The Mueller Report Changed my Mind on Term Limits

I haven’t read the Mueller report yet. I’m writing this on the day of its release (with redactions) by US Attorney General William Barr.  I’ll read it later, but I didn’t have to read it, or even wait for its release, to reach one conclusion from it: It’s time to amend the Constitution to limit the President of the United States to one term.

No, not because I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t, but I didn’t like his 2016 Democratic opponent either, nor do I expect to like his 2020 Democratic opponent. As long as American voters continue to limit themselves to voting for Republicans and Democrats, I don’t care too much which of the two parties they vote for.

Nor because I think term limits as such would usher in an era of “citizen legislators” and solve some of the systemic problems in American politics caused by political careerism (as my friend Paul Jacob, founder of US Term Limits, believes). It’s not that they’re a bad idea. It’s that they’re more of a distraction than a solution.

But the presidency is an office of singular weight.

We can afford, at least to some degree, to have members of Congress worrying about their own re-elections at the expense of doing the people’s business (however one defines that).

But can we afford to have both the president and Congress worrying about almost nothing BUT the president’s re-election prospects, 24/7, for four years out of every eight?

Let’s face it: That’s what the entire two-year (so far) “Russiagate” moral panic has mostly been about. Democrats want to either impeach Donald Trump and remove him from office or, failing that, destroy his prospects of re-election.

And yes, that’s what the last two years of Bill Clinton’s first term were all about too.  Republicans hoped they could find something, anything, that would make it possible to beat Clinton in 1996 (didn’t work).

It didn’t help the Republicans in 1996. It isn’t helping the Democrats now. And ignoring real public policy issues in favor of such antics certainly did not then, and does not now, serve any rational interest of the public, except perhaps the interest of entertainment. That’s what Game of Thrones and F is for Family are for.

This is a problem we can fix. Limit the president to one term.  No re-election campaign by the president. No de-election campaign by the president’s opponents.

One. And. Done.

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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Pardoning Assange Would be the First Step Back Toward Rule of Law

On April 11, the ongoing saga of journalist and transparency activist Julian Assange took a dangerous turn.  Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, revoked his asylum in that country’s London embassy. British police immediately arrested him — supposedly pursuant to his “crime” of jumping bail on an invalid arrest warrant in an investigation since dropped without charges but, as they admitted shortly thereafter,  actually with the intent of turning him over to US prosecutors on bogus “hacking” allegations.

The US political class has been after Assange for nearly a decade.

In 2010 WikiLeaks, the journalism/transparency service he founded, released information revealing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as State Department cables exposing — among other things — Hillary Clinton’s attempts to have American diplomats plant bugs in the offices of their UN counterparts (Clinton, at one point, tried to raise the possibility of having him murdered for embarrassing her so).

In 2016, WikiLeaks released Democratic National Committee emails — provided by an as yet unidentified whistleblower — exposing the DNC’s attempts to rig the Democratic presidential primaries in Clinton’s favor.

At no point has Assange been credibly accused of a crime. He’s a journalist. People provide him with information. He publishes that information. That’s an activity clearly and unambiguously protected by the First Amendment.

Even if Assange was a US citizen, and even if his activities had taken place in territory under US jurisdiction, there’s simply no criminal case to be made against him.

So they’re manufacturing one out of whole cloth, accusing him of “hacking” by asserting that he assisted Chelsea Manning with the technical process of getting the 2010 information to WikiLeaks.

But once again: Assange is not a US citizen, nor at the time of his alleged actions was he anywhere that would have placed him under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Even if he did what he’s accused of doing, the current state of affairs is the equivalent of the city government of Chicago asking Norway to extradite a French citizen on charges of not cutting the grass at his villa in Italy to the specifications of Chicago’s ordinance on the subject.

There are certainly criminal charges worth pursuing here.

The US Department of Justice should appoint a special counsel to probe the Assange affair with an eye toward firing, seeking the disbarment of, and prosecuting (for violations of US Code Title 18, Sections 241, Conspiracy Against Rights, and 242, Violation of Rights Under Color of Law) the DoJ bureaucrats who hatched this malicious prosecution.

The first step in the process, though, is for US president Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange for all alleged violations of US law on or prior to April 11, 2019.

Assange is a hero. Time to stop treating him like a criminal.

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My Provisional Support For “Borders”

The only legitimate justification for something like a “national border” would be to separate a free territory from any unfree territories around it. In order to protect the people in the free territory from the statists surrounding them.

This situation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world because there are no free territories (other than small scale experimentsmaybe). America hasn’t been a free territory since America was replaced by “the United States” with the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. As long as there are “taxes” and other counterfeit “laws” and politicians in a territory, it is not free. Even though there are differences in degree, there are no differences in kind.

As it is, national borders are rather like the internal fences in a feedlot. They separate different groups of cattle from each other for the purposes of those who exploit them. It’s not for the good of the cattle. It would be genius to brainwash the cattle into believing it is.

In our human situation, it’s as if the cattle in one pen are getting angry at the cattle who hop the fence instead of focusing their anger at those who manage the feedlot. “We must remain ‘King of the Dung Heap’ in our little pen!

Those humans who hop the fence may be hoping to avoid a looming appointment on the kill floor, or maybe they hope for more food on the other side. But if they are looking for liberty they are doing it wrong and looking in the wrong place. Still, I can’t blame them for doing something in their desperation, even if it amounts to jumping out of the fire and into the smoldering kindling.

And, the ones who hop the fence and then demand to make this side similar to the side they were desperate to escape are being stupid and are committing evil.

To be clear: nothing excuses archation by fence hoppers. Nor by fence defenders.

Instead of abandoning principles over your “border”, why not make this side of the fence free. Create a condition of liberty. That means zero “taxes”, zero counterfeit “laws” of any kind, and zero politicians. This side of the fence cannot be a State.

Then, and only then, I’ll help you secure the border from anyone who tries to bring a little bit of archation into this free territory– while welcoming all others (because they couldn’t be a problem). Anyone else should be free to cross this border in either direction with no delay or difficulty whatsoever.

Because it’s always up to the believers to convince the skeptics, it’s up to those who support the “borders” to make this a free territory and convince me to support their walls and fences. If they have a workable plan which doesn’t involve me compromising food with poison or liberty with statism, I’ll jump right in.

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The History of History

It would be interesting, though very difficult, to study how history changes.

I don’t mean how the sequence of human events changes from the present into the future, I mean how the past changes. Since it exists only in memory from our present perspective, the stories we believe about the past are the past. But those stories aren’t fixed. They change all the time.

I’ve seen some books and studies that look at a few historical events and document the ways in which history textbooks dealt with them in, say, the 1950s vs today. The changes are often dramatic, but presented in a deadpan Orwellian fashion as if it has always been this way, nevermind what we used to say.

And it is of course true that history is mostly written by those on reasonably favorable terms with the dominant political powers. When those change, histories also change.

Imagine if the German army had won World War II, or the Soviet Union had won a nuclear showdown with the United States. Do you think the dominant historical narrative would be the same? Not only would the telling of those conflicts be different, but the story of all previous history would be different. There is little reason to believe our current historical story is any less biased.

And in most cases, you can’t easily go to the evidence to prove which version is true. Evidence is scant. Most of history, especially ancient history, is based on one or two fragments or artifacts that get translated by one or two people who then get referenced by others who get referenced. If you wanted to find out whether a particular ancient figure was real, you might find the best you could get was someone who wrote a story about them, and it’s unclear whether the story was intended as fiction. There is no harder evidence for many things in history.

This does not make history a scandal or conspiracy, but it ought to cause humility. It needn’t cause paranoia about being lied to. In fact, I find it thrilling. It means the world is full of so much more mystery than we assume if we simply accept dominant narratives as provably true.

It is useful to think probabilistically about history (and everything else). If you experience something firsthand, you can be certain it happened. If a trusted friend relays a story, you might be slightly less certain. By the time you’re hearing fifteenth-hand someone referencing an nineteenth century scholar’s belief about when the Sumerians built the Ziggurats based on one type of textual analysis, the probability is it totally accurate should be a lot lower.

In Orwell’s dystopia, history gets changed by the politically powerful at moments notice by changing the official story. While I do think it’s easier than most of us assume to change the dominant historical narrative, it takes a lot more than changing some government documents or publicly funded textbooks. Academics and professional historians are the easier part. Artists and novelists are the more important part.

When you think about the American West, or Ancient Egypt, or Medieval Europe, you have a lot of ideas that are pretty coherent and consistent with other people’s ideas about these things. While most are not contradicted by history books, they didn’t originate there. It’s not the source material that causes us to believe historical narratives as much as it is the fictional narratives built on top of it. Even though we know A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fictional narrative (built on top of another at least mostly fictional narrative of Arthur), the historical setting becomes a little more real in our brain every time a fictional story uses it as a backdrop.

A handful of movies like Jurassic Park that portray dinosaurs as predecessors to birds probably do more to make that part of the historical narrative than whatever studies or researchers they are referencing.

On the one hand, the power of art and fiction to shape our beliefs about the past is a bit troubling. I takes very little evidence from very few sources for a bunch of stories to spin up and make us believe things with higher probability than warranted, simply because it is repeated in so many stories on top of stories.

On the other hand, it’s cause for comfort. It’s empowering. I means an Orwellian regime is going to have a harder time controlling the past. Sure, they can handle the subsidy-sucking professoratti, but to control the narratives of all the artists and story-tellers? A Herculean task. In fact, the inability to control rebel creatives has brought down many a dictatorship.

History is not a fixed thing. Our knowledge is so slim. This makes probabalistic thinking important. It makes the stories we tell important. It makes the lenses through which we view the past important.

History has a history. The way it’s presented today might not be better than it once was or could be. It’s useful to think about ways it might better be told and understood.

(Bonus: Here’s a great video on ways of seeing the past.)

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The Gig Economy is What Yesterday’s Socialists Said They Wanted; Why do Today’s Socialists Hate it?

A February Harris poll finds that 49.6% of Millennial and Generation Z Americans would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), among other politicians, proclaim a message of “democratic socialism,” evoking an ideology last ascendant in the early 1900s when Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas moved the needle in US elections.

But the devil is, as always, in the details. The goals of today’s American “democratic socialism,” as laid out in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, in Sanders’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” etc. look a lot more like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to “save capitalism” through welfare statism than like the proposals of socialism’s last rise to prominence.

The essence of socialism as laid out by Proudhon and Marx and promoted by the International Workers of the World, et al., came down to destroying the wage system and building a classless society based on worker ownership of the means of production.

Those earlier socialists would almost certainly have lauded gig economy workers as examples of what socialism sought. Today’s socialists disdain them.

Consider gig economy drivers, once just called “gypsy cabbies.” In recent years many of them have chosen to affiliate with services like Uber and Lyft to get easier connections to people seeking rides.

Gig economy drivers own the means of production (their cars).

Gig economy drivers set their own hours and choose their own workplaces instead of slaving away on  someone else’s terms.

Gig economy drivers can use customer discovery services like Uber/Lyft, or they can go their own ways (many Uber drivers give me their cards, telling me to call them directly next time and cut out the capitalist middleman).

But today’s “democratic socialists” fought tooth and nail to preserve the capitalist “medallion cab” monopoly, and having lost that fight they’ve re-oriented their struggle toward roping the drivers, and the companies they choose to work with, into the old-style capitalist “wage employee” system.

Even the most virulent revolutionary Marxism posited that the state would wither away as workers seized the means of production, got rid of the bosses, and started working for themselves. That didn’t work out — the socialist parties ended up substituting themselves for the old ruling class, operating in the name of, but not as true proxies for, “the workers” — but that was the goal.

In the US, the same kind of substitutism came about “democratically” and incrementally as “progressives” co-opted pieces of socialist-sounding reforms. But just like the Marxist-Leninist parties in the old Soviet orbit, today’s “democratic socialists” are … well, conservative.

They don’t want the wage system to go away. They just want to run it.

They don’t want the workers to own the means of production. They just want to tax and regulate it.

They don’t want a classless society. They just want to be the new ruling class.

US president Donald Trump is already touting the 2020 presidential election as a referendum on “socialism.” Are any real socialists going to show up for that fight?

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