousands of non-evidence facts.” . . . . Administrative cases and the review of administrative decisions are no exception to this universal truth. An agency or an appeals court could not function if it had to depend on proof in the record of facts “capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot be reasonably questioned.”

(Citing rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.)

Certain “facts” that political man must assume are those whose truth is a premise rather than a conclusion of human reason.  This is perhaps the only way that even such fundamental concepts as causation and universal order—absolutely essential to purporting to hand down a judicial opinion—can be observed.  Were we to require an explication how one thing “caused” another, we would never leave the armchair. Thus, in the sense of taking the concept of causation as a conclusion that must logically follow a series of demonstrated and proven premises, it could not only be “reasonably questioned”—it is as unproven as a thing possibly can be.  For what does it mean to “cause” something?  We see one thing happen, then another.  The billiard ball draws nigh to another billiard ball, and suddenly the second ball moves.  We never see causation; it is simply a story we tell to satisfy our innate desire to impute interconnectedness and order on the world around us.

Thankfully, it is not as a conclusion that causation is accepted as a truth, but as a premise:  we could make no sense of our experience without simply accepting that the sudden movement of one billiard ball is “caused” by its being struck by the other, and that its velocity and trajectory are sound indicators of how similarly situated billiard balls will behave in the future.

Similarly, as far as the argument goes for purposes of political theory, moral truths can only be taken as premises.  Any justification one might give as to why any number of things are good can only devolve into an appeal to yet some other moral good.  At some level, engaging in any moral debate assumes that the participants agree on some basic moral premises.  If they are sharp and insightful thinkers and effective advocates, they might be able to demonstrate, once those shared moral premises are uncovered, how reason and intellectual consistency lead inexorably to his position, or at least to the untenability of his opponent’s position.

But political order was created not merely for litigators.  Meaningful participation in civil society requires that its members take notice of certain truths.  The enshrinement of certain of those truths in the law serves this function.  Particularly in secular society that grows more and more skeptical of both religion and tradition, there is increasingly scant commonly accepted authority to which to appeal in asserting the legitimacy of certain cultural norms.

Moral truths are not the sort that can be demonstrated by syllogism.  They are part of a cultural conversation.  Some morals eventually prove they carry their own weight, while others prove counter-productive and are discarded.  But the fact that individual citizens cannot account in strictly rational terms for the legitimacy of their moral beliefs—even, and particularly, for the strongest of them—does not suggest they should be barred from expressing those views in their laws.  James Buchan observed in The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas, that “Adam Smith was aware that he was prone to the fault of the ancient philosopher Epicurus, which was ‘the propensity to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible’.”  Id., W. W. Norton & Co., 2006 (paperback ed. 2007) at 8.  Many philosophers commit this same error of insisting that all the complexities of human experience be first reduced to the strictures of logical reasoning before it may be regarded as legitimate.  While we as heirs of the Enlightenment should tread lightly in imposing our moral values by legal coercion, we should not believe those libertarians who suggest that it is in all cases verboten.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 17, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Who’s Being Undemocratic?

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This post—complaining about how Joe Lieberman’s wielding the big stick on the health care debate in the Senate is “more than a touch undemocratic”—is a little off-putting, given advocates for health care reform have stood on anything but democratic principles.  Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) has baldly statedI will vote adamantly against the interests of my district if I actually think what I am doing is going to be helpful. . . . I will vote against their opinion if I actually believe it will help them.”  Bill Clinton urged Democrats to “just pass the bill,” else “the other guys [would] write history.” And yet the public continues to rethink the idea of government dipping more fingers into health care.

At least Lieberman is raking in support from his constituents.  Maybe they are the proper targets of reformers’ ire.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 17, 2009 at 10:57 pm

If a Kitten Ever Got the Chance, He’d Eat You and Everyone You Care About

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A recent post at Positive Liberty referred me to this one I missed a couple years back, whose title practically makes it impossible not to read on.  The topic—the libertarian view on animal rights and animal cruelty—was too good for me to pass up without commenting on my befuddlement over libertarians’ repressed and awkward relationship with culture and morality.  As Jason Kuznicki put it:

I know I won’t make any friends by saying this, but I am afraid that the same also applies if I want to raise dogs to fight one another. I am disgusted by the practice, and I would never watch a dogfight. But I do not think it should be illegal. Once we start making “disgust” and “I wouldn’t do it” into the basis of criminal law, we might as well outlaw sodomy. And Protestantism.*

Why in blazes not?  Libertarians’ problem is their unjustified assumption that human beings can neatly compartmentalize law and culture, and/or that culture is insignificant.  We can’t, and it isn’t.  As Richard John Neuhaus put it:

Whatever else law may be, it is a human enterprise in response to human behavior, and human behavior is stubbornly entangled with beliefs about right and wrong. Law that is recognized as legitimate is there¬fore related to the larger universe of moral discourse that helps shape human behavior. In short, if law is not also a moral enterprise, it is without legitimacy or binding force.

(Emphasis added.)  Libertarians are perennially hopeful that they can shepherd Western man to the end of the long road begun at the Enlightenment—the nirvana in which their morality is shared by all.  That morality, of course, is that moral injury is not legitimate injury and thus of no legitimate political concern, and that further justification for an act neither can nor need be demonstrated beyond that its perpetrators consented to do it.

Jefferson is frequently offered in support of this view: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  It follows from this, the argument then goes, that the same is true of other moral choices that do not result in harm to unconsenting third parties.

But consent cannot authorize an act that is intrinsically immoral.  Suicide is consensual by very definition, yet supremely immoral.  The Nazi regime was brought to power through the consent of the governed.  There is nothing preventing incestual or polygamous relationships from being consensual.  Yet there is no issue in condemning all these as immoral.

Not all libertarians take the Declaration’s guarantee of the right of each man to pursue happiness as an invitation to moral relativism (though many do, knowingly or not).  Judging from this single article, I can’t tell which type Kuznicki is. He appears to find something repugnant about Michael Vick and animal cruelty in general, though he also seems a bit squeamish of the fact since he’s unable to make out an abstract theory of animal rights in which to ground his nagging scruples.  When he says, “Even I find his actions repugnant, and I think he had a perfect right to do them,” we might give him the benefit of the doubt and take him as saying that he believes Michael Vick’s actions were objectively repugnant, and yet even that is not grounds for outlawing them.  Kuznicki goes on:

Why the law needs to get involved, I really don’t understand. If the law were to act here in any fair or consistent way, it would also be forced to destroy a lot of other uses for animals that we mostly find unobjectionable. For every argument you make against foie gras or dogfighting — both practices of longstanding tradition — someone else can come along an make what’s probably an a fortiori case against industrial farming, which obviously involves more pain to more animals, which is of very recent institution, and which bothers relatively few.

The answer to this is that one of democracy’s attributes is its liberation from the confinement of rigorous consistency.  This is why we can select two as the magic upper barrier for the number of marriage participants without any particular reason (as I’ve explained here, here, and here).  The so-called traditional definition of marriage is concededly arbitrary.  But so also would be the proposed revision.  Why limit the number to two?  Why limit the participants to non-relatives?  At some point, subjecting these concerns to strict, abstract logic, we would be forced to  just dump the whole institution.  Fine, say many libertarians, over-concerned with reducing all manner of human life to mathematical proof.  But this is not fine with the vast majority.  And it never will be, if I may offer a prognostication.  A successful polity is one of virtuous citizens, eager to come to its service.  This is unlikely to happen when the polity reflects the values of no citizen.

If we are forced to hold ourselves to consistency and rationality in the strictest, most absolute sense, we will have left no room for being human.  We depend on our innate moral sense to help us determine which beliefs are conclusions for whose support we must insist on the rigorous application of reason and evidence, and which beliefs are premises without much of the rest of our belief system becomes unintelligible.

Libertarianism ultimately suggests that human flourishing, to which end political society is ordered, is a solitary endeavor.  At the very least, it suggests that we have nothing to gain by being made to grapple with the sensibilities of other individuals in our communities.

It is curious that Kuznicki would choose animal cruelty for his example. Those who care for animals—even those who don’t—feel genuine anguish, a moral pain, at stories and images of animals being beaten, abused, mistreated.  Though I have not taken the plunge into vegetarianism, I rarely get through a meal without it occurring to me how the animal probably suffered greatly before its end.  And things are relatively humane in our country.  I came across a video on the web some time back, involving a worker dipping one terrified, live cat after another into a vat of boiling oil.  Apparently it is easier than killing them first, and it makes the fur come off easier.  The image has haunted me ever since.  Even recalling it causes sincere sadness and moral anguish.  It makes me more willing to tolerate having to share space with our own four cats.

You can damn well bet I’d vote to criminalize such repugnant practices.  Libertarians wouldn’t because, if they did, it’d undermine their position of isolation from the rest of society around them.  There must be great satisfaction in following that doctrine to its end, given how sad and cruel it often is.

* Protestantism?  Actually, Kuznicki explains this a bit further here, suggesting that the First Amendment’s ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion applies to anything that might be called morals legislation.  No further explication is provided, unfortunately.  Like libertarianism’s core moral position—that aside from prohibitions on picking my pocket or breaking my leg, no laws are valid—if the idea doesn’t intrinsically tickle your fancy, there is little else to give you.  “C’mon, man. Don’t you get it?  Please, just get it, man.”