Old Complaints about New Technology

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review Leon Wieseltier has polemicized against the digital age. While beautifully written, its major propositions are either wrong or not wholly coherent.  All have been heard before in previous ages of technological change. While it is difficult to isolate all the sources of Wieseltier’s distemper, here are four in ascending order of their claim to be taken seriously.

1. Wieseltier claims that “the greatest thugs in the history of the cultural industry” (by which he means Amazon and the like) have destroyed bookstores and record shops. Similarly, journalists now earn less money because of competition from digital platforms. These complaints are the whining of producers displaced by competition that helps consumers. The Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites allow me faster access to a much wider variety of books than the independent bookstores of my youth. And unlike some of these stores, they do not discriminate against books on political grounds. Journalists have no greater claim to be insulated from competition than other professions. And again the web has given range to much more variegated opinion and analysis than the mainstream media of old.

Wieseltier’s complaint resembles nothing so much as those of French publishers of the late eighteenth century who complained to the National Assembly about competitors with cheaper means of production:

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Chamber of Commerce Defends Rentseekers United

Chamber of commerce

Today (Tuesday, January 20) the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center. It’s a hugely important case that will shape the contours of federal spending statutes (here, Medicaid) and of federalism.  While the dispute is between a state (Idaho) and Medicaid providers, there is more to learn from two amici: the administration, which gets the case admirably right; and the Chamber of Commerce, which gets it horridly wrong.

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Abolish the State of the Union Address  


The enigma, and perhaps impetus, of swelling executive power is that when constitutionally asserted, the presidency is shrinking. Witness the White House’s apparent intent to use the State of the Union address to propose that—wait for it—Congress enact national standards regarding how quickly companies must inform customers of data breaches.

Now, hacking is bad and reporting it is good. But it is also time—and the constitutional conservative should reach this conclusion with due reluctance—to abolish the State of the Union address, whose most pernicious effect is its political imperative for the President to propose as many new ideas as possible, regardless of the need for them, while Congress occupies a supine posture of reaction.

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The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

What is the relationship between these documents, especially for interpreting the Constitution?  There are several different possibilities.

1. Largely Unrelated. This is the conventional view in constitutional law.  Under this view, one generally can ignore the Declaration when interpreting the Constitution.  One justification is that the Declaration had a limited purpose – announcing to the world that the US was independent – and that was concluded by the end of the Revolutionary War.

2. Significant as a Document. Under this view, the principles announced in the Declaration are important guides to the meaning of the Constitution.  The force of the Declaration comes from the fact that it is one of the foundational documents in US history.  While not the standard view in either  originalist or conventional constitutional law, it does have some adherents.

3. Significant as Evidence of Political Principles. Under this view, the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with certain important political principles, such as natural law or traditional common law principles.  The Declaration is evidence that natural law principles were widely accepted by the people in the latter part of the 18th  The reason for employing these principles, however, is not that they are in the Declaration, but that they were widely accepted.

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To Adam Smith be True: A Conversation with Russ Roberts


Did you know that Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments  can change your life? In essays on self-knowledge, happiness, virtue, being loved and being lovely, making the world a better place, and most importantly, fame and self-deception, Russ Roberts’ new book on Smith explores why the 18th century Scottish philosopher has the cure for the denizen of late modernity. The man mostly known for articulating in The Wealth of Nations how nations become rich and how they impoverish themselves also wrote eloquently on why we want to be loved and why we struggle with being lovely. In short, Smith…

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Remembering Henry Manne

For conservatives this has been a sad time. First, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, two giants of the movement passed away on January 10. Famous antagonists, who agreed on so much in practice and so little on policy, their deaths on the same day brought to mind the deaths of Adams and Jefferson on July 4, 1826. That much-remarked coincidence reminded me of the passing of Luther Martin on July 10, 1826. Who, I wondered would be next, and would it be a notorious tippler? Henry Manne was a golfer, not a tippler. Unlike Martin, however, he deserves to be remembered…

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Tradition, Technology, and Change in Downton Abbey


Many critics have chalked up the craze for Downton Abbey to nostalgia for a time of simplicity and aristocratic elegance. But Downton Abbey resonates because of present dilemmas, even if they are set in the past.   It relentlessly focuses on a central, if not the central, problem of our time and of modernity in general—how to adapt social norms in ages of ever faster technological change.

Technological transformation is the major theme of Downton Abbey. The landed aristocracy is giving way to a new urban middle class whose wealth comes from industrialization. Because of downsizing, even the marriages of aristocrats must be lived at closer quarters and become more companionate, giving rise to a felt need for closer forms of courtship to assess compatibility.  Last week’s episode introduced the radio, which permits the King to speak to his subjects, but begins the process that Walter Bagehot feared would let light on the “magic of the monarchy” and so dissolve the majestic mystery that preserves the loyalty of the realm.

Major characters in the series embody very different attitudes toward tradition and change.

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More on Extremist and Moderate Muslims

The comments on my prior post on extremist and moderate Muslims led me to believe that more could usefully be said about the subject.  One significant question is whether moderate Muslims have an obligation to condemn extremist Muslims.

Clearly, it would be useful to the cause if moderate Muslims were to condemn their extremist brethren.  But do they have an obligation to do so?  I can imagine arguments on both sides.

But that is not my main concern.  It is instead whether the defenders of freedom should be insisting that moderate Muslims condemn extremist Muslims, whether or not such moderates have an obligation to do so?  And my point is that such insistence is not strategically advisable. 

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We’re the Government. Trust Us.


Earlier this week the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Mach Mining LLC v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (transcript and briefs).  It’s a fairly big deal for employers, and another small window in the administration’s quaint views of administrative law.

The case concerns the EEOC’s enforcement practices. After the agency files a notice against an employer, conducts its investigation, and finds “reasonable cause” to proceed, it “shall endeavor to eliminate any such alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” 42 U.S.C. 20002-5(b). What happens if they don’t do that prior to filing suit, or do a snow job on the employer? Nothing, says EEOC. The provision is unreviewable.

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“If 100,000 Jews Leave, France Will No Longer Be France.”

Some people still don’t get it. At Sunday’s unity rally in Paris, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings and subsequent attack on a Kosher supermarket, the BBC correspondent Tim Wilcox put to a terrified Jewish woman that this slaughter could be explained because “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands.” According to Wilcox, “everything is seen from different perspectives.”

It is not clear whose perspective Wilcox believed he was voicing, other than that of the Paris terrorists.

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