Robert A. Levy
In an op-ed on the New York Times web site yesterday, I voice my belief that the gun control bill authored by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, if properly modified, can and should pass with the support of gun rights advocates.
In the interest of being as specific as possible, I’d like to expand upon the sentiments expressed in that piece.
When the Senate rejected the Manchin-Toomey compromise on gun background checks, opponents of the bill were condemned for ignoring polls signaling up to 90 percent public support. The stonewalling by gun rights supporters was indeed a mistake—not just on the politics, but on the substance as well. In exchange for the modest, reasonable, and constitutional augmentation of background checks, there was plenty in the legislation for gun rights proponents to embrace.
Manchin-Toomey may be re-introduced. Gun rights advocates can seize the opportunity to address some of their own priorities while avoiding being labeled as obstructionists once again.
Here are the parts of Manchin-Toomey that gun rights proponents should be happy about, with a few recommended changes:
First, the bill allows interstate handgun sales throughdealers—under roughly the same rules that now govern long gun sales. Current law does not permit buying handguns from out-of-state sellers. So the new provision represents a major development.
Second, Manchin-Toomey confirms that a firearms registry by the attorney general is prohibited, and adds a 15-year prison term for violators. The attorney general limitation should be broadened to cover all government agencies, the bill should clarify that data from all sources are precluded, and civil damages should be available for misuse of database records. Justice Department regulations (which should be codified in Manchin-Toomey) state that government records of approved applicants must be destroyed within 24 hours. Dealers retain the data much longer, but law enforcement agencies have access only during a criminal investigation. Registry prohibitions may not be foolproof, but Manchin-Toomey adds a layer of protection.
Third, the bill sets a 48-hour limit on performing background checks. That’s reduced to 24 hours after four years. Most gun shows are two-day events—incompatible with current law that allows up to 72 hours for checks. That’s one reason for fewer shows of late. Under Manchin-Toomey, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) would come closer to matching its name.
Fourth, Manchin-Toomey reinforces current law permitting interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition—unless a certain weapon or use is barred. Guns have to be unloaded and inaccessible or locked, but the re-write of existing rules helps. Most important, state laws against unlicensed possession are preempted.
Fifth, the bill immunizes sellers from litigation when a gun is used unlawfully, unless the seller knows or should have known that the buyer provided false information or was ineligible to get a gun.
Sixth, Manchin-Toomey improves NICS by expending $400 million over four years, withholding grants to states that don’t meet specified benchmarks, clarifying that mental health records in NICS do not violate the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and assuring due process for veterans facing loss of gun rights because of alleged mental illness.
Weighed against those pro-gun-rights provisions is a modest concession to gun controllers: Background checks—which already cover all sales through federally licensed dealers, whether at stores or gun shows, over the Internet, or by mail—would be extended to cover private sales at shows, over the Internet, and through published ads. Manchin-Toomey still wouldn’t cover non-commercial transfers such as gifts or bequests, in-person sales outside a gun show, or sales responding to postings on community bulletin boards. Moreover, buyers would be exempt from background checks if they had a carry permit issued within five years. Until NICS can function remotely, Manchin-Toomey should also exempt private sales to rural residents far from licensed dealers.
Finally, three suggested improvements: First, dealers impose fees for background checks ranging from $25 to $125. If those fees are deemed to promote public safety, the public (not just law abiding gun owners) should foot some of the bill. That could be accomplished by federal rebates of a stipulated amount to those who pass the NICS check.
Second, Manchin-Toomey instructs that NICS checks must prioritize gun shows over gun stores. As a result, backlogs could hamper stores during weekends when shows are held. That favoritism should be eliminated by increasing NICS personnel to expedite processing.
Third, existing law denies firearms to anyone who is “an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.” The maximum sentence is ten years in federal prison. Thus every would-be gun owner who lies to NICS about marijuana use, and every owner who smokes marijuana, could spend a decade behind bars—an unconscionable punishment that must be rectified.
Manchin-Toomey is complex and controversial. Committee hearings are necessary and the public must have ample time to review the legislation. Still, considered as a package, a reworked Manchin-Toomey would offer substantial benefits to gun owners while imposing tolerable restrictions—none of which intrudes on core Second Amendment liberties.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
Gold Panic? SPROTT’S THOUGHTS
MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013
The recent price action in gold can only be described as ‘panic selling’. Money managers and veteran traders know that when panic sets in and markets start moving rapidly, "investing" logic drops by the wayside and money begins to flow one direction only. We have seen this over the last two trading days in long gold positions in the futures and ETF markets. This selling in turn drives prices lower, forcing those holders on margin to liquidate their positions. This process leads to even more selling as the pain of holding levered "under water" positions becomes too great, causing traders to liquidate their positions. The light at the end of the tunnel for precious metals investors is that these events have been value-buying opportunities that occur only a few times a decade.
In the recent selloff, the gold market has been hit from all sides by news and events that have caused significant liquidation in the Comex and gold ETF markets. The first event was a report from Goldman Sachs downgrading its outlook for the gold price, sighting the precious metal’s lacklustre price performance through the Cyprus crisis and a fresh batch of disappointing economic data points from the US. Last week, Goldman Sachs stated their belief that we have seen the top in gold and predicted that its value will decline to $US1200 an ounce over the next few years. Then on Friday, Mario Draghi suggested that the sale of 400 million euros worth of Cypriot gold reserves would be used to cover any losses the European Central Bank may sustain from emergency loans to Cyprus’s commercial banks. Further adding selling pressure to gold, the minutes from the last FOMC meeting, suggested there was dissention in the ranks of Fed governors concerning the future of quantitative easing in the US. George Soros, changed his opinion on gold stating that "gold was destroyed as a safe haven". The Goldman Sachs report putting a $1200 target for gold, combined with forced selling of gold by Cyprus and questions about how long the Fed would continue monetary easing was too much for gold traders to take. Reports suggest that on Friday morning, a 124.4 tonne sell-order by a large investment bank spooked the markets and led to this decline. Intense liquidation of gold ETF’s, a favourite investment theme two years ago, suddenly seemed like a trade that has ‘played out’. As a result, panic set in and the gold market moved quickly to capitulation.
The gold market has seen this before. Think back to 2008. At that time we were told that there was no reason to own gold anymore, is was no longer a safe haven and that its bull run was over. Sound familiar? The main reason gold plummeted during that panic was because safe-haven buying flooded into US dollars instead of gold, driving the biggest rally the greenback has ever witnessed. Gold subsequently bounced back from this selloff and went on to new highs. What did we learn in 2008? We learned that it was a mistake to sell gold when it was out of favour and at a low. In our opinion, the accelerated decline we have seen in the first quarter of 2013, suggests we are in a similar capitulation phase, as investors temporarily abandon their gold exposure.
For all the short term pain it has caused, we view this selloff as an opportunity. All the pre-conditions that brought gold to this point are still intact. The bond market is still showing negative interest rates, Japan and the United States plan to flood the world with a liquidity injection of almost $2 trillion dollars over the next 12 months, and not one G20 country has a balanced budget. While market commentators are predicting gold’s demise as an asset class, astute investors will recognize that we have seen these conditions before over the last 12 years. Each time the ‘paper market’ for gold has capitulated it has represented a buying opportunity for gold rarely seen again. Despite this panic selling on Comex and other ‘paper’ markets, investors in the physical market for gold, have been taking advantage of this price action. Anecdotal data from precious metals dealers suggests that buying interest has been strong, with delays being reported for delivery of coins and bars. The macroeconomic case for gold is as strong as it has ever been and now investor sentiment has reached a negative extreme. Patience will be rewarded; we’ve seen this all before.
Statistics: Posted by DIGGER DAN — Tue Apr 16, 2013 8:03 am
View full post on opinions.caduceusx.com
Today the Dow broke a record and will likely finish the day with a record high. Some thoughts on a Fed driven rally.
Many of us have watched the climb of the stock market since March of 2009 with a general sense of of unease. We’ve watched our central bank, the Federal Reserve, do all that it could/can to move shares up. Every time the markets faltered the Fed came to the rescue and dumped piles of cash on Wall Street. Check out this chart of the correlation between the Fed’s printing efforts of the past few years and performance of the S&P.
The Fed wasn’t supposed to do this. When I started trading the idea that there was a Fed “plunge protection team” out there was total conspiracy theory territory. But by just looking this chart it is fairly clear that if there wasn’t an effort to protect against plunges before, there certainly is an effort now. We have taken leave of the market in the market. A politburo in the form of the FOMC has taken over economy.
Earnings etc still have an important role in the stock markets, but far more important on an aggregate level is whether the Federal Reserve will continue to print money, raise interest rates, and so on.
But hey, that’s reality. Lesson 1 on the Street- “Don’t fight the Fed.”
Our stock markets are now as much political tools as anything. If stocks rise the monied classes don’t complain as much. This is a vital lesson our government has learned over the years. It’s what got Obama re-elected in my opinion. Had the Dow been kicking around 8K in November it is extremely unlikely the Mr. Obama would be president today.
So enjoy the new highs. Who knows maybe we’ll continue to move higher. But know that the honesty of the market (what was left of it) has been a casualty during this rally. That may not matter to many as they watch their 401ks plump up, and don’t get me wrong I enjoy it as much as anyone, but the death of the market driven market matters to me and it should to anyone who believes in fair play. (A quaint concept I am aware.)
View full post on AgainstCronyCapitalism.org
I made this video almost 4 years ago now and just stumbled across it again. It definitely deserves a re-post. The Liberty and Economics Review was my blog before AgainstCronyCapitalism.org became what it is today, in case you were wondering.
View full post on AgainstCronyCapitalism.org
I posted a quick initial take Tuesday on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, mostly just noticing the intuitive problem with declaring laws authorizing large-scale covert surveillance effectively immune from constitutional review. The folks at EFF and the ACLU have already put out more extended responses to the ruling, but a few additional points seem worth making.
In the very first sentence of the ruling, Justice Alito subtly but importantly mischaracterizes the scope and nature of the “702 authority” created by the FISA Amendments Act in a way that persists throughout the majority opinion and distorts its analysis. According to Alito, §702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act empowers the attorney general and director of national intelligence to authorize the surveillance of “individuals” outside the United States—including their communications with Americans, which previously required a warrant from the FISA Court. In some sense, of course, all surveillance is ultimately surveillance of individuals, but “authorizations” for programmatic surveillance under §702 do not need to specify individuals or facilities, but rather groups and (as the administration has put it) “categories of foreign intelligence targets,” where for FISA purposes, the “target” is the person or entity from or about whom the government seeks information.
The “targeting procedures” approved by the secret FISA Court must be designed to avoid intentionally collecting wholly domestic communications, but the statute doesn’t require that they guarantee the international communications collected under §702 programs will be narrowly limited to those of the actual targets. The FISA Court doesn’t have to review the particular phone lines or e-mail accounts or IP addresses that are collected from; those are selected after the procedures are approved, apparently with the aid of data mining and “link analysis” algorithms.
The public has no idea just how broad the initial collection is—the NSA has steadfastly refused to even estimate how many Americans’ communications are in their system—but everything we know about the program suggests they err on the side of breadth and figure out which of the intercepts actually pertain to their targets after collection. For example, a New York Times report on “overcollection” of domestic communications under §702, based on high-level intelligence sources, suggests that a single authorization typically covers surveillance on hundreds or thousands of phone lines and e-mail accounts, often in large “blocks.” As with all probabilistic reasoning, you need to know something about the background frequency or “prior probability” of an event—in this case, the scale of the National Security Agency interception program—before you can say anything intelligent about its likelihood in a specific instance.
That’s important because the ruling turns on Alito’s contention that the plaintiffs—academics, attorneys, journalists, and activists who have regular international communications with obvious candidates for interception—have a merely “speculative” fear that their communications will be intercepted. As the dissent observes, it seems like simple common sense to infer that at least some of the plaintiff correspondents, either individual or institutional, would be on the government’s list of targets. But the crucial point here is that they wouldn’t have to be. They might be using the facilities of a corporation or other entity that is a target, or flagged by “link analysis” branching out from an initial target’s account. If we do not entirely gloss over what is publicly known about the seeming scope of §702 surveillance—as Alito seems determined to do—then even if it is logically possible that none of the plaintiffs’ communications have been intercepted, it becomes wildly implausible. It is a little strained to deny standing on the grounds that an imminent prospective harm might conceivably be avoided by some statistical miracle, since, after all, that will always be true. Again, as Breyer’s dissent and a brief submitted by a group of law professors to the Second Circuit both note (and, indeed, as Alito concedes in a footnote), it is not at all hard to come up with a long list of cases where courts have granted standing on the basis of harms less absolutely and apodictically certain than in this case.
Even if that weren’t so, however, there would be a plausible argument for applying a more permissive standard when it comes to constitutional challenges under the Fourth Amendent, at least where large-scale secret surveillance is concerned. The Fourth Amendment, after all, does not just protect our right against unreasonable searches, but (as Yale’s Jed Rubenfeld has stressed) “the right of the people to be secure” against such searches. That right to be “secure” doesn’t play much active role in current jurisprudence, but it is not some arbitrary rhetorical flourish: Founding-era pamphlets and speeches condeming “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” routinely stressed the way they undermined the “security” of every person in their home, and the original phrasing of the amendment more explicitly linked its two clauses, suggesting far more strongly that the “issuing” of too-loose warrants in itself was what violated the “right of the people to be secure.” If we take the actual words of the Constitution seriously, rather than reading “security” out as a bit of excess veribiage, then the harm to “security” entailed by a broad authorization to search ought at least arguably to be sufficient in itself. This would, admittedly, be a somewhat novel move, but then, so is explicit statutory authorization of large-scale programmatic searches, conducted domestically, that are never disclosed to the intercepted parties. Nor would this approach be foreclosed by Laird v. Tatum, which rejected a challenge alleging a subjective First Amendment chilling effect—without any demonstrable concrete burden—resulting from a military information-gathering program that used “open source” intelligence methods, not Fourth Amendment searches such as wiretaps.
Finally, while it’s surely true that there’s no guarantee that someone must necessarily have standing to challenge every statute on the books, this case is not really analogous to the cases Alito cites involving suits based on a “generalized grievance common to all taxpayers.” There are specific persons here whose communications are intercepted—and indeed, the government has already acknowledged that in at least one instance, specific interceptions were found to be unconstitutional by the FISA Court. So specific people have not only been directly and concretely affected, but have definitely had their constitutional rights violated; we just don’t know who they are.
It is possible that the government will at some point choose to prosecute an American using intelligence from §702 intercepts, but it doesn’t appear to have happened yet. The legislative history of FISA makes clear that this is not, in general, the goal of intelligence surveillance, in contrast to criminal wiretaps, whose whole point is to produce evidence to be introduced in court. In the case of criminal wiretaps, the Court has suggested that the necessary temporary secrecy involved—in contrast to conventional search warrants served on a homeowner—requires especially stringent safeguards. There are perfectly valid reasons that intelligence wiretaps will typically require effectively permanent secrecy, but insofar as this entails concealing an injury from the great majority of wiretapped people the government will never choose to prosecute—because they are innocent—ensuring that parties who are probably in that pool are able to bring a challenge sounds like an appropriate way to compensate for the greater “inherent dangers” of secret surveillance.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
Getting past all the politics and rhetoric, Chief Justice Roberts zeroed in on the heart of the case when he noted that the state with the worst ratio of black-to-white turnout and registration is Massachusetts and the best is Mississippi (third-best in registration). This case is not about whether racial discrimination still exists in America or even whether it is disproportionately found in the South (which it isn’t). It simply asks whether the “exceptional conditions” that the Supreme Court found to justify the “extraordinary remedy” of federal intrusion on state election administration in 1965 still exist today. By any measure, they do not – and if they did, Congress didn’t do its homework in 2006 to tailor the application of Section 5’s burdensome requirements to jurisdictions that allegedly engage in this systemic discrimination that is somehow Jim Crow’s equivalent. The justices were starkly divided today, but this case should be much easier than that.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger
On Tuesday, I posted an analysis of the climate impacts from the burning the oil that would be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline (if the pipeline were to be approved).
I concluded that on an annual basis, the burning of the ~800,000 barrels of oil that would flow through the pipeline each day would produce about 0.0001°C of global warming per year (one ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius)—a value of little climatological significance.
But on further reflection, I think this number is too high.
Data on U.S. oil consumption from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that our consumption peaked in 2005 at a rate of nearly 21 million barrels per day (bpd) and has declined since. In 2011 (the last year of available data) the value was just under 19 million bpd. The EIA projects a continued slight decline of U.S. petroleum consumption for decades into the future.
This means that oil flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline will not amount to additional oil use, but rather will displace more expensive (economically and/or socially) foreign oil imports. Thus, all else being equal, the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to no additional global warming beyond that which would have taken place anyway from our domestic oil consumption.
But all else is not quite equal because the extraction and refining process of the Alberta tar sands oil (that the Keystone XL pipeline will deliver) is more energy intensive than oil from the Middle East, or Mexico, or Venezuela. By most accounts, this extra effort increases the lifecycle (well-to-wheel) CO2 emissions of Alberta tar sands oil by about 15 to 20 percent.
What this means is that instead of assuming CO2 emissions from an additional 800,000 new barrels of oil each day, I really should consider only the extra 15-20% of emissions that the 800,000 bpd of tar sands oil produces over the oil that we currently import. When I do this, instead of 0.0001°C of added warming each year, I get that the Keystone XL oil will produce only about 0.00001°C of warming each year (give or take a couple hundred thousandths of a °C).
I think we can all agree that 0.00001°C of warming is effectively the same as zero warming.
No matter how you look at it, there is no climate impact of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Whether or not other transportation routes out of the Alberta tar sands open in the future to meet the growing global (outside of the U.S.) demand for oil should not be a matter of consideration when assessing the climate impact of the Keystone XL pipeline.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
The advent of a new year is a good time—or at least as good a time as any—for libertarians to ponder their successes and failures. Given the dismal political developments over the past year, I thought this would be an appropriate time to offer some thoughts about strategies to achieve a free society.
The word “strategy,” which derives from the Greek word for “office of a general,” originally referred to the art of military command “as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations.” It is now used in a broader sense to mean the “art or skill of using stratagems in politics, business, courtship, and the like.” (American Heritage Dictionary.)
Quoting dictionary definitions will not take us far in discussions of libertarian strategy, but the connotations of the word raise some interesting issues. Why do we typically speak of a “strategies” to achieve a free society, rather than of “plans”? Possibly because “strategy” sounds more impressive, more formidable, than “plan.” Or possibly because “plans” to change society sound suspiciously like a type of social engineering. But what is strategic theory, in the final analysis, except a species of social engineering? The libertarian strategist has a theory of social causation: put those causes in place, he argues, and predictable effects should follow.
But between the seeming necessity of cause and effect stand the individual and his subjective valuations. This unpredictable creature renders foolish armies of social planners and technocrats, and he threatens to render equally foolish the libertarian strategist who claims to know that her plan, and her plan alone, will succeed.
Military strategy presupposes a tolerably clear idea of what would constitute success on the battlefield, e.g., the destruction, surrender, or retreat of the enemy. At some time and in some place those goals will be achieved or they will not, and the results (in most cases) will be visible for all to see. There exists a criterion, in other words, by which the general can evaluate success and failure; and, having committed to a particular strategy, the general himself is open to evaluation by others.
If a general loses one battle after another but insists that he is winning the war in the long run, his claim would be met with extreme skepticism. Nor would the general be taken seriously if he explained away each of his defeats: he would have won the battle if only the weather had been better or if only the enemy had not been so formidable. Nor would the general gain credibility if he claimed that, despite his many defeats, he did better than any other general could have done, or that his country is still better off than it would have been without him. Nor would he fare better if, in order to win a minor skirmish here and there, he left his homeland undefended and allowed it to be overrun by the enemy. Obvious parallels suggest themselves in the realm of libertarian strategy.
Having grown more ecumenical with age, I look forward to the day when libertarians stop viewing other libertarians as opponents who should be denounced for their deviationist views on strategy. By this I do not mean that libertarians should try to achieve a watered-down consensus or stop arguing with one other. On the contrary, vigorous internal debate is essential to the vitality of every ideological movement, including our own. But I do think that arguments should promote intellectual progress within the movement and a deeper understanding of our traditions, successes, failures and prospects.
Let the arguments continue, certainly, but let’s also try to find whatever may be of value in opposing arguments and frankly discuss the weak spots in our own. Only through this process of give and take can we gain a more comprehensive view of strategic issues and increase the prospects for a free society. I would rather be free than right.
For years I have used the label “strategic Taoism” to signify my own ideas about libertarian strategy. Permit me to explain…
Like many Chinese words, Tao (the Way) is rich in connotations. It can refer to following one’s own nature or to a harmonious cooperation among different people. This is a spontaneous order, one that arises without conscious planning or coercion. These ideas are expressed in the Tao Te Ching, the most libertarian of ancient texts.
If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control,
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.
What I call strategic Taoism, or the negative way, favors the spontaneous development of creative strategies within the libertarian movement. By this I do not mean a nebulous “feel good” approach, nor am I suggesting that a free society will somehow spring into existence without rigorous thought and strenuous effort. What I mean is that strategic thinking, which is a form of practical wisdom, is highly contextual and should incorporate the diverse talents and specialized skills of libertarians.
For the purpose of analysis, we can contrast strategic Taoism with another approach, namely, the positive way of strategic Confucianism. Although these strategic models are loosely based on their traditional counterparts, I interpret and adapt them freely, laying no claim to philosophical accuracy. They are intended merely to serve as ideal types, or stylized representations, of different strategic visions.
In calling Confucianism “the positive way,” I mean that it offers specific plans to achieve a free society, while insisting that every libertarian should assist in the development of its plans. Such plans typically involve hierarchical organizations and political campaigns. Although the Confucianist does not disparage self-development and individual initiative, he tends to see these as non-strategies. A true strategy, according to the Confucianist, must be planned and consciously coordinated.
Although Taoism and Confucianism do not always conflict, these ideal types allow us to highlight some significant differences in perspective and attitude. For example, both strategies believe in education, but they sometimes disagree over the nature and purpose of that education. The Confucianist has a quantitative view, measuring the success of an educational campaign in terms of the number of people that libertarians are able to influence. The Taoist, in contrast, stresses educational quality, not numbers. He believes that the thorough education of a few people is of greater strategic value than the superficial education of many people.
Taoism is ultimately a kind of strategic individualism. Whereas Confucianism favors a grand, organized strategy in which all libertarians should participate, Taoism is more a way of life in which personal development is merged with social and political change. Taoism can accommodate a wide range of different plans. These plans adjust to each other and form a coherent movement largely by spontaneous methods, rather than by conscious design. Taoism leads to a libertarian movement that is at once harmonious and individualistic. It encourages unity in diversity.
Perhaps the most valuable feature of strategic Taoism is its stress on creativity. Fully aware that the benefits of freedom cannot be predicted or foreseen, it taps into the creative energy of every libertarian by stimulating original ideas and perspectives. Activities within the movement (internal debates, supper clubs, etc.) are vital to the success of libertarianism, largely because we don’t know what will emerge from them. By generating controversy and excitement, they make the libertarian movement an interesting place to be, even when it isn’t moving anywhere.
Strategic Taoism makes few predictions and no promises about the future of freedom. Working from the classical Stoic distinction between that which is within our control (the internal) and that which is not within our control (the external), it maintains that we should focus on the internal and leave the external to take care of itself. Thus Taoism embraces neither optimism nor pessimism; it regards both as irrelevant.
Place a crystal ball in front of the libertarian Taoist in which he can see the future with infallible certainty. If the future of freedom is bright, he will continue on his present course. But if the future of freedom is dismal, he will also continue on his present course. The Taoist will not allow the future, which he cannot control, to dictate his ideals and actions, which he can control.
While working to achieve a free society, the strategic Taoist understands that his ideal may never be realized, for such is the nature of every ideal. He upholds freedom not for the sake of a future that does not exist but for the sake of the ideal itself. Even if he thinks that freedom will eventually die, the Taoist will never forsake it—just as he will not forsake his loved ones because he knows that they, too, will eventually die.
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By Julian Sanchez
Since Cato is a nonpartisan think tank, you won’t see our scholars offering any recommendations on how to vote. But this seems like a good time to throw out some general considerations regarding whether and why to vote.
Many libertarians take the position that, because any one individual’s vote is vanishingly unlikely to swing a national election, it’s simply always irrational to cast a ballot—except perhaps in very small local races. I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Tim Lee that this is wrong, and even somewhat morally obtuse: There are many types of cases where a good social outcome depends on members of society being morally disposed to act according to a general norm, but where any individual’s defection from the norm makes no significant difference to the outcome, and may be in some way slightly better for the defecting individual. Conspicuously, with the exception of very large donors, contributions to nonprofits like Cato are one such case! Adding or subtracting $100 from Cato’s annual budget probably does not appreciably alter what Cato is able to do in a given year—but we are extremely fortunate that so many people who can afford $100 donations make them, since together they make a great difference indeed. And I assume they do this not only because they like getting a printed copy of Policy Report and discounts in the Cato Store, but because even the most strident individualist can appreciate that moral action sometimes involves thinking in terms of what we together do, and refusing to free-ride on the willingness of others to contribute to achieving important shared goods.
This reasoning undermines the “no marginal difference” argument that one ought never to vote, but neither does it entail that one is always morally obligated to vote. (I won’t object if readers want to infer that it means they’re always obligated to donate to Cato.) As Jason Brennan argues in his fine book The Ethics of Voting, one certainly ought not to vote just to have voted, without being well-informed about the candidates and the likely effects of their policies, and indeed, in this case, one would be morally obligated to refrain from voting. More generally, when we consider the effects of what we do together, we often find that the norms we ought to follow are complex and conditional, not crude categorical commands. We’d all starve if nobody engaged in agriculture, but it does not follow in a modern market economy that everyone must therefore engage in agriculture when we can instead reap the benefits of division of labor coordinated by the price system. And in many cases involving ordinary social helping—as when a pedestrian drops a stack of important papers on a windy day—we should hope bystanders regard assistance as an imperfect duty, so that some people spontaneously choose to stop and help, but not everyone, since for a large group of bystanders this would be wasteful and likely even counterproductive.
When and under what conditions one should be prepared to contribute or vote, and with what frequency or probability, is going to be an individual judgment call depending on a host of circumstantial and idiosyncratic factors, among which is one’s estimate of what others in the relevant local area are likely to do. For a particular person, these may end up weighing in favor of seldom or even never voting in practice, or making it a habit to vote annually. Everyone should reject the argument for categorically abstaining on the grounds that one’s vote makes no marginal difference—which betrays a failure to grasp that the decision involves moral norms governing collective action, akin to boasting that one never tips at out-of-town restaurants, because it’s economically irrational—but, having rejected it, it does not follow that everyone should follow the same uniform rule about whether and when to vote. Relevant factors might include the expressive value one gets from voting generally, one’s attitude toward the choices in a particular race and the local issues on the ballot, and whether one lives in a “battleground” or “safe” state.
If one does decide to vote, there’s the further question of how one ought to vote in our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system, in which the victor is typically sure to be from one of the two major parties. Here, again, we tend to see a stark contrast between advocates of categorical or pure strategies: those who insist one should always “vote one’s conscience” irrespective of the chances of victory for the ideal candidate, and those who urge a “pragmatic” vote for the least bad of the major party candidates. Both of these pure strategies, however, have problems.
As leftist blogger Daniel Davies pointed out in a 2010 post at Crooked Timber, the “pragmatic” argument employs a concealed bait-and-switch: First, it employs an appeal to civic duty in order to persuade those repulsed by the “lesser evil” candidate that they must hold their noses and trudge to the polls even though their individual vote isn’t going to decide the election. Then, it shifts to a strategic argument for not casting a third-party vote even if that is one’s first preference, given that the vast majority of other Americans will be voting for one of the major party options, and the consequences of letting the “greater evil” win are too dire. In other words, it urges the moral necessity of disregarding the fact that other people’s votes will determine the election when deciding whether to go to the polls, but taking into account what’s known about how others will vote when deciding how to cast one’s ballot.
The “always vote your conscience” rule has its own issues. If you take the injunction seriously, and believe that you ought to vote for the ideal candidate regardless of their chances of victory, you’d probably most often cast a write-in ballot, rather than voting for either a major party or a third-party candidate. Yet if everyone did this—at least under our electoral system—a small number of voters with a shared first-preference could perversely select a victor far lower in the preference rankings of the vast majority than any number of compromise candidates, in an extreme version of the “spoiler effect.”
As with many thorny problems in ethics, this one comes down to appropriately specifying the scope of the group for whom you’re trying to formulate a general rule of action. The logic of the democratic process is inherently both collaborative—we together decide our future—and conflict-oriented, since it assumes disagreement about what course of action would best. This suggests that the appropriate way of approaching electoral choice, then, is neither at the level of purely individual economic rationality (which would tell you to stay home) nor the society-wide level of a truly universal categorical imperative. Instead, I’d propose that one should act on the imperative one would give to the intermediate-level (and admittedly fuzzy) group of citizens of the same state who share your basic political commitments, and so are wrestling with similar alternatives.
For a libertarian, this might mean others for whom the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is the closest match, but who are tempted to support whichever of the major party candidates they dislike least. What if all those people—a minority, but perhaps a significant one—voted the same way? In states where that voting bloc could swing the contest between the major party candidates, preventing the “greater evil” outcome might take priority. In states that are a virtual lock for one or the other, one might think the best use of that bloc’s votes was a strong symbolic showing for the candidate most aligned with the common values that define the subgroup.
This is hardly a complete solution, of course: I’ve stipulated one way of choosing a subgroup as the subject of the general rule on which one acts, when there are many dimensions on which voters could be divided into different groups. Still, framing the problem in this way seems like a potentially promising starting point for grappling with the ethical quandaries of voting.
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By Christopher Preble
I recently finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. The entire book is terrific. I highly recommend it. But one chapter in particular—Chapter 7, “Deadwood”—spoke to some of the things that my colleagues and I have written over the years concerning America’s nation-building problems.
Most Americans have by now moved on from the war in Afghanistan (even though the U.S. military has not) and are focused on, in President Obama’s words, “nation building here at home.” But we still haven’t closed the book on the theories of nation building that arose after 9/11, including the belief that the United States needs to repair failed states, or rescue failing ones, lest terrorists from these states travel thousands of miles to attack Americans. Last month, for example, Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson praised Bill Clinton’s nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Williamson told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the U.S. government must “help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built” after authoritarian regimes collapse. From the belief that we must repair failed states flows logically the belief that we can.
These beliefs are, in fact, myths. Cato has published many different papers, articles, and book chapters challenging the claim that fighting terrorism, or preserving U.S. security generally, requires us to engage in nation building abroad. We have been equally emphatic on the point that our efforts are likely to fail, no matter how well intentioned. Little America provides additional evidence to support that argument, although I doubt that was Chandrasekaran’s object.
Take, for example, the case of Summer Coish, the striking and extraordinarily motivated woman who wanted to go to Afghanistan so badly that she appealed directly to Richard Holbrooke. She got her wish—eventually. Despite the fact that the president’s designated point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan had marked her for the fast track, it took 14 months before she was cleared to travel to there.
Once she arrived, Coish’s dream of helping the Afghans emerge from decades of war and desperate poverty crashed against the reality of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Security regulations made it nearly impossible for Coish and other civilians to regularly interact with Afghans, and few embassy staffers exhibited any desire to do so. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” Coish told Chandrasekaran after she had been there a few months. Instead, Chandrasekaran observes, “everyone seemed bent on departure.”
The work itself was painfully dull. Coish concluded that most of it could have been accomplished in Washington, at far less cost to the taxpayers. The reason for the costly in-country presence? The need to count them as part of the vaunted “civilian surge.”
Coish and a handful of other dedicated civilians that Chandrasekaran writes about—including Kael Weston, an experienced political adviser to Marine General Larry Nicholson, and Carter Malkasian, the State Department’s representative in Helmand’s Garmser district—could not make up for the lack of ability (or desire) on the part of many other civilians (i.e. the deadwood). “It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days,” Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand province, wrote to the embassy. “Or, as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here—let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard.”
At times, Chandrasekaran’s assessment of the civilian surge exhibits an oddly optimistic tone. I say “odd” because this is the same person who brilliantly documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration’s nation-building fiasco in Iraq (in Imperial Life in the Emerald City), but who can’t bring himself to say that Obama’s mission in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly succeed. Despite everything that he has seen, Chandrasekaran often reflects a belief that it all could have worked out (or that it still might) were it not for the “lack of initiative and creativity in Washington.”
Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options.
Pray-tell, where would the government have found such people? Or, more precisely, how would the government convince those already gainfully employed to set aside their careers, homes, and families to embark upon an Afghan adventure? What additional incentives—or threats—might have sufficed to mobilize the vast army of talented agronomists, lawyers, biologists, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc. who were not already motivated (as Coish, Weston and Malkasian were)?
Several years ago, I co-authored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky a paper on the lessons of Iraq. Our research was informed by Chandrasekaran’s narrative from the Iraqi Green Zone, and a number of other books on the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Here is what we said (the prose in this case is almost certainly Friedman’s; I’m not this clever) about the American people’s disinclination to embark on nation-building missions abroad.
A concerted effort to improve our collective nation-building skills would require “a foreign policy at odds with our national character.”
Reading through the proposals for rapidly deployable bureaucrats to help run failing states, one usually searches in vain for the pages where the author justifies the creation of an empire and a colonial service to run it. Whatever else changed after September 11, [Americans]…are ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.
The State Department’s budget, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we explained, “is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.”
National security organizations are formed by decades of budgets and decisions. Their organizational politics…reflect…lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to subjugate foreign peoples and lose unnecessary wars….Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.
To repeat, Little America is a first-class read, and I hope that the book receives the attention it deserves. The anecdotes about Coish, Weston, and Malkasian, as well as countless stories about brave soldiers and Marines trying their best every day to make Afghanistan a better place, are heartwarming. We honor their service, and we should find other avenues for these people to perform their work, chiefly through NGOs, unencumbered by the massive federal bureaucracy.
But good intentions cannot distract us from the bleak reality: building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan would require hundreds of thousands of equally dedicated civilians, to go along with a massive troop presence to protect them, tens of billions of dollars every year, and a commitment to remain in country for decades.
We aren’t going to do that. We should stop pretending that we will.
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