Wednesday, March 26, 2008

International Courts and Texas Justice

Freedom dodged yet another bullet yesterday, through the opinion of the Supreme Court opinion in Medellin v. Texas. The case, like Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, involved a Mexican national who was not informed of his right to a visit by a Mexican diplomat after being arrested. The argument here concerns whether Mr. Medellin (convicted of raping and murdering two teenage girls) has an automatic claim, simply by virtue of the US ratification itself of the Vienna Convention, to a violation of his legal rights – not under statutory or common law, but under international law. Such a claim would presumably merit the invalidation of his death sentence or even a retrial. While it is generally wise for courts to err on the side of failing to punish some of the guilty if it is necessary to keep it from punishing the innocent, the reason Medellin was said to have a claim – because an international court said so – is unacceptable.

The Court, getting five outs out of nine (Justice Stevens agreed with the result but not all of the reasoning, leaving three Justices to dissent), ruled that Mr. Medellin does not have grounds for redress. The key finding is that a treaty does not in and of itself overrule longstanding criminal rules and procedures of US states (and presumably the US federal government) absent further implementing legislation by Congress and the President. In this case, state courts in Texas ruled that Mr. Medellin’s filing for a writ of habeas corpus was invalid because it was filed so late, and because the issue of lack of consular notification had never been raised before despite many opportunities. Mr. Medellin’s attorneys contended that a finding of the International Court of Justice that his rights had been violated automatically entitled him to a writ of habeas corpus, since everyone agrees that he was not notified.

Chief Justice Roberts said, no it doesn’t:

Moreover, the consequences of Medelln’s (sic) argument give pause. An ICJ judgment, the argument goes, is not only binding domestic law but is also unassailable. As a result, neither Texas nor this Court may look behind a judgment and quarrel with its reasoning or result. (We already know, from Sanchez-Llamas, that this Court disagrees with both the reasoning and result in Avena.) Medelln’s interpretation would allow ICJ judgments to override otherwise binding state law; there is nothing in his logic that would exempt contrary federal law from the same fate. See, e.g., Cook v. United States, 288 U. S. 102, 119 (1933) (later-in-time self-executing treaty supersedes a federal statue if there is a conflict). And there is nothing to prevent the ICJ from ordering state courts to annul criminal convictions and sentences, for any reason deemed sufficient by the ICJ. Indeed, that is precisely the relief Mexico requested. Avena, 2004 I. C. J., at 58–59.

The ICJ, like all international courts and bodies, is animated by a variety of legal traditions. Ours – emphasizing liberty, the importance of federalism in supporting that liberty, and consent of the governed – is but one view of many to be found there. It is fundamentally unaccountable to the American people, and granting the notion that its findings were automatically binding on American courts at all levels, absent a specific passage of legislation to that effect for a particular treaty or issue, would have been a catastrophe. Because of the movement to create international agreements and bodies on global warming and the like, the backdoor of the intrusion of alien notions of the proper bounds of the reach of the state threatens to be opened much wider by international legal rulings. (The New York Times, for example, has a drearily predictable series on how the US has many unusual features of its criminal-justice system, with the implication that it should defer to global wisdom.) Can one imagine the consequences if the ICJ, ruling on some successor to the Kyoto Protocol, ruled (for example) that nations had a binding right to be free of carbon emissions from other nations, and that nations were thus obligated to become zero net emitters of carbon in 10 years? In that sense, it is more than a little disturbing that three justices signed on to Justice Breyer’s much more expansive notion in his dissent of the self-enforcing nature of ICJ judgments. When Justice Alito was being questioned by the Senate during his confirmation, he was asked specifically about the strength of international court rulings in the US legal system, and gave an answer indicating that he thought their reach was limited. I am glad that someone was paying attention; this should be a major issue in all future Supreme Court confirmation hearings.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Math of Ethnoreligious Conflict

Barack Obama, contrary to diversity-industry pieties, has not done as well among Hispanic voters as perhaps his campaign had hoped. The reasons why are suggestive for the mathematics of ethnoreligious conflict.

When the senator took approximately half the Hispanic vote in Virginia, commentators speculated that he had made fatal inroads into Senator Clinton's coalition, which relied heavily on white women and Hispanics. (Why it should be built on these genetic lines rather than, say, class or ideology is another question entirely.) But in fact this success was far from universal . While he did well in Virginia, which has relatively few Hispanics, in places with more, such as New Mexico, California and Texas, he has done worse. Why such a different pattern? In part because the larger proportion of Hispanics in those states forces them, under certain circumstances, to vote as Hispanics rather than as other things, a trait they share with other minority groups.

People carelessly refer to the percentage of "minorities" in the population, but it turns out the the distribution of minorities among various groups is an important predictor of ethnoreligious tension. Economists have a figure called the Herfindahl index, which is used to characterize the level of concentration in a market. The formula is Σpi2, where pi is the market share of firm i. (The pi thus all sum to one.) A value close to one means a high degree of concentration - one firm controls most of the market. A value close to zero means no firm controls much of the market, so there is a great deal of competition.

The same index can be used to measure ethnic concentration, with the pi now referring to the share of a particular demographic group in the population. A value close to one means one group dominates the population (in Korea, for example), and a value close to zero means no group has anything close to majority control. So which distribution generates the most conflict? The answer, some research suggests, is not a value close to one or zero but a value in the middle. When there is one overwhelmingly dominant group, minorities are too small to present a threat to the majority, which thus is happy to extend them equal opportunity. The minority, similarly, knows it has no chance of meaningful political participation and thus encourages assimilation to the majority values. China, for example, has 55 minority groups, but collectively they only amount to about six percent of the population. The Han majority thus looks on them with tolerance. The two exceptions, Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans, actually prove the rule because they are so highly concentrated in one place, which requires the Chinese government to move in Han people to cement control, which engenders resistance among the aboriginals. For a population with many small groups, similarly, political power is unattainable. In principal there can be coalitions, but they are often impractical.

But if, say, one group is two-thirds and one is one-third, then trouble arises. Now, the minority group is big enough to exercise meaningful political power, hence to demand rents from the government. And the majority group is thus threatened. The groundwork for conflict is laid. If the minority has historically been in control (as with Sunni Arabs in Iraq), the problems are all the greater. And so in many states Hispanics now pose a threat to the political power traditionally exercised by blacks, but in isolation neither is strong enough to pose a multiethnic threat to whites. Hence, Sen. Obama's Hispanic troubles.

This approach also explains the attempts to artificially stitch together larger groups - to add together two or more small pi into a bigger pi. Hence, the insistence by some on referring not just to Japanese or Chinese but "Asian" identity, and the insistence on treating all Hispanics or Latinos as the same, a pattern I have noted before. Even though a Cuban-American in New Jersey may feel little sense of common culture with a Chicano farm worker in Watsonville, representatives of nascent Hispanic pressure groups are compelled to try to stitch all the groups together, no matter how ill the fit. They all have Spanish last names after all (and sometimes, as in the case of Bill Richardson, not even that), and that will do in a pinch. Whites have done this too, with Jews and Italians, among others, now included in a category, "white," that in common American usage once excluded them.

We can also get some sense of Europe's troubles with its immigrants. In France, Mahgreb and West African immigrants are disproportionate, as are Pakistanis in Britain. Having a more diverse mix, with no dominant group, leaves no group feeling like it is just barely on the outside looking in when it comes to politics. In the US, the vast array of immigrant diversity is thus a blessing, though the primary possibility for conflict is presented by tensions among blacks, whites and Hispanics (who are mostly Mexicans and Central Americans) in the Southwest. It is thus possible that intergroup conflict there will get worse before it gets better.

Fortunately, these things are not cast in stone. Casual empiricism suggests that the large Hispanic population in California is enmeshed in more conflict with other groups than is true in Texas. The former is where the modern ethnic studies-industrial complex is most entrenched in the universities, and where a proposition that banned illegal immigrants from receiving public services passed in the last decade. (Courts later overturned it.) This may have something to do with the greater rate of economic freedom in Texas, where taxes tend to be lower and limitations on business creation and expansion fewer. As I argue so frequently, giving people incentives to work across group lines gives them less reason to fight across them. But in countries like France, where economic stagnation and ethnic concentration among immigrants reinforce one another, the future does not seem so bright.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Noted Without Comment

From Reason Online, citing The Weekly Standard:

Legislators stampeded the new House appropriations website yesterday with their requests for earmarks, causing it to crash. Roll Call was there. While I'd favor a first-come, first served, it's-not-my-fault- you-missed- the-deadline,- pal approach, the House Appropriations Committee has decided to extend the deadline for submissions until next week:

In a sure sign that earmarks remain as popular as ever, an overload of pork requests clogged the House Appropriations Committee’s Web site Wednesday, forcing an extension to the request deadline to next week.

The committee extended its deadline for earmark requests until 11:59 p.m. on March 24 after a “massive influx of requests” caused “unavoidable access and processing delays,” wrote Rob Nabors, staff director for the committee, in a memo to Member offices.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How Not to Get It

No sooner do I write about (or, more accurately, note Jonah Goldberg's writing about) homeschooling as a weapon against collectivism, then we get this story about a recent California judicial decision. The decision, by a state appellate court, found that a California couple could not homeschool their children because they were not properly licensed teachers. In the piece, Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer argue that this is a sound decision because, in effect, the burden of proof is on parents to establish that they are fit, relative to the officially credentialed public-school establishment, to teach their own children:

The decision has caused anguish among families who fear that they may now be required to demonstrate that home schooling is an adequate replacement for their children's attendance at a public institution. The court's decision means that home schoolers must be given some substantive instruction in social studies and not simply spend their time watching Fox with its strange assortment of oddballs pontificating on current events.

There has always been something decidedly elitist and anti-democratic in home schooling. It smacks of a belief that privileged children should not have to associate with the other kids in the neighborhood and that by staying home, they would not be subjected to the leavening effect of democracy.

It is an interesting choice of words. "Attendance at a public institution" is the presumption, and homeschooling is a mere "replacement." (Leave aside the predictably elitist cheap shot about homeschooling parents plopping their children down in front of right-wing TV all day. Drawing attention to that would be ad hominem, and I know that Professors Coombs and Shaffer are too good for that.) "Leavening," of course, is the rising of bread after the flour has been transformed by yeast. And so evidently public schools are the magic yeast that turns the crude raw material of "privilege" into the wonderful nourishment of "democracy."

This is philosophically revolting. It presumes, just as Mr. Goldberg argues fascism always does, that children are the property of the state, to be transformed into whatever the state values. The notion that parents might have a basic right to raise their children as they see fit simply does not show up in this analysis. Children do not belong to their parents; they belong to society, where they will be properly hammered into shape by any means necessary by the likes of Professors Coombs and Shaffer.

When I was a brand-new professor I used to transmit the standard argument that economists make for public schooling (as opposed to letting the private sector decide how to produce schooling in the same way it decides how to produce cars). That argument said that educated citizens are central to democracy, and that while the free market might do a great job of providing education leading to monetary reward – job training in particular -- it could not do a good job of providing the sort of education to a particular citizen that mostly benefits every other citizen, education about good citizenship in particular. It is a standard sort of market-failure argument.

But I am now older and wiser. I see that the public-school system is first and foremost a way to promote the interests of the pressure groups that run it. Sometimes these groups are employees – teachers’ unions and administrators in particular - with a financial stake in protecting the system from competition. And sometimes they are people with ideological axes to grind -- people who want bilingual education to protect the cultural heritage that it is really parents’ job to protect, environmentalists who want to inflict their beliefs on the children while the children are still young, teachers unions who believe in collectivism, etc. It never occurs to the public-school establishment and its enablers that parents have a right to believe -- and have good reason to believe -- that the public schools actively transmit values that they find revolting, and that parents can transmit the essence of American citizenship (which, they might quite reasonably believe, is about much more than mere "democracy") much better than the schools can. But never mind all that; children are brought into this world to be properly "leavened."

The Nobel economist Robert Solow, a perfectly mainstream MIT liberal, was once asked why he opposed school vouchers, given what he knew about economics. He answered that economics had nothing to do with it; all of the economic arguments -- about the virtues of competition, etc. -- strongly favored vouchers. Instead, he said, the reason he favored public schooling and opposed vouchers was that public schooling, along with his time in the American military, was what made him thoroughly American. Alas, in 2008, he is more right than he knows, and therein lies the problem.


Friday, March 14, 2008

It Takes a Fascist Village

Is Hillary Clinton a fascist? Were FDR and Woodrow Wilson? Yes, says Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. After making brief reference to it two months back, I have finally gotten around to reading it.

The book has been highly praised by a lot of people I respect, but mostly for exposing them to events and ideas that I already knew something of. I knew about FDR’s aides’ infatuation with totalitarianism (although mostly with regard to Stalin) and the abuses of liberties under his reign, about the common ground between Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, about the longstanding desire of the left to increase state control over previously (and rightly) private spheres, about the fundamentally leftist nature of the fascist economic agenda (it was after all the German National Socialist Workers’ Party, and I learned that the Italian root of the word “fascism” referred to a bundle tied together, and apparently was previously used to refer to labor unions), and about the disturbing enthusiasm of some in the Progressive era for eugenics, including racial eugenics. What Mr. Goldberg was able to do was to tie all this together and link it into a narrative of, essentially, the fascist century. For those unaware of the events above (and events I was not aware of, such as the extent of Wilson’s abuses of individual rights not just during but before World War I, and his belief in the obsolescence of representative democracy), the book is a valuable investment.

It is not without flaws. While he early on defines fascism as “a religion of the state,” in other places the definition becomes fuzzy. After reading it, although he does not explicitly express it this way, his conception of fascism seems to me to include:

1. A belief that ordinary bourgeois life strips man of his dignity, and that it is the job of politics to foster (if not forcibly instill, whether people are receptive or not) a common sense of higher purpose beyond the day-to-day lives that free people would otherwise live. Middle-class values and the free markets that promote them are the enemy, a view that suggests the consanguinity of progressivism, fascism and communism. If necessary, war or war metaphors are to be used to overturn the market and the overturning of tradition and dissolving of class hierarchy that it creates. We need to unify the collective and move it beyond bourgeois ordinariness, toward something better.

2. The role of the state in cultivating this change, and hence the need for the state to become the central focus life (cf., Mussolini’s oft-cited remark that in fascist Italy it would be “everything in the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state'”).

3. The (convenient) need for a charismatic leader to propel this change, particularly in getting beyond the dreary checks and balances of representative government.

4. A belief in pragmatism – the philosophical school that says, among other things, that we evaluate political decisions by their consequences, and that it is therefore right and proper for the government to constantly experiment until the right solutions to social problems are found. (That the government should be solving these problems is taken for granted, and inherited from American Progressivism. That Americans may have largely laid the groundwork for European fascism is an argument that might’ve been made more of.)

It is this last proposition on pragmatism and experimentation that most struck me. I organize political space purely around individualism vs. collectivism, and have long noted the frightening confidence that people place in government’s employment of experts to steamroll individual liberty in the interests of bettering society. But the idea that this belief could be combined with a charismatic, warmaking (in actuality or in analogy) leader to persuade people to subsume their individuality into the collective was something I had not considered. I do buy the continuum between progressivism and planning on the one hand and more conventional fascism on the other. Indeed, perhaps progressivism’s greatest flaw is its misconceptions of how problems are solved. The individualist realizes that problems are hard to solve and that mistakes can have large consequences, so that we require decentralized competition in the market to find the best solution and to match individuals to their own preferred solutions. But the planned society, fascist or not, requires that remedies be discovered by bureaucrats likely heedless of the consequences and driven by miserable incentives, to be imposed uniformly on all of us. But to progressives and earlier fascists, we must get beyond politics to “solve problems” (cf. Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” a term that for many years was explicitly associated with fascism). “Change,” anyone?

I was also struck by his interpretation of the role of business in the fascist society. Left-wing lore has long had it that big corporations created and nurtured Hitler, but Mr. Goldberg demonstrates quite persuasively that business was a minor part of Hitler’s support, and was essentially gang-pressed into accepting Hitler’s agenda. Big business frequently finds it wise, when it comes to the state, to go along to get along, not just in 1930s Germany but anywhere, including here. The state can suppress competition, provide modest but guaranteed profits, and otherwise make the captain of industry’s life easier. And it can also destroy, as many business men (see Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s struggles, for one) have learned the hard way. But government intimidation of citizens and control over the economy is the cause, and business support only follows from that. (I wish that in my own book I has spent more time on the tendency of corporations to snuggle up to the state once it has the power to help them, but I thought the primary threat is of government’s hostile attacks on business.)

And yet…there is still the whole question of what precisely fascism is. While Mr. Goldberg repeatedly distinguishes between fascism as a political system and the genocide of the Nazis (and between the wholesale construction of a fascist society on the one hand and mere patterns of thought that owe a lot to the fascism on the other), and while (see below) there are clear common threads between fascism and current elements of the progressive agenda, the lack of a more tractable, consistently applied definition perhaps causes him to go too far. I am not convinced, for example, that the propaganda applied to JFK before, during and after his candidacy is anything more than ordinary political hagiography; there is not, I think, much that connects it to the system of Mussolini or Hitler, at least not in a way that is meaningfully different from “Morning in America” or the invocation of “the silent majority.”

I would’ve also been much harder on FDR, who is depicted as, on the one hand, a skilled politician whose shaping of public opinion was admired by Mussolini and Hitler but, on the other, an amiable dunce who in policy terms absent-mindedly presided over the expansion of government power. In my judgment his presidency was catastrophic to individual liberty because of its permanent expansion of the legitimacy of state control over private commerce. Mr. Golberg has a tendency to assume the best about the “fascists” he describes, whether FDR then or Sen. Clinton now, and that is not in my judgment warranted.

I did like the discussion of the desire of progressives/fascists to manufacture a continual air of crisis, so as to call forth the higher energies of the people and willingness to be pointed at the leader’s chosen target – Czechoslovakia in 1938, CO2 emissions or America’s alleged broken souls now. I always interpreted this in terms of the cynical incentives of politicians to cultivate public support, recalling H.L. Mencken’s remark that “[t]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." But in fact many on the left do honestly believe in crises, and do believe that the government must be our savior. The air of eternal manufactured crisis is not just about self-interested political calculation, but that does not make it less dangerous. For Mencken and many of his modern libertarian successors, crises are simply made up; for the left, crises are real and the effort to solve them gives the lives of the left meaning. In a sense, the threat of fascism comes not from Hitler or Mussolini on the platform but from the thousands of mesmerized listeners in front of them.

But the most compelling part of the book, which is worth its price on its own, is Ch. 9, “Brave New Village,” which discusses the role in neo-fascist/progressive thought of government in minding (if not seizing) our children. It is positively chilling to see Mr. Goldberg amass the evidence that the modern left views children not as members of individual families to be shaped and raised by their parents but as common property, to be educated, controlled and molded for the left’s view of the “common good.” By investing children with the sorts of “rights” that the Founders invested in adults purely to achieve and preserve self-government, the door is opened to crush the family as the transmitter of values, to be replaced by the state. To take one example (p. 347), Sen. Clinton asserted in a 1996 speech that “there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child.” This ought to strike fear into anyone who values a free society, first because destruction of the family is a goal in and of itself, and second (as Mr. Goldberg demonstrates), “for the children” becomes the lever to pry open the door to destroying individual self-ownership by regulating guns, food, tobacco, etc. Mr. Goldberg is right (and I had never thought of it this way) to describe home-schooling, with its ability to protect free men and women of the future from the bureaucrats of the present who wish to assimilate them into the cult of higher purpose, as perhaps the most anti-fascist public policy ever conceived. For progressive, children are an undifferentiated group who are in all manner of "crisis," and who must be shepherded by society led by the sanctified teachers' unions. For conservatives, children are individuals to be guided within the context of their families. This is why the left is so hostile to school vouchers and homeschooling, which destroy the child collective and free parents to raise their children as they wish.

Finally, several stray thoughts. I wonder if Mr. Goldberg has given much thought to whether the “war on terror” in general and the war in Iraq in particular, which he supports but hardly mentions, qualifies as a fascist adventure. (Iraq is only mentioned once, in a different context.) President Bush’s language is certainly replete with the imagery of grand higher purpose, of the sort Teddy Roosevelt (whom Mr. Goldberg depicts as a sort of proto-fascist) might have admired. We are expected to give up civil liberties, for example, to win a war on terror that has no defined end – a classic manufactured, permanent crisis. Perhaps, despite the scorn it exposed him to, the president’s advice shortly after 9/11 that Americans should concentrate on shopping and was thus (whether he knew it or not) the best favor he ever did us.

I also wondered why Japan never found its way into the analysis, since it certainly seems to contain all of the author’s ingredients for fascism, and would thus presumably have much to teach us. Fascist Spain doesn’t show up much either, which raises the final point – fascism as something beyond Hitler’s racialism. Franco, like Mussolini, was not anti-Semitic, and indeed Franco sheltered Spain’s Jews during the war. The Holocaust was the most horrifying endstage of Hitler’s fascism, but it is Mr. Goldberg’s intent to remind us that fascism as an ideology contained many elements beyond German annihilationist anti-Semitism, and these elements are repellent yet still with us today. While not without flaws (whose book isn't?), Liberal Fascism is useful beyond soothing the anger of every person of the right who has been ignorantly deemed a "fascist." It reveals that dangerous ideas depreciate more slowly than we might hope.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eliot Spitzer, Thug

It is more than tempting to avoid the Eliot Spitzer carnival. But before he goes it is worth remembering what makes him, and by extension a lot of politicians, so dangerous. And it has nothing to do with sex.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has done the people of New York a giant favor by meticulously documenting Gov. Spitzer’s goonish behavior against the people of that state. Here (well before anyone who didn’t patronize it had heard of the Emperors Club) they describe his use of the state police to monitor, in order to intimidate, the leader of the New York State Senate. I’m somewhat inclined to give him a pass on that one; politics is a rough business, and Gov. Spitzer is thus just playing to form there.

But when he threatens to attack private citizens using the weapons he (like any high official in any system of government) uniquely controls, it is a different story. John C. Whitehead tells of defending AIG CEO Hank Greenberg in a previous piece in the Journal. (Mr. Spitzer had demanded his removal as CEO under the threat of indicting the company, even though who AIG's CEO is is really none of Mr. Spitzer's business.) Immediately after it appeared Mr. Spitzer, then the attorney general of New York, phoned him and told him that:

"Mr. Whitehead, it's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter."

When Tony Soprano talks that way we know what to call it. But Mr. Spitzer, by mesmerizing a lazy press with promises of “reform,” which (since “reform” invariably means changing election laws to give the press more influence at the bar of state and other kinds of citizens less) and constantly using leaks to give the press exclusive opportunities to slander people who haven’t even been indicted, apparently gets to be something else.

And Mr. Spitzer is not unique. During Bill Clinton’s career he was known to occasionally rely on the services of thuggish private investigators to intimidate his opponents, and undoubtedly much the same goes on among politicians of all stripes. The problem is not that Eliot Spitzer is a bad politician. The problem is that Eliot Spitzer is the sort of person politics attracts.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Scientists Giving Orders

Here Juliet Eiperin of The Washington Post informs us that some scientists are telling us we “must cease” carbon-dioxide emissions altogether because we are changing the climate:

The task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures may be far more difficult than previous research suggested, say scientists who have just published studies indicating that it would require the world to cease carbon emissions altogether within a matter of decades.
Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

Leave aside the question of whether this particular set of “models” will turn out to be true. Leave aside too the question of whether precipitation patterns that dry up some places might make water more abundant someplace else. Scientists have no more business recommending what people “must” do than barbers, cheerleaders or bookkeepers. This is a task for all citizens, interacting together in the political system, ideally as relatively free men and women. Those citizens will listen respectfully to the scientists, then think carefully about the likely cost of global warming, and the likely cost of fixing global warming. (How many heart-attack patients would we be willing to forego taking to the state-of-the-art, electricity-hogging hospital in an ambulance driven in a very fuel-consuming way because of the resulting CO2 emissions?)

Climate change and dealing with climate change have benefits and costs. The fetishization of scientific expertise as the last word on what public policy should be is a dagger at the heart of a free people. Scientists are simply not qualified, any more than any other random citizen, to answer the most important questions.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

They Do Need Those Stinkin' Badges

One of the oldest clichés in journalism is interviewing a taxi driver to find out what the man on the street thinks. The radio show Marketplace Morning Report has been running stories from Egypt all week. Here is one in which the reporter interviews Khaled Al Khamissi, who has a forthcoming book about what you can learn about life in Cairo from its taxi drivers. This excerpt struck me as particularly telling about the costs of big, intrusive government:

Khaled Al Khamissi: Many people speak about oppression in terms of political oppression. But what we suffer here in Egypt, it is the economical oppression. Egypt has a potential, and this potential is gone 100 percent.

Jagow: One hundred percent. That sounds pretty hopeless.

Al Khamissi: Yes. I think we are in a hopeless situation, and the people has to work 20 hours a day to survive.

Jagow: Khaled, can you give me a story, one that stands out to you, that might represent the book?

Al Khamissi: I can tell you one story. It's about a taxi driver. He told me that a police officer, after one hour in the taxi, he ask him, "Give me your ID." And he knew that he wants money. And then he gave him 5 pounds. And the officer told him, "This is not enough." He gave him 10 pounds. And these 10 pounds are the only this taxi driver has in five or six hours' work.

If the officer had stuck his gun in the driver’s face and demanded 10 pounds straight up, we would call it armed robbery. I am hard-pressed to see the difference.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

How to Lose a Culture

Last year there was a ghastly fire in New York killed nine immigrants from Mali, eight of them children. It later emerged that the father of some of the children was living polygynously in the U.S., where such is of course illegal. If a man’s church tells him that he can and even should have multiple wives, it is really no business of mine. (Of course, every extra wife he takes leaves a man with no wife at all, which is not healthy for social stability, but that is another matter.) But what was really revolting about the aftermath of the episode, as I learned from reading David J. Rusin’s piece in Pajamas Media, was some of the reaction that followed.

A gynecologist from Mali named Ousseiny Coulibaly who evidently often treats such women says multiple marriage either does not exist or is none of his concern. This attitude of non-concern extends, according to the New York Times article linked above, to the city’s social- services agencies:

Don’t-ask-don’t-know policies prevail in many agencies that deal with immigrant families in New York, perhaps because there is no framework for addressing polygamy in a city that prides itself on tolerance of religious, cultural and sexual differences — and on support for human rights and equality.

Last summer, when a nonprofit agency in the Bronx surveyed the needs of the sub-Saharan immigrants in its child care and literacy programs, questionnaires asked about interest in marriage counseling, but not about polygamy.

“This is a very private community,” said Rose Rivera, director of Head Start at the agency, the Women’s Housing and Employment Development Corporation, which largely relies on the fathers to translate for the mothers. “They’re not really ready to trust us.:

Ms Rivera thus takes the position that her primary if not sole mission is to make sure that her clients get the services she is paid to provide. The idea that immigrants might need to conform to the prevailing culture if they are to make it here evidently, and might benefit from her unambiguously telling them so, does not much concern her. Just make sure the “programs” that constitute her little empire have full enrollment, so that they may expand and conquer more of the private space of free men and women.

The academy does no better, if Miriam Cooke’s remarks in City Journal are any example:
It would be difficult to exaggerate the through-the-looking-glass quality of postcolonialist theory when it comes to the subject of women. Female suicide bombers are a good thing, because they are strong women demonstrating “agency” against colonial powers. Polygamy too must be shown due consideration. “Polygamy can be liberating and empowering,” Cooke answered sunnily when I asked her about it. “Our norm is the Western, heterosexual, single couple. If we can imagine different forms that would allow us to be something other than a heterosexual couple, we might imagine polygamy working,” she explained murkily. Some women, she continued, are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won’t have to service him so often. Or they might find they now have the freedom to take a lover. But, I ask, wouldn’t that be dangerous in places where adulteresses can be stoned to death? At any rate, how common is that? “I don’t know,” Cooke answers, “I’m interested in discourse.”

Color me cynical, but I would be inclined to disbelieve Prof. Cooke’s relaxed attitude toward women being freed from having to “service” (a suggestive word in itself for someone specializing in women’s studies) their husbands unless she were equally laissez-faire about polygyny among heretical Mormons in Utah in Arizona. And I very much doubt that, since the attitude of the right sorts of people to those polygynists is usually quite different. Prof. Cooke's enthusiasm is about waging war on her own culture, and not defending another.

As I say, religious affirmation of polygyny (affirmation of polyandry is noticeably rare; make of that what you will) is none of my concern. But the gleefully supine way in which the people on the front lines of government and academia will surrender the cultural ramparts in the name of “tolerance” and “discourse” is a sign of a culture well along the highway of decadence.