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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin

John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate reinforces what I said in my op-ed "Well, That's Politics" (see below). She was picked because the campaign calculated that she would push certain buttons in coveted constituencies: suburban women, feminists, antiabortioners, evangelicals, the conservative Republican base, maverick independents, women with five kids, women with kids with Down syndrome, etc. (I know -- how can you please all these conflicting groups?) Secondary to the process is whether she is actually "qualified" to be president, which she could be called on to be as early as one moment after McCain takes the oath of office. (Or maybe earlier, I'm unsure what happens if the winner of a presidential election dies before he's inaugurated. Anyone know?) McCain may turn out to be a genius and win because of Palin. But I'm unconvinced. I think that when pushed, he will have hard time looking into the camera during a debate -- without that silly, smirky grin -- and assuring people she is qualified to succeed him. I don't think people will buy it. On the other hand, they will be able to see as Joe Biden as president. (Heaven forbid!)

Of course no one is qualified to be president. Those are probably the only true words Bill Clinton has spoken as a politician. But then, no one is actually running for president. McCain and Barack Obama are in fact running for emperor. That's not just a rhetorical flourish. If you look at America's foreign policy today and the array of powers that have accumulated in the "unitary" executive branch, the office looks more like the head of an empire than the modest executive described in the Federalist Papers. (Granted, those were propaganda sheets designed to assuage the fear of empire among Antifederalists.)

No one is much interested in musings such as these. We're ear-deep in the democracy game, an Orwellian exercise in which we vauntingly rhapsodize about freedom and self-government while banishing any thoughts that the whole thing is as rotten as month-old fish.

Well, That's Politics

So Barack Obama, the man who promises to reform Washington, has picked as his running mate someone who has been a fixture of the U.S. Senate nearly his entire adult life. Sen. Joseph Biden of course had no trouble accepting the honor. Insider, outsider — he’s whatever you’re looking for.

Well, that’s politics.

When Biden was running for president, he said of Obama, “Right now I don’t believe he is [ready to be president]. The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.” Now he says Obama is “a wise leader. A leader — a leader who can deliver. A leader who can deliver the change we need.”

Well, that's politics.

The rest of my op-ed, "Well, That's Politics," is at The Future of Freedom Foundation website.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Bastiat Solution

The election season, which -- sigh -- is only just beginning, makes me want to reread Frederic Bastiat's The Law. It is the best antidote for the toxic demagoguery that issues forth from across the political spectrum. While the candidates are busy outcompeting one another in proposing new ways to spend our money (while promising to cut taxes), I take refuge in Bastiat's sound philosophy. Where is he when we need him?
The rest of this week's TGIF, "The Bastiat Solution," is at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What About the Ossetians?

If Russia exited Georgia — as it should — and the Bush administration dropped its wish to expand NATO to Russia’s border — as it should — there would still be an issue to be dealt with: the secessionist ambitions of the majority in South Ossetia — the Georgian military response to which was the immediate cause of the current war. They are the forgotten party in the current conflict. When President Bush says the “territorial integrity of Georgia” must be respected and GOP presidential candidate John McCain declares, “Today we’re all Georgians,” they are putting politics above justice.

One need not side with Russian Prime Minister Putin, a cynical opportunist if ever there was one, to understand that the Ossetians south of the Russian border are an aggrieved party. Defenders of liberty will sympathize with the Georgian victims of Russian brutality, but they should also champion the cause of the brutalized Ossetians, who (like the Abkhazians) demand independence from Georgia.

The rest of this week's op-ed, "What About the Ossetians?," is at The Future of Freedom Foundation website.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Lost in Transcription

Following rules, such as the rules of language, of the market, or of just conduct, is more about "knowing how" than "knowing that." This is a lesson taught by many important thinkers, among them, Gilbert Ryle, F.A. Hayek, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. On many matters, we know more than we can say. Yet we are tempted to identify knowing with saying. It's a temptation best resisted. This has implications for the struggle for the free society.
The rest of this week's TGIF, "Lost in Transcription," is at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

No Clean Hands

Against their will, Georgian men in their 40s and 50s hauled debris Saturday from the streets of separatist South Ossetia's bombed-out capital.

In a sign that Georgians are being abused in the Russian-controlled province, a Russian officer and armed Ossetians escorted forced laborers through the city, the nucleus of fighting that has pit two former Soviet neighbors against each other and worried the world.

--Associated Press

Tamaz Barbikadze tip-toed out of South Ossetia's Interior Ministry Sunday flanked by three armed guards. A frail man of 69 years, he was given five minutes to describe to two reporters how he and more than 100 other civilians had been rounded up 10 days ago and thrown into prison. As he spoke, one of his Ossetian captors casually shifted his Kalashnikov from knee to knee.

Mr. Barbikadze's crime: He is Georgian. In South Ossetia, Georgians are regarded with visceral hatred after Georgian tanks rolled into this tiny pro-Russian separatist republic fewer than two weeks ago.

Mr. Barbikadze said that he and about 150 other ethnic Georgians had been locked up in the squat Interior Ministry building since Aug. 8, the day the tanks entered the city. Appearing terrified, he said he didn't understand why he had become a "hostage."

--Wall Street Journal ($)

As Russian troops pounded through Georgia last week, the Kremlin and its allies repeatedly pointed to one justification above all others: The Georgian military had destroyed the city of Tskhinvali.

Russian politicians and their partners in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region South Ossetia, said that when Georgian forces tried to seize control of the city and the surrounding area, the physical damage was comparable to Stalingrad and the killings similar to the Holocaust.

But a trip to the city on Sunday, without official escorts, revealed a very different picture. While it was clear there had been heavy fighting — missiles knocked holes in walls, and bombs tore away rooftops — almost all of the buildings seen in an afternoon driving around Tskhinvali were still standing.

Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said that 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city's main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late on Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.



Here in Tskhinvali [South Ossetia], there was no doubt that Georgia started the war with Russia and much bitterness about the rain of artillery and rockets that the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili used in its efforts to capture the city. The Georgian government said much of the destruction of Tskhinvali was caused by a Russian counteroffensive, but that argument carries no weight with residents here, some of them clearly traumatised.

People insist that a terrible barrage struck the city late on August 7th and continued into the morning - accounts supported by western monitors who were also forced into their cellars. Indeed, buildings used by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were damaged, one severely. . . .

The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during the second World War or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was levelled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.

But the number of dead remains in dispute. Mikhail Minsayev, until yesterday the minister of interior in the separatist South Ossetian government, told reporters on Saturday that as many as 2,100 people had been killed.

When challenged on that figure by reporters, who cited statements by medical workers and human rights groups that there was no evidence of such a high death toll, he said people quickly buried the dead in their yards or took the bodies to North Ossetia in Russia for burial.

In conversations here, everyone interviewed said they had lost either no family members or one person. But those were interviews with people whose cellars had held. Many clearly had not.

--Irish Times

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who the Hell Is That?

"These regions are a part of Georgia,” Bush said of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, "and the international community has repeatedly made clear that they will remain so. There's no room for debate on this matter."

What could be more arrogant? Who the hell is this "international community" and why should it have any say in who governs the Ossetians and Abkhazians?

When will people stop putting up with this crap from "their" misleaders and public self-servants?

(Worth reading: Michael Dobbs's "'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast.")

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Condemn All Governments

Just to make it clear, civilized people should condemn all governments involved in the Georgia-Russia-South Ossetia conflict, and that includes the U.S. government. Innocent people have been victimized by barbarism on all sides. Without these governments, the people themselves are likely to work things out peacefully to mutual advantage. The state apparatus permits decision-makers to socialize the costs of violence through taxation and conscription. So we get more of it.

My latest piece on the conflict is here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

This Is Priceless

One need not defend the Russian violence in Georgia to understand the situation. No government's hands are clean in this matter (or any other, actually). But isn't the American news media overlooking the Ossetians and what Georgian President Saakashvili's forces have done there? Aren't the Georgian and Ossetian people both victims of government atrocities?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Regarding Russia, Georgia, and the U.S.

The Russian invasion of Georgia (like the U.S. invasion of Iraq) is inexcusable. The intractable dispute between the government of Georgia and the Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia in no way warranted Russia’s air and ground attacks against innocent Georgians. Once again, “mere” people suffer for what governments do.

That said, we would be telling only part of the story if we ignored the role played by the U.S. government and its neo-imperial foreign policy. The Bush administration’s loud sponsorship of Georgia (and other former Soviet republics and satellites) for membership in NATO, and its training and equipping of the Georgian military, could have no other effect than to provoke traditional Russian fears of encirclement by the West. As the old saying goes, just because someone is “paranoid” it doesn’t mean no one is after him. The Bush plan to bring NATO -- which was established as an anti-Soviet alliance after World War II -- to the Russian doorstep is reckless and provocative. It surely emboldened Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s recent military violence against the separatists in South Ossetia, which the Russians then exploited opportunistically and ruthlessly. (Brendan O'Neill's analsysis here is worth reading. Hat tip: Jacob Hornberger. Also see Juan Cole's take on the Bush-Putin Doctrine here.)

If it is from such recklessness, provocation, and opportunism that wars are born -- yet another demonstration that the Bush foreign policy is the biggest threat to peace in the world today.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Was the Constitution Really Meant to Constrain the Government?

My message is not one of despair. But we will not cause the freedom philosophy to prevail merely by invoking a political document written by men who thought the main problem with America was too little, not too much, government. Rather, we must cut to the chase and convince people directly that our concepts of freedom and justice best accord with logic -- and their own deepest moral sense.
The rest of this week's TGIF, "Was the Constitution Really Meant to Constrain the Government?" is at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Hubris in the First Degree

“[A]s president, I will commit two billion dollars each year on clean-coal research and development. We will build the demonstration plants, refine the techniques and equipment, and make clean coal a reality.”

That’s what John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, said back on June 18 in Springfield, Missouri. My first reaction was this: “That’s mighty generous of Sen. McCain. I didn’t know he had that kind of money.”

Then I remembered he doesn’t. But if he wins the election in November he’ll have something better: the American taxpayers.
The rest of this week's TGIF, "Hubris in the First Degree," is at the Foundation for Economic Education website.