Nation of Burkeans?

The National Review features a fantastic piece by Alexander Benard and Anthony Dick on America’s True Genius. The thesis: change does not make a nation great, and it certainly is not what has made America great. Rather, it is the constitutionally-mandated stability of our system of laws – the difficulty of implementing radical change – that makes this nation so good at weathering storms and enduring for so long. My favorite bits:

In fact, the Founding Fathers designed our Constitution so as to make it very difficult to bring about significant changes. New legislation requires majorities in both houses of Congress followed by a presidential signature. Constitutional amendments are even more difficult — the easiest method is for an amendment to pass both houses of Congress by two-thirds majorities and then be ratified by three-fourths of all state legislatures. This suggests the Founding Fathers were suspicious of quick and easy change.

The actual genius of America, and what makes our country unique, is precisely the opposite of change. It is that our country was founded on certain timeless principles, laid out in the Declaration of Independence and put into practice by the Constitution. These principles include the conviction that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights, and to provide freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and equal protection under the law.

and especially:

Our constitutional structure recognizes the value of stability, and that change can be (indeed, often is) more damaging than uplifting. It acknowledges that existing social structures and traditions are not merely vestiges of an ignorant past, but rather reflect the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors and the evolutionary fruits of centuries of social experimentation. It respects the organic nature of political communities, with their interdependent parts woven together in a web of complexity that confounds even the most well-laid plans of radical social engineers.

Skipping Down the Garden Path

I offer a final thought for the evening. Last night, a dear friend and I were discussing the state of the world and the nation, particularly with reference to some of the more extreme economic proposals made by politicians and pundits of varying degrees of skill. My friend is one of the most intelligent, well-educated, level-headed, and reflective people I have ever known. He noted that the proposals in question reflected a radical embrace of a radical degree of government control of private affairs. He said, “I fear for America. The people really won’t stand for democracy much longer.”

Coming from this source, that sent chills down my spine. I hope he’s wrong. But I think he might be right.

[Author’s note: In the spirit of my fourotherpoststoday, I choose not to explicate this post any further. As one of my favorite math professors used to say, “The proof of whether I’m right or wrong – and I’m right – is left as an exercise to the reader.”]

Byron York on the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency

Byron York has more good points [ed.: link updated to an archived link because the original was broken] on the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on National Review Online. Worth a read.

Simply Amazing

I had the pleasure of watching history being made [ed.: link updated to an archived link because the original was broken] with Stephen Schwartz and Sarah at the Baker Street pub in town, tonight. Amazing. Congratulations, Michael Phelps.

Dean on Racial and Gender Diversity

Howard Dean says non-whites and women are more successful in the Democratic Party than “in the white, uh, excuse me, in the [laughs] Republican party.” It’s hard to say whether or not that’s true, of course, given the (recent) historical preference of those groups for the DNC over the GOP, which also frequently results in under-performance by GOP candidates who are not both white and male. In any case, as Michelle Malkin points out, this is a case of at least a little hypocrisy, as Dean’s own leadership is not particularly diverse, apart from Senator Pelosi and the candidate Senator Obama.

Journalism =/= Mathematics

As a math major, law school grad, and economic policy wonk, I’m not sure which aspect of this stupidity by the New York Times horrifies me most. Is it: that people think we do tax at those rates, that some people think we should, that no editor caught the logical flaws before publication, or that this kind of thing happens all the time in other circumstances and goes undetected more often than not?

The Greatest Threat Facing Our Country

The single greatest threat facing the United States is probably not what you think. In the Cold War, the greatest threat was that of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Most people today would probably say the risk is a terrorist attack involving WMDs. In our worst nightmares, we tend to picture a CNN news flash, a mushroom cloud over a major city, and maybe a million dead Americans. In fact, as great as that threat is, it is nothing compared to what a single (yes, one) nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere could do. A high-altitude nuclear detonation over the United States has the potential to create a continent-wide electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. This would knock out power, phone, and other utilities, take out a number of nearby satellites, and cripple nearly everything with an electric circuit… permanently. No phone, no internet, no television, no lights, no cars, no credit card readers, no gas pumps, no stock market, no banking: a pre-electronic world. Experts say this kind of attack would effectively return most or all of a technology-driven country like the United States to the nineteenth century in an instant. While relatively few people would die in the moments after such an attack, the death toll from starvation, dehydration, lack of medical services, and fire over the following months would make disasters like Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, and the recent Chinese earthquake look mild.

Continue reading “The Greatest Threat Facing Our Country”

Obama, Burkeanism, and Chicago

Redstate has a post by Pejman Yousefzadeh, Barack Obama: That Burkean Chicagoan [ed.: link updated to an archived link because the original was broken], that I found very interesting and right on the money. I think Obama’s association with the University of Chicago has somehow been widely interpreted as a signal that he is actually somewhat conservative, or at least moderate, in a somewhat Burkean sense. This is ridiculous, for the reasons Pejman’s post illuminates, but for a few more, as well.

Part of the problem is the kind of thinking expressed by Cass Sunstein, soon to be of Harvard Law School. I have had one class taught by Sunstein, including Chicago’s famous “Elements of the Law” required 1L course, and have heard him speak many times. He is, of course, extremely intelligent and a very good teacher. Taking a class with him is like drinking from a firehose, but it is always informative, stimulating, and entertaining. His greatest flaw, however, and one I and many others have pointed out, is his tendency to rely on his own constructions of points of view and the corresponding arguments on an issue as though they are actually fair and correct. That is, Sunstein is very prone to say something like, “Imagine the following… Now, a conservative would say…” The problem is, he is very often wrong—and sometimes very badly so—on this type of construction. For example, when we discussed economic freedom (as in the freedom of contract principle from the Lochner era), Sunstein completely misconstrued both what conservatives at the time and today would say about it. At times, Professor Sunstein seems unaware that his ability to adopt another’s point of view and reason from it is imperfect, relying more on his constructions of a perspective than on direct statements from those who hold it.

As applied to the excerpt in Pejman’s post, I find this approach both telling and disturbing. If Barack Obama wanted the best possible arguments for and against the warrantless wiretapping of international phone calls, he could find a better debate at the University of Chicago Law School than Sunstein v. Sunstein. Nobody can fully understand the mindsets of both his kindred spirits and those he disagrees with; those who get even close tend to become legendary for their exploits. As much as I respect Professor Sunstein’s ability to summarize and analyze controversies, then, I have to say it disturbs me that Obama’s consideration of the counterarguments to his own position on such a hot issue is heavily informed by what a like-minded person says those counterarguments are.

Leadership is principally about making hard calls and inspiring others to enact them, occasionally getting one’s own hands dirty in the process. Making those calls requires managing scarce resources of time, manpower, and knowledge wisely. To the extent time allows, this means a potential leader – especially a man who would be President of the United States – must hear alternative viewpoints presented fairly and by those who have thought them through most carefully. In other words, a liberal President absolutely must have some conservative advisors, and a conservative President must have some liberal advisors. Relying solely on one’s political affiliates for insight into one’s philosophical opponents is terribly unwise – it’s unrealistic, leads to false confidence, and is likely to make the opposition feel entirely disregarded and disrespected in the caricatures that result.

Starve the Beast

Economics professor Greg Mankiw shares some interesting thoughts, citing Paul Krugman, on why Bush’s tax cuts may result in smaller government in the next administration than we would get otherwise. This is likely true, no matter which candidate wins. Krugman, however, calls this a “poison pill,” a way of sabotaging a takeover or transfer of control, lamenting that, “looking at the tax proposals of the two presidential candidates, it’s remarkable and disheartening to see how effective President Bush’s fiscal poison pill has been in restricting the terms of debate.”

As Mankiw points out, though, the situation is not “entirely negative.” Indeed, for those of us who are classical liberals or – gasp – conservatives, a restricted debate in terms of how and how much the federal government can spend is not necessarily a bad thing. Tax increases of the type Obama plans will not cure deficit spending. This is true both because of something called a Laffer curve (higher tax rates do not always equal proportionally higher tax revenues, since capital often goes elsewhere or stops working) and because governments are greedy beasts – the more food you give them to cure their shortages, the bigger they get. This is why despite tripling tax revenues between 1932 and 1940, that period saw not a reduced deficit, but a 33% deficit growth.

Killing the Economy – One Drop at a Time

Thankfully, the Republican party, for all its failings in the last few years, has still some concept of fundamental principles of economics. The Senate blocked a windfall profits tax on oil companies, a tax much like many of the taxes that prolonged the Great Depression in America long past its end elsewhere. Thank goodness for small blessings.