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The Differences Between the Political Parties

Bryan Caplan recently linked to one of his older posts arguing that there is not that much substantive difference between the political parties.  Bryan believes there are two big misconceptions about the differences between the parties:

The first big misconception is the parties’ key differences are substantive. They aren’t. Reps don’t want to get rid of the welfare state. Almost all Reps support spending a big chunk of GDP on America’s poor and old. And Dems don’t want anything like socialism. Almost all Dems want America to remain a country where markets are the default and people can get rich if they play their cards right.  So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric.

The second big misconception is that the parties’ rhetoric makes sense on its own terms. It doesn’t. If Dems really cared about poor human beings, they would quit worrying about the American old, most of whom aren’t poor.  Similarly, if Reps really cared about “over-burdened” tax-payers, they would try to diminish the burden in the only sustainable way: Big cuts in spending. They would be crusading against the popular programs like Social Security and Medicare that absorb most of our tax dollars.

Bryan does offer some explanations for these phenomena:

I understand, of course, that if either party tried to bring its substance in sync with its rhetoric, it would go down in flames. . . . What’s going on? My best guess is that the rhetoric is the bone each party throws its idealists – “If you vote for us, we’ll pretend to want radical change.”

Let me address each of these points separately.  1. The Substantive Differences: Bryan’s post should be understood as part of long line of similar claims made by radicals of different stripes – the idea that the Democrats and the Republicans are not that different, that they are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  And this understandable enough.  If you are a radical, by definition you favor significant change.  The differences between two moderate parties will seem small by comparison.

While Bryan is a radical liberatarian, I am a far more moderate one – moderate both in what I regard as the ideal political arrangement and in how quickly I would like to get there.  So for me, the differences between the parties seem larger than they seem to him.

And of course, to an ordinary political observer, who has much more mainstream views, the differences between the parties will seem even larger.  If you are the median Republican or the median Democrat, who views their party’s platform as being largely ideal, then the differences between the parties may seem enormous.

2. The Parties’ Rhetoric: I am more sympathetic with Bryan’s second point, expressing skepticism that the parties’ rhetoric makes sense on its own terms. But even here, one can imagine a defense of the parties’ positions. A Democrat might argue that they are more concerned with poor Americans than with poor foreigners on the ground that people in a country have special affiliations that those people lack with foreigners.  And Republicans might argue that placing social insurance programs on a sound track is an attractive idea, because such programs provide a safety net, but should not be allowed to cause serious fiscal problems for the nation.  Whatever one thinks of these arguments, they are certainly plausible and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

What is the take away from all of this?  For the radical, the differences between the parties will appear neither significant nor well conceived, but that is largely a function of the radical’s perspective.  For more mainstream political thinkers. these differences will make quite a bit of sense.  For me, as a moderate libertarian – who is both moderate and yet often adopts a third party perspective – the differences between the parties make more sense than for Bryan, even though the political world would be more attractive to me if there were a more libertarian party.

Reader Discussion

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on May 06, 2015 at 14:19:56 pm

Remember how HillaryCare was rejected, and led to the first Republican House in 40 years? Americans are willing to ingest socialist utopia, but only if it comes slowly, bite by bite; a little socialism to themselves, more to their children, and yet more to their grandchildren. Republicans are necessary to this process.

Republicans are the brakes to the runaway train that would otherwise crash and burn at every tight turn if the Democrats were always in power. Republicans are necessary to the establishment of the socialist utopia, because they rarely repeal Big Government, they just impose more chunks of government upon us that are smaller than those that Democrats would impose. Republicans voted for the laws making sure that you use the proper light bulbs throughout your house. They will not repeal carbon taxes, they will just make them smaller.

This more surely leads to the socialist utopia that leftists want. It is the socialist strategy of "make haste slowly." Do you want to punish the generation that continues to feed coal to the steam engine that lead us into socialist utopia, or do you want more punishment to fall on our grandchildren?

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Ali Bertarian
on May 06, 2015 at 19:39:58 pm

As far as I can tell, The Dems are socialist only if we abandon the definitiion of socialism. Bryan is correct on this point--by no reasonable definition can the Dems be considered socialist. To argue that is to do violence both to the objectives of most Democrats and most socialists too.

Communists want to abolish private property. They want a command economy, where the central government establishes production goals, allocates resources, and so on.

Socialists are more modest. They want to retain private property for small enterprise, but to do that require government ownership of large businesses. In an odd way, in the US of the early 20th century, guys like Debs or Herron or Sinclair practiced a politics of nostalgia, trying to preserve the Free Labor Republican economic vision of the 1850s in the face of massive industrialization.

In the United States there have been two periods for which it is correct to refer to the US as a socialist economy. The first was from 1917-1920, and the second from 1941-1946. Both coincided with periods of world war. Nothing that the Dems have proposed since 1946 looks remotely like the goverment as it functioned in those years.

Even the most radical Dems--guys like FDR, or LBJ, or Mario Cuomo, have not advocated for anything that looks like a command economy, or for state ownership of most if not all large corporations. They have called for social insurance--something we should note guys like Friedrich Hayek supported. They have called for regulation of business--supported, we should note, by principled guys like TR and Herbert Hoover. They have, since the 1950s, tried to Federalize civil rights. They have, since 1935, called for the establishment of various species of positive rights (eg. Entitlements). But these things, separately or together, are not socialism.

To diagnose these kinds of proposals as socialism is to misunderstand what the proponents of these kinds of programs are after, and it is to misunderstand what their effects, good or ill, really are. If we can not get that right, we have no way of thinking through the realities of our current situation. It is perfectly legitimate and appropriate to be critical of the ideas and erhical dispositions of the Democratic party. But if you want to oppose their proposals, it would be a good idea to understand them for what they are, and not to mischaracterize them for what they are not.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 06, 2015 at 20:38:52 pm

It is true that there is no real difference in the 2 "major" political parties. The American Revolution of 1776 and its subsequent Constitution,although flawed in many areas, paved the way for a fair amount of liberty in the context of world history and in the relationship of government to the governed.Those governed mainly being white,property owning males. However since the inception of the American Revolution and it's Constitution a second or counter revolution has occurred. This counter revolution basically took place over a 50 or so year period of time between Wilson's Progressive era and the inception of LBJ's "Great Society." In essence most of the 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto (albeit in modified form) have been injected into the American body politic. As the above article explains, both parties have accepted the incremental growth of collectivism in America. If today,either party was serious about repealing the Income Tax,The Federal Reserve,Paper fiat currency racket,abolishing Public (state controlled) Education,abolishing large Federal regulatory agencies,repealing Medicare and Medicaid,phasing out Social Security,unnumbering the American population etc.,etc.the average Republican and or Democrat or for that matter the average American would be aghast with contempt. This is how far the thinking of the average America has changed over the last 100 years or so. 100 years ago probably 80% of the average American middle class citizens would be against socialism and would embrace liberty. Today 80% of the average middle class Americans accept socialism and frown on true liberty. This is reflected in the 2 "major" American political parties. Rhetoric aside,the status quo will continue until the inevitable bankruptcy and collapse of the present system. At that time,like Rome,America will slide into a nation of tyranny. This eventuality makes itself clear when statistics show that half of the eligible voting population doesn't even vote and that less and less voters identify themselves as either Republicans or Democrats but register Independent or even vote for 3rd parties. In the 2012 Presidential Election the Libertarian Party topped 1 million votes. Yes a drop in the bucket but still over 1 million votes says something. In the end,political parties mostly reflect the views of the governed. Thanks to Cultural Marxism and other factors,over time,the idea of a truly free America has been consigned to the dustbin of history. This is reflected in the average American's thinking towards their relationship with their government and thus is reflected in the thinking,practice and platforms of the 2 "major" political parties of America. The Republicrats and the Democans will rule because the average American wants to be ruled.

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libertarian jerry
on May 06, 2015 at 20:51:04 pm

I will gladly replace the word "socialist" with any word or phrase that connotes the drive of many people, especially leftists, to enhance the control of every aspect of our lives by the government. It will have no effect on the greater points of my comment.

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Ali Bertarian
on May 06, 2015 at 21:49:37 pm

Seriously? Of the so called "ten planks" of communism--I say "so-called" because it is obvious from context that Marx thought of these as generic examples of the kinds of things that communists supported, and not as an exhaustive list--only two of them can be credibly asserted to exist in the US today. Of those, one, universal public education, was widely shared among classical liberals as well. The other is the income tax--another policy that had, and has, considerably greater advocacy than just communists.

So two points. One is that communism does not reduce to those ten bulleted items that you can find in section two of the manifesto. And the other is that even if it did, the US is no where near to being a communist country, nor is there any meaningful desire from any major political constituency for it to be so.

The only way you can argue seriously that the majority of the American people want socialism is to redefine socialism to the point that it is the kind if thing the a guy like Hayek would support. Read the Constitution of Liberty: Hayek supported social insurance and public education! He drew a sharp distinction between the Welfare State and Socialism. He was completely correct to do so. So sure, if you are willing to lump Hayek in with the socialists, then I guess I agree with you. But of course, it is completely absurd to do that. Hayek was not a socialist. Nor is the contemporary US a socialist state, nor does anyone seriously propose that it should be.

Allow me to quote Hayek, from the Constitution of Liberty (pp. 369 and 370 of the Liberty Fund edition).

First, the definition of socialism: "the common aim of all socialist movements was the nationalization of 'the means of production, distribution, and exchange,' so that all economic activity might be directed according to a comprehensive plan toward the ideal of social justice.. . . Socialism meant the common ownership of the means of production and their 'employment for use, not profit.'"

And second his historical assessment--a very much correct one, and characteristically incisive: "the great change that has occurred during the last decade is that socialism in this strict sense of a particular method of achieving social justice has collapsed. It has not merely lost its intellectual appeal; it has also been abandoned by the masses . . . Socialism in the old definite sense is now dead in the Western world." That was true in 1960 when Hayek wrote these words, and it is true now.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 06, 2015 at 22:09:50 pm

Just in case it is not abundently clear from my admiration for Hayek, I hope it does not need to be pointed out that just because I think Democrats are not communist, it would be a very false inference to conclude that I am trying to defend their policies.

I do think that if we want to criticize those policies, we want to avoid erecting straw men. There are very good reasons to be critical of the kind of statism that so many of those policies promote. If you want to cure a disease, it is usually a good idea to diagnose the disease correctly. I am arguing here that the disease that afflicts us today is not communism, nor is it socialism. Read Hayek for yourself--he makes the case far more eloquently than I can.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 06, 2015 at 23:13:03 pm

Kevin..........Where to begin? In actuality,directly and indirectly,over 50% of America's GDP goes to pay for one form of government or another. Next,for all intents and purposes,private property has been abolished in today's America. Don't pay your property taxes and see how long the government allows you to live on "your" property. Look at your paycheck. Who owns the fruits of your labor which is your property? You or the IRS. If they wanted to the IRS could tax you at 100% and then send you a welfare check. Of course the Welfare State isn't socialism as long as it is "voluntary." Just don't "volunteer" and see what happens. Just try and get a job without a Social Security number and see how far that gets you. You quote Hayek yet from his most famous book, "The Road to Serfdom" Hayek,70 plus years ago,predicted what the Welfare State would do to America. He compared National Socialist Germany to the unfolding of socialism in America. I'm not here to argue Hayek's politics but to show that America,albeit in modified form,has become a socialist nation. We don't call it socialism. In actuality America has become a fascist country which is in actuality a form of socialism. Sure, "the means of production" are still,on paper,in private hands but for all intents and purposes "the means of production" are controlled and taxed by the state thus are owned by the state. Today,instead of rights we have to ask permission. I could take all of the 10 points in Marx's Communist Manifesto,break them down and explain why America has become a socialist nation. But this would be too time consuming. The evidence is in plain sight. But as the saying goes, "none are so blind that refuse to see."

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libertarian jerry
on May 06, 2015 at 23:43:03 pm

"Next,for all intents and purposes,private property has been abolished in today’s America."

Did it ever exist? There is no private property, and there are no people, that our neighbors can legally be denied to control if they so desire. If they want to deny the right of free speech, then they may do so if they have sufficient numbers of allies. All democracies are nothing more than big communes. We live in a free-for-all pig trough.

As a point of reference, not as a point of theology, to which Commandment do we pay more attention, "Thou shall not covet," or "Thou shall not steal?" Even Republicans see fit to address the "problem" of inequality.

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Ali Bertarian
on May 07, 2015 at 00:28:25 am

Jerry--

The Constitution of Liberty is usally cited as Hayek's most intellectually important work of political theory. The Road to Serfdom is also worth reading, and I recommend it to you heartily.

As to your other points, I take it to be self-evident that there still exists private property in the US, of the kind that Hayek or Mill or Smith or Friedman would recognize. As Mr. Bertarian correctly notes, all property exists because here is a state to guarantee it, and all states that wish to continue to be states, in a world of predatory states, exact resources from their citizens in the form of taxes. States use violence in order to exact these taxes. This was true in Adam Smith's England, and it is true now. But being subject to taxation is not the same thing as the government owning your proprty.

I take it to be self evident that there is no Leninist five year plan for the US, nor any desire to impose one. We do not live in a centrally planned economy.

I take it to be self evident that there is no gulag in our country, nor any forced relocation of urbanites to rural armies, of the sort advocated by Marx and actually implemented by Mao or the Khemer Rouge. We have prisons, but they are mostly filled with people who violated our drug laws, not with people jailed for exercising their consciences. Our criminal justice system is broken, and it is irrational, but it is not used by the state systematically as an agency of political repression.

I take it to be self evident that shares of corporations are mostly privately helld (granted, often by other private institutions) and that the management of those corporations strives to maximize profits for the benefit of shareholders.

The US is still a capitalist country. If social mobility is not quite what it was, it still exists. It is still possible to make your way on your own merit.

I do not see how anyone with any familiarity with how the USSR of Stalin or the Communist China of Mao or the North Korean governments actually functioned can rationally assert that the government of the US is of a kind with those governments, is a member of the same species of repression. Nor do I see any major public figure in our public life right now advocating that we become like those goverments. We have plenty to worry about, but thankfully, this particular apocalypse is just not the one we are confronting.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 05:40:50 am

Kevin...........No we are not the old USSR or Communist China or North Korea.......not yet. But we are heading gradually,at first,but lately,more rapidly toward those kinds of societies. As I stated earlier the kind of collectivism we are headed for is a form of socialism called fascism. Yes,we still have a capitalist economy. But,it is not a free market capitalist system but a system of crony capitalism. Its a rigged market. The handwriting is on the wall for all those to see. If you wish to close your eyes..so be it.

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libertarian jerry
on May 07, 2015 at 06:27:55 am

"I take it to be self-evident that there still exists private property in the US, of the kind that Hayek or Mill or Smith or Friedman would recognize. As Mr. Bertarian correctly notes, all property exists because here is a state to guarantee it…"

I clearly failed to communicate my ideas, because I meant to convey the exact antithesis of the claim that the state, in our democracy in which the citizens are ultimately the sovereign, functions to guarantee private property. The voters are ultimately the sovereign, and hence the true owners of all property, because they have the legal power to change our most fundamental law, the Constitution.

There is no individual right guaranteed in the Constitution, whether to free speech or to property, that cannot be taken away by the sovereign voters through either of the two constitutional methods of amending the Constitution. You may think, Mr. Hardwick, that you are the owner of your home and of your shares in a corporation, but in fact the voters are the owners, since the voters are the sovereign over the property of which you are merely a steward. We live in a giant commune. Individuals have no guaranteed rights in our commune, because by nature of our amendable Constitution those "rights" can be taken away by the voters.

You are a mere steward of "your" home in a giant commune, Mr. Hardwick. At this date, you are steward over somewhere between 40% and 50% of what you thought you "owned." The true sovereigns, your neighbors in the big commune, are the true owners and took the rest. I see no reason to believe that the 40% to 50% over which you are mere steward will be greater than it is today, let alone what it was in 1789. The Republicans only slow down the Democrats' progress in increasing that 40% to 50% to something inexorably greater. Have the Republicans done anything else in the last 60 years?

If the U.S. Constitution had been written differently, such that it delineated individual rights that could not be removed by the amendment process, then you would be correct in claiming that the state "guarantees" those rights. A revocable "guarantee" is not a guarantee.

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Ali Bertarian
on May 07, 2015 at 09:02:44 am

Ali--

Had the constitution been written as you propose, it would have been the kind of thing James Madison called a "parchment barrier." Read Federalist 51. Then read the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union, and especially the 10th article, which specifies the rights of the Soviet people. You can find it here: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/const/36cons04.html#chap10

That's the kind of language you recommend above. Its noble stuff. But the words of that Constitution matter not in the slightest. The Soviet Constitution under which Stalin exercised authority was a parchment barrier.

All states have sovereigns, so I agree with you that rights are secure only to the extent that the sovereign guarantees them. In a system that locates sovereignty in the people, rights are secure only so long as the people collectively guarantee them.

But so what? The first sentence I write is true of all governments. And the second is true of all democratic governments. So your post above--which, if I have captured it properly above is one with which I agree--merely spotlights a feature that is necessarily true of all organized public human societies. There is no alternative--so the challenge we confront, as Madison recognized--is to create governments that will be run by human beings, to control human beings. In the absence of angels to run our government for us, the best we can do is to frame our public institutions to ameliorate the necessarily imperfect world in which we live.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 09:20:55 am

Jerry--

The US has suffered from rampant crony capitalism in the past. That was one of the main problems with which American statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Hoover grappled. Their solution was government regulation of corporate cartel and monopoly. Much of that regulatory apparatus has in intervening years been captured by the interests it was designed to regulate. In recent years, much of it has been dismantled. (I intend the sentences of this paragraph simply as historical description, not as an argument for how we should or should not do things in the present.)

So my point here is that there is no golden age in the past that we can use as a benchmark for a narrative of American decline.

You suggest that the US is slowly and incrementally "slouching towards Gomorrah," (the title of a polemic by Judge Robert Bork that is worth reading) where Gomorrah is Fascism.

That is a claim that is worth exploring. But there are caveats to be made here as well. First, neither the institutional structure nor the "on the ground" function of government in the US much resembles that either of Hitler's Germany or of Mussolini's Italy. Nor are the cultural forms of those societies--their tribal nnationalism, in particular--present in the US today. So while the simile "the US today is like Fascism" may have something in it to instruct us, the metaphor will only take us so far.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 09:32:00 am

Ali--

The term I have settled on is "statism." Its not ideal, but it is better than "socialism." Socialism and Communism are species of Statism, but not all Statist societies are Socialist.

If it is just the label we are talking about, then this is just semantics. But if we are using these terms for diagnostic purposes, then it does matter.

All best,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 11:14:06 am

"[T]he words of that Constitution matter not in the slightest. The Soviet Constitution under which Stalin exercised authority was a parchment barrier.

All states have sovereigns, so I agree with you that rights are secure only to the extent that the sovereign guarantees them. In a system that locates sovereignty in the people, rights are secure only so long as the people collectively guarantee them.

But so what?"

"[Liberty] is the product not of institutions, but of a temper, of an attitude towards life; of that mood that looks before and after and pines for what it is not. It is idle to look to laws or courts, or principalities, or powers to secure it. You may write into your constitutions not ten, but fifty, amendments, and it shall not help a farthing, for casuistry [rationalizations] will undermine it as casuistry should, if it have no stay but law. It is secure only in that ... sense of fair play, of give and take, and the uncertainty of human hypothesis, of how changeable and passing are our surest convictions, which has so hard a chance to survive in any times, perhaps especially in our own."

Learned Hand, In Commemoration of Fifty Years of Federal Judicial Service, 264 F.2d xxxviii (2d Cir. 1959).

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nobody.really
on May 07, 2015 at 11:29:51 am

"There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has attained, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. There are difficult questions about the precise standard which should thus be assured …. but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody….

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for these common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance -- where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks -- the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong…. [T]here is no incompatibility in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom. To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state’s rendering assistance to the victims of such “acts of God” as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chap. 9, “Security and Freedom”

"The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born."

Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 3.

I have always said that I am in favor of a minimum income for every person in the country.

Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue by F. A. Hayek, edited by Stephen Kresge and Leif Wenar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

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nobody.really
on May 07, 2015 at 12:30:58 pm

So nice to see someone actually *reads* Hayek, and takes the time to grasp his arguments as he wrote them, rather than do what so many of my students do: extract sound-bite snippets of his writing from third party web sites, and then pretend that they know what he was arguing. The problem with not reading for oneself is that one is then easily led astray by other parties, whose agendas may not be clear to you. Much better to do one's thinking for oneself, rather than let others do it for you.

So. One basic question to understanding a text is to ask "who is the audience?" Another is to ask "in response to what is the author writing?"

Ask these questions of The Road to Serfdom. If you have not read the book, and thought about its argument, the answers may well surprise you. For starters, Hayek was not writing primarily for an American audience. The circumstances that summoned him to write had to do with mis-diagnoses of what the Second World War was about, in a conversation that took place in 1943 and 1944 almost entirely among British intellectuals. To my reading of him, that matters.

Thanks for taking the trouble to find these quotes, as they are passages I was thinking of when I wrote above. If support for these positions makes Hayek a socialist, then we are living in a topsey-turvey world indeed.

As in so much else, Lewis Carrol captured this kind of absurdity well:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 13:11:48 pm

Nobody--

I have not read deeply in the writings of Learned Hand. I know him primarily for his 1944 Central Park Address, which I think is extraordinaarily eloquent, and which I require my students to read.

Any recommendations for where to start?

Many thanks,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 13:42:34 pm

Nobody--

A further thought. The problem that Learned Hand so nicely expresses was a major concern for American statesmen and other public figures until the 1930s. The basic core idea is that in a republican regime, the final and crucial check and balance is the civic character of the people. Madison understood this clearly, as did many others of his generation.

In the 1780s and forward through much of the 19th century, American thinkers noted, I think plausibly, that the kind of work one does shapes one's character. This was part of the critique of slavery. But it also inspired the agrarianism of guys like Jefferson, the "Artisan Republicanism" of the 1820s and 1830s, and the Free Labor, "small business" republicanism of the Republican party in the 1850s. It undergirds the teaching of Booker T. Washington. You can hear echoes of this idea in the measured and thoughtful vision of Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, at Ossawatamie, and of Herbert Hoover in his criticism of socialism in 1928. There is a faint echo of this idea in criticimsm of LBJ's Great Society.

Modern liberals seem largely to have forgotten this strand of American political thought. Indeed, modern liberals seem to have forgotten their own heritage--its very hard to find any coherent statement of liberal principles after Mario Cuomo's 1984 DNC Address. (There are exceptions--whatever else you think of Krugman, he knows what he believes and has thought through why he believes it.) Modern liberalism is a vague disposition towards a certain understanding of justice, but expends very little energy trying to develop that in any thoughtful way. That is one reason why it is so easy to project onto it one's worst fears, whatever they may be.

But modern conservatives also expend little energy thinking about civic character, other than of course that they are for it. From Jefferson forward, through Hoover anyway, people who thought about civic character believed that it was an important thing for the government to promote. Free soil, an expression of agrarianism, after all was a government sponsored program. So were land-grant universities, and state exchange services. Hoover understood that there are many ways for the government to act, some of which are beneficial to civic character, and some not. Modern conservatives, on the other hand, are so hung up on "starve the beast" that they have forgotten this elemental truth: a republic is only as good as the people who comprise it.

Let's not forget which party defunded civic education initiatives like the very effective and salutary "We the People" program, or the Center for Civic Education more broadly, or other similar programs. Promoting civic dispositions in young people via our public education system should be a no-brainer for conservatives. But of course, if public ecucation is best understood as a communist conspiracy, another plank on the road to Communism, then it does make some sense to ignore civic education. Horace Mann (that socialist bedfellow of Hayek!) is spinning in his grave.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 07, 2015 at 15:37:27 pm

Promoting civic dispositions in young people via our public education system should be a no-brainer for conservatives. But of course, if public education is best understood as a communist conspiracy, another plank on the road to Communism, then it does make some sense to ignore civic education.

I struggle with this issue. What exactly does “civil disposition” consist of? How exactly would governments promote it? Why exactly would this practice not constitute Establishment of Religion?

Recall where the rubber meets the road: The world is going to hell. The US fights the War to End All Wars – but wars keep occurring. Then the world’s economy collapses. In the midst of this chaos, as Europe is devolving into racist fascism, the US calls upon its schools to instill in youth a civic disposition – by having them recite the Pledge of Allegiance. What could be more wholesome?

Except that in 1938 a few Jehovah’s Witnesses say this practice violates their autonomy rights. Fortunately the US Supreme Ct was on hand to declare that "national cohesion" was "inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values," and that the country's foundation as a free society depends upon building sentimental ties to national symbols. Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).

After three years of endless abuse heaped upon the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court would utterly repudiate this decision and reject the idea that public schools can compel students to participate in practices to promote a civic disposition if doing so would conflict with a student’s autonomy rights. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

And here’s the irony: Learned Hand’s version of civil virtue entails profound humility – “that mood that looks before and after and pines for what it is not.” The Pledge directs students to give their allegiance to a republic with liberty for all – including, presumably, the liberty NOT to give this allegiance. Teachers that would seek to compel students to take the Pledge were undermining it; students who refused to take the Pledge were embracing it. Kinda Zen, huh?

I have a vague sense that governments have a compelling interest in promoting some level of civic virtue – but this does skate on the boundaries of the Establishment Clause.

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nobody.really
on May 07, 2015 at 18:10:48 pm

The deep roots of the ideas contained in the fine words of Hayek posted by nobody.really and praised by Kevin R. Hardwich: Are they not found first in the ancient Hebrew Scripture? One must wonder: what was their source?

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Linda Smith
on May 10, 2015 at 17:53:19 pm

Kevin:

"Had the constitution been written as you propose, it would have been the kind of thing James Madison called a 'parchment barrier.' Read Federalist 51. Then read the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union, and especially the 10th article, which specifies the rights of the Soviet people."

Madison referred to "parchment" in Federalist 48, in which he wrote: "I shall undertake, in the next place, to show that unless these departments be so far connected and blended as to give to each a constitutional control over the others, the degree of separation which the maxim requires, as essential to a free government, can never in practice be duly maintained."

In both 48 and 51, Madison proposed separation of powers as a means to avoiding tyranny by government.

I proposed no change to the separation of powers built into the U.S. Constitution, but to the rights allowed (not guaranteed) the people by the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps I am shortsighted, but I fail to see how the incorporation of truly guaranteed – i.e. irrevocable -- individual rights (which I proposed) can any more affect the separation of powers than the First Amendment has affected the separation of powers built into the Constitution. The rights I propose would simply not be revocable as they are in our Constitution by amendment.

"But the words of that Constitution matter not in the slightest. The Soviet Constitution under which Stalin exercised authority was a parchment barrier."

Did the Soviet Constitution have the separation of powers that Madison recommended?

Tocqueville remarked eloquently upon the character of the American people, which until the 20th century provided the stays alluded to in nobody.really's citation of Learned Hand. Did the character of the Soviet people at the time of the 1936 Soviet constitution provide the necessary stays?

"All states have sovereigns, so I agree with you that rights are secure only to the extent that the sovereign guarantees them. In a system that locates sovereignty in the people, rights are secure only so long as the people collectively guarantee them.

"But so what? The first sentence I write is true of all governments. And the second is true of all democratic governments. So your post above–which, if I have captured it properly above is one with which I agree–merely spotlights a feature that is necessarily true of all organized public human societies. There is no alternative…"

My knowledge of comparative government is limited, so I honestly don't know if your second sentence is true. Are there democracies that have guaranteed individual rights, either constitutionally or common law, that are not subject to legal revocation? If so, then those democracies do not locate the sovereign in the commune (the "people"), but in the individual, at least for those particular rights.

Until we do see that alternative which I proposed to the all-communal democracy that is the U.S. constitutional government, we will continue to see the slow progression into ever-increasing government control of our lives just as we have seen in the last 100 years; which brings us full-circle to the article on which we have been commenting. The Republicans have been essential to this slow progression.

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Ali Bertarian
on May 11, 2015 at 01:24:08 am

Ali--

You are absolutely correct, of course, about Federalist 48. But Madison never thought that separation of powers was sufficient to secure liberty, absent a vigilant and attentive citizenry. One place you can find him making this argument is his 20 June, 1788 speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention.

The point of the "parchment barrier" metaphor in Fed. 48 is to argue that written guarantees of rights can not be sufficient to ensure that the government will honor them. I took you to be arguing that if only we articulated our rights with sufficient clarity, and rooted them in immutable natural law, all would be well. If that is what you in fact intended to argue, then Fed. 48 is to my eye as strong a rebuttal as you are likely to find anywhere. But from your last post on the matter it would seem perhaps I misunderstood your argument. if that is the case, I ask you to believe it was an honest error.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 11, 2015 at 02:57:03 am

"…it would seem perhaps I misunderstood your argument. if that is the case, I ask you to believe it was an honest error.

I have reviewed my words in these posts multiple times, wondering where I failed, not how any readers failed. I look forward to discussions in the future.

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Ali Bertarian

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