Notes From Babel

Archive for December 2010

2010 Book Report

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Following my 2009 list, here are the books I logged in 2010:

  1. The Land Question, Henry George.  I continued this year to indulge my curiosity into the oddity of early Progressive/socialist thought.  Some musings on George here.
  2. Cornerstone of Liberty, Timothy Sandefur. A nice intellectual and legal history of property rights and the abuses of eminent domain in the United States.
  3. Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver.  One of my favorite reads of the year, and which I quoted often in this space, e.g., here, here, here, and here.
  4. Life After Death, Dinesh D’Souza.  This is kind of a fun, accessible theology-oriented book.  Not anywhere as good as What’s So Great About Christianity.
  5. The City, Joel Kotkin.  Kotkin is an indispensible contributor in field of urban planning and demography.  His blog is wonderful.  This book did not flesh out his theses as deeply as I had hoped, however.
  6. Plunder!, Steve Greenhut.  A very good primer on the havoc that public employee unions are wreaking on nearly every state and local government in the nation.
  7. The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, Larry Elder.  Larry Elder is fantastic, so when I found this at a used bookstore, I plowed through it in short order.
  8. Don’t Call It Sprawl, William Bogart.  One of several books I read early this year on the subject of the new urbanism movement.  I’m still working to complete a longish paper on the subject, though that project has been caught in perpetual limbo.
  9. The Next 100 Million, Joel Kotkin.  Kotkin describes the likely shape America will take as it swells to 400 million inhabitants.
  10. The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler.  The book that Kunstler is best known for.  Quite a lot of provocative ideas coming from the new urbanist movement—many of them good, even!
  11. Best Laid Plans, Randall O’Toole.  Contra Kunstler, O’Toole comes at urban planning and demography from the libertarian perspective.  Not as fun a read as Kunstler, but I’d say it would be hard to take either side seriously without considering the other.
  12. Threshold, Thom Hartmann.  The allure of Progressivist thought is not for nothing.  There are quite a few bewitching ideas in this book about what’s wrong with the modern world and why, and it took me several days to find my way back to sanity.  I wrote a post about this book here.
  13. The New American Economy, Bruce Bartlett.  I feel about economics like I do about music:  I have an appreciation for it.  And I think I have some aptitude for it.  But it’s slow-going and I become immediately impatient.  I wrote a short post about Bartlett’s book here.
  14. Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens.  A very fine autobiography with lots of historical depth and anecdotes tracking political and intellectual thought through the past four decades.  Hitchens never fails to throw in a gratuitous jab at religion, however, and I couldn’t resist mentioning it.
  15. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.  At about a hundred pages in, I didn’t really get what was supposed to be so acclaimed about this work.  Upon completion, I still didn’t.  Maybe it’s like how people don’t get why The Beatles were so revolutionary because, by the time one discovers The Beatles, one has already heard their influence in every pop act that’s come around since, so it all sounds quite familiar.  Except, that is, The Beatles are still quite worth listening to.
  16. Rethinking Federal Housing Policy, Glaeser and Gyourko.
  17. The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk.  One of my other favorite reads of the year.  An excerpt here.
  18. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis.  I hadn’t re-read this in a while.  It’s such a disarmingly insightful book.  Though I must say The Great Divorce is my favorite work by Lewis.
  19. The Path of the Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes.  “The reason why it is a profession, why people will pay lawyers to argue for them or to advise them, is that in societies like ours the command of the public force is intrusted to the judges in certain cases, and the whole power of the state will be put forth, if necessary to carry out their judgments and decrees.  People want to know under what circumstances and how far they will run the risk of coming against what is so much stronger than themselves, and hence it becomes a business to find out when this danger is to be feared.  The object of our study, then, is prediction, the prediction of the incidence of the public force through the instrumentality of the courts.”
  20. The History and Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, Herta Meyer.  It is becoming more and more quaint to look seriously at the meaning of the words in our Constitution, as that document has in large part been replaced by the small-c constitutionalism advanced by liberal judges and goaded on by the professoriate.
  21. The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, Willmore Kendall, George Carey.  I read this in law school too quickly, but not so quickly I couldn’t recognize there were some important ideas going on.  Among those ideas are:
    • that we, as a nation, perhaps do not understand our true political tradition because the academy only looks to the Declaration and the Constitution, and even there only finds what it likes;
    • that, as advanced by Eric Voegelin, political analysis begins with scrutinizing a people’s attempt at self-understanding, self-interpretation, and to discern its relationship to the transcendent;
    • that as early as the Mayflower Compact, our political tradition has recognized that the process of lawmaking—to enact laws “thought most meet and convenient for the general good”—concerns a continuing process of discovering the natural law, and that no expression of individual rights has been made to compete with the task of effecting laws “thought” to be meet and convenient to the public welfare.
  22. John Marshall and the Constitution, Edward Samuel Corwin.  This was just a free Kindle download.
  23. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Destruction of the California Judiciary, Barnett et al. I wrote an op-ed and gave a radio interview on Jerry Brown in October, and, once in the habit, continued to criticize the man thereafter.  This book provided some helpful background information from Brown’s first romp through the Governor’s mansion.
  24. The New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin.  Voegelin’s work provided the intellectual foundation to Kendall and Carey’s Basic Symbols, above.  I wrote a short post referencing Voegelin here.  Among the many important ideas in this work are:
    • the modern approach to social science takes method to be subordinate to theoretical relevance—i.e., that science is measured and defined by the efficacy of its results, and method is merely a means to that end; thus, it has come to pass that “all facts are created equal,” resulting in oceans of irrelevant facts;
    • this problem of amassing endless data with no appreciable purpose has been created by villainizing “value judgments,” thus unmooring science from human ends, ushering in relativism, and destroying our ability to build upon the past;
    • that empires regard themselves as representatives of a transcendent order, and thus a standard or template for truth;
    • that society reflects the type of men of whom it is comprised;
    • that God, the universal transcendence, is necessary to a universal conception of man and truth;
    • that the Aristotelian pursuit of the common, ordered summum bonum has been replaced by a Hobbesian pursuit of individual desire in competition with others, or avoidance of death—the summum malum.
  25. The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis.  So long as I was on the topic of declension and relativism, I revisited this, another old favorite.
  26. Common Sense, Thomas Paine.
  27. The Conservative Assault on the Constitution, Erwin Chemerinsky.  I kept pretty thoroughgoing notes as I worked through this book, intending to write up a detailed review.  I may still do so, but in the meantime, I got to the heart of the problem with Chemerinsky’s general point of view here and here.
  28. William Tell Told Again, Wodehouse.  Another free one on the Kindle.
  29. Notes From the Underground, Dostoyevsky.  Still one of my favorite books.  An excerpt here.
  30. Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington.  I have to say this was my favorite book I read this year.  To anyone else who has let this book languish on his list of should-reads, I encourage you to put it off no longer.
  31. Philosophy of Style, Herbert Spencer.  Another free Kindle book with quite a few good ideas for clearer writing.
  32. The Right to Earn a Living, Timothy Sandefur.  Thoughtful and deeply researched.  I would say incredibly well-researched given the number and range of sources, but being familiar with Sandefur, there is no imposition on my credulity.  That such a basic right as economic liberty has been so nearly eradicated by those who doff the title “liberal,” and with so little benefit in return, makes the mind reel.
  33. Restoring the Lost Constitution, Randy Barnett.  It’s an elegant and beautifully defended theory, but I just don’t buy it, for reasons I’ll get around to articulating sometime soon.  In short, the theory depends on the entire structure and purpose of the Constitution being upturned by the 80 words of section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.  That simply cannot have been the purpose, nor could it have been believed by reasonable men that such a drastic undertaking could be effected by words to few in number, cryptic in meaning, and clumsy in arrangement.
  34. The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, Lysander Spooner.  Barnett references this work as kind of an intellectual predecessor to the theory advanced in Restoring the Lost Constitution.  It’s an interesting and important notion that, under our founding documents which express a foundation upon natural rights, certain things might be unconstitutional that were subjectively thought to be the law of the land.
  35. Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887, Edward Bellamy.  Another bit of socialist self-indulgence whose plot device is quite similar to that in Robert Heinlein’s For Us, The Living.  A man is hypnotized but waken up not in hours or days, but over a century later.  In this hoped-for year 2000, Bellamy’s man finds a sparkling utopia where money, private enterprise, and property rights no longer exist; in which the government coordinates all human labor and all product of such labor is the property of the state; and in which every human being has, as a common right of humanity, an equal license irrespective of effort or ability to those goods held forth by the state.  “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”  If this, the early notion of Progressive socialism, is still the latent end of modern liberals, it begins to make sense that they would advance the ridiculous economic policies like those described in Sandefur’s book:  They can see as well as the rest of us that squelching competition and barring entry to lawful productive enterprise does not help our economy.  It is the destruction of the market, not its regulation, that Progressives have in mind, to clear the way for a regime in which the fate of man will rest with “a board of fairly sensible men.”

How hard is it to spot bad teachers?

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Kevin Drum acknowledges there might be something to the argument that getting rid of bad teachers might be a good idea.  But he laments that there seems to be no way of knowing who the bad teachers are expect by “dedicating large sums of money to a massive social experiment in teacher selection and retention.”

This strikes me as desperate posturing:  Liberals won’t dare risk sounding so out of touch as to suggest there aren’t bad teachers, or that bad teachers aren’t the major cause of our public education problem.  Instead, they engage in an “aw, shucks” act by asking, as Drum does, “how do we decide who the good teachers are?” and suggesting there’s no possible way to do so without prohibitively expensive social experimentation.  Seems to me we could get make some pretty good headway by listening to parents’ complaints and kids’ test scores.  We might be able to drill down into the minutiae and get some more scientifically robust evidence later, but for now, it will suffice simply to get rid of the onerous union obstacles to firing teachers.  The “let’s wait until the results come back from the lab” approach to dealing with the teachers union problem strikes me as a bit thin.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

The unintended consequences of banning horse slaughter

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Not exactly a topical piece on this Christmas Eve, but Noodle Food has an interesting post about the unintended consequences of the ban on horse slaughter in the U.S., which results in shifting that practice to Canada and Mexico and thus the additional suffering of horses that have to make that trek.  I find the argument interesting, yet somehow I still don’t see anything wrong with condemning and prohibiting the slaughter, and particularly the consumption, of animals like horses.  This is probably because the reason for such prohibition  is that we observe a sort of kinship with horses and thus, we outlaw it for basically the same reason we outlaw cannibalism. Thus, I’d reject Hsieh’s basic argument for the same reason I’d reject arguments attacking laws prohibiting suicide and euthanasia: suffering is terrible, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with abetting, even profiting from, death.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 24, 2010 at 10:53 am

Posted in Morality

The Individual Mandate, and the Last Nail in the Commerce Clause

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This question keeps getting asked (e.g., here and here): If the individual mandate is constitutional, then is this the end to the enumerated powers doctrine, and is there anything Congress can’t do?  Instead of an answer, I keep seeing supporters of the mandate respond with some variation of, “well we already have Social Security and the Department of Education, and the mandate is not that conceptually different.”

But this is not a response, unless it means one of the following:

  1. The enumerated powers doctrine was all make-believe in the first place, and thus there can be no objection to federally mandated participation in Social Security, federally mandated K-12 education, or federally mandated participation in the private health insurance market; or
  2. We have, by increments, already conceptually dismantled the enumerated powers doctrine (mostly in the 1930s and 40s during the New Deal following the rise of Progressive philosophy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and immediately following FDR’s court packing proposal), so there is no remaining objection to the individual mandate or anything else Congress wants to do.

I will be the first to acknowledge Congress has exceeded its enumerated powers in the past. I would have thought something as odious as a national conscription into the private insurance market would have been the bucket of cold water that rattled us out of our slumber and revealed the absurdity of the Court’s permissive Commerce Clause jurisprudence.  That is, we have a national legislature that can only do certain things, except that it can do everything.  If liberals are able to reverse a classic reduction to absurdity into an argument that our jurisprudence actually requires we accept the proposition that the individual mandate is actually somehow faithful to our Constitution, I will have to hand it to them.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Getting Ham-Fisted about Child Nutrition

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From Obama’s Obesity War at Reason Foundation, discussing Madam Obama’s efforts to change Americans’ food choices:

There are several reasons behind the backlash. One is that campaigns to promote healthy behavior have a way of escalating from friendly persuasion to ham-fisted propaganda and prohibitionism.

I found the comparison to fists made out of ham an amusing bit of imagery given the context, albeit probably unintentional.  (However, I have elsewhere lodged my objection to the term “ham-fisted,” preferring “ham-handed” instead, and even then only where precision is of little concern.)

It reminded me of an idea I had for a paper that I pitched to my intellectual property law professor concerning internet pornography.  It my pitch, I discussed one of the “seminal” cases on the relevant legal question.  Once I was alerted to the potentially disgusting implications of that particular word in that particular context, I’ve never been able to use it again in any context without being reminded of what it really means.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 17, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Language

Merry “Xmas”

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Although it has been fairly widely debunked by now, the notion that using “Xmas” for “Christmas” is somehow a slight to Christ or Christianity is still fairly widespread.  In fact, “X” Wikipedia’s explanation of the abbreviation “X” for “Christ” is as good as any:

The use of “Χ,” derived from Chi, the Greek alphabet initial, as an abbreviation for Christ (most commonly in the abbreviation “Χmas“) is often misinterpreted as a modern secularization of the term. Thus understood, the centuries-old English word Χmas, is actually a shortened form of CHmas, which is, itself, a shortened form for Christmas. Christians are sometimes referred to as “Xians,” with the ‘X’ replacing ‘Christ.

Using “Xmas” can lead to obvious problems, however.  If you intend the term in its original sense, you’re liable to draw a lot of seething looks from folks who will reflexively assume you’re a soulless atheist.  Yet, if you do intend the term as an affront, you run up against the historical origins and meaning of the abbreviation and wind up potentially drawing more attention to the Son of God. Most probably, little good can come from using the term.

Thus, for the general public, I suggest “Christmas” be left unabbreviated.  For atheists and staunch secularists seeking to purge the religious context from Christmas, I suggest getting over yourselves.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Morals Legislation and Moral Relativism

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Eugene Volokh writes:

“It follows, I think, that we have concluded, and rightly so, that mere immorality can’t justify illegality. There has to be something else that supports the judgment. Before someone is deprived his liberty, we need to have some good reason.”

At some point, I will write on this at greater length, but I honestly do not understand this position.  Certainly, we should be very discriminating about whether and which of our closely held moral beliefs ought to be expressed through law, as the potential for mischief is admittedly great.  But certainly immorality is a good reason to prohibit certain acts.  Many folks point to some of our embarrassments in the past about supposedly “moral” views about race and gender.  But I don’t think there are any arguments that hold up that we might someday be just as embarrassed at our contemporary moral views about polygamous marriage, incest, animal cruelty, obscenity, etc. as we do about our former moral views about race and gender.

Instead, I think our society is unfortunately starting to buckle under the weight of relativism and is becoming uncertain about the rightness and importance of our own moral code.  Interestingly, one moral value that has not diminished in our minds is the protection of animals and the criminality of animal abusers.   There is no serious suggestion that anyone has a “liberty” interest in torturing Fido and Mittens.  At some level, most of us still do believe in natural rights, and that “liberty” does not simply mean anything within one’s physical power.  Yet, I suspect animal cruelty laws are in the least danger of the relativism movement.  This strikes me as odd.  Do even relativists draw the line somewhere?  Or is this just a reflection of political reality about the unlikelihood of successfully attacking animal cruelty laws?

Written by Tim Kowal

December 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm