The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

A Thank You to The Folks Who Made This Site Possible

Whether this is going to be a fallow season for The American Scene, or its end, or if there will be new posts up tomorrow (for a site with PEG and John Schwenkler and Matt Feeney would be formidable!), I have no idea, but it strikes me as an appropriate moment to offer a few thank yous:

– To Reihan Salam, for somehow managing to attract a constellation of writers who would collectively orbit no one but him, and for permitting me the privilege of taking part.

– To everyone who began blogging here at the beginning, especially Ross Douthat, whose approach to public discourse has been a model to me and many others, even when he was just starting out.

– To Matt Frost, for keeping the site running.

– To the writers with whom I shared TAS: James Poulos and Peter Suderman (Culture11 never would’ve existed as it did if not for this site), Alan Jacobs, Noah Millman, Jim Manzi, Matt Feeney, John Schwenkler, Matt Frost, PEG, Reihan, and briefly, David Sessions, Graeame Wood and Dara Lind. I’d pay to read any of you, and it’s been such a pleasure to share digital space with your work, I hope not for the last time. (After I post this I will pay to read Alan Jacobs, whose latest project is available for purchase — go here for a description).

Since I may well post again myself one day (how long I’ve had a short story in mind for this space that I haven’t had time to finish), I’ll refrain from making this any longer, except to say that TAS has meant so much to me that I don’t think I’ll be up for articulating just how much for a very long time. In closing, thanks to some of the commenters too.

The Best of Journalism 2010

I’ve curated a list of nearly 100 exceptional newspaper, magazine and radio pieces published last year.

I hope you’ll enjoy it – and spread it around.

I’ll leave you with a photograph of a Lutheran church in Texas.

Do you know what I’d do if I ran a Lutheran church? Install a metal door, just in case.

I've Reason To Believe You All Will Be Received

Sorry to trouble you, but it happens that I’m writing full time over at The Atlantic now, and I’d like to welcome anyone inclined to follow my work to bookmark this page or add this RSS feed to your reader of choice. Since April 4, I’ve managed 47 posts on a fairly broad range of topics.

Those uninterested in my doings are encouraged to use this post as an excuse to write a haiku about what it would be like to watch television with Elvis Presley. Here is some inspiration:

A Marine In Afghanistan

LCpl. Domingo Espinal from Basetrack on Vimeo.

Come Back To The Blogosphere?

When she quit blogging Hilzoy wrote the following:

The main reason I started blogging, besides the fact that I thought it would be fun, was that starting sometime in 2002, I thought that my country had gone insane. It wasn’t just the insane policies, although that was part of it. It was the sheer level of invective: the way that people who held what seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable views, e.g. that invading Iraq might not be such a smart move, were routinely being described as al Qaeda sympathizers who hated America and all it stood for and wanted us all to die.
I thought: we’ve gone mad. And I have to do something — not because I thought that I personally could have any appreciable effect on this, but because it felt like what Katherine called an all hands on deck moment…
That said, it seems to me that the madness is over. There are lots of people I disagree with, and lots of things I really care about, and even some people who seem to me to have misplaced their sanity, but the country as a whole does not seem to me to be crazy any more.

I submit that the madness is not over.

Dynamite Has Its Place

This passage from Robert Boynton’s piece on citizen journalists in North Korea grabbed me:

One of the Daily NK’s founders, Park In Ho, spends much of his time recruiting and training reporters on the North Korean border with China. Published in Korean, Chinese, English, and Japanese, the site receives 150,000 visits a month. Like most of the other independent news organizations, it receives funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as other NGOs and private donors. The Daily NK, like its peers, pays its North Korean correspondents small monthly retainers (more for scoops), and additional funds that they can use to bribe their way out of difficult situations.
Park tells me about recruiting one of his reporters. “I met him in China through an NGO. He was a graduate of Kim Il Sung University, so was destined to become a member of the elite. The first thing he asked me was to help him get some dynamite, so that he could blow up Kim Jong Il. He thought that everything in North Korea would change if he killed him.” They spent three months together, talking and reading books about the history of Northeast Asia. “I wanted him to understand the situation in the region, and persuade him not only that terrorism was wrong, but that it wouldn’t change anything.”

Whether it would change anything is beyond my knowledge, but I neither think it is terrorism nor that it is morally wrong to kill planet earth’s most repressive dictator.

How Would You Get Rid Of Bad Teachers?

Take a look at this. And my earlier post, which looked at how difficult it is to fire LAUSD teachers. I understand there’s a gulf between my reaction to these stories, and the way that E.D. Kain, Freddie, and others process them.

Fair enough. But here’s what I’d like to know. If you disagree with my preferred system, where principals would be as free to hire and fire who they wanted as management at The Atlantic or General Electric or McKinsey or the Catholic school system, what’s your preferred alternative? Put more precisely, if you were king for a day, and could codify into law whatever protocol you wanted for firing allegedly under-performing teachers, what would it look like? Or to use Freddie’s preferred formulation, you don’t like my idea for getting bad teachers out of classrooms where they’re disadvantaging their students, and disproportionately hurting the most disadvantaged among them. Okay, fine. But then what? Tell me your solution.

Firing Bad Teachers

Over at Forbes, E.D. Kain is embarking on a new blog venture where he’ll be writing about education policy. Join me in wishing him good luck. He is also calling himself a progressive these days. I’ve followed his writing when he described himself as a conservative, an independent, and a prodigal conservative. I’m happy to continue reading him through this new iteration, though I still don’t see the point of asserting an ideological identity when it’s plain to everyone that he’s a thoughtful, intellectually honest guys who is figuring things out as best he can. There isn’t any shame in being uncertain or conflicted about what first principles to embrace or how they translate into policy – or being perfectly clear about one’s core convictions but cognizant that they don’t map onto any ideological category so banal that guys like Conn Carroll can immediately peg you.

It’s a blessing to live in Arizona, far from the Beltway, and to write about public policy as a side gig, unbeholden to the ideological constraints that make so many writers at think tanks and ideological magazines less interesting than they’d otherwise be. I’ll read Kain regardless of the ideological lens through which he’s engaging the world. But I’m rooting for him to try out the naked eye. To hell with gradually accumulating thumb prints.

Here’s the passage in his latest that I want to address:

We should get rid of bad teachers. This is just common sense in any organization, schools included. But it isn’t easy, and not just because there’s a union shielding bad teachers from getting fired. That’s a far too simplistic explanation – just like getting rid of bad teachers is a far too simplistic solution. Evaluating teacher performance is no simple task.

This is one of those statements that is true only because it’s so damned vague. Is it difficult to develop a precise metric for ranking every teacher in a school from highest performing to lowest performing in order to divide up compensation by merit? Yes, very tough indeed. In extreme circumstances, however, it is very easy to evaluate teacher performance. Say that there’s a student at your school who attempts suicide, and on his first day back, one of his teachers tells him, “Carve deeper next time – you can’t even kill yourself.” Or imagine another teacher who is caught keeping a stash of marijuana, pornography, and vials with cocaine residue on school grounds. Ponder a case where a male middle school teacher is observed lying on top of a female student in shop class. Or a special education teacher who fails to report child abuse, yells insults at children, and inadequately supervises her class. These aren’t hyperbolic examples crafted to make a theoretical point that has little bearing on the real world. These are actual examples of misbehavior by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers who weren’t fired!

In these cases, is getting rid of bad teachers “a far too simplistic solution”? I fail to see why. Let’s delve into another example from the same article.

District officials thought they had a strong case against fourth-grade teacher Shirley Loftis, including complaints and other evidence they said dated back a decade. According to their allegations before the commission, Loftis, 74, failed to give directions to students, assigned homework that wasn’t at the appropriate grade level and provided such inadequate supervision that students pulled down their pants or harmed one another by fighting or throwing things. One child allegedly broke a tooth, another was hit in the head after being pushed off a chair, a third struck by a backpack.
The commission, however, sided with Loftis. It acknowledged that she showed signs of burnout and “would often retreat from student relationship problems rather than confront them.” But it said the district did not try hard enough to help her and suggested administrators find her another job — perhaps training other teachers. “She’s obviously an intelligent lady, and such a program might well succeed.” When the district took the case to Superior Court, lost and appealed, Loftis retired. The district agreed to pay $195,000 for her attorney’s fees. Through her attorney, the former teacher declined to comment. Collins, whose first case with L.A. Unified was Loftis’, recalled being frustrated because, although the problems allegedly had gone on many years, the district was allowed to present just four years of evidence under the state education code.

Is it too much to ask that when the ultimate finder of facts determines a teacher is burnt out and inclined to retreat from problems rather than solve them she is fired? Under the current system it is! And it is that system those of us who want to make it easier to fire bad teachers seek to reform – not some hypothetical system where it isn’t exactly clear who ought to be fired because we’re still working on a very complex system of evaluation.

A bit later on, Kain writes this:

Yes, an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad teacher will make a difference for better or worse in students’ lives, but for the most part you’re going to attract a fairly average work-force into the teaching profession. Most teachers are neither exceptional or awful – they’re average, just like most workers in most fields. And I’m not sure that you’ll attract much better people even with higher salaries. People teach for a lot of reasons, but the money isn’t one of them (though, obviously, better pay wouldn’t hurt.)

Skip past the tautology in the first part of that excerpt – it’s the assertion that money isn’t a reason people teach that interests me. An extreme, counter-intuitive claim, it is contradicted by common sense and experiments like this one. Will that scale? Probably not. But it sure seems as though money attracts much better candidates, doesn’t it?

Kain’s post was prompted by an argument over this reform proposal: “It would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days.” This post at The Daily Dish makes the case that even if that reform were adopted, it would still be far too difficult to fire bad teachers. Says Kain, “Andrew is falling into the trap so many pundits fall into: that simple solutions exist and if we just hold people accountable the system will fix itself. I would strongly recommend both Jim Manzi and Noah Millman on this issue, because both present sober, realistic evaluations of the limits education reformers face.” I too have a high opinion of the recent posts by Manzi and Millman. I suspect that both would agree that the ideal protocol for being allowed to fire under-performing teachers would proceed faster than one year plus 100 days.

I hope they’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

Final Thoughts On How To Talk About Pigford

This is going to get complicated quickly. My apologies. If you’ve never heard the word Pigford before this may be a post to skip. In my last stint guestblogging at The Daily Dish, I wrote a post about the Pigford controversy, where I basically argued that since it’s inevitably going to be an ongoing matter of dispute, the best way to talk about it is to focus on the reporting published in National Review by Daniel Foster, a writer whose basic integrity as a person I trust, rather than the stuff published by Andrew Breitbart, whose outspokenness on the matter is clearly outweighed by the numerous instances in which he has brazenly injected egregiously misleading information into public discourse.

So often, stories like this turn into conversational train wrecks. I see one coming – and an opportunity to do better. Let’s treat this like a complicated matter, one where even people writing in good faith can make mistakes, making it a perfect fit for the vetting function that comes from honest back-and-forths in the blogosphere.

The vetting started immediately. I’d noted an aspect of Foster’s piece that seemed particularly persuasive to me. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer, and Mark Thompson pushed back hard. I quickly saw that I’d been mistaken in buying into that particular argument, and said so. As is their wont, the folks at Balloon Juice misunderstood and misrepresented my narrow apology.

Meanwhile, National Review posted Foster’s piece online, so that folks no longer had to rely on my poor summary. Foster pushed back against his critics. Serwer went another round. And then the good people at Bloggingheads arranged for a diavlog between Foster and Serwer, which can be seen here. Some of the conversation is tedious through no fault of the interlocutors. This is a complicated story to talk about, especially for an audience that isn’t initiated. Other parts are riveting. It isn’t often that you see two writers with wildly different takes on race in America willing to confront one another and converse in ways that make both of them uncomfortable.

The exchange that has played out is basically what I hoped for when I wrote that initial post urging engagement with Foster’s piece. I’d wager that Foster, Serwer, Thompson and Coates would all write things a bit differently if they could redo this whole exchange. On the whole, however, I think they’ve all conducted themselves rather well: more precisely, whatever their mistakes, they’ve all argued in good faith, with intellectual honesty and a desire to leave the public better informed about the matter at hand. Put another way, if everyone merely rose to the level of imperfect reporting, analysis and argument displayed here, American public discourse would be greatly improved.

But damn, this is a messy, maddening process. Among the writers I’ve mentioned, there were heated exchanges, hurt feelings, occasional suspicions of bad faith, tedious intervals that didn’t make for particularly entertaining journalism… and as a reader, one had to wade through all of it for the payoff of being a lot better informed on the other end… but even being better informed, there wasn’t the satisfaction of easy answers or resolution to all the disagreements.

What I find so wrongheaded about the Balloon Juice approach to this story – and the approach taken by folks who emailed me insisting that I should have never written my initial post – is the glib insistence that merely wanting a robust exchange was tantamount to being Andrew Breitbart’s useful idiot. If you’ve clicked through to the various links above, compare Foster’s piece and his exchange on Bloggingheads to the blinkered way that Breitbart talks about the case:

To me, if you can’t distinguish the difference, you’re not evaluating this matter in good faith. One thing you’ll find is that all the people I’ve cited favorably have a hard time talking about subjects like this without being suspicious even of their good-faith interlocutors in part because of the bad behavior of the Andrew Breitbarts and Al Sharptons of the world.

When I watch Foster and Serwer on Bloggingheads, I don’t for a minute imagine that they’ve reconciled all their disagreements and criticisms of one another. But I can’t help but conclude that their exchange does a little bit to repair the suspicion we all have about folks who disagree with us on fraught subjects. Speaking of which, the very next diavlog pits Glenn Greenwald against David Frum.

I love BHTV.

An NBA Hypothetical

If you’re a sports fan, best to start reading Joe Posnanski’s blog. It’s wonderful. And as icing he gives us this question:

Read the full article

A Brief Remark On Sarah Palin

Jon Chait is defending her:

Okay, it’s a little over the top for Sarah Palin to accuse her critics of “blood libel.” But she does have a basic point. She had nothing to do with Jared Loughner. He was not an extremist who embraced some radical version of her ideas. And her use of targets to identify districts Republicans were, um, targeting is not exceptional or prone to incite anybody.
What’s happening is that Palin has come to represent unhinged grassroots conservatism, and people in the media immediately (and incorrectly) associated Loughner with the far right. Moreover, the Republican establishment understands her potential candidacy as a liability and is looking to snuff it out. So you have this weird moment where Palin is on trial for something she has no connection with at all.

For what it’s worth, I think Chait is basically right (Jennifer Rubin’s best guess about what actually went on inside the Palin camp is mine too), and my only hesitation in saying so is that it required me to publish another blog post about someone I wish we would all talk about a lot less. As such, I’m going to get my one other Palin related thought out of the way, and then ignore her for as long as possible.

Here goes:

If you’re someone who thinks that Governor Palin inspires extreme irrational hatred and needlessly strident, knee jerk opposition from the liberal half of the country… shouldn’t it follow that you regard her as a terrible politician who should never run for office again (whether because you don’t want a substantial number of your fellow citizens acting all extreme and needlessly irrational, or because you don’t want half the country to be more knee-jerk in their opposition to whatever you want than they’d otherwise be)? But a lot of people treat that characteristic of the former Alaska governor as a feature rather than a bug. (Speaking of old hobbyhorses…)

In Which I Dare The Corner To Publish Quotes From Popular Conservatives

Arguments that the liberal community is less prone to reckless speech, or has far less tolerance for those within it who use violent imagery and language than does the Right, are unconvincing. I don’t remember a Krugman column or a Sen. Patrick Leahy speech on the toxic Nicholson Baker novel, the Gabriel Range Bush assassination docudrama, the Chris Matthews CO2-pellet-in-the-face/blowing-up-of-the-“blimp” comments about Rush Limbaugh, the “I hate George Bush” embarrassment at The New Republic, Michael Moore’s preference for a red-state target on 9/11, or the Hitlerian/brownshirt accusations voiced by the likes of Al Gore, John Glenn, Robert Byrd, George Soros, and so on. So why the disconnect? Politics for sure, but I think also the double standard has something to do with style, venue, and perceived class.
If a progressive imagines killing George Bush in a tony Knopf novel or a Toronto film festival documentary, or rambles on about why he finds his president an object of hatred in a New Republic essay, or muses in the Guardian (cf. Charles Brooker: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”), then we must certainly contextualize that hatred in a way that we do not in the crasser genres of commercial-laden talk radio, or an open-air demonstration placard. The novelist, the film-maker, the high-brow columnist, the professor can all dabble in haute couture calumny (cf. Garrison Keeler’s “brownshirts in pinstripes”); the degree-less, up-from-the-bootstraps Beck, Hannity, or Limbaugh behind a mike cannot. What is at the most atypical, out of character, or in slightly bad taste for the former must be a window into the dark soul of the latter.
— Victor Davis Hanson

There is something to this – many of the people VDH name-checks have uttered indefensible remarks, and maybe the veneer of respectability has helped some of them to obscure how flawed their words were. But I wonder if he would wager with me in the interest of testing his larger claim about who is more prone to rhetorical excess, the mainstream right or the mainstream left.

Rush Limbaugh began broadcasting to a large national audience in the early 1990s. So let’s go back 20 years to 1991 for the sake of simplicity. In the bet, Victor Davis Hanson can draw on every word spoken or written by all the people above that he mentions unfavorably: Paul Krugman, Nicholas Baker, Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, Al Gore, John Glenn, Garrison Keeler, Robert Byrd, Jonathan Chait and George Soros. In return, I will draw only on the words of Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative entertainer in America for much of the last two decades, recent national phenom Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin, the bestselling author, popular radio host, and sometimes colleague of VDH at National Review. (Even I can’t bear listening to Sean Hannity. Sorry.)

That’s ten people for him and three people for me – and mine are all very popular among the rank-and-file of movement conservatism. We’ll try to match one another, example of rhetorical excess for example of rhetorical excess. And the loser – the one who runs out of examples first – can donate $500 to the charity of the winner’s choice.

(Does anyone think I would lose?)

I’ll explain to you why this bet appeals to me, and why VDH will never agree to it. In truth, I don’t care whether the right or the left is more culpable on this issue: the point is that the guilty parties on both sides of the ideological divide should stop it, unilaterally if need be, even if the other side is worse. And as I explained in my last post, I wish everyone would start focusing on substance more than tone. But I can’t possibly lose this bet, even if VDH improbably finds more examples, because I have no problem acknowledging indefensible rhetoric on the left when I see it, or asserting that Paul Krugman (or his wife?) is sometimes a blowhard who makes claims un-befitting a person of intelligence, or affirming that Michael Moore’s documentary work is riddled with mean-spirited errors, etc.

Whereas Victor Davis Hanson has never forthrightly acknowledged the rhetorical excesses and inaccuracies of Limbaugh, Beck, or Levin. And if by some miracle he fully confronted what they’ve said over the years –– or even affirmed the disgusting words they’ve uttered by publishing a blog post at The Corner filled with nothing but direct quotations of their words! –– it would be a powerful moment on the right, because no one of his stature has ever so much as acknowledged the full extent of what is said on the conservative movement’s most popular talk radio programs.

So do we have a bet, VDH? I’m game. And if you’re not –– if you’re pressed for time, or if you’ve an objection to dealing with me for some reason –– here’s an alternative idea. Folks on the right think leftists don’t confront the indefensible speech uttered by their side. And vice-versa.

So why don’t the folks at The Corner enter into a bargain with a prominent blogger on the left. What do you say, Matt Yglesias or Kevin Drum or Jonathan Chait? Here’s how it would work. Every day for a week, Monday through Friday, The Corner’s designated blogger could draft one post for publication on the left-leaning blog. The catch? They’d be limited to offering five direct quotations per day of lefties engaged in indefensible rhetoric, however they define it (in context, of course).

In return, the liberal interlocutor could publish the equivalent post at The Corner. And every day for a week, the participants would have to read one another’s five examples for that day, and decide whether to acknowledge that they’re indefensible and assert that the source should apologize if he or she hasn’t done so… or else defend the remark(s).

Maybe I’m wrong. But I suspect that Yglesias, Drum, and Chait would all be game for this sort of exchange. And that it wouldn’t be approved at The Corner in a million years.

Why do you think that is?

(Or am I wrong?)

Tone Versus Substance

Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree has rekindled a long-running debate about political discourse in the United States. Voices like Andrew Sullivan insist that violent, inflammatory rhetoric poisons our country, and runs the risk of empowering the deranged. Jack Shafer takes an almost opposite position. “Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing,” he writes. “Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private.” Who is right? I have no idea. Both arguments are plausible. It’s even possible for the same rhetoric to act as a release valve for public passions and to inspire someone on the fringe to do something terrible. But whether you side with Sullivan or Shafer – or call yourself an agnostic like me – I’d argue that tone is overemphasized in these conversations about political discourse, while substance is mostly ignored.

What if we took the opposite approach? I don’t think that Sarah Palin bears any responsibility for the shooting in Arizona, or that her rhetoric is the most egregious you’ll find on the right. I don’t have any problem with her poster putting various Congressional districts in cross-hairs. It’s a commonly used visual metaphor, for better or worse, and the substance being communicated is basically that the GOP wants to take back or “target” certain seats. The “tone” is arguably extreme, but what’s being said, the ultimate message, is perfectly acceptable: beat these people at the polls.

In contrast, Palin’s remarks about death panels communicated an untruth: the notion that Barack Obama’s health care reform effort sought to empower a panel of bureaucrats who’d sit in judgment about whether an old person’s life would be saved or not. That is the sort of thing we ought to find objectionable, even if the substance is communicated in the most dry language imaginable, because were it true, radicalism would be an appropriate response. “They’re going to start killing old people? We’ve got to stop this!”

I don’t think the right’s rhetoric is responsible for the shooting in Arizona. Long before this incident, however, I was arguing that the right does have a rhetoric problem. I still think that is true, and the aggrieved attitude of conservative commentators the last couple days is too much for me. Yes, I agree with many of them that Palin and friends aren’t responsible for this assassination attempt. Sadly, that is the most you can say in their favor. But it isn’t an entirely partisan impulse that causes some people to think otherwise.

Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, an usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.

If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

UPDATE: Noam Scheiber is worth reading on this subject too.

Quote Of The Day

Mark Levin, who I’ve known for a long time, he has said some awful things about me. He declared this minor war on National Review, which I find baffling. He’s constantly ripping into my friend Steve Hayes. But at the end of the day, look, even if you’re willing to concede all the stuff Friedersdorf does about Mark Levin, the problem is that Mark Levin – his myriad talents and successes notwithstanding – is not the pope of conservatism.

And the reality is that very very few people listen to Mark Levin who don’t already agree with Mark Levin. The idea that Mark Levin is doing some profound damage to the country or the conservative movement rests on the idea that there are all these liberals tuning in who would otherwise be persuaded by Bill Buckley, but instead are being turned off by Mark. I don’t buy the logic of it.

My position on the conservative movement is that different people need to do different things. As I put it in that C-Span interview, it’s not the best analogy, but if you’ve got to tear down a house and replace it with another one, you need some guys with sledgehammers and earth movers, those are the people like Levin and Glenn Beck, some of those guys. But you also need people who do the fine carpentry and detail work. The way Bill Buckley or George Will or Charles Krauthammer might, or the guys at the Claremont Review of Books. It’s like a symphony. You need the string instruments and you need the percussion.

And there are all these people who think it’s up to conservatives to get rid of the percussion section because it’s too loud. And I don’t buy that. I think you need some people whose job it is to buck up and be cheerleaders for our own side. And you need some people who are going to be kind of Jesuitical proselytizers for conservatism, and go out among the masses and try to convert them.

And you need everybody in between. And I know I’m mangling and mixing my metaphors with reckless abandon here – there are people who love Ann Coulter because Ann is fantastic at getting conservative audiences to laugh and get revved up. And I think Ann is great at that stuff and she should be celebrated for it. But she’s not very good at going into an audience with a lot of moderates and middle-of-the-roaders and people sitting on a fence, and converting them to conservatism. She pushes people who aren’t already convinced to the other side. That doesn’t mean we should denounce Ann Coulter. It does mean that maybe we shouldn’t send her into audiences where she isn’t the right person to go there. That’s fine, just like we shouldn’t send David Brooks or David Gergen, heaven forfend, to a meeting of CPAC. You wouldn’t send one of those guys into CPAC and come out with some sort of platish, one the one hand, on the other hand kind of talk. You would send Ann Coulter into CPAC, and Ann Coulter would clean their clock with that sort of thing. But everyone has got different talents, and you use them for different things.

Jonah Goldberg, in conversation with D.R. Tucker

The Commerce Clause, Ctd

After reading my earlier post, Jonathan Chait was good enough to respond. Here is how he begins:

The legal merits of Hudson’s ruling, which seem to be totally daft, are themselves piggybacked upon a policy argument which is itself highly unpersuasive at best. The political argument, endorsed by Friedersdorf, maintains that the individual mandate represents some dramatic new imposition of Congressional power. Congress’s power may have grown over the years, the argument holds, but the individual mandate represents some new frontier of intrusiveness. It is forbidding an activity (or inactivity) that is more personal and less intertwined with the economy as a whole than almost any previous regulation. It is not dramatically different than a law requiring people to eat broccoli.

Actually, I am endorsing a somewhat different argument, and I apologize if I misstated my position or was less than clear about it. It isn’t that I think the individual mandate is an imposition of Congressional power more dramatic than anything seen before. It is merely one example of the longstanding Congressional tendency to justify all manner of things – gun free school zones, legislation to prevent violence against women, the ability to grow marijuana in my backyard, etc. – under the banner of the commerce clause. Where I come down on these cases has nothing to do with policy arguments: on the merits, some seem like good ideas to me, and others seem like bad ideas, but none strike me as attempts to regulate interstate commerce unless that task is so broad that it imposes no meaningful limit on the scope of federal power. (Speaking of which, I’d still like to see Chait and Kevin Drum answer Radley Balko’s question.)

Chait writes:

Friedersdorf is correct to point out that some libertarians who are not partisan Republicans have endorsed this argument as well. In my view this is a group of people who are deeply inclined to support limited government, and have latched onto an argument in favor of limited government that has gained a political foothold without subjecting the merits of the case to serious scrutiny. They think the case is about drawing a new line against the expansion of Congressional economic power, when in fact the line is far behind the old one.

I actually agree that the individual mandate doesn’t constitute an obvious high water mark when it comes to legislation passed under the umbrella of the commerce clause. But surely Chait understands how constitutional challenges work. Most people who care about the principle at stake don’t get to choose the partisan blowhards on the same side of the issue, let alone the case that someone with standing files, that winds its way through the courts, that results in a favorable ruling, and that has a chance of making it to the Supreme Court. The individual mandate may not constitute a high water mark as legislation, but if it ends up being a SCOTUS test case, the majority opinion that results might well entrench a precedent that goes farther than any before it, and determines the future of the commerce clause for generations. To me, Linda Greenhouse is right: the issue at stake is whether the Rehnquist Court’s jurisprudence is going to be killed in infancy or mature into a more expansive body of law.

Noah Millman also responded to my earlier post.

He writes:

…it is unquestionably within the power of Congress to tax, and the mandate could have been structured as a tax-plus-voucher scheme that would have had exactly identical effects. Does that mean that the law is constitutional? If not, then the reason is entirely some notion of precedent – that if this form of the law is Constitutional then other mandates that could not obviously be structured as a tax (“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”) would also be acceptable. If that’s the argument that’s being made, then why are we arguing about the health insurance mandate as such being a threat to freedom?

First of all, the judicial precedent in this case won’t necessarily apply only to future commerce clause cases that involve mandates. Second, people are talking about the mandate as a threat to freedom for all sorts of reasons, many of them nonsensical. There are two arguments that I regard as plausible. One is that the mandate is particularly troubling because it requires payments to powerful corporations that spent millions of dollars lobbying the very people who wrote and passed health care reform. Call it the wonko-industrial complex. What if it gets out of control?! But that isn’t my position. It’s the second argument that I am making: it’s the jurisprudential precedent and the implications for the commerce clause and federalism generally that matter.

That argument can be taken too far, as when Mike Farmer writes:

Why wouldn’t a decision to uphold the mandate signal decisively that we are no longer free? If government can basically regulate any area of our lives, isn’t this justification for strong language and a clear delineation between freedom and tyranny?

A precedent that theoretically allows something bad to happen is not equivalent to living under the bad thing itself! People living under tyranny is something we have seen in this world. It looks like present day North Korea, The Soviet Union, East Germany, the American South during slavery, the Cubans under Fidel Castro, etc. It doesn’t look like the United States post-mandate, nor does it look like Denmark or France or other liberal democracies where citizens enjoy more freedom than the vast majority of people in human history. And I find it hard to believe that Mike Farmer thinks he is no longer free.

But the health insurance mandate is a “threat to freedom” in the limited sense that the precedent it’ll set if upheld by the courts further weakens federalism, which is a check on the power of our national government, and one among several ways that the Framers chose to safeguard our freedom. Other free countries rely on different mechanisms, many of them successfully. We’ve got the Constitution, and I am inclined to prefer adhering to it closely even when it makes designing policy initiatives somewhat less convenient.

Millman writes:

If there’s a question, it’s a question of Federalism: is the mandate in question something that the Federal government can impose, or can it only be imposed by the states. The usual way we’d answer that question is by looking at whether the object of regulation – health insurance – is, in fact, part of interstate commerce, which it very plainly is.

That isn’t the way I’d approach the question. Though marijuana is part of interstate commerce, I do not think the commerce clause gives government the power to prevent me from growing the stuff in my yard. Weddings are part of interstate commerce: a friend of mine read bridal magazines published in New York, had a dress that was made out of state, a photographer that crossed state lines to attend, dozens of guests that bought airplane flights to be there, and foodstuffs that surely came from farms near and far. Is the federal government empowered to mandate that everyone purchase wedding insurance in case something goes wrong on the big day? I submit that they are not so empowered. (I cannot at this moment articulate my own preferred commerce clause test. Probably there is someone at The Volokh Conspiracy that has already done so?).

Millman writes:

…we have a Bill of Rights is precisely that the anti-Federalists worried that there was no restriction on Federal power built into the original Constitution. But that doesn’t make the Constitution meaningless, because the Constitution also outlines the separation of powers – what the respective roles of the President, the Congress and the Judiciary are, and how they interact.

Two points in rebuttal:

1) The tenth amendment implies that the pre-Bill of Rights constitution establishes a federal government of enumerated powers.

2) The separation of powers, properly understood, must encompass federalism, which separates power between the federal government, the states and the people.

Standing Up For Limits On The Commerce Clause

Over at TNR, Jonathan Chait argues that although an individual mandate to purchase health insurance has long been a respectable position on the right, the conservative movement has now “coalesced around the position that the individual mandate is not merely misguided but actually unconstitutional, a fact conservatives somehow overlooked during the previous three decades.”

The conservative argument, reflected in Republican judge Henry Hudson’s ruling against the individual mandate, is that purchasing health insurance is the ultimate individual decision, and that abridging this liberty would, in Hudson’s words, “invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers.” If the individual mandate is permissible, writes George Will, then “Congress can do anything – eat your broccoli, or else – and America no longer has a limited government.” Megan McArdle echoes, “On a reading of the commerce clause that allows the government to force you to buy insurance from a private company, what can’t the government force you to do?”
This is the intellectual rationale for the hysterical conservative response to the passage of health care reform. By this line of reasoning, the individual mandate springs from a paternalistic desire to compel individuals to engage in behavior that affects nobody but themselves. But of course, the decision not to purchase health insurance is the very opposite. Those who forgo health insurance are forcing the rest of us to cover their costs if they exercise their right to be treated in an emergency room. They are also forcing the rest of us to pay higher insurance rates, now that insurance companies can no longer exclude those with preexisting conditions. That, of course, is exactly why conservatives supported it for so long.

Granting that the conservative movement has an opportunistic tendency to contradict itself, I cannot help but observe that Chait has muddied the relevant question: I happen to think that an individual mandate to buy health insurance is a sound policy idea in principle, that its passage is owed to a mix of paternalistic and utilitarian objectives, and that none of that matters when we’re evaluating whether it is permitted under the commerce clause.

Mr. Chait goes on:

Conservatism’s sudden lurch from supporting (or tolerating) the individual mandate to opposing it as a dagger in the heart of freedom is a phenomenon that merits not intellectual analysis but psychoanalysis. This is simply how conservatives respond in the face of every liberal advance. At such moments the nation is always teetering on the precipice between freedom and socialism. The danger never comes to pass, yet no lesson is ever learned. We simply progress intermittently from hysterical episode to hysterical episode.

It’s handy to argue against the generalized hypocrisy of incoherent ideological adversaries, though I don’t think that describes Megan McArdle, Julian Sanchez, Radley Balko, or many others who see constitutional problems here, myself included. I’ll see if I can make a case without lapsing into hysteria: If the Obama Administration’s health care reform bill stands, I do not imagine that America is going to cease to be free, or that a decisive blow in the battle between capitalism and socialism will have been struck. Although I would’ve preferred different variations on health care reform, I am not even expert enough to know for sure whether they’d have been more successful.

What does worry me is the notion that the federal government is no longer an entity of enumerated powers – that a limit on its scope purposefully established by the Founders no longer exists. It used to be a check and balance. Is it now completely gone?

If Judge Hudson’s ruling is upheld, I’ll celebrate not because I fear Obamacare – I’m cynical enough to suspect that whatever came next might well make me even worse off – but because a limit on federal power that I care about generally has been re-asserted.

Should his ruling be overturned, I’ll be disappointed because the precedent troubles me: if the commerce clause can prevent me from growing marijuana in my backyard and mandate that I buy a particular kind of health insurance that covers far more than emergency room care, what Congressional action can’t it cover? You’d think from Chait’s post that liberals never approach matters of constitutional law in this way, looking past the utility in a given policy area to ask what the long term implications are for state power.

What I’ve yet to see answered to my satisfaction is Radley Balko’s question:

Putting aside what’s codified Bill of Rights, which was ratified after the main body of the Constitution, do you believe the Constitution puts any restrictions on the powers of the federal government?
If your answer is yes, what restrictions would those be? And what test would you use to determine what the federal government can and can’t do? I’ve written this before, but after Wickard, Raich, and now, if you support it, the health insurance mandate, it’s hard to see what’s left that would be off-limits. I mean, during her confirmation hearings, Elena Kagan couldn’t even bring herself to say that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to force us to eat vegetables every day. (She did say it would be bad policy — but that’s a hell of a lot different.)
If your answer is no, that is, that the Constitution puts no real restraints on the federal government at all, why do you suppose they bothered writing and passing one in the first place?

I’ll grant that Chait and Kevin Drum offer a devastating critique of some movement conservatives and their incoherence. (Tim Lee does too.) I’d nevertheless like to see them answer Balko. It’s the argument implied in his post that has me eager for more judicial rulings like Judge Hudson’s (and the Rehnquist Court rulings for that matter, though I haven’t any particular aversion to state laws aimed at violence against women or school zones with special protections).

Why is that wrong?

The Dream Act Is Good Legislation From A Self-Interested American Perspective

Reihan writes:

As I understand it, the DREAM Act implicitly tells us that I should value the children of unauthorized immigrants more than the children of other people living in impoverished countries. If we assume that all human beings merit equal concern, this is obviously nonsensical. Indeed, all controls on migration are suspect under that assumption.
Even so, there is a broad consensus that the United States has a right to control its borders, and that the American polity can decide who will be allowed to settle in the United States. Or to put this another way, we’ve collectively decided that the right to live and work in the U.S. will be treated as a scarce good, just as we treat the right to access the spectrum as a scarce good. (Briefly, I think the case for treating the spectrum as a scarce good is much weaker than the case for treating the right to live and work in the U.S. that way, but that’s a separate issue.)
This means that we are departing the terrain of moralistic theorizing and entering the terrain of deciding what is best for U.S. citizens and, perhaps, lawful permanent residents.

I am part of the broad consensus that believes the United States has a right to control its borders, and that the American polity can decide who will be allowed to settle in the United States. And I urge my fellow citizens – or more particularly, our elected representatives – to pass The Dream Act. This is not because I want to send a signal that the children of illegal immigrants should be valued more highly than other people living in impoverished countries, nor do I believe that signal to be implicit in the legislation.

What I do think is that longtime residents of the United States brought here by illegal immigrant parents during childhood are in a unique position: through no fault of their own, they’ve long resided in a country where they don’t have a legal right to live or work (partly due to an incentive system set up by American citizens who are glad to employ illegal immigrants). It’s a tragedy for the affected kids. Economically they’re better off than lots of people in Third World countries who’d like to come here. But life is more than economics. Unlike would-be immigrants, potential Dream Act beneficiaries have developed friendships, formed romances, an invested themselves into communities in the United States. All that will be lost if they are forced to leave, and along with American complicity in their plight, those costs that factor into how I think about the legislation despite my not valuing people here already more than far away illegal immigrants.

And those costs aren’t just born by the illegal immigrant kids themselves! Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Reihan is right, and that when it comes to immigration policy we should do what’s best for US citizens and permanent legal residents. By that imperfect standard, Dream Act beneficiaries ought to be “valued” more highly than the impoverished resident of a Third World country. Compared to his counterpart somewhere abroad, the potential Dream Act beneficiary is almost certainly higher skilled. Having avoided legal trouble for many years, she is less likely to end up in jail than lesser known quantities. For anyone who values cultural assimilation, she is much farther along the path, if not fully assimilated. Most importantly, the ties the Dream Act beneficiary has to US citizens binds in two directions –– if he or she is given legal status rather than deported, there is a constellation of American citizen friends, lovers, neighbors, teachers, corner grocers, and employers whose loved one, friends or friendly acquaintances will be around for many years, rather than tragically deported or else living in the shadows, circumstances that’ll make some of the important stakeholders in this hypothetical very sad.

The self-interested American might also note that these culturally assimilated long time residents are relatively unlikely to be deported even if the Dream Act doesn’t pass, and that if they remain in the country anyway, society is worse off in various ways if they stay “in the shadows,” as opposed to living within our system of laws and communities of civic engagement.

Reihan seems to anticipate some of these objections, writing:

…would we yield a higher net number [of lifetime economic contributions to the United States] if rather than legalize 825,000 or 2.1 million Dream Act beneficiaries, we instead welcomed 825,000 or 2.1 million workers with some combination of high levels of English-language proficiency, start-up capital, college and post-graduate degrees, and other markers of bright labor market prospects?

Again, I think this ignores all the non-economic benefits to American citizens of passing the Dream Act. Beyond that, if both the Dream Act and a program to welcome high skill immigrants to the United States yield a net economic and social benefit, why not do both? It isn’t as if the practical choice we’re faced with is “authorize the Dream Act or bring a lot of even more highly skilled immigrants to the United States to replace the folks who would’ve benefited.”

So far, I’ve failed to mention that Reihan’s whole post is framed as an argument against a Michael Gerson column. And I agree that Gerson’s approach to argument is weak and moralizing in a maddening way. I’m glad to see that once he looks past Gerson Reihan concludes as follows:

I can imagine a decent argument for the Dream Act, e.g., it is a wedge strategy designed to begin the process of earned legalization for the large population of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States, and we don’t have the will or the resources for a serious campaign of attrition or repatriation. That’s fair.

I think that too is a persuasive argument for passing the legislation.

The Politics Of Authenticity Cont'd

Matthew Lee Anderson has responded to my review of his essay. I encourage everyone who read it to take a look.

"The Conservative Gene" by Robin A. Dembroff

The writer is aggrieved. She is regularly engaged in good conversations that turn sour. Take a friendly dialogue she was having about the appropriate sex education curriculum in public schools. Everyone was behaving admirably, she says, until her interlocutors became privy to her secret: she never attended public school. “If I was home-schooled,” she writes, “I probably had conservative parents, so surely I grew up indoctrinated with Republican propaganda. Upon that logic, my opinion was flagged as the incurably biased but inevitable result of my upbringing.”

She goes on to acknowledge that her opinions were shaped by what she was taught growing up and closely resemble the opinions of her parents. “But if a belief were true, a discriminating person would maintain it,” she argues. In principle, she is absolutely right: It’s problematic to stereotype people based on the circumstances of their upbringing. And being raised with a belief or conviction doesn’t itself make it any less valid.

This is, however, a ten page essay, and certain of its assumptions kept raising my eyebrows. The author writes as if being prejudged, stereotyped, and treated dismissively in political sparring matches are unpleasant experiences that afflict conservatives alone, whereas actually they’re known to every American who ventures outside his or her own subculture. As a reader, I kept wanting to tell her, “Take heart, you aren’t nearly as put upon as you imagine!” Perhaps post-collegiate life will better expose her to this lesson. I am not sure whether she’ll feel better or worse when she discovers that whoever you are, political discourse in the United States is largely an endeavor where people with whom you disagree try to discredit your opinion by flagging it as incurably biased.

Innocence on that point is a great scourge of young conservative writers. Never in human history has a group so advantaged gone so far to cast itself as victim. Ms. Dembroff has a minor and entirely curable case of this affliction, or so it seems from the stories we’re offered — in personal essays, there is always the possibility that a false note is a problem of style rather than substance. Let us begin with her description of the environment where she was home-schooled.

It is said that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth; I was born with Rush Limbaugh in my ear. I have conservative Christian parents, grew up in a conservative Christian town, and now attend a conservative Christian university.
My sister, Ellen, and I were home-schooled for almost the entirety of K-12. During that time, we followed curriculum that included Bible and—oh, the scandal!—creation science. To my retrospective amusement, we studied these subjects in a room where a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan hung on the wall… when Reagan wasn’t in office. Pro-life literature, World magazine, and Limbaugh’s bestsellers stood prominently on the shelves, and I even recall enjoying a children’s book titled Ump’s Fwat, which I now realize was an allegorical lesson in the values of free-market capitalism.
I have memories of my mother crying when Clinton was elected (both times)… Both of them seriously considered stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper when Obama clinched the presidency in 2008.

On reading that, I thought, If that’s how she describes home-schooling to people, no wonder they suspect that she’s been indoctrinated by the political beliefs of her parents! Isn’t it rational to mistrust an educational environment if all the information you’re given about it is ideological? And that its teacher cried over a presidential election? I’d ask the author to imagine meeting a 22 year old who described his home-schooling experience in Berkeley, California. If told only that his family’s bookshelves held The Communist Manifesto, The People’s History of the United States, pro-choice literature, The Nation magazine, an allegorical children’s book that taught socialism, and a framed Trotsky portrait — and that the teacher cried the day Ralph Nader lost in 2000 — would she wonder if the student emerged with an incomplete perspective?

Other times I wondered whether the author’s peers were even as antagonistic to home schooling as she believed them to be. Consider another scene. Dembroff is at a local community college, where she gets into a conversation about whether marijuana should be legalized. “You wouldn’t want the cops crashing your parties,” a fellow student said.

She replied that she didn’t care much, never having thrown or attended those kinds of parties.

“But you’ve smoked pot, right?” he demanded. “There’s no way you got through high school without trying pot.”

“I’m still in high school,” she said. “I’m home schooled — I’m taking community college classes for high school credit.”

His response: “Oh.”

She writes, “His tone had been tight and defensive, nearing an exasperated squeak. It instantly relaxed. ‘Oh.’ In that one sound echoed a lengthy verdict: Well it all makes sense now. You’re homeschooled. You don’t know how things are, and you probably parrot anything your parents tell you.”

I wasn’t there. Maybe I’m wrong. But I can’t help but wonder if just maybe the ‘oh’ had a different subtext, maybe something like, “Oh, you’re in high school! You’re younger than I thought. And I’m in college. Though I was in high school just a couple years ago myself, ever since I arrived here, I’ve felt so much older and more experienced than those high school kids. Funny how quickly we college kids feel superior, isn’t it? No wonder you don’t worry about your parties getting busted for weed. You still live with your parents!”

Of course, this example is also faulty on the merits. Much as home-schooled high school students from conservative religious families are entitled to their opinion of marijuana legalization, having smoked the substance oneself — or even being around a lot of other people doing so — is arguably relevant to the debate. Put on the show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I’d definitely call a home-schooler for help on a question about Greek philosophy.

But a question about the social effects of smoking marijuana? I’ll take an audience full of secular public high school graduates, thanks!

The next example of anti-conservative animus occurs as the author attends an anti-abortion rally on a college campus. “Have you ever had sex?” a counter-protester asks. “After you’ve been a single mother on the street you can come back with your right wing religious trash.” On substance, I agree with the author: this is an unkind, wrongheaded thing to say. But come on. Abortion is the most fraught issue in American life. Few people on either side of the debate are cool-headed and rational when it’s being discussed. The sort of guy who picks abortion arguments with people protesting on the street is still less likely to engage in rational conversation. This doesn’t say something larger about prejudice against conservatives or religious people or pro-lifers or home schoolers. The lesson to take away here is about the contentious nature of the abortion debate.

In some circles, being a conservative has a stigma, as does being religious. I’ve heard people scoff at home-schooling too. It’s a shame. I’m against this sort of prejudging.
The author says that in her hometown, Visalia, California, there are more churches than cars (this is not literally true) and there are residents “who think that any Californian south of Bakersfield is a Los Angeles liberal, and anyone north of Fresno is a Bay Area hippie.” She attends a college whose Web site affirms that “all faculty, staff and students are professing Christians.” I happen to have visited Visalia, and I know several people whose alma mater is Biola. Like every other subculture in America, the people within them — many are conservative and Christian — prejudge people unlike them, and too easily dismiss political arguments contrary to their own.

I’d be very sympathetic to an essay complaining about these pathologies generally. I do not understand why such an essay should instead focus on the plight of home-schoolers from the right side of the ideological spectrum, especially if Dembroff’s victimhood is nothing more than what is described in the essay’s anecdotes.

"Pursuing Happiness" By Joseph Ashby

In modest enough fashion, Joseph Ashby recounts the ordinary but nevertheless impressive story of how he and his wife worked full time while putting themselves through college during the first year of their marriage. Despite all that, they were “resolved not to let schooling keep us from starting a family,” he remembers, so aside from classes he worked as a landscaper, she answered phones at a customer service center, and they conceived a child. “Our plan was simple: put in the heavy work hours while we could, pay off the car, set aside money for the pending baby, and save as much as we could after that,” he writes, so they got rid of their cell phones, washed clothing in the tub to save trips to the laundromat, studied rather than getting a full night’s sleep, spent long Saturdays mowing lawns, and otherwise lived as ascetic an existence as they could.

Baby arrived! Sleep declined. Then tax time came, and “we felt like something had to be wrong. Our tax liability (mostly payroll) was more than we had paid in rent over the entire year…” The experience caused the author to set out on a quest “to answer certain fundamental questions about government.” This being a book of essays about conservatism, you can imagine his conclusion: the tax burden is too high. It’s a perfectly defensible conclusion. But the faulty logic that Ashby employs to get there is problematic, especially if he hopes to persuade an educated audience of non-conservatives that he is right.

The essay’s personal narrative is weakened by the fact that a married couple with a child and both husband and wife qualifying as full-time students don’t actually face a particularly high tax burden, especially if they are making a typical customer service and landscaping wage. Later in the essay, the author includes something he would regard as explaining away this objection. “Once the taxes were collected, we faced the demoralizing option of returning to the government to beg for the money back through Pell Grants, Earned Income Credit, food stamps, Medicaid, or other programs,” he writes. “Our sustenance and prosperity were de-linked from our own faculties and effort and tied to a bureaucrat’s actuarial table.” Given the social stigma associated with food stamps, I understand how the prospect of applying for them might demoralize someone (though again, if you’re eligible for food stamps your tax burden is relatively low). What I find hard to accept is that it’s demoralizing to apply for a Pell Grant or to file for the earned income tax credit, or that doing so is tantamount to begging. It struck me as particularly weird that the author would feel like a beggar simply for seeking the return of assets that, by his logic, were illegitimately taken.

Here we arrive at the weakness in the author’s principled argument. In his telling, he delved into various works of political philosophy, and “two principal worldviews emerged in every case: According to the first philosophy, a just society could only exist if its members had the right to do what they wished with what they earned. The second philosophy dictated that for a just society to exist, some of what people earned must be taken so that all could be maintained in relative economic equality.”

I submit that this binary isn’t very useful.

The first philosophy would seem to prohibit taxation entirely in a just society. The second philosophy is too vague to be usefully descriptive — what exactly is relative economic equality? — but however defined, neither worldview describes very well the philosophy that is the reigning consensus among many Americans: put roughly, some redistribution is justified to care for the least well off, but beyond that debt to society people are by and large free to keep what they earn and spend money on what they wish. The devil is in the details, and there are intense disagreements about degree, but it’s a glaring omission when you don’t include a middle ground so big it encompasses John F. Kennedy and Milton Friedman.

Articulating his own philosophy, the author seems to reject the social safety net and all redistributive welfare spending on principle. “The money we earned wasn’t just ours, it was us; an extension of who we were no less than fingers are an extension of a hand,” he writes. “The vision described by President Roosevelt relied upon taking the sweat of one man’s brow and giving it to another as his own. Cries of necessity merely served as a smokescreen, covering up the true nature of a redistributive system.” This is evasive nonsense. Read any semi-complete history of the Great Depression. The “cries of necessity” weren’t mere smokescreen! And redistributive policies passed by Congress in that era not because people were evading the true nature of redistribution, but because they directly confronted what the United States would be like absent any of it.

Several lines later, Abraham Lincoln is invoked, decrying men who take other men’s labor—thus slavery is implicitly equated with paying into the welfare state. This last portion of the essay is sufficiently vague that the reader is left unclear about whether the author would really embrace the full implications of his theory. If pressed, I suspect he’d concede that, even in principle, a minimal amount of social welfare spending financed by redistributive taxes is better than allowing people without food to starve to death, or handicapped orphans to die on the streets from exposure. But his stated positions don’t allow for that.

I raise these examples not to vilify Ashby, or to score a cheap debating point, but to highlight the problem with essays about taxation that go no farther than vague statements of poorly conceived first principles. The impulse is understandable: there is self-evident truth in the notion that humans have an individual right to the fruits of their labor. Once a concession is made that any redistribution is justified, the purist fears that the whole game is over — suddenly the argument is over the appropriate scope of the redistributive welfare state.

As a practical matter, however, all is lost for people like Ashby. You’ll be hard pressed to find people — even staunch conservatives — who favor an end to all redistribution by government. Perhaps this widespread consensus, which has endured for many generations, is mistaken. I certainly want to encourage writers of all people to stand on principle, even if it means mounting radical challenges to current arrangements in the society we share. But if that’s your project, have the courage to confront its full implications: impoverished Americans relying on charities that, if the whole of history is any guide, won’t meet all their needs; a wholesale re-organization of American government; massive social upheaval as the country adjusts to the new status quo; and that’s not a comprehensive list.

Ashby gives us something different — an impressive personal story of self-reliance and delayed gratification that anyone in a similar position would do well to emulate, followed by a principled argument against redistribution whose full implications he doesn’t nearly confront. As a result, I cannot help but wonder if the author has failed to grapple with the practical consequences of the ideas he espouses, seeming to reject most taxation and social welfare, but never acknowledging what it would mean to reorganize America in that fashion, because he cannot actually defend everything it would entail. If he is inclined to respond, I’d encourage him to either grapple with the most unpleasant consequences of his ideas, or else to find arguments for lowering the tax burden that he actually believes.

(Previous entries in this series are here and here.)

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