Final Impressions of Dahl

I have now finished Robert Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" Though I appreciate his intent, he is far too much of a Hamiltonian for my taste. Being from California, I shudder to think of what could happen should we have the influence in the Senate that we have in the House of Representatives.

Dahl also has a great fondness for Proportional Representation, such as that in the Israeli Knesset. While it does provide the fairest system of representation, in that any political view of any significance will get representatives, for that reason PR tends to reward extremist politics. You get more benefit from "energizing your base" than from reaching out to other voters, who presumably have parties of their own that more closely match their views. "First past the post" systems, such as those of America and Britain, place a premium on moderation. Granted, they also allow for the domination of national politics by two large parties; but there are better ways to correct that than by switching to PR.

To his credit, Dahl does bring up my personal favorite way to do so, which is changing our voting procedure from casting a single vote for each position, to assigning a ranking to all the candidates in the running. This method, used in Australia and Ireland, is called preferential voting, or instant-runoff voting, because if no candidate achieves a clear majority of #1 votes, the bottom candidate is dropped, and those people who voted for him now have their #2 votes applied. This continues until a clear majority arises. This system would neatly eliminate the "wasted third-party vote" syndrome now stifling the growth of alternate parties in America.

Dahl also is pragmatic enough to realize that the Electoral College isn't going away soon, and recommends instead that the present "winner take all" system be modified so that the electors vote along the proportions of the popular vote in each state. I am in favor of this as well, since there is little incentive at the moment for people to vote if they live in a deeply partisan state in either direction.

But Dahl ends the book with a coy reference to "equality of political resources." The context is a discussion of campaign finance, which is a predictable attack on the ability of the rich to wield political influence that the poor cannot match. Dahl is sadly out of date on this one, as Howard Dean's incredible internet fundraising proved. And in any event, Dahl had a worrying habit of citing our ratio of rich-to-poor (without defining either term) as a way of determining whether the Constitution "worked." I do not think it the responsibility of government to eliminate poverty (except insofar as it can do so by simply getting out of the way!!), and I think it imprudent for government to try in the first place, as the experience of France and Germany proves.

All told, I was not impressed by this book. It raises some valid points, but they are nearly lost among the more outlandish examples of socialist-populist dogma.


The Constitution, Democracy, and Neosocialist Revisionism

I am presently reading Robert A. Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" So far he has mixed several worthwhile critiques with a number of breathtaking sophistries. Being only on page 20, I cannot judge the whole work; but Dahl has already listed the chief features of the Constitution that are, by his reckoning, undemocratic:

1. Allowance of slavery, particularly the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave laws.
2. Limiting the franchise to males, not including blacks or American Indians.
3. Election of the president by an appointed Electoral College, beholden neither to the people or to Congress.
4. Senators selected by their state legislatures, not the people.
5. Equal representation by state in the Senate, not by population.
6. Failure to limit judicial power, particularly in regard to "judicial legislation" or judicial activism.
7. Limitations of Congressional power, particularly "prevent[ing] the federal government from... controlling the economy".

Dahl sweepingly declares that these flaws should keep us from thinking of the Constitution as "Holy Writ," but rather as a useful starting point. But he belittles a number of factors in his analysis. First, that mechanisms were put in place to amend the Constitution, in large part to correct the several poor compromises that were forced into the original document—for example, slavery. His first two objections, slavery and a limited franchise, were corrected by constitutional amendments, precisely as called for.

Second, that the states had mechanisms of their own to make the process more democratic, if they wished. And indeed, today almost every state has elected senators and Electoral-College delegates who are bound by the majority vote of their state. This process originated from the states themselves, with no meddling necessary from the Federal government.

Third, Dahl assumes as a given that the argument for equal representation by state has no merit. He does not bother stating his reasoning, other than to quote Hamilton who decried the additional power held by citizens of smaller states over citizens of larger ones in the Senate. Yet there is a sound basis for this, which Hamilton adamantly opposed. That is, that the different states are not merely bureaucratic subdivisions of government intended for more efficient administration, but political entities in their own right, with equal standing amongst each other and equal involvement in the Federal level.

Indeed, it is for that reason that the much-maligned Electoral College is set up as it is, so that sparsely-populated states cannot be ignored by would-be presidents, in favor of the larger states only. This is particularly urgent today, when the bulk of the population can be found in California, New York, Florida, and Texas. If the other states did not have a certain level of political power, their social integrity would be badly compromised and much of their citizens would move into the more heavily-populated states. Our present system permits the smaller states to exist as distinct entities, with their own cultures and agendas.

Of course, Dahl is a populist at heart. And though he magnanimously declares that "I do not believe that constitutional framers today would or should attempt to dissolve the existing states", he also says that "…how power is shared between the federal government and the states will persist as a subject of endless dispute." In other words, he is content that the states should exist in a mostly ceremonial function, bereft of most of their powers which would naturally pass to the federal level. This ties in very well with his economic ideas, which will be dealt with below.

The fourth factor that Dahl ignores is that the judicial activism that he deplores was not a product of anything in the Constitution, except perhaps for insufficient requirements for demonstrating a law to be unconstitutional. Rather, judicial activism mostly arose in the face of an executive and legislature unwilling to demand that the judges be held to reasonable standards. In large part this was by design; government has always wanted to disregard the strictures placed upon it. In the infamous words of Franklin Roosevelt, "The Constitution is an obstacle to be overcome." If judges do not have to conform to strict guidelines on what is genuinely unconstitutional, then they can ignore improper laws just as easily as they can malign proper laws. Note the evisceration of the Second, Fourth, and Tenth Amendments, and compare with the invention out of whole cloth of a supposed constitutional right to abortion.

Finally, Dahl astonishingly seems to equate the concentration of economic power and authority in a central government with democracy. He makes little effort to disguise this: "Without the power to tax incomes, for example, fiscal policy, not to say measures like Social Security, would be impossible." Forgive me if I do not appreciate the vast horror of such a predicament. One could argue with varying degrees of success that the Federal government needed more authority than was granted to it in order to function well; but Dahl conflates such an argument with that of the Constitution's supposed undemocratic nature. Central power is only democratic in the sense that the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis of Rwanda was democratic: it has the support of the majority of the people, with no check on what they can do to the minority.

So far, Dahl is arguing quite cleverly for replacing the Constitution with a system closer to mob rule. Just how much closer I do not yet know, but I am not hopeful. Dahl repeatedly notes that we are the only democracy with the particular structures that we have, and asks why that is so. What he does not ask is why the United States is one of the few remaining democracies that strongly respect the rights of the individual.

Iraqi Voting Disrupts News Reports of Bombings

Via Scrappleface, one of the best satirists out there:
(2005-01-30) -- News reports of terrorist bombings in Iraq were marred Sunday by shocking graphic images of Iraqi "insurgents" voting by the millions in their first free democratic election.
There is no turning back now. Iraq has spoken, in spite of the best efforts of the terrorists, and the media.


Elections Have Begun

Voting for the Iraqi elections has already begun in Australia and the United States. I have been remiss in covering the elections, mostly because of the mountain of new books I am going through for my classes; but go to Instapundit and just keep scrolling, and clicking on other blogs that the Good Professor references. That should be a good start.

A point worth noting: even if the elections, or the new Iraqi government that arises from them, shoud prove to be a failure, it was still the right thing to do. A lamentable trend has arisen where pundits and talking heads rise up to attack any bold endeavour that should happen to fail. This is foolish and un-American. I use that term advisedly; America has always been built on enterprise, risk-taking, and audacity. When great risks are taken, they often result in great failures; that is simply the nature of the game. This modern insistence on absolute perfection, or else absolute inaction, is the product of a fantasy world. Worse, it discourages the sort of bold action needed to take on humanity's great challenges, in this and any age.

Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.

And may God crown our soldiers with victory, deal justly with the evil men they oppose, and grant wisdom and a desire for peace to the new Iraqi government.

Quote of the Day

What is called freedom of thought in a large number of cases amounts to—and even for all practical purposes consists of—the ability to choose between two or more different views presented by the small minority of people who are public speakers or writers. If this choice is prevented, the only kind of intellectual independence of which many people are capable is destroyed, and that is the only freedom of thought which is of political importance.
—Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing


Drunken Academics Swinging Sledgehammers

I am presently reading a 1993 piece by Rogers M. Smith titled Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America. The standard narrative of American society, says Smith, is that it was founded on democratic liberalism; and even when America fails to live up to its principles, as during the slavery years for example, the principles themselves continue to guide national behavior and gradually eradicate all of the illiberal hypocrisies of society.

Smith argues that Tocqueville and his adherents failed to account for the various illiberal elements such as racism or sexism, that actually coexisted and competed with liberalism within the American psyche. Therefore, the standard narrative of American society is flawed and does not capture the truth of the matter, and should be expunged from the hallowed halls of learning (more or less).

This seems to be a trend in academia, where some scholar will examine an ideal, enumerate all the ways in which the ideal was not lived up to, sweepingly declare the ideal to be hypocritical, and smugly demolish yet another pillar of the national consciousness. As much as this sort of work contributes to a deeper understanding of the past, in some fashion, at the same time it is undermining society's best mechanisms for producing a better future.

Jefferson owned slaves. Should we then declare the Declaration of Independence to be a work of hypocrisy and banish it from the schools? What sacrilege! Jefferson's words would live on to inspire generations of noble men and women to fight for justice and freedom, not least among them Dr. Martin Luther King and his comrades. The same is true of all the other liberal ideas that such reckless academics as Smith would so casually condemn. What these people don't seem to understand is that the purpose of an ideal is to guide future behavior, so that it conforms more and more closely to that ideal.

What would have the more beneficial outcome for America? That we believe our nation to be founded on undying principles of liberty and justice? Or that we believe our nation to be constructed based on the narrow racial or sexist concerns of a few men? One belief would present all Americans with the torch of justice, passed down from our Founding Fathers with the sacred duty that we continue to guard its flame and have it burn ever higher. The other belief would provoke disgust and scorn for America as being the warped child of bitter seed.

And through this shadowy valley tromp the postmodernists, neo-feminists, neo-Marxists, race-relations specialists, and all of their ilk, blissfully unconcerned with the damage that they do to America and the entire world. And I find it particularly abhorrent that they should do so now, when most of the injustices that they rail against have already been rectified. Never forget that scientific theories of race and gender were continually promoted in the universities, at the same time as the struggle for equality under the law was being waged in society. Now that the fighting has died down, the lizards creep out from under their rocks waving deconstructionist histories of America, as if to say, "Sorry we missed the show, lads, but take comfort in the fact that everyone is really just as immoral as we are."

As for me, I shall continue to look up to an ideal of American virtue, even if I should fall short of it at one time or another. For I cannot hope to hit a target unless I aim for it; and it is the function of American idealism to provide a target at which all peoples can aim. Nobody should dare to deny us that chance; nobody should dare to wantonly destroy the inspiration for our goodness.

Quote of the Day

By no possibility could equality ultimately fail to penetrate into the sphere of politics as everywhere else. One cannot imagine that men should remain perpetually unequal in just one respect though equal in all others; within a certain time they are bound to become equal in all respects.

Now, I know of only two ways of making equality prevail in the political sphere; rights must be given either to every citizen or to nobody.

So, for a people who have reached the Anglo-Americans' social state, it is hard to see any middle course between the sovereignty of all and the absolute power of one man.

One must not disguise it from oneself that the social state I have just described may lead as easily to the one as to the other of these results.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


Reforming American Government

First day of classes for the new semester today; altogether very interesting. In my American Politics class, we will be ending the semester with an Oxford-Union debate with the following proposition: "RESOLVED: the American political system is illiberal, undemocratic, and in need of serious reform." As luck (or irony) would have it, I landed on the affirmative side. This is hardly my usual position, as I tend to think that the American government is reasonably effective at what it does. But I think I will have fun with this position, as it lets me try out some verrry interesting ideas for rebuilding the government.

Tonight's target: Congress!

I think we can all agree that a parliamentary system filled with blowhards who make pompous speeches that nobody cares about, votes on legislation that they haven't even read, and generally is for sale to the largest donors needs a serious overhaul. Going with the premise that the present system is undemocratic, I think we should strip Congress of most of its functions and devolve them directly onto the people. This has the decided advantage of cutting the congressional staffers out of the loop; I find it rather appalling that most of the legislation is drawn up by unelected bureaucrats, albeit at the direction of the congressmen. But how many times have staffers slipped nasty legal revisions into monstrous bills that are only discovered once they are passed, if ever?

The major functions of Congress are power of the purse, and passing Federal law. (Things like "advise and consent" or declarations of war are largely ceremonial and can safely be ignored [heh].) In an age of secure internet banking, I see no logistical reason why citizens could not be expected to vote on law or budgets on a systematic basis, remotely via secure networks.

A few minor points would have to be cleared up. There have to be some checks on the power to propose legislation, or else people will be blizzarded by millions of new bills a day. Call it legislative spam. Additionally, there would have to be rules for the length of time that a proposal would be open for debate, and then for vote. I think a month for debate followed by a few days for voting should be quite enough for the new class of savvy voters that this system would spawn. (Not everyone would vote regularly, of course; but given that voting rates for national elections are at about 50%, you could say, by extension, that the same is already true in Congress.)

Moreover, a supermajority of 67% would be necessary to pass new legislation. This is in order to safeguard against abuses of the system inherent in pure democracies, making the classic 51/49 tyranny impossible. Besides, as Heinlein noted in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, if two thirds of the country can't agree on something, is it really such a good idea in the first place?

I see a few different models for how budgeting could work:

1. Each citizen would allot his own tax payments among the various federal programs as he sees fit, being guided by the previous year's allotments, the programs' funding requests, and public lobbying for or against various programs, and his own views. This would be time-consuming, but one could also employ funding templates drawn up by policy analysts, columnists, geeks, demagogues, etc, which would be thoroughly vetted by the online community; of course, you can modify these templates as you see fit.

At all times, a running total would be visible, so that people can see serious funding imbalances and adjust their own choices accordingly.

Issues: Boring or obscure programs could get underfunded. There would be no consistent methodology for the budget, barring a consensus arising out of the open-source model. A citizen's budgetary power is directly proportional to his wealth; what about the poor? What about noncitizens who pay taxes? What about people who don't vote; what happens to their money?

2. Same as above, except tax revenues are divided equally among voters.

Issues: Straight-up income redistribution. Socialist paradise, here we come... Other issues as above.

3. Standard voting, program by program; different proposals would be considered and eliminated until one has a 67% majority.

Issues: Very tedious.

4. Standard voting, department by department, as above.

Issues: Less flexibility over individual programs. This would be counteracted, presumably, from the multiplicity of proposals, each with a different policy mix.

5. Standard voting, one whole package.

Issues: Are you kidding??

This has been quite entertaining. I'm looking forward to follow-up posts, where I'll look at other areas of civic America in need of overhaul.


A Conservative Critique of the War

The Adventures of Chester has a very long, valuable post on views from the conservative end of the spectrum about how the Iraq War was mishandled, particularly those of Mark Halperin. As one can expect, Halperin's critique is hardly the same as that of the anti-war left; he says, rather, that our war aims were all wrong, and that our methods were also wrong as a result. Rather than "regime change," Halperin believes that we should have simply flattened Iraq in a massive display of power, as an object lesson to other would-be dictators. He is skeptical that Iraq can be democratized, and in any event doesn't want to try. Money quote:
From the beginning, the scale of the war was based on the fundamental strategic misconception that the primary objective was Iraq rather than the imagination of the Arab World, which, if sufficiently stunned, would tip itself back into the heretofore easily induced fatalism that makes it hesitate to war against the West. After the true shock and awe of a campaign of massive surplus, as in the Gulf War, no regime would have risked its survival by failing to go after the terrorists within its purview. But a campaign of bare sufficiency, that had trouble punching through even ragtag irregulars, taught the Arabs that we could be effectively opposed.

Mistakenly focused on physical control of Iraq, we could not see that, were we to give it up, the resultant anarchy might find a quicker resolution than the indefinite prolonged agony through which our continuing presence has nursed it.
As much as Halperin is correct within his chosen guidelines, I think that the guidelines themselves are suspect. His primary worry is that our occupation is consuming resources that would otherwise go towards containing China and North Korea. Yet he himself notes that the US can easily double the size of the military, based on historical spending levels; indeed, that was his prescription for Iraq.

Why have we not done this at present? Politically, it would be next to impossible. The President is already getting a great deal of opposition to the increases he has slated for the military, which, although significant, are not anywhere near as big as Halperin would like. This is due, incidentally, to the legacy of Clinton, as Halperin notes:
For someone of the all-too-common opinion that a strong defense is the cause of war, a favorite trick is to advance a wholesale revision of strategy, so that he may accomplish his depredations while looking like a reformer....Neville Chamberlain...starved the army and navy on the theory that the revolution in military affairs of his time made the only defense feasible that of a "Fortress Britain" protected by the Royal Air Force--and then failed in building up the air force. Bill Clinton...who came into office calling for the discontinuance of heavy echelons in favor of power projection, simultaneously pressed for a severe reduction in aircraft carriers, the sine qua non of power projection. Later, he and his strategical toadies embraced the revolution in military affairs not for its virtues but because even the Clinton-ravished military "may be unaffordable," and "advanced technology offers much greater military efficiency."
Essentially, it was impossible for the United States to wage the sort of war in 2003 that Halperin is advocating. That does not address the question of whether a full-scale occupation and regime change was the correct course of action. In my view, Halperin is both needlessly pessimistic about the chances for democracy, and ignoring the geopolitical implications of an American presence in Iraq. We now have a large concentration of force sitting on the border of both Syria and Iran, which would have been impossible without Iraqi bases; consider the refusal by Turkey to allow American forces passage into Iraq.

Our presence is already forcing considerable shifts in the status quo. Syria is redeploying forces out of Lebanon, where they had enforced a Syrian protectorate for over two decades, not because of a newfound appreciation for the universal rights of man, but because Bashar Assad is concerned about possible military action into Syria by the US. Meanwhile, the Iranian students are becoming more and more restless for change, and look to the United States for logistical and moral support of a kind which would have been far more difficult before the invasion.

Fundamentally, however, Halperin does not appreciate the power of ideas. Iraq shares a border with all of the worst offenders in Middle-East tyranny (with the possible exception of Egypt). We are now five days away from free elections, with hunderds of different political parties and thousands of candidates. If the elections are successful, and if the resulting government is effective, we may begin to see a new wave of resentment against the brutal regimes of the Middle East, which with luck may lead to some momentous shifts in power.

And as President Bush noted in his inaugural speech, America has come to the realization that the spread of democracy is in our best interest, militarily, politically, and economically. For all of Halperin's worries, we will have done more to secure our interest by promoting democracy than a scorched-earth war could ever have done instead.

On a lighter note: I just returned to New York yesterday. It is much, much too cold for this California boy. On the bright side, I remembered to bring some Paddy for the election bash that I plan to have next week. Mmmm... Irish whiskey...


Al-Qa'ida Running Out of Money?

Powerline has a post quoting the AP report on the two al-Qa'ida terrorists just arrested in Germany. The really interesting part is that the two were also planning to commit insurance fraud, taking out a million-dollar policy on one of the men, who would later fake his death. The money would have been transferred to higher-ups in the al-Qa'ida network.

This would be very good news; it means that the terrorists are getting desperate. Insurance payments have a very well-defined paper trail, and are very risky to scam. The terrorists must be running out of options, and this will make it much easier to detect them in the future.

We may draw a few tenative conclusions:

1. The funding networks are getting closed down, especially the Saudi charities.
2. Al-Qa'ida is becoming much less popular in Saudi Arabia now that they are attacking Saudis, and not just Americans. In fact, there hasn't been an al-Qa'ida attack against the US for a long time now, and the attacks on the Saudi royal family are fresher in the mind of the Arab world. Certainly few Saudis like the royal family, but I think that nobody wants to see Usama bin-Laden as an actual head of state.
3. Al-Qa'ida is running out of reserves, or else they have been frozen or confiscated, which amounts to the same thing.
4. The Taliban is no longer cooperating with them, or else they would be getting a cut out of the opium trade in Afghanistan.
5. Hizbullah is not cooperating with them, or else they would be getting money from Hizbullah's hashish business, or else from Hizbullah's friends in the Latin-American cocaine business.

If my speculations are anywhere close, it means that al-Qa'ida is becoming increasingly isolated even in the terrorist world. Of course, we still need to worry about Hizbullah and all the other terror groups; but it's a start.


Ending Poverty, UN-style

The Diplomad has a post calling attention to a new UN document, spanning some 3,000 pages, which purports to hold the key to ending world poverty. While a noble goal, which should be advanced by all peoples, it is worth noting that many have tried and failed to reduce poverty. The UN's proposal seems to be no more likely to succeed; judging by their "10 key recommendations," the bulk of the proposal is for developed nations to greatly increase their "official development assistance (ODA)," in other words pour more money down the sinkhole. I would be far more supportive of foreign aid if it were more effective; charity is an obligation on all peoples, provided that it actually improves the situation. Unfortunately, most foreign aid to the Third World goes directly into the pockets of the local Presidents for Life, with a little off the top for the various middlemen (read: United Nations bureaucrats).

To the report's credit, it does advocate the reduction of trade barriers via the Doha round of negotiations. Trade barriers have their place in statecraft, but are less and less justified as the state becomes more affluent. Furthermore, the critical infrastructure needed in the poor countries will only be built if a great deal of investment comes flowing in, not through the hands of government officials. And private companies will only put down infrastructure in a country if they can sell their goods, there or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, a lot of the language in the report seems to revolve around coordination, agencies, programs, strategies, central plans, et cetera, et cetera. Once again, the UN is missing the point. Central plans were the great contribution of the Soviet Union, and look what happened to them. A much better basis for a sustained growth in wealth would be the cumulative actions of individuals acting to better themselves, with taken in total would produce staggering changes.

In this regard, I am a fan of microlending as a way of giving local entreprenuers the capital they need. The classic example is for a poor family to get a small loan to buy livestock, and repay the loans over time with proceeds from the milk or offspring. Loans to individuals also force a level of fiscal discipline which is noticeably absent in recipients of aid payments.

More importantly, microfinance is built on individual initiative, industry, personal choice and the growth of commerce. These all promote moral virtues and responsibility, as opposed to simple aid grants which promote a mentality of dependency and sloth. Of course, one could argue that dependency and sloth are exactly what the governments of the world want in their citizens...


Those Dirty War-Profiteering... Europeans?

I suppose when you're France and Germany, and you have stagnant economies and large arms-manufacturing industries, and your best customer gets himself regime-changed and is passing the time in an undisclosed location, then you would be anxious to find new customers for your products.

Which explains why the EU is lifting the arms embargo on China, despite (or perhaps because of?) a heated U.S. response. America has no desire to see the Chinese military get any better than it is already; neither do Japan or Taiwan.

On the other hand, the Chinese weapons industry has been getting much better on its own in the past few years, and in any event China has been buying significant weaponry from Israel. Israeli firms may well lose market share to the French and Germans, which is unfortunate, but I wonder whether the weapons embargo has not been counterproductive, from an American standpoint. Without it, perhaps the Chinese would have had less incentive to develop their own military technology. But I don't know enough to say yes or no.

From a purely diplomatic standpoint, France seems intent on aligning the E.U. with China, which would necessarily put them against the United States in some fashion. This would particularly be true if the Taiwan issue heated up enough to lead to a major crisis. I don't know what the French are thinking, but their foreign policy has been remarkably shortsighted for a long time now. What exactly are they trying to acccomplish by permanently angering the world's greatest power?


If It Bleeds (American Blood), It Leads...

Powerline reports on ABC News's desire to balance out coverage of the President's inauguration with a report on military funerals. Note that ABC is only looking for funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, Korea, or anywhere else:
Jan. 19, 2005 — For a possible Inauguration Day story on ABC News, we are trying to find out if there any military funerals for Iraq war casualties scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20. If you know of a funeral and whether the family might be willing to talk to ABC News, please fill out the form below...

Now, ABC has every right to do all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth it wants over the Iraq war. But I wonder just how long people are going to keep watching. I, for one, wonder why so much attention is being paid to Iraq, when practically none is given to the genocide in Darfur, the mass starvation and extermination camps in N. Korea, the massive outbreak of malaria across Africa, and so on.

As artsy as such a pairing of stories might be, for ABC to cover a military funeral along with the inauguration is a blatant exhibition of the political nature of the war opposition. There is so much misery in the world that could easily be prevented by public action, and for the MSM to focus so myopically on the relatively minor hardships of the war is a disgrace. I do not lessen the sacrifices of the men and women who have fallen by any means; but the slaughter in Darfur is not going away, and is many times worse than anything that has happened since the Iraq invasion. Where is the outrage? Where is the continuing coverage? Where are the protests? Where is the furious lobbying to get the U.S. involved?

But for the U.S. to get involved with Darfur would be to confirm for all the world to see, again, that the Bush Doctrine is essentially valid, that the use of force is sometimes justified, and that the United Nations is incapable of fulfilling its supposed mission of securing world tranquility. The chattering classes, many of whom populate the halls of the MSM, are terrified of the prospect. They would much rather scream "Bush is Hitler!" and feel pleased with their own daring, like a four-year-old child sticking his tongue out at his parents.

So the media war continues. But I wonder how many of them truly fail to understand that the greatest weapon of a terrorist is media attention, or that America's center of gravity (the most vulnerable aspect of a state at war) is public opinion. I hope that the media elites are indeed ignorant, because the alternative is that they are knowingly giving the enemy material aid in their fight against America. In an earlier age, that would be called "treason."


A Belated MLK Post...

"[W]henever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent." Martin Luther King, one day before his assassination.

Reverend King was a remarkable man, combining powerful oratory with a blinding moral clarity and vision that led him to fight societal racism on the one hand, and black racism and extremism on the other. More than that, King's words remain a rallying-cry to the cause of human dignity and justice, no matter on whose behalf.

In the dark days since his passing, America has never seen his equal. Yet the fight against racism rages on, twisted beyond recognition in ways that Rev. King would have been horrified to see. When Hillary Clinton can say, "If we don't take race as part of our character, then we are kidding ourselves," and be in full agreement with political orthodoxy simply because she is speaking in support of "affirmative action," we may be sure that the old vision of a colorblind society has been pushed to the side in favor of what Ayn Rand called "pressure politics."

How sad it is that both sides of this struggle claim to be acting in the name of Martin Luther King. He himself has already told us what he would have thought of the matter: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Sen. Clinton's semantic dodge notwithstanding, it is clear that he meant exactly what he said.


The Meme Wars Get Ugly

A new and disturbing trend seems to be emerging in the online world. A lot of people have been shocked and frightened by the ability of the blogosphere to counteract the usual distortions of the mainstream media (MSM, for short), as CBS was smacked down over the forged documents, the U.N. gets savaged almost daily at sites like the Diplomad, and the New York Times is held up to constant ridicule. A great deal of anger has arisen against the more conservative end of the blogosphere, especially from the "Deaniacs," the Web-savvy supporters of Howard Dean who still can't get a grip on reality.

Most of this anger has been expressed verbally, in the form of posts to their own blogs, or (less politely) crude hate-mail directed towards individual bloggers. (If you're really that curious, check out Michelle Malkin's hate mail. WARNING: Extremely coarse and vulgar language.) But recently it seems that the hostilities are escalating.

First, Little Green Footballs was hit with a Denial of Service Attack. (LGF played a major role in the Dan Rather takedown, producing a flash animation comparing the supposed documents with a duplicate document made with MS Word with the default system settings.) Then, just today the site of Tim Blair, Australian purveyor of sarcasm and common sense, was hacked. At this time all posts and archives have been deleted, and Tim's password details have been corrupted, so he is shut out of the system.

I have no idea who launched these attacks, but this is clearly not the work of a bored adolescent, attacking random websites. LGF and Tim Blair were key members of the blogosphere. Whoever attacked them has fallen back on the last refuge of the failing demagogue, wanton violence against the oppposition. And make no mistake, this is indeed an act of violence as bad as arson. Tim Blair's writings, dating back years, have been vaporized. His intellectual property has been destroyed.

I don't know how we should respond, besides doing frequent backups and installing better security when possible. Certainly we cannot retaliate against major blogs on the Left; vandalism does not excuse vandalism. If we could track down the scum who did this, however...

This is a sad day for the blogosphere. The thug wing of the Left has reemerged, and is tarnishing a glorious bastion of free speech and free-market exchange of ideas.

UPDATE (2:44): Tim Blair is back online. I linked to an article citing the thoughts of Theodore Dalrymple, as he prepares to retire from treating welfare cases in Britain. Highlights:

When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as "nonjudgmental." For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.

There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply.

Check out Tim's site. He does good work.

UPDATE (Jan 18): Tim says that the hacking was not malicious, but the result of a software glitch of some kind with the host. That makes me feel better; on the other hand, there's still the DOS attack on LGF, which cannot have possibly been an accident.


A New Sanhedrin?

I was just made aware of a remarkable series of events taking place in Tiberias, Israel. Last October, a distinguished group of rabbis and leaders officially established a new Sanhedrin. Since then, they have been hard at work codifying procedures and drawing up their legal agenda.

A few words of explanation are in order. The Sanhedrin was the high court of the old Jewish legal system, composed of 71 rabbis who were ordained in an unbroken chain stretching back to Moses. Only a court made up of ordained rabbis had the authority to decree corporal or capital punishment for violations of the law, and this court also issued definitive rulings on legal interpretation.

The Sanhedrin was eventually eradicated by the Roman occupiers, and the unbroken chain of ordination was lost. From that point on, the term "rabbi" lost much of its original meaning; but more importantly, there was no longer a single authority for legal practice in the Jewish world. Over time the legal tradition fragmented, first between the Jews of Israel and Babylonia, then Ashkenazi and Sefaradi, until now one can find noticable differences in practice betweeen one city and another.

The 12th-century commentator Maimonides, writing that the formation of a court system was an obligation on every generation, suggested a mechanism for reestablishing the Sanhedrin in its original form and restarting the chain of ordination. But the mechanism was not universally accepted, and when many of the leading rabbis of the 16th century tried to reestablish the court, it did not achieve wide acceptance and was soon disbanded.

Apparently, the new Sanhedrin is going forward under the explicit condition that they gain the full acceptance of the Jewish community, or else their activities should be seen as having no legal force. The court contains a number of towering figures of Jewish law and community, such as R' Adin Steinsaltz, R' Yishai Ba'avad, and R' Avraham Toledano. It has received the endorsement of R' Ovadya Yosef, the preeminent authority of the Sefardi world, and R' Kaminetsky, a leading figure of the Chareidi community.

What is the significance of a new Sanhedrin? First of all, it would have the power to harmonize the many different legal traditions that have grown up around the world, thus eliminating a constant source of friction and bad feeling between communities. Second, in many aspects of Jewish law today, we have a habit of erring on the side of stringency whenever there is a question of the law, simply because we have no final authority. If we have a final authority again, then the process of legal decisions can become more balanced and more open to leniency.

Third, a Sanhedrin could conceivably give religious standing to the State of Israel, helping to convince the Chareidi commmunity in America to become more involved with Israel despite its socialist origins. A Sanhedrin could also coordinate with the Israeli judiciary, laying out appropriate areas of authority for each, which should make the debate over judicial activism in Israel much more pleasant.

Finally, in Jewish tradition, the Messiah must be a prophet; and only the Sanhedrin could declare someone to be a true prophet. Without the Sanhedrin's approval, no one can claim the authority of prophecy. Therefore, a reconstituted Sanhedrin is a necessary prerequisite for the coming of the Messiah.

My first worry about this development is whether the Jewish world is ready to submit to a higher authority and to change some very old and established traditions to follow its dictates. Such a thing is necessary eventually, but I wonder whether people are willing to do it now. But I hope that the new Sanhedrin is successful. For too long we have not been a single people, but rather several diffferent communities divided from each other by legal practice. It is past time for us to become whole again.

That brings me to my second worry, which is how the more liberal communities of Jews, such as then Reform and Conservative movements, will react. Fundamentally, many Jews today reject the principle of the Torah and the Oral Torah as binding law. Until now, much of the observant community has tried to maintain some sort of dialogue with them, despite their rejection of the law; but what happens once we have reconstituted a fulll religious court, that administers punishments for violating the law? I worry that this may end up being the moment of truth for everyone. The Sanhedrin will need to draw dividing lines of some kind, and I do not look forward to the day that it happens. It would be akin to amputating a limb on a body.

But to be honest, that day is inevitable and has been since the very beginnings of the Reform movement. And we do have precedent to look at in the troubles with Karaite Judaism, a thousand years ago. It is my deepest wish that our brethren realize the terrible cost of remaining outside the tradition, and make such amputation unnecessary. But I doubt it will be that easy.

Regardless, I will be watching the progress of the new Sanhedrin with great anticipation. It could well herald the start of a new age, one that has been a long time coming.


No Teaching Fad Left Behind

Michelle Malkin devotes a post to the problems with the government's No Child Left Behind program for school accountability. Most worrying to me is that the program mandates not only student performance, but also the classroom teaching methods available for the teachers. Worse, it seems that the methods in question are rather suspect, as reported by a 4th grade teacher in Detroit:

After battling administrators, I was finally able to bring trainers into the district to teach a phonetic language arts method....NCLB comes along. Our reading coordinator smells the money, and applies for a Reading First grant. She's approved and we're stuck using a government-approved, whole-language reading series.

My class in primary school had the misfortune of being taught with whole language. It took the students a long time to achieve proficiency. I saw firsthand how inadequate whole language is for instilling basic reading skill.

This illustrates nicely the problem with a government-run education system. Methods, allocations, priorities, are set on the basis of the bureaucratic imperatives from a central office, and not necessarily the needs of the students. The teachers lose autonomy, and must conform to the governmental mold. This is a particular problem with regard to the teaching of history, which has become watered-down enough to avoid offending interest groups of all kinds. If you have the chance, take a look at a middle-school history or civics textbook (after removing fragile objects from your immediate vicinity), and see how the sweeping narrative of discovery, struggle, heroism and pain has become sterile and bland.

I see no reason at all why teaching methods must be mandated; so long as the teacher gets results, why worry about how? But education academics have to justify all that research funding somehow, and so they militate in favor of their system, to the exclusion of all others. Were public education not so rigidly centalized, it would not be such a problem. But as it is, there are few alternatives to charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling if you wish your children to escape the stultifying atmosphere of government-approved education. And these are rare or expensive.

Which brings us to vouchers.

Most of the voucher proposals I have seen would value them at about $4,000, which is considerably less than most school districts spend per child. Not only would they save the government money, but it would allow parents to have free choice of education. And that, of course, is what America is all about, right?

Unfortunatly, the teachers' unions are large, powerful, and hopping mad over vouchers, which would cripple the public-education system. I grant that all people want to protect their livelihood. (I may blog later about a fascinating conference call I heard with a lobbyist for the retirement-plan industry.) But the unions are putting their own interests in front of the needs of their students, in order to perpetuate a school system built on coercion and not choice. For a teacher, that seems excrable.

We need to institute vouchers in order to provide an effective spur to public schools to get their act together, or else they will continue to churn out mediocre educations to half-trained children, secure in their government subsidies and near-monopoly. To get vouchers, it seems we need to bring the unions around, or else break them. After all... it's for the children!

Calling the Pinkertons...


Sensitivity Training

Semester break just started for me a few days ago, and I'm spending it in California with my family. Today I was glancing through the Saturday, Jan. 8 issue of the Los Angeles Times (yes, I know, I know) when I came across this astounding paragraph in an article about the continuing U.N. sex abuses in the Congo:

Many of the allegations are difficult to prove and the U.N. is powerless to discipline perpetrators, so abuse continues despite sensitivity training for troops and multiple investigations, the report says.

Can anything serve to better capture all that is wrong about the U.N.? These "peacekeepers" are abusing 12-year-old girls in exchange for "a dollar or two eggs" or similar pittances, taking full advantage of the starvation and poverty of the region, and the official response is to provide sensitivity training?

To be fair, those pedophiles who were identified were sent back to their own countries and turned over to the authorities; yet in many such cases the matter is dropped by the authorities in question. And even if that were not true, even if every criminal to ever serve under the U.N. colors were sent back to a hangman's noose in his native land, it would still be a disgrace to the United Nations that repatriation would even be necessary.

The United Nations was founded ostensibly to serve as the international arbiter of geopolitics, and has since taken on the supposed role of guardian of human rights. Yet how can the U.N. do either, how can it dare to appoint itself as judge over the world, when it does not even have the institutional checks and balances with which to judge itself? What kind of justice can be meted out by an organization whose secretary-general can peremptorily end a sexual abuse investigation into a high-ranking official, who just happens to be a close personal friend? What kind of justice can one expect when the U.N. cannot even enforce discipline among the soldiers wearing blue helmets? What kind of justice can be had from an organization whose highest-level officials in Turtle Bay delight in violating New York laws, hiding smug and secure behind their diplomatic immunity?

None. None at all.

What can we expect? Why, sensitivity training, of course! Everyone just has to be a little more sensitive, that's all! You just need to understand that it's not really nice to coerce young girls into having sex, and then we can all live happily ever after. After all, we're sure that you are really a nice person, and never intended to hurt anybody, so once we explain everything to you we know that you'll behave yourself from now on. Big smiles, everybody!

What surprises me is how many people continue to think of the U.N. as it was intended to be, and not as it actually is. So many people associate the United Nations with the dreams of mankind to eradicate war and suffering and to make the world a better place, and they cannot bear to see the twisted, evil, corrupt mass of disease that actually sits in Turtle Bay. They simply stop listening, holding firmly to their dreams and refusing to call the sickness by name.

I have no such associations. Whatever the United Nations was at its beginnings, by the time of my birth it had come down firmly on the side of despotism and tyranny masquerading as international consensus, like the proverbial two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner. I shall not shrink from saying what should have been obvious to everyone long ago, and is only now finding the support that the idea merits:

United Nations Delenda Est. The United Nations must be destroyed.

Blogroll Updates

I've reorganized my blogroll on the side of the page, and added a few new faces. Head, author of the Head's Bunker blog, was kind enough to link to me, and I'm returning the favor; Head writes about firearms and the politics of the Second Amendment. But I am especially interested by the Counterterrorism Blog, which has a truly eminent contributing staff that hails from prestigious think tanks and academic institutions (you can read their bios on the site). Given that I'm preparing to write a thesis on counterterrorism, I suspect that I will be a frequent visitor.

The Rubberstamp is written by one of my colleagues at school, and makes for a fun read. It's guaranteed to send 4 out of 5 pacifists into a coma.

If you have not read Instapundit, the Diplomad, Powerline, Captain's Quarters, or any of the other pundits, you should start today. They are among the towering giants of the blogosphere; my listing is by no means adequate, but from their blogs you can branch out into all corners of the web, and all of the amazing talent that it holds.


Hugo Chavez, Thief

It should not be a surprise to anyone, but Venezuelan socialist thug Hugo Chavez is trying to confiscate land belonging to British nationals. This combination of wanton disrespect for property-rights and vicious Jew-baiting (see previous post) is more and more disturbing. In retrospect, the Bush Administration's error in endorsing Chavez's "election" is all the more aggregious. Granted, we have a great deal at stake in a stable flow of Venezuelan oil, and the election came at a bad time for the commodities market; but that was a short-term problem, which we have traded for a long-term problem. I believe that Chavez will only leave office feet-first or at gunpoint, and given the many signs of his dangerous ambition, I say that we should speedily see him out the door.

As an aside: one could say that Jimmy Carter was serving as a proxy for the State Department when he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Chavez and announced to the world that the election was free and fair, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Regardless, I wonder how the man can bear to sleep at night, given his unending love-affairs with Leftist tyrants, terrorists, and murderers of all stripes. It takes a great deal of talent to bungle up your foreign-policy as badly as did Carter during his time in office, and it seems that he learned nothing from the experience.


To the Stars

We have just passed the first aniversary of the rover Spirit's landing on Mars. Spirit and its twin Opportunity were designed to function for 90 days; yet both are still going strong, with no end in sight. I am particularly happy with the tremendous success of the Mars '04 mission, since a member of my family was on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that worked the mission. In fact, he played a big part in finding and correcting the memory bug that threatened to derail the mission in its first few weeks. But enough kvelling…

My support for JPL may seem odd, given that in many ways I tend toward Libertarianism. How can I reconcile my general views of small government and free-market capitalism, with a government-sponsored organization that uses our tax-dollars (well, your tax-dollars, unfortunately) to fund costly projects which boil down to taking machinery worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and shooting it up into space on rockets?

To be honest, this specific program is relatively easy to defend. JPL is proud to say that it is the only branch of NASA that pays for itself, by means of joint projects with commercial businesses which generate a lot of money for the economy. But that avoids the real issue. The real issue is that governments have certain capabilities that private companies lack, which allow them to do things that most businesses cannot do.

Because governments have access to vast resources and wealth (collected from the people, to be sure), they can bring together talent and skill that would dwarf anything the private-sector can do. Consider the Manhattan Project, the greatest collection of physicists and engineers that the world had ever seen.

Governments have no need to return a profit, which is usually a bad thing, but it also allows them to take on tasks that would provide immeasurable benefits to the state, but would return no profits in any conceivable timeframe. Virtually all roads, highways, and sewers in the world are built by governments; the few privately-owned roads that exist would be useless without the massive network of public roads connected to it. The many research-programs run by the government, such as DARPA or the space-program, have all thrown off innovations which have revolutionized society. The Internet was created by DARPA. The first computers were built to count the U.S. census. Miniature computer-chips were first developed for the NASA space-missions. GPS was developed for the military.

What we are seeing now with the sudden emergence of private sub-orbital craft, such as Burt Rutan's "Space Ship One," is analogous to the beginnings of the airplane industry. But it is worth remembering that the first party to show interest in the Wright Brothers' creation was the United States military. Similarly, NASA needed to demonstrate that space-flight was possible before any private parties could even consider investing the massive sums and taking the significant risks that space-flight requires.

Essentially, what I believe is that governments should only be involved in a particular activity if they can do it better than private industry, for inherent structural reasons. Long-range research or large-scale endeavors without an obvious commercial payoff seem to be part of those activities. (The only similar project in the private sector that I can think of is Bell Labs, formerly owned by AT&T; since they were spun off with Lucent, the direction of their research was ruthlessly redirected into projects with immediate commercial applications, and the world was dimmed thereby.)

Besides, it would take a truly unimaginative libertarian to decry the space program as being out of the proper purview of government. Granted, such idiocies as the International Space Station deserve to be mothballed; but there will come a day in the not-so-distant future when mankind shall set foot on Mars; and that day is immeasurably closer on account of government funding. Or rather, on account of the collective will and ingenuity of the American people, united behind a dream of exploring the stars. There is poetry in that.


The End of Textile Quotas

With the start of 2005, one of the most aggregious examples of Western protectionism came to an end. Textile quotas first negotiated by John F. Kennedy have been phased out, as agreed by the U.S. and Europe during the creation of the WTO over a decade ago.

The quotas meant that each country could only export a stated amount of textiles into the West. This prevented large countries such as China or India from producing up to potential; on the other hand, it gave smaller countries like Bangladesh a chance to build their own textile industries to fill excess demand. While most of the smaller countries such as the Philippines have managed to climb the technological ladder somewhat, and no longer rely on textiles for the bulk of their trade, Bangladesh will be hurt badly by the end of the quotas. But Bangladeshi garment-manufacturers have known that the quotas would end for a long time, and failed to prepare adequately as did the Pilippines, Columbia, or Vietnam, all of which consolidated their industries and boosted productivity in order to stay competitive in the new environment. In a world without artificial government controls, inefficiency is punished and flexibility rewarded.

The big winners will be China and India. This should be seen as a good thing. India is a firm ally of the U.S. and Israel, helping to counterbalance China's regional ambitions, and fighting against Islamofascism along the Indo-Pakistani border. Increasing the Indian textile industry will go a long way towards alleviating the wide gap between the Indian poor and middle-class, and will increase India's economic power in general.

China's gains are good also, to the extent that one believes in the Trading States thesis of geopolitics—that is, that states that trade with each other are less likely to go to war. Additionally, a growing textile-industry will put more money in the hands of the Chinese people; the consensus is that once the Chinese middle-class becomes large enough, the Communist government will fall victim to endlessly-rising expectations, pushing China towards democracy. Since democratization is the only feasible way to permanently solve the China problem, it should be advanced at every opportunity.

Meanwhile, the cost of clothing is expected to drop by about 20%. This is great news for the poor of the West, who spend a large fraction of their income on clothing. Until now they have essentially been forced to overpay for clothing, courtesy of government trade-barriers. Now that these barriers are coming down, the poor will have more disposable income at the end of the day, which they can use to increase their standard of living, or perhaps even to leverage themselves out of poverty.

That this comes at the expense of others in Bangladesh, for example, should not be too distressing; the world was given fair warning that this would happen, and Bangladesh and Indonesia chose not to react. Their industries, wasteful and inefficient as they are, owe their existence to government protectionism that effectively stole money from the poorest members of society. Now that protectionism is ended, and the world should rejoice. Next up: agricultural caps!