Of the Great Cessation and Accountability

Photo by Remy Baudouin on Unsplash

The first Friday of the month is “Jobs Day” in the United States, when employment numbers for the previous month are released by the Labor Department.  A bit out of date for events moving quickly, the report—really for the first part of March when the data were collected—is that there was a net loss of 701,000 jobs.  More recent information from the Labor Department, gathered in the last two weeks of March, was that 9.9 million people filed unemployment insurance claims.

Those are firm, real, and disturbing numbers.  Perhaps you personally know someone tested positive for the virus or even made sick by it.  I feel more confident that you know someone who has lost his job, or whose business has closed, or one way or another is out of work.

Those people were not put out of work by the virus.  Up to this point the virus has reached but a small portion, some 240 thousand, of the 330 million Americans.  Those 9.9 million job losses were caused by government order and the fear spawned by government pronouncements and predictions of what may yet happen.

This unemployment is actual, not a forecast.  Each person of the 9.9 million has a very real story to tell, and it is not a happy one.  Many are tragic.  There are careers that have been disrupted, some only just started and some now ended.  There are businesses closed that will not reopen.  There are painful ongoing worries for people and families over what to do to cope.  None of us dismisses the sorrows involved with those who die, from whatever the cause.  I fear that the real, here and now unemployment wounds are too flippantly disregarded.

At some point, reasonable questions will need to be answered in a calm and deliberative way.  The actions taken and their consequences must be weighed, aside from professed intentions.  And the policies of policymakers will need to be evaluated in light of what they in practice wrought.  Among such questions might be these:

  • Did the realities of the Great Cessation—the sudden orders to stop activity and association, the practicalities of work lost, earnings gone, closed businesses, disrupted human interaction—caused by government decree, do more harm than good?
  • How many of those lost jobs are coming back?  How many of them are career-ending?  How many businesses are closed not to reopen?
  • Which actions ordered are unrelated to the health emergency but rather take opportunistic advantage of public fear and disruption?
  • What scars will remain on the body of our freedoms?

No doubt you also have important questions, calling for some explaining.

Involved officials might respond that the forecasts should not be unnoticed in the review.  Which forecasts?  Certainly good policymaking would rely upon future expectations.  Was a broad picture evaluated of what might likely occur?  How closely did policies applied align with appropriate and realistic forecasts (taken together)?  Which forecasts turned out nearest to what indeed happened?

Shall we go to the current forecasts?  Oxford Economics visualizes the loss of 27.9 million jobs in the U.S.  The most recent government estimates of U.S. virus deaths are between 100 thousand and 240 thousand.  For the full picture, we should include predictions of the fallout from prolonged social disruption and human isolation.  How much harm and how many deaths might those policies cause?  When we tally up the score to see whether it all is worth it, include all of that in the tally.

A deep recession caused by government order has never happened in our history.  Now it has and is part of our story.  Those who ordered it should, with due deference and full fairness, be called upon to justify it.

Of Caricatures and Reality

Dirt&Grass

Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Lies

It was a long commute home today.  I think that most people are all out of vacation days, and perhaps saving up what they have for the Easter holidays.  Almost everyone went to work, and a lot of them chose to go home at the same time and on the same roads as I.  In the slow motion on the expressway there was ample time to think and muse.

Among my musings, and considering the ongoing presidential campaign, I imagined a conversation with one of the leading Democrat candidates.  I will refer to the candidate as Burning Cynders, to preserve anonymity.  I will leave it to you to imagine whether this reminds you of anyone.

WAA:  I understand that you want to buy votes with my money.

Cynders:  I don’t buy votes.  That’s what my opponents do.

WAA:  You just promise them free stuff, like free college tuition and free healthcare, to be paid for out of my pocket.

Cynders:  Everyone has a right to an education.

WAA:  And apparently you claim the right to pick my pocket to pay for it.  Sounds like you have learned how to buy votes with other people’s money.

Cynders:  It’s called leadership.  Someone has to stand up for people who are not as fortunate as you are.

WAA:  You don’t make me feel fortunate at all.

Cynders:  You are fortunate to be able to help your fellow man.

WAA:  You mean, I am fortunate to have you help yourself to what I have earned so that you can give it to your cronies.

Cynders:  Giving to cronies is what my opponents do.  I want to give the money to young people so that they can get an education.

WAA:  You, personally, are going to give the money to each of the wannabe students?  You will be very busy.  It’s a big country.  You may find a lot of hands stretched out.

Cynders:  I certainly hope so.  And I will have plenty of people who will help me, who will administer the programs, people who believe in what I am trying to do.

WAA:  That’s wonderful.  So you will give the money to them, and they will make sure that some of it gets to the students to pay for their free education.  Sounds like the happy marriage of cronyism and vote buying.

Cynders:  No, these are real patriots, people who really understand what America is all about.

WAA:  America is about free handouts?  And taxing successful people to pay you and your cronies?  Are the professors and school administrators working for free to help provide this free college tuition?

Cynders:  Of course not.  We need the best to teach our children.  They deserve the best, and we need to invest in the best.

WAA:  But I thought that you said that education is a right.  How can these professors make merchandise of the students and their rights by insisting on being paid to honor those rights?

Cynders:  The professors have a right to be paid, and paid commensurate with their ability and skill and knowledge.

WAA:  And commensurate with their connection to you and your plan.  I apparently have no right, except to let you pick my pocket to pay them so generously.  Sounds like more of your cronies.  I could never vote for you on such a plan.

Cynders:  You don’t have to vote for me.  You just need to work and make a lot of money so that I can use it to . . .

WAA:  To buy the votes of the people to whom you want to give all the free stuff.

Some may think that this conversation is a caricature, but it is hard to make a caricature of someone who is himself a caricature.  This is closer to reality than what emanates from such presidential candidates.

As I said, this conversation formed in my head as I was in traffic on my way home, home from Washington, D.C.  All around me were BMWs, Mercedes, Infinitis, Lexus, Acuras, and more than the occasional Jaguar and Porsche.  These are the people, living in what have recently become some of the wealthiest counties in America.  These are the people who would be paid by Burning Cynders to administer his free programs.

Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)

Of the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers

In the 1990s I was part of a congressional delegation to Argentina. At that time the Argentine economy was growing strongly and steadily, inflation was low, the currency was pegged to the dollar, convertible 1-for-1. Trade barriers were being lowered, commerce was booming. I recall asking Argentines what could possibly darken what seemed to be a very bright future. They were quick to reply: “Here in Argentina we have no rule of law. You can have no confidence in getting justice from the courts.”

That reminded me of Washington Irving’s observation on a European judge, from his famous work, The Alhambra:

It could not be denied, however, that he set a high value upon justice, for he sold it at its weight in gold.

Not long after that visit, the politics of income redistribution and confiscation threw the Argentine economy into turmoil, where it has remained.

I recently spoke with an economist friend of mine, who was waxing eloquent about the attractive monetary and tax policies in Bulgaria. I remarked that this would probably invite foreign investment. He replied, “No, there is no rule of law there.”

The point is that good economic policy cannot long survive inadequate legal safeguards. Many businesses that made major investments in China, attracted by a market of a billion people, have learned that the lack of a reliable legal and justice system in China has undermined much of the business value they thought to find. A similar story has been holding back investment and economic development in Russia.

Bringing that home, I would venture that concern for changing rules (or even lack of rules)—the substitution of arbitrary bureaucratic powers in Washington over objective rule of law—has been inhibiting more robust investment in the United States, a major cause for our current anemic economic recovery.

An ancient king in the Western Hemisphere, named Mosiah, warned, “because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.” (Mosiah 29:16) Because men are not consistently just, freedom has historically rested upon rule by law rather than rule by men.

Fundamentally, that was the very reason for the American Revolution. Our revolution was based on the rule of law, an assertion of the rule of law, a response to violations of the rule of law by the English king and parliament. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a lengthy litany of violations of law by the English rulers. The Revolution was designed to take power away from man and men and rest it upon laws and rights, soon to be secured by a written supreme law embodied in the Constitution. Any erosion in the force and effect of the Constitution is an erosion of the rule of law and of the freedoms that rely upon law for their defense.

The Progressive Movement that thrived about a century ago, and found a major advocate in the federal government in President Woodrow Wilson, aggressively proposed an alternative to the rule of law. This program was the Rule of Experts. Their new view—and it really was a very old view though they dressed it up in modern-sounding rhetoric—was that there are Benign People, Experts, who know the process of modern government better than most people do, to whom we can safely yield governing authorities.

It sounds akin to the ancient theory of Divine Right of Kings, that the monarchs of the world are chosen by God and endowed with greater wisdom and perspective than the average man and woman. To their benign expertise and fatherly care was to be entrusted the governance of the rest of us.

The modern Rule of Experts people have much the same view, that these experts were endowed by their universities and other sources of expertise with ability far above that of most, and it would be wise to trust ourselves to their benign care. Not very democratic, and in fact these Benign Experts make no secret of their impatience with the Congress and other constitutional brakes on arbitrary authority.

As King Mosiah wisely pointed out that men are not always just, it is also appropriate to recognize that putting men in government does not make them any more reliably wise than the rest of us. The American Founders thought to address this problem by dividing political power among not only three branches in the Federal Government but also by embracing the federal system of dividing government with the States.

The current regulatory structure and program of the United States rest heavily on the idea that Benign Experts should be entrusted with authority for many of the big questions facing Americans and for many of the much smaller questions, too. That is certainly the structure of the Dodd-Frank Act, to offer one recent, prominent example among many.

Charles Calomiris, of the Columbia University business school, described the theory of the Dodd-Frank Act and related regulations this way:

The implicit theory behind these sorts of initiatives, to the extent that there is a theory, is that the recent crisis happened because regulatory standards were not quite complex enough, because the extensive discretionary authority of bank supervisors was not great enough, and because rules and regulations prohibiting or discouraging specific practices were not sufficiently extensive.
(Charles W. Calomiris, “Meaningful Banking Reform and Why it Is so Unlikely,” VoxEU, January 8, 2013)

This program of federal regulation has been imposed increasingly in contravention of the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers, by merging legislative, executive, and judicial authority in “independent” regulatory agencies. The unelected federal regulator today decides the details and specifics of binding mandates, identifies violators of those regulations, assesses guilt, and applies penalties.

Taken together our current regulatory system, by merging rather than maintaining the separation of powers of the Constitution, is eroding the rule of law. It is returning us to the age old practice of rule by men, with all of the potential for abuse of rights and freedoms, abuses that fill up most of the sadder pages of human history.

During the debate over the creation of the new financial consumer Bureau, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Dodd boasted that with this new agency people would no longer have to come to Congress for the enactment of new consumer laws. The Bureau would take care of all that.

There are serious operational flaws—too often overlooked—in the program of governance by Benign Experts. First, the regulators are not dispassionate umpires, limited to calling the balls and strikes. These umpires are also players in the game, the federal agencies each having their own set of particular interests and incentives that they take care of first.

Second, reliance on Benign Experts assumes an unproven, undemonstrated level of knowledge, insight, and forecasting skills. AEI President Arthur Brooks, in his book, The Battle, provides one of many examples of this flaw:

Federal Reserve economists were still forecasting significant positive growth and moderate unemployment in May and June 2008. They believed that economic growth in 2009 would be 2.4 percent, and unemployment would be 5.5 percent. What we experienced instead was negative growth, double-digit unemployment, and the destruction of at least $50 trillion in worldwide wealth. No one can get the numbers exactly right, to be sure. But getting them this much wrong certainly lends a whole new meaning to the expression ‘margin of error.’
(Arthur C. Brooks, The Battle, p.46)

It is not that regulators are dumber than the rest of the population, but they are no smarter either. The regulatory problems are increasingly too great for any designated group of humans to solve.

Third flaw, mission creep: power attracts power. Even if the tasks are too great, require too much knowledge, insight, foresight, and other skills in unachievable degree, the regulators still take them on, especially if the task increases the reach and influence of the agency.

I offer two examples from an example-rich environment.

Basel III capital rules started from a simple idea, that banks all around the world should be subject to the same capital standards. Capital (the financial cushion a bank carries against losses) is one of the three key elements of sound banking, the other two being liquidity and earnings. These international rules did not remain simple. Developed by an international team of experts from around the world, who labored on them for years, the rules number hundreds of pages, affecting the entire financial structure and business model of a bank, any bank. Congress was not involved and has no particular role in approving the rules. When exposed to public review they attracted thousands of comment letters expressing dismay that they are a bad fit for the U.S. economy. In the end, though, the regulators can go ahead with what they alone think is best.

A second example would be the Federal Reserve. One hundred years ago this year the Fed was created with a specific, identifiable, and rather narrow purpose, to provide liquidity for the banking system in times of financial stress. Before long, the Federal Reserve gained control of monetary policy and built up the practice of controlling interest rates. Later, it was given the task of promoting maximum employment. Under Dodd-Frank the Federal Reserve’s role in supervising banks and bank holding companies was expanded to supervising any financial business considered to be significant for financial stability. Each of these powers has drawn the Federal Reserve away from its narrow, objective task, to broad fields of subjective authority.

Perversely, this expansion of authority into more judgmental areas is eroding the independence of the Federal Reserve, making it yet one more political player in Washington, with responsibilities that far exceed human ability to fulfill, but which reach to every business and every home. The Fed’s prolonged policy of keeping short-term interest rates at or about zero has penalized all who save and live off of their savings, transferring trillions of dollars from savers to borrowers, the biggest borrower being the Federal Government, a policy decided by a small group of Washington experts.

I offer a partial but simple solution to point us back toward strengthening the rule of law and reducing our exposure to the rule of man and men, however expert they might be. Return the lawmaking and the policy decisions to the elected representatives. It is a messy process, but exactly the messy process that the Founders intended to preserve freedom from the encroachment of arbitrary and oppressive government. The regulators, which are theoretically part of the executive branch, should be left with the duty of implementing the laws and policy decisions that the elected and accountable representatives make.

If Congress were required to write the rules and mandates and delegate to the executive agencies only the execution, the mandates of government would be circumscribed by the limitations of a legislative body forced to be directly accountable for what it has wrought. It is easy for legislators to complain about bad regulatory decisions, when all too often these are decisions that Congress never should have delegated to regulators in the first place.

We would still have laws and regulations, but the laws might be more direct and specific, and perhaps fewer and surely smaller. We would probably not have Dodd-Frank Acts that number thousands of pages read by no congressman or Senator, containing a cacophony of half-baked ideas and multiple solutions to the same problem, all left for the regulators to sort out.

And legislators might recall this caution, from Thomas Paine:

Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good.
(Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

(First published February 17, 2013)

Of Demagogues and Big Problems

One of the common tricks of demagogues, as cheap as it is common, is to denounce in high dander something for being “Big,”—“bad” because it is “Big.” Some of the recent targets have been Big Banks, Big Pharma (the drug companies), Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Business in general. The target is apparently chosen for its relation to the prescription that the demagogue already has in mind. Invariably the prescription involves granting more power to the demagogue, sometimes ceded from the freedoms of the targeted Big, but not infrequently taken from the liberty of the people who are somehow harmed by the Big, who are to be somehow made better by being less free.

Obamacare is one example, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, and Big Medicine all denounced to some degree in the effort to generate popular support to pass the legislation. In the end, as more and more people are recognizing, it is individual choice that has been lost, personal freedoms to choose doctors, medical plans, and available treatments (along with substantial sums of money) that have been taken, passed on to big bureaucracies identified by the demagogues.

Demagogues on left and right and even in the middle resort to this device of denouncing Big Bad, because it resonates with many people who do not consider themselves “Big” anything. We all can feel intimidated by something in our lives and experiences bigger than ourselves, making us all potentially susceptible to the demagogue’s pandering. It is also a favorite device of demagogues, because it does not require much thought or creativity to make the anti-Big speech. It seems almost required that the demagogue at some point refer to the Big Target as “Goliath” and modestly identify himself or herself with “David.” That tired jape is now getting to be about 3,000 years old, but demagogues think that their audiences just cannot get enough of it.

To be sure, there are some cases where being big is a good thing and some things that can be too big to be good. It all has to do with why they are big and perhaps how they got that way. Big savings are usually good. The Grand Canyon is big and magnificent, and I would say that the Empire StateBuilding is, too, at least as I behold it. On the other hand, big debts are to be avoided, big pits can be dangerous, and the L Tower in Toronto is an eyesore in my estimation (though I will acknowledge that others could be fond of it).

Government can be too big or too small, depending on what it does with our rights and freedoms. There are governments too small to promote and protect freedom, while there are many—most—that are too big, and ever increasing at the expense of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. That includes governments that are big enough to help their cronies become bigger by robbing the competition and the public. Businesses that are big because of government favor would be better for everyone if they lost the government favor and let competition, efficiency, and customer choices determine how big they should be.

Some are just big because they grew that way. Is Microsoft or Apple too big? I do not know, and neither do you. Exposed to the full discipline of the free market they will be the right size, and so will their competitors. What is the right size for banks in the United States? I do not know, and again neither do you nor does anyone else. The more that they are exposed to market forces, the sooner we will get the best answer, which I expect will be along the lines of “many sizes and shapes” in order to match the many sizes and shapes and needs of businesses, families, and individuals who rely on banks for financial services. Free competition in open markets has the power to right size commercial enterprises.

A word of caution. Part of the success of the war on Big consists in making the listeners feel small and helpless—unless rescued and led by the fearless demagogue. Besides belittling most people, the demagogue’s device diverts attention from the fact that just about everyone is part of something Big, a Big that may eventually be the demagogue’s next target. Maybe your church will one day be considered too “Big.” Or maybe the industry in which you happen to work will become a “Big” target, the town or region where you live, your race or your ethnic group, your savings and investments, the cars or trucks that you drive, your appetite, your use of water, the size of the lot of your house, the wealth of your nation. All of these, and many others, have already been used by demagogues in their Big harangues. The demagogue’s insatiable appetite for power never has enough targets. He or she is always looking for more.

Sometimes there is a kernel of something genuinely amiss in the demagogue’s Big complaint. Often, when you boil down the genuine substance of any of the complaints to the hard facts, it is hard to discover what is the Big Deal—at least in the problem. The Big Deal is to be found in the solution, which is what the demagogue is really after. Were the Popes in Rome really controlling the lives and governments of England in the time of Henry VIII? No, but the solution of confiscating Catholic Church properties and awarding them to the King’s cronies was a very Big Deal. The Nazi demagogues in Germany played the same game with their own people, the German Jews, and with their property and possessions.

The demagogue’s solutions, resting upon emotion and panic, seldom solve anything and often lead to more problems. The Climate Wars—one year the coming ice age, the next year global warming, today just climate “change”—is an example we have all seen unfold, inflicting untold billions of dollars of costs while enriching favored cronies, but which in even the most enthusiastic promises of the demagogues will do little to affect the climate in reality in our lifetimes.

The next time you hear a public figure fume about something being Big, carefully inquire into and focus upon what he or she is after. You may be a target just Big enough.

Of Minorities and Society

The saddest chapters of history chronicle the breakdown of human society. Rights are abused, the innocent—if innocence is allowed to exist—are trampled. Poverty, hatred, violence, and uncontrolled human passion prevail. Destruction and degradation, physical and moral, replace human progress.

All society, except that of master to slave, relies upon an element of free association. Societies may have more or less elements of coercion as well, but it is the element of free association that allows the society to continue, that motivates its members to acquiesce in or even encourage the society’s continuation. Free, voluntary association is what gives a society its legitimacy. Without it, there is no society, just a group of people ruled by one coterie of thugs or another.

Cooperation in society cannot be taken for granted. When it is, when free cooperation, instead of being nurtured and encouraged, is replaced by coercive rules and compulsion, particularly rules and compulsion designed to benefit some at the expense of others, society declines, people interact more by will of others than by their own volition. With time either the situation is redressed or the society disintegrates, often to be conquered from the outside when its internal strength has turned to weakness.

In its latter years imperial China was prey to numerous foreign incursions because its society was a mighty empty shell, old traditions surrounding an empire of competing warlords. Ancient Greece, which twice when united proved too much for the Persian empire, became relatively easy prey to the Romans after the ties of Greek society had become tired and weak. Rome, in its turn, after a thousand years, was enormously wealthy but mightily weak in the internal strength to repel the roaming barbarians, vibrant societies powerful in their own internal cohesion. Much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today remains mired in poverty from the inability of relatively young countries to develop cooperative societies that encourage the generation of wealth and its application to promote prosperity for the present and for the future.

With cooperation at the core of successful society, one would think that democracies must be the most successful. History records otherwise. There are no historical examples of a successful democracy, at least not one that lasted for long enough to matter. Like a match set to paper, democracies flare up brightly into power and glory but all too soon die away to ashes.

The problem with democracies has been that all too quickly the majority in the democracy learns that it can become wealthy by robbing the minority, under camouflage of statutes and government. That only lasts until either the minority successfully rebels, becomes a majority in its turn, or the wealth of the minority is exhausted. In reaction, the majority may seek to preserve its advantages by yielding to a dictator—a “mouth” for the majority—to govern in the name of the majority to discern and express its will. Few of these dictators have resisted the temptation to wear the mask of the majority to govern for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. That has been the case for every communist government, without exception.

But, is it not right and just for the majority to prevail? Perhaps, but to prevail over what? Everything? Consider: if majority rule is applied to deprive the minority of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why should the minority cooperate? All that such society offers them is slavery, unrequited labor and service to fill another’s belly and pockets. In a pure democracy, there is no check on majority avarice, no refuge for the minority. The majority must always have its way.

Republics, however, are built upon a foundation of minority rights. Republican governments are granted only limited powers, exercised by representatives of the people, within boundaries beyond which the government may not go. A written constitution serves to enshrine and strengthen those rights against violation by the majority. The system gives a stake to all—not just the current rulers—in the continuation and strengthening of the society. No democracy, hereditary monarchy, or dictatorship can provide that.

In a nation as great and diverse as the United States everyone is part of a minority. Whether we consider age, ethnic background, religion, geography, culture, profession, or a multitude of other distinctions, we are a host of minorities. We can only come together and remain as a nation, strong and vibrant, if we are confident of protection in our minority rights, for protecting minority rights in America means protecting everyone’s rights. That is why the Founders proposed and the nation embraced a Republic formed on a federal structure of divided and limited government.

In that context, what are we to make of the current direction of American society? Are we preserving the Republic? Does our society feel like it is coming together? Recent public opinion polls find that more than 60% of Americans believe the nation to be going in the wrong direction. In another poll, a mere 22% believe that the current government rules with the consent of the governed.

What is the national political leadership doing about this? We have a President who aggressively pursues a variety of programs that have in common the taking of wealth from one minority segment of the nation to reward others. These wealth transfers are lionized for the undenied purpose of political and electoral advantage for the President and his supporters.

You will recognize the pattern. A crisis is discovered by the President, and an industry or group is demonized in public speeches and echoed in the establishment media as causing the problem and/or standing in the way of its solution. A plan is announced that involves confiscations from the demonized industry or group to fund benefices bestowed on Administration favorites.

Consider a few examples of many. Global warming is hailed as an imminent crisis with disastrous consequences; the coal, oil, and gas industries are identified as the foes of progress; and a variety of taxes and other restrictive policies are proposed, together with planned subsidies for businesses and companies favored by the White House. Banks are declared to be the nefarious forces behind the recent recession, new laws and regulations are applied that confiscate billions of dollars from the industry, much of which is then channeled to hedge funds and other political allies of the administration. Some millions of people are discovered to be without health insurance, doctors and the health insurance industry—among others—are fingered as being at the root of the problem, so a major overhaul of the entire structure of the health system is enacted that favors some at the expense of others. Administration cronies receive lucrative contracts to develop and administer the new system. There are many other examples, large and small, in education, welfare, housing, transportation, law enforcement, and many other government programs.

Is there any wonder that there is gridlock in the national government, when policy after policy is aimed at transferring wealth from some to reward others? Where is the room for cooperation and compromise, when the issue is how much of your family’s wealth is to be taken and given to someone else? The Roman Republic fell into gridlock after decades of appeals to mass acclaim for schemes of popular distribution of public plunder. It ended in the triumph of the Caesars, and later their eventual fall to the barbarians. It is perilous to abuse social comity.

President Obama has announced the transfer of wealth to be the chief focus for the remaining three years of his administration. Can our society weather that?

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of Duty and Law

The concept of duty is worthy of careful consideration, particularly in its relationship to law. You genuinely subject yourself to law only after you consider it a duty to observe the law. This would also seem to involve an element of humility. When you humble yourself enough to recognize a duty to the law, the law then has force and operates within you (as contrasted with operating upon you).

Through the operation of duty the law becomes internalized. No police force or compulsion of any kind is then required. This is how true law, law in harmony with eternal justice, has a transforming effect, changing you for the better. Through continued growth in this process, of employing duty to internalize good law, you can actually “become” the law, even as Christ meant when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis added).

One who feels no duty to a law, but observes it only because of the coercion attached to it—from the fear of the consequences of breaking the law—has not yet submitted himself to the law. He observes the law only because it is enforced; when the enforcement is removed and no longer binds him to the law, he will do as he pleases regardless of the law’s mandates. Without a sense of duty to obey the law, he remains a law unto himself, subjecting himself when necessary to a greater force but not to the law.

Without this sense of duty, a system of laws becomes a competition of wills, of competing forces. It is not a system of rights and duties. Thus, the erosion of the sense of duty also erodes the moral and transforming force of law, and it erodes rights, that find their protection in law. Civilization is replaced with gangs and brutality.

(First published August 21, 2008)

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