Get It in Writing

Looking over the details of the New School case as reported in this news article, one point in particular stands out:
According to New School Director Sue Miller-Hurst, she went to the county initially. “When we looked at this site in 2004, we sent a school architect to the county for a conditional use permit and he was told we did not need one because we were a public school. When we wanted to change a classroom, the owner’s contractor went to the county for a building permit and was again told, ‘You are a state school; we have no jurisdiction to issue you a permit.’ When I went to Supervisor Horn regarding a piece of land that had been pre-approved by the Division of State Architects for a school site, he said, ‘You are a public school. Stop asking and go forward.’ I asked him to put it in a letter and he said, ‘That would be asking. You are a public school and you do not have to ask.’ Then they show up in force the second day of school with no notice or warning and shut our kids out of their classroom [for alleged lack of permits]. At some point we have a reliance issue. We should be able to rely on the answers we are given from the county."
Governments, and large organizations generally, run on documentation. It is their lifeblood. When a government official gives an assurance regarding the application (or lack of same) of government regulations that he is unwilling to put into writing, the wise man will immediately become suspicious.

This case has all the elements in it that have collectively made for tyrannical government in the modern sense: the capricious application of inexplicable regulations, the diffusion of responsibility across a faceless bureaucracy, the decision that the parties involved are guilty until proven innocent (after spending a great deal of their own money), the total lack of regard for the real-world consequences of regulatory mandates. Plus, it surely cannot be an accident that the target in this case is a charter school, i.e. a novel institution that is free from much of the government's raft of regulations.

How did it happen that the power to make law is most in evidence not in the various legislatures, but rather in the faceless regulatory bodies? We have no easy recourse; we have no way to punish those who overreach. The regulators have no incentive to regulate well, only to regulate heavily; they are America's greatest bastion of corruption and graft, simply because of their untrammeled power and protection from consequences. (Not to accuse the principles in this case of corruption; there has so far been no evidence of same. But the point still stands.)

I will give the final word here to the recently-deceased champion for freedom, Dr. Milton Friedman:
Given our monstrous, overgrown government structure, any three letters chosen at random would probably designate an agency or part of a department that could be profitably abolished.


Quote of the Day

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
—George Washington


A Democratic Congress

[Apologies for not posting much lately. Since Nov. 1, I have been participating in National Novel Writing Month, which has utterly monopolized my capacity for stringing sentences together. However, I would be remiss if I did not say something about the most recent election.]

Well, the Democrats have control. Let's see what they do with it.

That was my overriding reaction to the election results, by early Wednesday. I am not sure yet whether I should consider the results to be a good or bad thing. I have said many times that it is harmful for the country to have one political party that is corrupt and incompetent, and another that is corrupt and insane. Well, now that the Democrats are faced with the responsibility for setting policy again, it is my profound hope that they give up their insanities and actually do a decent job of it.

One worry is that the committee appointments do not look promising. In particular, if Rep. Jane Harmon is passed over for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee for being insufficiently partisan, in favor of Alcee Hastings (a former judge impeached for accepting bribes), it cannot say good things for the state of Democratic governance. Nor will it say much about the Democratic commitment to taming the "culture of corruption" that they so lamented, especially if Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson remains in office even after he was found accepting bribes.

I do not expect to enjoy the Democratic policy preferences during the next two years on the domestic front. But I can accept that, if they finally get serious about the wider conflict with Islamist tyranny in its many hostile forms. Lieberman's victory over Lamont may cool the ardor of the leadership to vacate the field of battle; but it is troubling that many news reports have Democratic leaders taking counsel with George McGovern of all people.

I only hope that we do not abandon the Iraqis to anarchy and tyranny, like we did the South Vietnamese. Recall that the SVA had already repelled a full conventional invasion by the North, with the help of American air cover and resupply only. But then the Democratic Congress cut all funding for the South; before long, the South fell, and Cambodia after it. That cannot happen again. Before, the blood of millions flowed thanks to our war-weariness; if we make the same mistake now, who can say how many innocents will die? Far more than the number of soldiers who might die to prevent such a fate, in any event.

The Democrats have two years to show what they can be trusted to do with power. I hope, for all of our sakes, that they treat that power with the care and seriousness that the times demand. The danger did not begin with Iraq; it will not end with Iraq. I fear that the wider struggle will continue for a generation at least, and we cannot dare to mix policy with fantasy.

The Democrats have control. Let's see what they do with it.


An Attack on Charter Schools

[Note: I originally had a post up dealing with an attempt by a government bureaucrat to make trouble for a charter school. People involved in the case have asked me to pull the post for the time being; I have archived the original and will hopefully add more details later.]

[UPDATE 11/18: It's later. The original post follows; here is a link to a news article covering the case.]

On Friday, I received an email from a relative which was so disturbing that I ask for, and received, permission to reprint most of it here:
The New School is being targeted like no other charter school in the state's history, according to the school's attorneys. These attorneys have represented at least 2/3 of the charter schools in CA, so they have a good idea of the level of harassment we are getting.

I have lots of details, but suffice it to say, that there is a man in the DPLU (Dept of Planning & Land Use) in San Diego County that absolutely refuses to let the school "be" anywhere. We're trying to find a new location, and he has shut down all directions starting with "our current location is suddenly not compliant with zoning" to "being treated like a private school for purposes of finding a new location." The law is on our side in every area. We are compliant with the zoning, and we are a public school, so we are supposed to be able to pick any site we want and move there. When presented with all of the law behind us, his response is, "I don't care." We apparently need his permission to move forward, but for some reason, he won't let us...maybe, simply, because he can! He's trying to drain us of our funds by requiring all sorts of legal briefs, etc. We think that this is his plan to end the school...to drain our money.

The parents met last night and learned all of these wonderful things. We are trying to form some sort of political action to fix this. We all want to fight. This school has outstanding standardized test scores. The director thinks that this idiot, Jeff Murphy, might be bluffing because if we took him to court, he'd surely lose because the law is on our side…. We will be going to the press soon, getting on some talk radio shows, and trying to be picked up by "big" newspapers, etc.

But we have limited time here—our director was given a Compromise by the DPLU that is supposed to be signed by Monday if we are going to sign it at all. It allows us to stay where we are until the end of the year as long as we then dissolve. She (director) isn't going to sign it, and we are expecting to be locked out of the facility on Tuesday. If that happens, we will file an injunction that will at least let us exist until it's all sorted out. As a charter school, we don't have to meet there, and have resolved to be on permanent field trips until it's settled. We'd rather not have to do that, of course.
The official in question is subordinate to Supervisor Bill Horn, who has acknowledged that Murphy has exceeded his legal authority, but refuses to stop him.

There are at least three issues here. First, obviously, is that a government official is waging a vendetta against a legal charter school, without any justification or legal standing. I would like to ask my readers to help spread the word about this gross abuse of power, and help fight back. Bill Horn needs to hear from people, and the DPLU needs to be swamped with calls and emails. This is about more than a single school; the charter school in question is one of the most successful schools in the state of California, in a relatively affluent area—i.e. full of parents who can be expected to seek out educational opportunities beyond the traditional public school. This makes the New School dangerous to the established educational bureaucracy. If government officials can shut it down without any opposition, the entire school choice movement could be set back years.

Second is the broader issue: here we have a government bureaucrat who is acting in ways which are universally acknowledged to be illegal; yet he can still wield the power of government machinery in order to coerce his victims to submit. And the burden is on his victims to prove that what he is doing is illegal! (On their own nickel, of course.) I find it disturbing that none of Murphy's subordinates (the ones who actually will carry out his dictat) are able to judge the legality of his behavior, and refuse to take part in it. I find it even more disturbing that Murphy's boss, Supervisor Horn, can admit that his subordinate is acting illegally, yet still refuse to curb him without consequence.

If this were the military, Murphy and Horn would both be facing courts-martial (assuming, of course, that Murphy's actions are indeed illegal); consider that the officers in charge of Abu Ghraib were punished for the infractions of soldiers many steps below them in the chain of command. The larger point is that you have an obligation to control the behavior of your subordinates. Horn seems to be abrogating that obligation.

Third, this episode displays the ease with which zoning regulations can be exploited for malicious ends by government officials. There is a proposition on the California ballot that could mitigate this problem, Prop. 90; it would allow property-owners who are penalized by changes in zoning, building codes, etc. to sue for damages. Please vote for this proposition; it is without a doubt the most important piece of legislation on the ballot.


Atheism's Best Defense of Rights

Over at Smallest Minority, Kevin Baker has posted a monumental effort at defining a "right," and explicating why it and the United States are so important, from the atheist perspective. (Kevin was kind enough to quote from my earlier piece, The Enervated Man of the West, as part of his presentation.) Ultimately he must fall back on Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right," the right to your own life, from which all other fundamental rights flow.

Yet, strictly speaking, this is not a "right." Nothing has granted your life protected status. By speaking of a "right to your own life," Rand, and Kevin in his piece, simply acknowledge that if you do not defend your own life absolutely, you will inevitably be destroyed. It is a philosophical reflection of reality:
The "state of nature" is the ultimate objective reality. In it, people will do whatever is necessary to survive, or they don't survive. In point of fact, throughout history - even today - people have not only defended their lives, liberty and property, they have taken life, liberty, and property from others not of their society. And they have done so secure in the knowledge that their philosophy tells them that it's the right thing to do.
Kevin argues that such an outlook clashes with the basic principle underlying Western civilization, that of God-given rights. And though a devout atheist himself, he concludes that the advance of atheism is to blame for the crumbling of our cultural strength:
It is my contention that the loss of faith in Western civilization is the direct result of two things: the secularization of Western civilization, and a corresponding realization that there are no absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. Or, more specifically, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the refusal to accept this as objective fact.

Western civilization is based on the concept of God-given individual rights, but reality refutes their existence. War cannot exist if such a philosophy is true, yet war exists. People die. Their liberty is stripped from them. Their property is stolen or destroyed. No one is punished for the violation of these rights. If a society abandons religion (as much of Western civilization has done) then we cannot count on God to punish the violators, and they get away with their crimes against us, (See: Josef Mengele, Slobodan Milosevic, and most probably Saddam Hussein) yet we've been breastfed on the idea that our rights are absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, and ultimate - not to mention, self-evident.
This is the danger of atheism. Even Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right" when expressed in a social setting is merely a collective decision of enlightened self-interest. There is nothing about human life, in the abstract, that is worth defending when its destruction does not affect you.

This is why I have tended to avoid talking about "rights." Instead, I talk about the "sanctity of life," which has nothing to do with whether a murderer is punished for his crime or not. Nor does it have to do with human reason. Rather, it is an inherent state of existence, springing forth from our status as Divine creations. Only this axiom—that we are created, and given intrinsic significance, by God—can serve as a philosophical basis for defending life in the abstract. Kevin acknowledges this, which is why he believes that an intrinsic right to life does not truly exist.

Kevin believes that the need to wage war directly contradicts the idea of a "God-given right to life." He further believes that this contradiction must ultimately lead to a fatal cognitive dissonance that will bring down cultures based on such an idea. In saying this, Kevin does not consider how a worldview built on sanctity differs from one built on natural rights.

Kevin states: We have the right to kill others because our own lives are of value. Yet taken to its extreme, this formulation simply means that you can ultimately do whatever you need to to defend your own life, including killing the innocent. (This point is made explicitly above.) Meanwhile, in Judaism you are allowed to set aside nearly all parts of the law to save life. But there are clearly defined circumstances in which you are categorically ordered to lay down your life. You must allow yourself to die rather than commit idolatry, a capital sexual transgression such as adultery, or murder. These acts are considered so profane that you may never, under any circumstances, defile yourself with them.

However, you can, and sometimes must, kill someone who seeks to commit murder himself.

What is the difference? I believe that the act of profanity in which the would-be murderer has immersed himself nullifies his sanctity, for that instant.

More to the point, there is no contradiction between the sanctity of life and killing another to defend that sanctity. Admittedly, I have not studied enough to say whether this is the rationale used by Jewish law; but it shows, I think, that while a "rights"-based society might be built on a contradiction, as Kevin suggests, this does not mean that belief in God cannot generate a consistent worldview that allows war in defense of life.

Which brings us to the upshot. Without belief in God, you are left with self-interest, in its crude or enlightened forms. With belief in God, you can have the basis for a true defense of life as a principle.

Perhaps Kevin might be interested in a modified form of Pascal's wager. The stakes here are not eternal damnation, whatever that means; they are the philosophical integrity of our society, here on Earth.


There's Reality, and There's Political Reality

Last week I attended an industry conference in Atlanta, at which the headline speaker was former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was interviewed on the front stage by a CNN finance anchor, Ali Someone-or-Other (not being in the habit of watching CNN, I did not know him at all). The contrast throughout was striking: while the interviewer kept digging for the incendiary soundbite, Mr. Greenspan consistently replied with deep, reasoned analysis that displayed a level of historical perspective too often lacking today. For example, when asked a question about the housing boom and emerging slump, Mr. Greenspan began his answer by outlining the economic effects of the fall of the Soviet Union. And as he made clear in his answer, one cannot try to understand the current interest-rate environment without going back at least that far.

Ali asked if oil speculation posed a threat to the economy. Greenspan replied that the speculators were doing a great service, by building up large inventories of crude oil that would otherwise not have been available to mitigate shortages. Ali asked if hedge funds were dangerous and needed to be tightly regulated. Greenspan instead spoke highly of hedge funds, calling them "the pollinating bees of Wall Street" and crediting them with turning inefficient economic niches into efficient commodities. And on and on it went.

Noteworthy was the exchange on Social Security. When asked about the problem with Social Security, Mr. Greenspan replied that there was no real problem with Social Security: we know how much money there is, we know how many people there will be, and we know how much the shortfall is. He said, "I'm a Republican, but I could sit down in a room with Bob Rubin [i.e. Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary under President Clinton] and we could solve the problem in fifteen minutes. And the first ten minutes would be spent reminiscing over old times."

The problem was not one of numbers, he said, but of the lack of political will. (Neither party really wants to ask Americans to tighten their belts, which is what the situation demands: either more taxes, smaller payouts, or a radical restructuring that would cause great trauma in some form or another.) The real problem was not with Social Security, but with Medicare: "We have made promises we don't know if we can keep." Not only because of the ballooning expense of medical care—we don't know if there will be enough hospitals, doctors, or nurses to provide the necessary services. And the government is only halfheartedly trying to figure out exactly what it has promised, even as it piles on more promises on top of the ones already made.

The most serious problem Mr. Greenspan pointed out was the catastrophic failure of our schools. He noted that at 4th grade, our students score near the top of the world in academic achievement; but by the time they reach high school, American students rank near the bottom of developed nations. This is the cause of our shortage of doctors and scientists; it is also the cause of the stagnation of low-skill wages, as students who by rights should have been prepared for technical careers must settle for low-skilled work instead, glutting the labor market.

Yet very little is done to actually improve our schools. Teachers' unions fight tooth and nail against the expansion of charter schools, or any substantive reform of the school bureaucracy, and instead loudly moan for more money. This despite the worst-performing school district, in Washington D.C., also being the most lavishly funded. The problem is not one of money; it is of institutions. And Democratic politicians especially are too deeply indebted to the teachers' unions to dare cross them.

(One notable exception is the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. I'm not sure if I agree with a city takeover of the school district in the abstract, but it will surely do a great deal of good in the concrete. And I particularly enjoyed the panicked howling from the teachers' unions.)

Something is very wrong with our politics when the most damaging and obvious problems are never addressed, while relatively minor problems are built up into bogeymen. A part of this is from the "gotcha" mindset typified by the CNN interviewer, who was more interested in creating controversy than in reasoned analysis. (To be fair to him, he was quite a skilled interviewer. But still a narcissistic lightweight.) Our politics is less about improving the country than it is about scoring points off of the other guy. Witness the hyperventilating over Rep. Foley's famous emails, a subject which (while sordid and reflecting very poorly on his character) has nothing at all to do with government policy.

Yesterday on a local radio program, Larry Mantle's "Airtalk," Kevin O'Leary proposed a new political institution to help remedy this malady. Borrowing from the Athenian system of democratic assemblies, O'Leary proposed that each Congressional district should select by lottery 100 citizens, who would participate in a citizens' assembly for two years if they accept the appointment. There would thus be 43,500 such average-joe assemblymen, who would debate the issues of the day away from the backbiting of Washington. Read his website for a summary; I have a few issues with the idea, which I brought up in a phone call to the show, but it has a great deal of potential to get the government focused on doing its job again. (You can listen to the segment, as of right now, by going here, scrolling down to Tuesday, October 24th, and clicking on the "Saving Democracy" audio.)

At any rate, we as citizens need to muster the will to break out of the petty morasses of the moment and consider the difficult questions that matter most. The laws of economics cannot be ignored by the political class forever.


On another note, Michael Barone writes about a private interview he and seven other columnists had with President Bush earlier today. The hour-long audio of the interview is posted, and makes for fascinating listening. The President began his remarks sounding stilted and uncomfortable, but loosened up considerably as the interview wore on. If you have any interest at all in the thoughts of the most powerful man on Earth, take a listen. This is not the fabled Texas cowboy by any means. (Much as he would like to be sometimes; listen especially to his comments about Syria!)


Redeeming Our Politics

Excerpts from a post about politics by Roger L. Simon and from a few commenters:
It's blood sport performed by truly uninteresting performers—basketball without Kobe, Shaq or Jordan. People like Reid, Hastert, Pelosi are complete mediocrities who should be at much lower levels in our society. Something is fundamentally wrong on both sides of the aisle if they are the upper leadership of our Congress…

[Carl Spackler:] Life gets more complex every year. But not by accident. In my case of building private homes, I can remember when a permit was a twenty minute exercise. Now, six months to a year is normal. Same in manufacturing or even in running a middle school. So, more intellectual power is sucked up in doing the same thing. Only it seems as if the cost continues to increase and quality declines.

And who do you think gets paid the most? Take wood frame house building. It’s really very simple. Is it the framer working in the summer sun, up high on the rafters or in the winter winds and snow lifting walls up? Nope. The plumber, the electrician or the mason with the skin on his hands crevassed and like sand paper? All of whom work without sick days, paid vacations, pensions? Nope. The highest paid are the paper shufflers. The lawyers, the inspectors, the ‘environmental consultants’. So why would people do real, literally constructive work?

[ahem:] Everyone's missing the part played by yellow journalism. Many honorable people are dissuaded from participating in government because they don't want to be combed over by the idiot media.

How dearly would I love for a politician to turn around and ask Diane Sawyer about her sex life for a change. If the media dimwits had to answer the insulting questions they ask daily, they might back off…

[geekWithA.45:] If you remember reading documents and other root materials from the time of the Founding, such as the Federalist papers, you'll note that on many, many occassions they talked about how the system would bring forth the best and brightest minds, men of sterling character and integrity.

You could say that this is one of the Republic's dependencies.

You'll also note that they make repeated references to the dependency on an educated, informed electorate.

It's pretty hard to argue that these dependencies are being met.

God help the Republic.
At present, winning election to public office requires an incredible assortment of skills. One must curry favor with the party machine; one must build (or at least fund) a powerful get-out-the-vote organization. One must be reasonably photogenic; one must know the right people. One must know how to stroke the egos of news reporters to ensure favorable coverage. One must carefully balance the interests of the various segments of your electorate, to ensure that all-important 51% "Yes." And one must either have a spotless record, or else pay off the right people to ensure their silence.

Most of all, one must have a lot of money, or else one or several wealthy backers. (Since McCain-Feingold, the wealthy actually have more influence on politics than before, by design. It is the middle class and the upper-middle class who were effectively shut out of politics by that ill-made law.) You could fund a campaign with thousands of small donations, of course; but to win national office, you need a war chest of millions, sometimes tens of millions. Try getting that from your friends and family.

What you do not need is any skill in statecraft, law, or economics. True, you must be expert in the rules and procedures, the minutia of getting things done, and you have to perform well enough that your constituents are not actively disgusted with you; but the simplest way to do that is to avoid taking strong positions on anything. When power is apportioned through an elaborate popularity contest, there is no reason to suppose that your elected officials will be true statesmen.
[Section9:] Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.
So what can we do? How can we spectators to this glorified mud wrestling match rescue our government from its own mediocrity?

One can imagine all sorts of necessary or desirable changes in electoral procedure; but they will have limited effect so long as we continue to act as though our leaders must come from an electoral caste, a self-styled aristocracy. It galls me every time I see a national politician run unopposed, simply because nobody—nobody!—in that district wants the hardship of running. It galls me when practically everyone thinks of voting as a choice between two evils, and then does nothing to help remedy that detestible state.

"How many libertarians does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but you have to get him to show up."

Our government will continue slogging its way through mediocrity, unless talented people from all walks of life run for office. Not because they desire power, not because they want to run their fellow citizens' lives, but precisely because they want neither. Those with a keen understanding of government's operation, history, or human nature should see it a civic duty to interrupt their real lives for a time, and dedicate their service to the good of the nation. A burden, even. Yet one that must be carried, unless we want to let our laws be written by the Hasterts and the Pelosis of the world.

Almost all of them will lose. Running will represent a huge investment of time, money, and emotional strain that candidates will never get back. But their mere presence in the ring will change the dynamic of our politics, just a bit—will force our elected officials to talk about ideas as often as about their skill at securing pork, about the real world as often as the high-school-lunchroom politicking of Washington.

And a few of these talented statesmen might win.



North Korea's been conducting purported nuclear tests and threatening war, the budget deficit has shrunk to 1.9% of GDP (well below the 40-year average of 2.3%), Jimmy Carter has opened his fetid mouth in public again, the price of oil has dropped like a rock, and Pope Benedict continues to state uncomfortable truths about modern Islamism.

So why haven't I been posting?

There are several reasons for my inactivity; a chief one is that I've been pushing to finish the revision of my undergrad thesis, on which I have now worked off and on for nearly two years. The previous draft was a complete mess, as was obvious when I picked it up again after a few months. The draft that is presently taking shape (my last, God-willing) is much stronger, and also incorporates more literature from the field.

I should have it finished in short order, at which point I plan to upload it to the Net. Until then, I commend you to the blogs on my sidebar.


Quote of the Day

Officials of the [Iranian] regime have admitted that most Iranian clerics have always taken a wary view of Khomeinism. It is important to realize that the religious references which Khomeini used to justify his rule were literally the same as those invoked a century earlier by an eminent ayatollah who was arguing for the legitimacy of parliamentarianism and popular sovereignty on Islamic grounds.
—Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, Terror, Islam, and Democracy, published in the Journal of Democracy, Spring 2002


If All You Have is a Hammer...

One of the constant critiques by soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is that they are having to carry out diplomatic and civil affairs duties that are, strictly speaking, outside of their core competency. Robert Kaplan noted that "they say where is the State Department. We want desperately to hand over responsibility to USAID, the State Department." Yet the State Department has been slow to get involved in efforts on the ground, spending its energies on high politics instead; after all, that is the core competency of State.

We have two organizations, the military and the diplomatic corps, each of which has its own idea of what its purpose is, and neither of which is explicitly tasked with low-level development work. That the job ends up being done by the military is merely a concession to necessity; soldiers are not trained to be city planners, or sewer engineers, or diplomats. (Though as Kaplan wrote, they often do a much better job of it than more qualified specialists.)

This dichotomy between diplomacy and military force dates back to a time in which politics were largely between royal European courts, in which statecraft was a grand game and was played by clearly defined rules. War was war, peace was peace, and institutions were developed in light of that. In particular, the notions of international development, low-level diplomacy, or nation-building were completely foreign to the structure of these institutions, which dealt with unitary states for the most part.

Even under such circumstances, to divide warfighting from diplomacy is problematic. Clausewitz wrote that "War is the continuation of politics by other means," and that warfighting needed to be strictly subordinated to political goals. Similarly, diplomacy is ineffectual when not backed up by the threat of force. As Ace noted a few times, diplomats can only negotiate; they have nothing to fall back on when they are faced with the word "No."

Worse, by having two institutions, each fundamentally built around a different way of relating to the outside world, each of them will have a distorted picture of the outside world: the diplomat will see all problems as amenable to jaw-jaw, and the soldier will see all problems as needing war-war. National policy will be influenced as much by which of the cabinet officials is more powerful that month, as it will by the facts on the ground.

And in the event of a conflict, the military will be backed up by a diplomatic corps that is, by nature, oriented away from the use of force. Friction develops, effort is wasted, opportunities are lost. And bureaucratic turf battles will stand in the way of applying the right skills to the situation.

Now, let us look at the modern battlefield. The distinction between warfighting and diplomacy has vanished entirely. Our soldiers must deal with civilian populations constantly, negotiating with clashing power centers and building alliances to support American interests. Our diplomats are often acting in support of military objectives such as the arrest of foreign terrorists. More importantly, battlespaces are chaotic; the unitary government is often nonexistent, and diplomacy must often be conducted on-the-fly by the men in theater, whoever they work for.

That being the case, why should we have two separate organizations at all?

The fundamental task is to interact with the outside world. Our representatives should have access to the entire continuum of behaviors and assets, from bandages to bullets, without having to navigate political mazes and dangerous turf battles. They should also be trained in both the sword and the olive branch, so that there is no inherent bias towards one or the other in their understanding of the world.

The Defense Department and the State Department should both be abolished. In their place should be a new organization, better suited to defend our interests abroad and to do the crucial work of nation-building which seems to be our great challenge. It should bring the full resources of the United States -- military, financial, educational, and diplomatic -- to bear on obstacles. The sergeant at the front line should be able to negotiate treaties and disburse foreign aid, and the diplomat in a foreign capital should be able to pick up a phone and order an airstrike.

In short, I propose a new organization: the Department of Statecraft.


Quote of the Day

In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion — that is , the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware — will not allow him to do so. Most of the people surrounding him are sceptical and disaffected, and he may adopt the same attitude from imitativeness or sheer cowardice: in that case he will have abandoned the form of nationalism that lies nearest to hand without getting any closer to a genuinely internationalist outlook. He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack — all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognized for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one's conduct.
—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945)


The Role of the People

The Sept. 9-10 Wall Street Journal published an interview with President Bush that is well worth reading, if only for the insight it provides into the mind of the most powerful man on Earth. I would like to focus on one particular point. Discussing the old policy of Middle-East "stability" at the price of liberty and justice, the President said:
The problem with that philosophy, or that foreign policy, was that beneath the surface boiled resentment and hatred, and that resentment and hatred helped fuel this radical Islam… [I]n the long run, the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected, Paul, is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment.
And later, he said:
In the long run, the United States is going to have to make a decision as to whether or not it will support moderates against extremists, reformers against tyrants. And Iraq is the first real test of the nation's commitment to this ideological struggle…
Mr. Bush displays admirable clarity on what constitutes the heart of this struggle, not weapons or armies but ideas. This only makes more remarkable the strange passivity from the White House, and the government in general, on the subject of the ideas in question.

The President has spent the last several weeks doing the kind of public explication of our philosophy that many supporters of the war have been begging him to do for the past five years. Many have explained this spurt of activity by pointing to the upcoming midterm elections, which seems correct to me. Yet why the galling silence in the long days before now, especially if the President considers the war of ideas so important? Why was there no attempt to pull an FDR, and continuously rally philosophical support to the war with the repeated invocation of our principles?

Until recently, when the White House did justify the war, the ideas of freedom and democracy were employed so casually as to make them clichés. It was as though the government did not think it important to make its own formal case, only to provide the key words and let a subset of the people fight a desperate holding action against the rising tide of oppposition. Why?

Similarly, there has been no attempt to directly discredit the ideas of the enemy. In a true "war of ideas," you seek to demonstrate the flaws in the opposing philosophy, and show that your own is superior. (Admittedly, it is difficult to do that when the pseudo-intelligensia is on the lookout for any sign of "cultural arrogance"…) Instead, the participation of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples in their new democracies is presented as clear proof that democracy is superior to the alternative. But for one who already believes in jihadi Islamism, this "proof" is no proof at all. His ideas remain intact.

In both cases, it seems that the important part is for the United States to carry out its idea and put it into practice. Once democracy is established, so goes the implicit theory, it will perpetuate itself regardless of the initial mentality of the Arab world. So there is no need to actually convince anyone of democracy's superiority, merely to demonstrate it. Similarly, there is no need to truly unite the American people around an idea, merely to retain enough of an electoral edge to carry out your policies.

There is some truth to this theory, as a fallback position. But it does not adequately explain why the White House has never seriously attempted a true war of ideas in the first place.

Let us look back into the mists of time to the long-ago days of the 2000 election. Back then, Mr. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative." This epithet was mocked by liberals as contradictory; but small-government conservatives knew better. What Mr. Bush meant by "compassionate conservative" was "big-government conservative," meaning that he would use the power of government as an instrument to achieve his policy goals. This in sharp contrast to the supposedly unfeeling "Goldwater conservative," who sees government as dangerous and in need of curtailment.

So, what goals has the President pursued? Aside from his war aims, what has most characterized this administration has been the Ownership Society. That is, the President has sought to modify existing government programs in ways that promote individual savings and responsibility. Though most people remember the famous tax cuts, and the White House's failure to enact Social Security reform, few notice such reforms as Health Savings Accounts, expanded vehicles for retirement savings, and new rules for pension plans. (The recently passed Pension Protection Act of 2006 is the most thorough pension reform in three decades, and was scarcely noticed by most people.)

But while the President was making all of these reforms, he was not laying out a philosophical foundation for them to the people. Also, many of the reforms amount to actuarial adjustments (for example, raising IRA limits to $4000 from $2000) rather than true changes of approach. By making prudent habits such as saving for retirement more attractive, Mr. Bush seeks to change people's behavior without changing their minds. And he does so through the framework of government, not by setting the government aside. Action is initiated by government; the people simply respond to a new set of incentives.

Six months ago, I noted a speech the President gave in which he was asked:
From the grassroots level, how can we help you promote the cause of freedom and liberty for all peoples throughout the world?
He responded:
[T]he best way you can help is to support our troops. You find a family who's got a child in the United States military, tell them you appreciate them. Ask them if you can help them. You see somebody wearing a uniform, you walk up and say, thanks for serving the country.
In other words, the role of individuals is to acquiesce to government action, not to initiate action of their own.

I believe, based on the foregoing and especially the President's economic policies, that he bases his policies on the idea that most people only act by responding to incentives. It is the role of government, therefore, to shape the incentives available. Thus, to reduce terrorism, you need only set up a democracy and allow a new social dynamic to come into being. You needn't worry about an actual war of ideas, since the idea of terrorism will vanish as soon as the societal pressures that created it change.

You will not find a Democrat to explicitly criticize this worryingly incomplete philosophy, as most Democrats believe the same thing (albeit they seek to promote different incentives). But as in the "support the troops" quote above, Mr. Bush is wasting a tremendous source of power: the independent efforts of his countrymen, which he does not seem to believe truly exist as a force to be used. And he is similarly underestimating the power of jihadi Islamism, which has proven most corrosive not under dictatorships, but within seemingly Westernized communities across Europe and (to a lesser degree) the United States.

We may win out anyway; America has always been good at muddling through. But our cause is not helped by this sort of cynical statism. Our leaders need to stop thinking of government as the cure for all of our problems. Government is simply a concentration of the power of the citizenry; if an occasion arises when we can employ that power to greater effect ourselves, then we should be given the chance.


Castles in the Air (A 9/11 Jeremiad)

In Roman times, roads meant trade, so new villages were built beside roads. In Anglo-Saxon times, roads meant marauders, so new villages were built far from roads. Tells you most of what you need to know, I reckon.
—dearieme, commenting at Samizdata.

As the West wages desultory war against its enemies, we have too often taken our eventual victory for granted. Those among us who hope that we lose, the acolytes of Noam Chomsky and his ilk, likewise do not really believe that the West can actually be overthrown; they suppose that our imperial ambitions will be thwarted, and we will withdraw from the international scene smarting with humiliation but otherwise whole. Western society would remain largely as it is, perhaps with fundamentally minor changes in economic or political policy, in one direction or another.

This assurance is born in large part from our tremendous material wealth, which translates into military power. Just as importantly, our wealth comes less from our (admittedly prodigious) natural resources than from our entreprenurial and technological prowess. Our superiority is made self-evident, so we imagine, just by comparing our own technology to that of our foes. Our technology is seen not only as a measure of power, but of creative ability and the mental agility to live in such a technological world. Our enemies, the backward peoples of the Muslim world, surely cannot hope to match such wonders!

This is in truth a thin reed on which to base such complacency. Two points are neglected in this triumphal narrative:

First, one man may use a tool crafted by another. That we created the atomic bomb ex nihilo, as it were, only makes it that much easier for Iran and other malevolent powers to imitate us. That we did it first will soon become a point of historical curiosity.

Second, our matchless technologies are driving tremendous change thoughout the world. Much of this change is good, lifting millions from poverty and threatening to destabilize tyrannies across the globe. But this technology is also laying bare our own existential nullities as never before.

Yesterday, I came across two older pieces by David Wong, proprietor of the website A Pointless Waste of Time (warning: sporadic profanity). In 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable, Wong argues that our increasing reliance on the Internet for communication and social interaction is turning us into alienated, maladjusted, small human beings. Read the whole thing if you have 15 minutes or so, but here are some key paragraphs:
Studies show that for almost everybody, the number of people we really trust is shrinking. About a quarter of the people they talked to said they had NO ONE to confide in. Walk down the street, one out of four people you pass have nobody…

The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid [being annoyed]… And that would be awesome, if it were actually possible to keep all of the irritating s--- out of your life. But it's not. It never will be. As long as you have needs, you'll have to deal with people you can't stand from time to time. But that skill, the one that lets us deal with strangers and tolerate their shrill voices and clunky senses of humor and body odor and squeaky shoes, is being burned right out of us. Our Annoyance Immune System is being weakened. So what encounters you do have with the outside world, the world you can't control, make you want to go on a screaming crotch-punching spree…

Half of what sucks about not having close friends has nothing to do with missing birthday parties or not having a second person to play basketball with. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism… I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized — and I mean the way a wife or a best friend can criticize you — very little. And I've been made worse because of it. The difference is of course that insults are just someone who hates me making a noise to indicate they hate me. It's them telling me how they feel. Criticism, on the other hand, is someone telling me something about myself that I myself didn't know.

And as much as we hate to admit it, most of what we know about ourselves we've learned from other people…

There's one advantage to having mostly online friends, and it's one that nobody ever talks about: They demand less from you… But here's the thing. You are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable.
Previously, the sheer imperative to function in society carried with it innumerable opportunities for minor and major kindnesses. It is certainly possible to go out into the real world and be an absolute jackass, but it takes a lot of effort. But now, an internet user can easily go long stretches without doing kindnesses for another, simply because there is much less face-to-face interaction. Moreover, people are becoming less able to communicate in general, and there is a powerful incentive to close yourself off in your own private world, with your own private amusements (which are getting more sophisticated all the time).

(In Japan, this tendency has manifested to a pathological degree in the hikikomori, adolescents and young adults who confine themselves to a single room of their house for months or years, never emerging even to speak to their own parents. Some estimates number the hikikomori at up to a fifth of Japan's adolescent population.)

In short, people are becoming more spiritually stunted. Because of our lessening human contact, empathy is rarer, inner contentment is waning, and people are losing the mental strength necessary to do hard deeds, rather than simply disengaging from the world and its pain. And they know that something is wrong. A creeping discontent with life, a sense that some vital component is missing, becomes ever-stronger.

In desperation, many are turning to the Fahrenheit-451option of endless amusement, endless games, endless thrill-seeking. And this choice is about to become easier than ever. In Wong's other piece, A World of Warcraft World, Wong anticipates a time when online roleplaying will have all but displaced the real world, for growing numbers of people. (The article was written some time ago, and his numbers are out of date. My brother, an employee of Blizzard, tells me that "World of Warcraft" now has over 7 million subscribers.) Read it, but here are some key paragraphs:
If you don't understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I'm going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: you get to pick what you look like and what your talents are… And this idea is what's going to push the expansion of MMORPG technology in the way that porn pushed the expansion of the internet, the desperate-but-untapped desire to interact with others without the bothersome interference of genetic flaws and poor diet and exercise habits…

Total immersion, the kind that could really fool you, won't happen tomorrow. But as time goes on it is absolutely inevitable that the graphics will become life quality, that visual displays light years beyond monitors or cumbersome headsets will hit the market. The keyboard and mouse will be long gone, everything done by thought and voice. It is the logical end of everything game developers and console makers are trying to do today and they will not stop until they have it.

And that, my friends, will be a watershed moment in human history. The point where we can trick the senses into thinking a piece of software is real, thinking a real supermodel is in our bed or a dragon is in our front yard or our dead mother has come back to give us advice, that's when everything changes. The metaverse will still be less important in many fundamental ways. Goods won't be produced there, food won't be grown there, babies won't be born there. But in the minds of a whole lot o' people, visits to the physical world will be just brief interruptions to the "real" world as they live it, the world where all of their friends and hobbies and ambitions are.
Why is all of this significant? Because this is happening at a time when we need to be more aware of the harsh realities of the real world, not less. If it were a simple matter of marshalling the will for a long war I would not be as worried; it will be trivial to have military robots controlled by internet users, who would see the carnage as just another game. No, the problem is that the Long War is fundamentally a war of warring epistemologies; in particular, the long-reviled idea of religion is coming back to the forefront of history, with a vengeance.

An all-encompassing belief in a Supreme Being, who has specific mandates for the true believer, shows all of the signs of being a Darwinian survival trait on a societal level. The believer has strong reasons to engage in social behavior with other believers; he has powerful incentives to carry out a shared societal program with his coreligionists; part of that program is usually to spread the belief system to others; and — most importantly — the true believer cannot compromise his fundamental beliefs without adulterating his certainty in the Supreme Being. This sort of foundational stability is lacking in the secular West, in which societal institutions are based on nothing more durable than human reason. Indeed, of late it has become the practice to tear down all societal institutions, without replacing them in turn. In such an environment of philosophic void, a spreading religious system can find much nourishment.

But what happens when the aforementioned Darwinian traits are joined to a religious system that is fundamentally evil? Then you are faced with what amounts to a viral epidemic. You can slow such an epidemic by quarantine, or cauterizing infections, but to truly vanquish it you must develop a robust epistemological immune system. And it is precisely this faculty, philosophical robustness, that is attacked by the widespread descent into fantasy worlds. There is no need for a philosophy when one is slaying notional dragons, in a world with specific rules coded by a team of programmers laboring in a corporate campus. You know what the score is. You face few, if any, moral dilemmas. The world is predictable, without unpleasant surprises.

And your spiritual fortitude, your strength of character, wanes away.

At the last, you will lack the mental steadfastness to fight against the oncoming rush of religious warriors. Because you will have trouble understanding why they are wrong. If you doubt this, consider the growing ranks of people today, even at this early hour in the Long War, who make excuses for the Islamist faction or who actively encourage it in order to further their own petty goals.

The idea of the secular state, as a guiding principle of nations, is less than three hundred years old — a historical novelty. Many naively assume that secularism is the next stage in a unidirectional arrow of human development. But there is nothing to prevent the tides of religious war from swamping the weakening philosophical dikes of the Enlightenment, and scouring secularism from the sodden earth. Unless we of the West have the strength to man the dikes. Unless we believe the dikes to be worth manning.


The Enervated Man of the West

There are truths that must be stated. Mark Steyn starts down that road with the speech from which I quoted some hours ago, which has earned him a great deal of hatred; yet while he identifies the problem — that there is little in the multicultural identity, or lack of same, that can offer a compelling alternative to a determined, militant Islam for the individual Muslim — Steyn stops halfway in his search for a solution. We must regain calm self-confidence in our Western culture and heritage, Steyn says. Very good; yet what about our heritage are we to have confidence in? What specifically does the classical tradition hold that the modern multicultural society lacks, which is the essential point that will grant us victory in the long war ahead?

Steyn does not say straight out, aside from correctly stating that we will only fight to defend our society if we see it worth defending, as being superior to the opposing culture. But why does he not say clearly what in the Western tradition he thinks is superior and worth defending?

I hesitate to put words in Steyn's mouth; but he returns again and again in his writings to the example of the Thuggee cult in India, which would immolate young widows at their husbands' funerals. The response of the British General Sir Charles Napier to this charming custom (known as Sati) was not to ignore it as an expression of a different culture, but to eradicate the Thuggee cult from India. It seems, then, that one of our great virtues according to Steyn is that we consider human life sacred.

This by itself is easy; how difficult is it for an individual to abstain from killing people? The difference with the West is that we value life so much that we are willing to kill people to protect it. This requires a sterner mind than does simple nonviolence; it is not trivial to develop a philosophy in which you can willingly kill others at the same time as you hold life sacred, indeed, in service to that sanctity.

A word on sanctity. It necessarily implies that human life is sacred everywhere, at all times, regardless of prevailing social mores or laws. This carries with it the obligation to protect human life everywhere, to the best of our practical ability, and regardless of opposing social mores. Which is why Steyn is horrified that:
In London last summer, the Metropolitan police announced they were reopening investigations into 120 deaths among British Muslim girls that they'd hitherto declined to look at too closely on grounds of cultural sensitivity. Now think about that. Think about that. One hundred and twenty women are murdered and their murders go uninvestigated because the cops thought it was just some multicultural thing.
Steyn realizes that such murders are common in the Muslim world, of course, which is a large part of his implacable opposition to the spread of Islamic law. But what makes this truly horrifying to him (and to me, frankly) is that these murders went uninvestigated on British soil. That is to say, Britain had consciously abdicated its duty to defend human life even within its own sovereign borders, to say nothing of elsewhere.

Why? "Cultural sensitivity." Britain was unwilling to enforce the sanctity of human life among a community that thinks otherwise. Doing so might lead to a violent reaction, after all; better to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble, no matter how many young girls are murdered in the meantime.

How could such a travesty occur? As I said above, it is difficult to reconcile the sanctity of life with the need to kill people in its defense. It is even more difficult for a decent person to kill another, himself (as opposed to supporting a champion who kills in his stead). And, most of all, it is most difficult to do so when it places yourself and your loved ones at risk. In short, we are dealing with an intertwining of philosohpical dissonance, misplaced mercy, and above all else a deep, pervasive fear.

All of these are symptoms of enervation. Intellectual enervation, in which elites who fear the abyss more than anything else have chosen to turn their backs on it, so that the abyss will not stare back at them. Moral enervation, in which individuals can reject necessary duties because they are distasteful. And enervation of the instincts, in which fear is allowed to dominate our minds above all else. We lack the fortitude, the iron determination, to do what must be done.


To approach our answer, let us return to the question of the hour: why will Islamic communities not assimilate into the West?

Set aside the various ways in which the West does not conform to Islam's ideal. I am not concerned with whether practicing Muslims feel at home in the West; I as an Orthodox Jew am not truly at home here even though I am a proud American from birth. What concerns me is why many Muslims are actively repelled by Western culture. Why do so many seemingly Westernized Muslims seem driven into the arms of the anti-Western exclusionism of the Jihad?

One finds this revealing sentence in a review of Osama bin Laden's writings by Printculture: "Democracy is at best a materialist doctrine for [bin Laden], a sinful worship of human desires of happiness." Similarly, a term that comes up over and over again is "decadence." The West puts the pursuit of pleasure above all else, so says the contemptuous Jihadi.

Materialism. Worship of human desire. Worship of happiness. All this set against the ultimate self-nullification of the suicide bomber.

But why should our decadence be so repulsive, and the alternative so attractive, to these Jihadis? After all, decadence is fun. It is pleasurable. It is so very easy! But (and here we tread on dangerous ground indeed) it is our decadence that is enervating us as a society. In the midst of our tremendous material wealth and power, we have grown so weak and stunted that much of the West cannot bear to use that power. Whereas, while the warriors of the Jihad are materially weak, they are indeed the mightiest of men. For they have offered up their very lives for their beliefs, and the halls of the powerful tremble with fear.

Steyn cannot say this out loud (assuming he even thinks in these terms, which he may not) because if he does, he must identify those decadent ideas and practices that are to blame for our enervation. It is hard enough for him to argue that Western culture is superior to others because it holds life sacred; if he tried to explain why some no longer defend that sanctity, he would have to challenge not only ideas of the multicultural Left, but of classical liberalism itself — the founding political doctrine of the United States.

The tradition of classical liberalism is built around the social contract, in which citizens cede power to a government in exchange for the guarantee that their rights will be protected. The main rights, of course, are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," or alternatively "property." In essence, the government has a limited mandate: to ensure the security of material goods, and the negative good of freedom from oppression.

But what of our civic obligations? They are narrow indeed: obey the law. Beyond that, you are free to act however you wish. You may feel certain behaviors as an obligation, but the obligation does not come from government. The government will not force you to be a good person.

More than that, this freedom to act however we choose is extolled as a virtue. Matthew Arnold, in his work Culture and Anarchy, speaks of the British love for "doing as one likes," a love which largely carried over to America. Politicians, who need the support of the people to gain power, naturally celebrated this tendency and called "doing as one likes" a glorious expression of political liberty. In essence, they confirmed and celebrated the existing prejudice of the people.

What they did not do, and what few politicians do today, was use their stature to ecourage the people to become a better people. Indeed, there is no civic obligation in democracies for an individual to improve himself morally or physically, beyond a certain bare minimum. On the other hand, there is great civic value attached to gaining material possessions. This is not difficult to explain, and I have some related thoughts in a previous post. Put briefly, society agrees that material goods are better than their absence, and even has a standard for keeping score, i.e. money. This, incidentally, allows free markets to function well, since each individual can measure the effectiveness of his commerical transactions in absolute terms, setting up a constant feedback loop.

However, there is no single agreed-upon standard for morality. The standard against which you measure your moral choices is itself the product of a choice. The classical liberal government does not impose a uniform moral standard, thanks to Europe's long bloody history of religious war. Morality is essentially separate from civic obligation.

This was less of a problem in former years, when communal organizations and religious goups still commanded great authority, and public standards of behavior were agreed upon through collective consent, and not through government decree. However, as Socrates warned, the natural trajectory of democracies is to become dissolute; how can it be otherwise, when democracy is about rule by the majority, and not rule according to a set standard? Extragovernmental moral authorities held the line for a very long time, but have been effectively routed by the forces of eros and the everpresent love of "doing as one likes." Now, we live in a moral anarchy, where anything that is legal (and a few things that aren't) is considered acceptable behavior by large numbers of people.

All right; but why is this a problem? After all, why should an atheist care if the three monotheisms officially outlaw homosexuality, or premarital sex? It doesn't hurt anyone, does it? Why should someone avoid using profanity if it is considered acceptable in his social circle? If a person wants to eat a deep-dish pizza every day and play video games until his thumbs drop off, what business is that of anyone else?

The fundamental problem is that Western society is fast abandoning the concept of personal discipline, of measuring oneself against a standard which he must struggle to attain. In particular, we learn to immediately gratify our emotional impulses (especially sexual impulses), rather than controlling them and channeling them towards a higher use. There is no more place for the sublime. There is no example of the exceptional moral paragon which we are encouraged to emulate. Whereas before we could imitate Washington's honesty, Lincoln's steely resolve in the cause of anti-slavery, Franklin's homespun wisdom, now we are constantly reminded that these dead white guys are all flawed men and not worth paying attention to.

It is very hard work to seek moral and ethical improvement; not for nothing does the Bible speak of "refinement," being passed through the fires of the crucible to emerge purer on the other side. Now there is less and less reason for the average citizen to go through the effort. And this sloth is extending past the moral realm and into the material. Each generation has a poorer work ethic than the last; each has a larger obesity problem; each accumulates more debt. The mere presence of our abundance is excuse enough for citizens to gorge; that they could train themselves to hold back from immediate gratification seems laughable. Our society no longer teaches the young to accept hardship. Our wills are weak and flabby, unused to hard strain.

Not for nothing is the bulk of the U.S. military made up of the deeply religious. They are increasingly the only communities willing to shoulder the burden. They are the only communities who not only dedicate themselves to a higher purpose and to civic virtue, but actually accept significant limits on their behavior in the process.

The specific problem of our unbunded sexual impulses is, I think, a primary contributor to our societal enervation. Sex is not simply a method of cooperative amusement; it is an incredibly powerful innate drive. It is the source of much of our emotional vitality. And how the sex drive is cultivated will have dramatic effects on a personality. If you are used to gratifying every urge, not willing to let even the slightest sexual tension accumulate, then you will lose a great source of emotional power and discipline. Not for nothing did the Victorians refer to orgasm as a "little death." Almost every program of spiritualism calls for periods of abstinence, because of the dramatic power that will accumulate during these periods: power which can then be applied in your daily life. Recall the movie Raging Bull, in which the protagonist avoids orgasm in the days leading up to a big fight. Recall, too, that in Orwell's 1984 the Party sought to suppress sexual activity to keep its members at a constant fever pitch of frenetic energy.

And yet in the West, every institution for channeling and controlling the sex drive has been devalued. Premarital sex is commonplace; adultery is shrugged off. Masturbation was even encouraged by Surgeon General Elders, under the most apropos of presidents. This is one part of the reason why the young seek ever-more-extreme diversions: when the pinnacle of primal experiences has become commonplace, life loses some of its color.

Compare the preceding with Islam. Much like traditional Judaism, Islam sees no distinction between government and religion; indeed, it is the duty of government to enforce the dictates of religion. Muslims must discipline their dietary habits according to the laws of halal, must pray five times daily, and — perhaps most importantly — must severely control their sexual behavior (at least in theory, though this is more rigorously enforced on women than men). Across entire societies, material goods are seen not as the prime societal good, but as a means for attaining the true good: submission to Allah. There is very little "doing what one likes" in Islam in the sense which it is found in the West; all Muslims have a duty to continually perfect themselves (as they understand the term), and activities that detract from that goal are condemned. Here, we have a society founded on discipline, submission to a greater good, and continual focus on serving Allah. Is it any surprise that the most fanatical should look at the West with contempt, even as the outputs of Western culture are eagerly consumed?

I fear that so long as Western culture permits the soft nihilism of "doing what one likes" instead of restoring the concepts of discipline and self-perfection as civic virtues, that the secular Western world will fall. In its place will rise the deeply religious communities of all stripes, those with the fortitude and will to fight for their beliefs. Religious commitment is already associated with high birthrates, compared to more secular populations; if only religious communities are prepared to fight in their own defense — or, more ominously, as an aggressor — then it is only a matter of time before secularism passes from the earth.

(Is this all a gross generalization? Absolutely. There are many secular stalawarts, just as there are many religious sluggards. But demographics are all about generalizations; and demography is destiny.)

Will the secular world meet the challenge? Or has it already become too enervated to escape its own nihilistic implosion?


Quote of the Day

Now I have a great sympathy for Muslims that face demands that they assimilate; it's on the front pages of all the newspapers in London this weekend. Even if you wanted to, even if you wanted to, how would you assimilate with say, Canadian national identity? You can't assimilate with a nullity, which is what the modern multicultural state boils down to. It's much easier to dismantle a society than put anything new and lasting in it place. And across much of the developed world, that's what's going on right now.
--Mark Steyn, keynote address of his recent Australia tour.

Hat tip: New Sisyphus


A New Paradigm for Medical Insurance

Our medical system is heading towards a meltdown. The symptoms are easily apparent; we have devolved into two loosely connected systems, each of which performs poorly. In one, people pay a large amount of money every month so that if things go wrong, they can take advantage of free or heavily subsidized medical care. In the other, people incur no costs until something goes wrong, in which case they must navigate a system that largely caters to the first set of people, racking up huge bills in the meanwhile.

A large part of the problem is with our insurance structure. Medical insurance, in its ideal form, guarantees any amount of treatment. This means that patients are encouraged to consume all the resources they can, and medical companies are encouraged to overcharge. Insurance carriers, in turn, are encouraged to sharply circumscribe the coverage they actually give in response to the foregoing; the end result is our present situation, in which medical premiums are exploding more that 10% or even 20% per year, even as the insurance actually covers less and less.

Attempts have been made to inject some market economics into the system. The most serious such attempt, the Health Savings Account, amounts to a weird hybrid between being insured and not insured: you must foot the bill up to a given deductible, usually $2400 and up (though you can do so with tax-free money), but larger bills are covered as with a typical insurance plan.

Meanwhile, the present system is heavily weighted in favor of conventional medicine and treatments; experimental treatments are rarely covered, as are most physical therapies such as Hellerwork, chiropractic care, or even exercising at a gym (a crucial step for most rehabilitation programs), which can sometimes be more effective than conventional medicine at a fraction of the cost. Worse, psychological care is almost never covered. If you are mentally ill, good luck to you, because chances are you will never get insurance coverage.

Furthermore, more and more doctors are refusing to accept medical insurance of any kind. The excessive paperwork, sharply decreasing payouts, and circumscribed treatment options are making insurance not worth the trouble for doctors to deal with.

Why are things this way?

If you get into a car accident, does your insurance company guarantee your repairs or give you a new vehicle? No; a dollar figure is arrived at for the damage, money is paid out, and you use that money as you see fit.

If you have disability insurance, does the insurance company guarantee that you will never miss work? No; a dollar figure is arrived at for the value of the missed work, money is paid out, and you use that money as you see fit.

Similar examples can be found all over the insurance industry.

Why not with medical care?

What if there were a new class of medical insurance that instead of guaranteeing treatment, placed a dollar value on each type of injury or illness? Patients would receive cash payments based on the value of their condition, once it has been confirmed by a medical diagnosis; they would then spend that money however they wanted, with the expectation that they will seek as much medical care as they see the need for.

There will be no need for doctors to worry about dealing with the insurance companies (except to verify the medical condition); moreover, by coming up with standard retail prices, they will be better able to serve those without insurance. And of course, this will introduce price competition between doctors and drug companies, since no one will be held captive to a preapproved list of doctors and treatments as those with insurance are today. Price competition will benefit everyone: those with insurance, those without it, government, and the insurance companies. (The exceptions, of course, are those marginal medical care providers who cannot compete. But, such is commerce.)

Moreover, patients who can find cheaper treatments will benefit, since they will be able to pocket the difference. This will be a boon to the "alternative" medicines that actually have beneficial effects, since they are ususlly much cheaper than the conventional alternatives. (That this will also lead to an explosion of snake-oil salesmen is unavoidable.) And it will provide a strong incentive for patients to take a clear look at how much a given medical treatment actually benefits them, compared to other goods they could spend the money on.

What about the time lag between when a condition occurs and when money is disbursed by the insurance company? One of the services that an insurance company should provide is a line of credit, usable only at medical facilities, which would be drawn upon with the expectation that the eventual payout will cover it. For example, if I broke my arm, I would go to the hospital, whip out my Medical Credit Card, and charge the cost of treatment at prime interest rate or thereabouts. Then, two or three weeks later, the insurance company will approve the payout, apply it to my credit balance, and send me the rest. Medical offices need never worry about insurance accounts-payable again.

Conventional medical care does a poor job of compensating for lost work. Disability insurance is an imperfect substitute, since it does not account for decreases in productivity caused by "manageable" medical conditions. But in a system of cash payouts, one could choose to increase the insurance premiums in exchange for a correspondingly higher payout when a medical condition arises. In effect, individuals can ensure some compensation for lost work due to injury or illness.

In the ideal scenario, such a system would rapidly drive down medical costs, force more scrutiny on the effectiveness of medical procedures, and improve the lot of those without medical insurance. It would also help to plug our government deficits, since medical care is a vast portion of government's expenses. And a few adventurous individuals could find cheaper cures, and then use their payouts to buy homes or start businesses. Insurance companies themselves would benefit as well, since managing client accounts will become much simpler.

In the dystopian scenario, however, this could lead to people chasing dubious medicine so that they could pocket the cash. Medical fraud would also be possible for a vaster segment of the population, beyond the few medical companies that practice it today.

More seriously, people will run the risk of having the payout money run out before they get better. But this danger is mitigated because conventional insurance will still be available, and one could conceivably purchase such insurance with the payout money, or simply purchase an annuity.

Cash-payout medical insurance has the potential to completely reform our medical system. It is time someone tried it.


Peace in Our Time

He who is kind when he should be cruel, will be cruel when he should be kind. If you could point to a single ironclad rule in history, this Talmudic dictum would be it. The specific context for the quote was the Biblical reign of King Saul. Ordered to annihilate the kingdom of Amalek, Saul instead spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and allowed his troops to take back plunder which had been specifically forbidden to them by the prophet Samuel. This misplaced act of kindness, motivated in large part by Saul's chronic inability to resist the whims of his subjects, ended up destroying the legitimacy of his rule. David was anointed as king in Saul's place; and as Saul became increasingly paranoid of a rebellion by his young captain, he massacred the priestly city of Nov, who were innocent of any crime.

Again and again throughout history, leaders have confused moral cowardice and political fecklessness with mercy, or as the present odious parlance would have it, "restraint." Again and again, it is the innocent who pay the price. Munich 1938 comes to mind, of course; but more immediately, we have two seemingly unconnected cases who are drawing ever more intertwined.

The Iranian stooge Muqtada as-Sadr, let us remember, first became news when he ordered the murder of elder Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei. At the time, the Coalition Provisional Authority (an embarassingly feckless body if there ever was one) shied from arresting him; Sadr controlled a militia of some few hundred men, after all, and there was no point in stirring up trouble. Never mind that an Iraqi judge had issued a warrant for his arrest.

In retrospect, the insanity of this decision is easily apparent, given the tremendous power that Sadr has now amassed, and the rivers of blood his men have shed, Iraqi and American. But even without the benefit of hindsight, this should have been an easy call. By refusing to enforce justice immediately, the CPA taught Iraq that all that you needed in order to murder people with impunity was a gang of thugs at your back. Was it really so difficult to imagine what would happen next?

Now, Sadr is flexing his power by lending his movement to the cause of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the other case of misplaced "restraint" I have in mind.

After the pullout from Lebanon, Israel committed the cardinal blunder of allowing Hizbullah to periodically shell her cities, across an international border, with near-impunity. Oh, there would be periodic artillery duels, and the occasional airstrike. But these are all of minor tactical significance.

With the exception of the abortive Operation Grapes of Wrath (terminated after the accidental strike on the Qana civilian shelter, which happened to be just where Hizbullah decided to set up its weapons... as in the present war), there was no attempt made to change the fundamental strategic problem. Hizbullah fired rockets for years running, in twos and threes, all the while building fortifications and amassing more powerful weaponry. And Israel did nothing, mostly in deference to the everpresent, unidirectional delicacy of world leaders.

Worse, when Hizbullah kidnapped and murdered three IDF soldiers in 2000, Ariel Sharon did not retaliate. Indeed, he freed 400 Hizbullah members in exchange for three corpses, along with the now-disgraced Col. Tannenbaum who had also been kidnapped. This capitulation, as we now know, persuaded Nasrallah that he could kidnap Israelis at will, without consequenses. The bloodshed that is now ravaging Lebanon and the north of Israel is a direct consequence.

Because the CPA did not uphold the law when it was inconvenient to do so, America's position in the Middle East is uncertain where it could have been much firmer. Even barring an arrest, we have had many chances to put a bullet in Sadr's brain. That we did not, and do not, is inexcusable. That man should be dead, and every day he draws breath he draws more blood, most of it innocent civilians. Because Israel refused to uphold its sovereignty in the face of the first Hizbullah pinpricks, it invited the far heavier toll we see today, and was forced in turn to take much innocent life along with the guilty.

As Machiavelli said, wars can almost never be avoided. They are instead deferred, to the benefit of the aggressor.

Why do we continue to make the same mistakes, year after year? Has it become so easy to take the cowardly way, huddle up under the covers and hope that the bad men vanish like bad dreams?

Some seeming cruelty can be the greatest kindness of all. Justice and the right of self-defense are rarely set aside without great woe in the end.


Ezekiel 13:3-11

Thus said the Lord Hashem/Elokim: "Woe unto the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit, and things they have not seen. Like foxes among the ruins, so are your prophets, O Israel. You did not ascend into the breaches nor build a fence for the House of Israel, that could stand up in battle on the day of Hashem. They saw a worthless vision and false divination; they say, 'The word of Hashem!' but Hashem did not send them, yet they expect their word to be confirmed. Have you not envisioned a worthless divinationa and uttered a false divination? You say, 'The word of Hashem,' when I have not spoken!"

Therefore, thus said the Lord Hashem/Elokim: "Because you have spoken worthless words and have seen a false vision, therefore, behold, I am against you" — the word of the Lord Hashem/Elokim — "and My hand will be against the prophets who see worthless visions and divine falsehood; they will not be among the counsel of My people, nor will they be inscribed in the record of the House of Israel, nor will they enter into the soil of Israel; and you will know that I am the Lord Hashem/Elokim. Because — and again because — they led My people astray, saying, 'Peace,' but there is no peace. They erect a curtain and even smear it with plaster!

"Say to those who smear with plaster, 'It will fall! There will be pouring rain.' And as for you, O huge hailstones, you shall descend and a stormy wind shall break forth.

This passage was referenced in the prayers for the Ninth of Av, the Jewish fast which just drew to a close this evening. The words speak to us, even now. [Hashem= God, the Eternal One, the Lord]


Bitter Medicine

This morning, I listened to an NPR news report that surveyed the non-approved use of the cancer drug Avastin to treat a common cause of blindness, wet macular degeneration. A researcher realized that Avastin was chemically similar to another drug being specifically approved by the FDA for this disorder (whose name I forget, but it is made by Genentech), and tried it on his patients with great success.

The FDA-approved drug retails for $2000 a dose. Avastin, when used as an eye treatment, costs about $50 a dose. (A course of treatment is typically two doses several months apart.)

It gets more interesting. Avastin is comparably cheap because in its normal use, as a cancer drug, it requires much more volume than as an eye drug. But as a cancer drug, Avastin is also about $2000 a dose.

Why are the drugs priced this way? A spokesman from Genentech said that they determined that their typical patient would have insurance, and would only have a $50-a-month copay out-of-pocket for the blindness drug. The rest of the cost would be eaten by the insurance companies.

In short, the calculation is made based on what cost the individual user will see. But because the true cost is shielded by the insurance comapny, Genentech and other companies like it are free to put the hurt on the insurance providers for everything they can get.

It isn't that simple in practice, unfortunately. Many people lack insurance, of course. Moreover, many people with insurance must pay for the entire cost upfront, and only later will they be reimbursed by their provider. This presents a massive cash-flow problem, as one can imagine.

Most of all, this contributes to an inflationary spiral in which insurance companies must continually raise their premiums to recoup the exploding costs on innumerable individual treatments, whose pricing is being determined by the calculation noted above.

Given that the drug prices are set based on the felt cost to the patient, which translates to a massive premium to the manufacturer, it seems obvious that insurance companies can rapidly drive down prices by covering a smaller fraction of the drugs' cost. This would force the manufacturers to adjust accordingly, reducing the burden on insurance companies, policyholders who must pay crushing premiums, and those without insurance altogether.

Some might protest that lessening drug coverage will hurt patients. But this ignores the truth that everyone is already paying indirectly for the full cost of the drugs, through high premiums; and anything that can bring down the absolute price will help everyone, especially the uninsured.

Drug companies will charge what the market will bear. That being the case, it is foolish to distort the market in the way we have done. Consumers should feel more of the cost for their specific treatments, or else overall costs will continue to grow.


Reap the Whirlwind

The ever-devastating Mark Steyn has written a piece titled "Failure to solve Palestinian question empowers Iran," wherein he notes that the Arab powers created a terrorist monster that has finally gotten away from them, and is now serving the interests of their true enemy, Iran. Key paragraph:
Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian opportunism on Palestine has caught up with them: It's finally dawned on them that a strategy of consciously avoiding resolution of the "Palestinian question" has helped deliver Gaza, and Lebanon and Syria, into the hands of a regime that's a far bigger threat to the Arab world than the Zionist Entity. Cairo and Co. grew so accustomed to whining about the Palestinian pseudo-crisis decade in decade out that it never occurred to them that they might face a real crisis one day: a Middle East dominated by an apocalyptic Iran and its local enforcers, in which Arab self-rule turns out to have been a mere interlude between the Ottoman sultans and the eternal eclipse of a Persian nuclear umbrella. The Zionists got out of Gaza and it's now Talibanistan redux. The Zionists got out of Lebanon and the most powerful force in the country (with an ever-growing demographic advantage) are Iran's Shia enforcers. There haven't been any Zionists anywhere near Damascus in 60 years and Syria is in effect Iran's first Sunni Arab prison bitch. For the other regimes in the region, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria are dead states that have risen as vampires.
Read the whole thing.


A Wholesome Philosophy

(Perhaps it is strange to be thinking of political philosophy and free markets at a time when Israel is crushing Hizullah and both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border are red with blood. But I have prayed for Israel and Lebanon and the boys of the IDF, and there is little else I can do. We must not stop building in times of trouble, else nothing will ever be built.)

John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Market, may be an advocate of healthy living and personal fulfillment, but he is no longer much of a hippy. His brief flirtation with the political Left ended soon after he went into business and experienced the power of commerce to do good. On his blog is the text of a speech he gave at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2004, which he has titled "Winning the Battle for Freedom and Prosperity."

While I disagree with a few particulars, his general point is one which I profoundly agree with (and have often written about in one form or another on this blog): material prosperity, while important, is only one component of a larger picture. So long as freedom-lovers and Libertarians focus only on the material, and the negative good of freedom from government coercion, the ideal of freedom will remain spiritually stunted and gain no ground in society.

This section stood out:
The freedom movement, in my opinion, needs to embrace the ideal of not just economic growth, but personal growth as well. If we use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as our criteria for evaluating the freedom movement, we see that it is primarily focused on the lower need levels: meeting the physical needs and safety needs through increased prosperity. To be perfectly blunt about it: the freedom movement is largely materialistic in its approach to life, stuck in the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy. The higher need levels, love, self-esteem, the good, the true and the beautiful, and self-actualization, are either taken for granted or simply ignored.

Study after study shows that material prosperity, by itself, does not create happiness. We have higher needs as expressed on Maslow's hierarchy and the freedom movement needs to stop ignoring them. The freedom movement needs to consciously create a vision that addresses meeting the higher needs of Americans, beyond basic physical and safety needs.

That is the secret of the success of the Left, despite its bankrupt economic philosophy. The Left entices the young with promises of community, love, purpose, peace, health, compassion, caring, and environmental sustainability. The Left's vision on how to meet these higher needs in people is fundamentally flawed. But the idealism and the call to the higher need levels is magnetic and seductive, nonetheless. The irony of the situation, as I see it, is that the Left has idealistic visions of higher human potential and social responsibility, but has no effective strategies to realize their vision. The freedom movement has strategies that could meet higher human potential and social responsibility but lacks the idealism and vision to implement the strategies.
The general attitude that many people have is that one becomes a Leftist out of idealism, and one becomes a libertarian or small-government conservative out of selfishness. At one point I managed to convince a college friend of mine that one could indeed oppose the government for idealistic reasons… but it took a lot of effort. A large part of the problem, as Mackey notes, is that many small-government types do seem fixated on their own selfish desires. A commenter to Mackey's post notes, "I grow weary of the defense of personal vices masquerading as a defense of liberty."

You cannot simply observe a minimal level of civic decency and consider your duty done. You must constantly develop your faculties, body, mind, and soul. Some religious people understand this; so do some on the Left, though they seem to go off in bizarre directions with it sometimes. But it seems that the idea of personal development is not as popular in small-government circles, and we all suffer for it.

(Part of this disdain for personal health and development, I think, is precisely a result of their embrace by hippy-types. Through a sort of perverse logic, it is understood in some quarters that whatever hippies do must be a waste of time. While this is often a good rule of thumb, it can cause beneficial practices to be scorned as well. I suspect this is part of why Tai Chi has taken so long to catch on in America; the hippies latched onto it first and trumpeted its meditative and health aspects, while ignoring the martial arts aspect entirely. Even today, most people are surprised to learn that Tai Chi is a martial art, albeit an "internal" art rather than an "external" one.)

Read Mackey's whole speech. Think of the power of commerce, in which all parties benefit by helping each other. Commerce need not be a cold system of winning and losing; at its best, it is a formalized web of people making each other's lives better.


Updates on the Hizbullah War

At Tigerhawk is a fantastically thorough discussion of the larger strategy behind the decision by Hizbullah to pull the trigger. Read the whole thing, but here is a key paragraph from Aristides:
Now, let's talk about transferring the captured soldier to Iran. Whether this was planned all along, or whether this move is opportunistic, it shows me two things: 1) As Tigerhawk said, Iran is positioning itself as the Muslim champion against the Zionists and the guarantor of the Palestinian agenda. 2) It also is a glimpse of what could happen if Iran had nukes. Every act of terrorism, every kidnapping, could be ultimately underwritten and protected by the Mullahs and their bomb.
Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. According to Khaled Mashaal, this attack was in the works ever since Sharon's stroke. This is not a one-off, but the beginning of a conflict for which Hizbullah has been preparing for years.

Also, one of my old schoolmates is currently in action in Lebanon with the IDF. Please have him and all the boys of the IDF in your prayers.


A Primer on Public Choice Theory

At Café Hayek, Jane S. Shaw gives a thorough summary of the field of economics known as Public Choice, which "takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people's actions in the marketplace and applies them to people's actions in collective decision making." As such, it is primarily focused on understanding government action.

If you ever wanted to know why governments don't care how much money they waste, or whether their fancy programs actually achieve the desired result, read the article. It is quite good.