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Month May 2004

The Tired Norms of Political Discussion

After another puzzling literary encounter with Christopher Hitchens, and his detractors (of which more in a future post), I started thinking about how I’d label my own political beliefs. I tend to vote Democrat, but I have a feeling that I’d be labeled a “centrist” or even a “conservative” depending on what issue I was discussing.

And I think I know why.

Much of the time I look at liberal/progressive/Democratic platforms, there’s a mixture not only of goals, but of policy proposals. This is fine, but thinking rationally, one would hope that the goals are more important than the means. Sadly, this doesn’t turn out to be true. The reason I tend to identify as a liberal Democrat is that I agree with the goals. I often disagree with Republican goals, especially since that party has been “captured” by groups with a socially regressive agenda.

What I hate about my own party and politicians, however, is that the means seem to be as important — sometimes more — than the goals. There’s an orthodoxy about the acceptable means for providing universal healthcare, or handling the education problem. Single-payer is a good means for achieving universal care, regulated vouchers for private care aren’t. Education reform through the existing public schools and union regulations is a good means for fixing schools, whereas a program of variable teacher pay through merit, vouchers, and charter schools aren’t.

My party — the party of rights advocacy, equality, education, and internationalist foreign policy — is also a party wearing a bureaucratic straightjacket. We shy away from virtually any market-oriented solution if there’s a centralized bureaucratic alternative.

Thus, I’m a centrist because I believe in the goals but not the means of my party. I’m a businessman and entrepreneur (in addition to being a geek, of course). I’m not afraid of market solutions, if they’re regulated properly. I am afraid of bureaucratic solutions, which breed inefficiency and waste. Governments should do things that can’t be done by the market, and provide the structure that markets need in order not to crush the unlucky and disadvantaged.

Does this make me a libertarian? Hardly.

Hayek has a point about the evils of collectivism. But again, we confuse the goals with the means. We can have progressive social goals, without collectivist means. And we can have market forces that work to provide individual liberty and social welfare, without the evils of laissez-faire. We just have to get beyond the tired categories and norms.

We know that regulation can work to structure and stabilize markets, without removing individual incentives and competition. And there’s plenty of evidence that unregulated capitalism is incredibly bad for most, if not all, participants. California’s energy market in 2001; the stock market prior to 1933; much of the economy in general during the Gilded Age.

Proposals like Matthew Miller’s “Two Percent Solution” should be adopted by liberals as the most direct means of achieving our goals, provided that the means includes enough oversight and regulation. In my view, if we can give Americans universal health care by forging a bargain between government and private health care, we should do so without hesitation. The “road to serfdom,” to use Hayek’s timeless term, is about goals, as much as means. Not all collectivist methods are evil, just as not all market-oriented methods are evil. The goals matter, as do the ways we provide oversight and accountability.

I, for one, welcome carefully thought out market approaches to reaching liberal/progressive goals. And I’m tired of hearing politicians argue the same old methods. After all, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, expecting a different result.

Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose 2003

bandolwaterfront-web

The Tempier Bandol rose from 2003 is finally in the Seattle market, an event I eagerly wait for each year. In addition to “stocking the cellar,” I snagged a bottle for trying tonight.

The 2003 is pale salmon pink, much paler than any of the last three years upon release. The pale color belies, however, the almost salty herbal nose which makes Tempier rose so incredible. The palate has a ton of glycerin and body, especially given the color. It’s very different than the 2001 and 2002, which were “heavier” wines in my opinion, and much better than the heavier-but-bitter 2000. It’s great rose, as always, but it’s also “different” than the last four vintages (I still have 1999-2002 in the cellar, and can make the comparison). This is less bold, a bit “thinner” in aroma, and more restrained. But no less lovely for its restraint.

bandolsunset-web

I’m going to wrap up this posting now and sit down with a glass and a dish of green picholine olives, which go perfectly with Tempier rose. The combination transports me instantly to a sidewalk cafe in Bandol, looking out at sunset drinking rose, eating olives, and waiting until the restaurants open…

If all else fails, call ’em “communist”

I feel like I’m watching re-runs of Cold War “B” movies. Linda Chavez, the president of something called the “Center for Equal Opportunity,” wrote an editorial on Townhall.com in which she calls John Kerry a “communist apologist.”

Wow, a communist apologist. I haven’t heard anybody called a communist for at least a decade.

Why? Because communism isn’t a powerful ideology we’re fighting anymore. Communism — by which I mean the form of police-state socialism seen in the USSR and China — hasn’t been a potent force for a long time. The Soviet Union is gone, replaced by regrettably messy third-world market economies, China has begun “face-saving” slow market reforms, and what you have left is Cuba hunkered down as a shadow of its former self after 40 years of economic embargo and the loss of its major supporter.

Calling Kerry a communist sympathizer is ludicrous, even if you read the 1971 Senate testimony which serves as the basis for this wacko attack. Kerry described the Vietnam conflict as a civil war within a country seeking liberation from colonial rule. Which is historically accurate. In retrospect, we know today that Ho Chi Minh was not being controlled like a puppet from either Moscow or Beijing, despite the rampant “domino theory” paranoia of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Hell, Robert McNamara doesn’t believe in the domino theory or that Minh was a Soviet puppet anymore.

Kerry goes on to say the words which allow Chavez and others to brand him a communist sympathizer, claiming that the Vietnamese people

didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy….I think you will find they will respond to whatever government evolves, which answers their needs, and those needs quite simply are to be fed, to bury their dead in plots where their ancestors live, to be allowed to extend their culture, to try and exist as human beings.

Dangerously subversive stuff, huh?

Leaving aside the fact that Kerry is basically saying that the Vietnamese people were simply interested in the pursuit of life, liberty, and opportunity (and who isn’t?), we have to get over “inside the Beltway syndrome.” The vast majority of people simply don’t care about policy, or geopolitics, or party loyalty. The vast majority of people, in our country or any other, are interested in living their lives. As I read it, that’s what Kerry said.

But Chavez isn’t interested in reality. It’s a lot more fun to use 33 year old testimony to brand a political candidate as disloyal. And even more fun to dust off Joe McCarthy to help do the job. Especially if you can’t think of anything current or relevant to say.

Pathetic.

Is this the South rising again, or just folks who didn’t pay attention in history class?

Cursor.org featured Christian Exodus today, a Texas non-profit planning to congregate 50,000+ Christian conservatives in one of three southern states and then secede from the United States. The plan is fascinating — committed members will select a state (Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi are candidates), move there into strategic legislative districts, and gain a majority to force a secession vote. The vote would be triggered by sheer numbers, or by an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in their state of choice (or nationally).

It’s an interesting plan, but it’s not going to work. Secession doesn’t work like that. There is no procedure for secession in the Constitution, although there is no specific prohibition against it. Thus, precedent is likely to govern our reaction to future attempts at state secession. And the track record there isn’t good. Unilateral secession without national consent is precisely what triggered the Civil War — slavery was simply the issue that created the secessionist movement.

Following the war, the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White (74 U.S. 700) that ratification of the constitution and admission to statehood meant that the Union including Texas was an “indissoluble relation.” Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, writing for the majority, went on to say that the only means of revocation is “through revolution or through consent of the States.”

Christian Exodus seems to be planning an entirely legalistic secession, but they’re ignoring the fact that even if secession were viewed favorably by outsiders, consent of Congress is required, according to Texas v. White. The law and precedent is thin here, but it seems unlikely that Congress would approve secession, and highly likely that a unilateral secession attempt would be dealt with as a rebellion against federal authority.

Not a good plan.

Quiet of late

I haven’t posted lately because I’ve been traveling a great deal for business. That’s great for business, but it makes for poor research and writing habits. Please stay tuned.

Abortion and Tolerance of Dissenting Opinions within the Democratic Party

Amy Sullivan wrote a guest entry last Friday on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal, arguing that Democrats need to acknowledge the spectrum of opinion among Democrats on the issue of abortion. Personally, I am firmly of the opinion that reproductive rights are unenumerated “privileges or immunities” of the sort that the Fourteenth Amendment protects (even in a strict textualist reading, without “judicial activism”) (1).

Recent experience at my legislative district caucus nevertheless underscored Sullivan’s point. While voting on the platform, several individuals spoke out against the platform’s plank on abortion, which read: “We reaffirm our support of every woman’s right of reproductive choice.” Those who spoke were obviously speaking from a deep moral and religious belief.

And the caucus, more than a thousand people, shouted down the speakers with boos and hisses. It was a disgusting display. We Democrats think of ourselves as a party of tolerance, of respect for individual rights, of respect for diversity. Yet we cannot tolerate a spectrum of beliefs on platform issues?

At a pragmatic level, how can we hope to attract and maintain the loyalty of a majority of voters, if we define ourselves in narrowly ideological terms? (2)

At a moral and philosophical level, if we promote a platform which includes tolerance and respect for diversity, but are intolerant of diversity within our own ranks, are we really living up to our own rhetoric?

Democrats, including (and especially) our candidates, need to acknowledge the fact that we are in a time of cultural transition and change. Some of the issues on the table today are genuinely disturbing to many people. And we need to respect that diversity of opinion, at the same time that we push a program of respect for civil and individual liberties. Not doing so is simply hypocrisy.

Normally, candidates get around issues like this by claiming cautious support for compromise positions which signal a little ground to both sides. They end up sounding wishy-washy, and possibly are. I’d personally find it quite refreshing to hear a Democrat say:

“Abortion is one of the most important and divisive issues in our society, pitting us against each other in terms that are simplified into ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Within the Democratic party, we pursue civil and individual rights for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Regardless of whether the right in question is controversial or not. We respect and tolerate different points of view, and that has to include controversial issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. We’re going to defend the individual’s right to pursue their own solution to these controversial issues, unimpeded by governmental controls, because that is the core value of the Democratic party. Not everyone will choose to exercise their rights the same way. Some will choose to reject the possibility of abortion, based upon their beliefs. Some will choose to embrace a woman’s right to choose for herself. Both will be exercising their rights as citizens. This is the essence of a free and open society.”

The reality, of course, is that we won’t hear a candidate say this unless it’s clear that the population will elect a candidate who makes such a statement. Candidates quite naturally gravitate towards positions that are electable. It’s up to us, the electorate, to show candidates that an honest defense of tolerance is a winning position.

Notes:

(1) I understand that abortion is currently protected via “substantive due process” under the Fourteenth Amendment (in Roe v. Wade), rather than the “privileges and immunities” clause, but I believe that substantive due process continues to be stretched out of proportion by the reluctance of the Court to rehabilitate the “privileges and immunities” clause by explicitly rejecting the effects of the Slaughterhouse cases. Many “individual liberties” are probably better protected, from a textual point of view, by labeling them “privileges” or “immunities” which are not within the scope of governmental control.

(2) Cass Sunstein has an excellent analysis of why group consensus opinions frequently end up more “extreme” than a strict average of individual opinions would suggest. The first chapter of Designing Democracy: What Constitutions Do (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001) is highly relevant to this issue.