Liberty Law Blog

More on Game of Thrones

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My co-blogger John McGinnis has a great post up on the politics of Game of Thrones. (I cannot resist mentioning that I initially recommended that John watch the show but he resisted; obviously, he has come around.) Unlike John, I watch Game of Thrones for all of it – for the politics, for the great characters, for the surprises, for the sex, for the violence, for the humor as well as for the politics. I thought I would add a couple of reactions to the show and John’s post. (Some spoilers below.)

John notes how the show vividly illustrates that “a stable monarchy was a great advance for liberty over warring barons.” True enough, but the show also makes clear that the danger that the hereditary monarch can impose when he turns out to have the wrong traits for ruling, as the mad king, Aerys II of the House of Targaryen, displayed. By the same token, such a mad king might have good or bad heirs – Aerys’s son Prince Rhaegar may turn out to be have been a good man (or at least not a bad one), and while Aerys’s younger son, Viserys, would certainly have been a disaster, his daughter Daenerys, shows signs of greatness.

John also notes that some men just do not have the capability for exercising power, such as Robert Baratheon and his successor Joffrey. This is certainly right, but author George Martin also recognizes that some men cannot exercise power well, because they lack a Machiavellian insight into the nature of the political world. Ned Stark was disastrous because he sought to impose his ideals of how the world should be rather than recognizing and responding to how it actually is. As Daenerys shows, one need not be a bad person or ruler in order to rule effectively. One just has to understand how the world works.

In my view, the most distinctive characteristic of Game of Thrones (apart from George Martin’s willingness to kill off important characters) is his mixed view of the world, with few characters being entirely good and even fewer being entirely bad. Continue Reading →

The Marriage of Governments and Banks—For Better or for Worse

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Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber, combining their scholarly command of banking and political institutions, have published a book full of fertile ideas, instructive histories of the evolution of a number of banking systems, and provocative interpretations of the co-dependency between banks and governments. Continue Reading →

The Classical Liberal Political Advantage

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Recently the California Senate retracted a bill that would have called for a referendum to reverse Proposition 209, the famous initiative banning racial, ethnic and gender preferences in public education and contracting. This decision came in response to  second thoughts from Asian-American state senators who got an earful from constituents. These citizens feared that reversing Proposition 209 would lead to lower numbers of Asian-American students at elite institutions, like Berkeley, where Asian-Americans are overrepresented as a percentage of the population.

The dynamics of this event reveal several things about the struggle between classical liberalism and the forces of government intervention and redistribution. The great old fear of classical liberals is that democracy permits majorities to redistribute wealth and opportunities to themselves at the expense of freedom and prosperity. The great new fear is that coalitions of energized, concentrated groups that are not even a majority can engage in such redistribution because they will have substantial leverage in a political system, where the majority may be uninformed, apathetic, and rationally ignorant of politics.

The forces for liberty in society, however, do have a significant structural advantage, even in the face of these substantial concerns. A coalition for redistribution can more easily develop internal tensions that prove fatal to its success. For instance, even if California becomes a so-called majority-minority state, not all the minorities will have similar interests. The failure to go to vote on the referendum shows that concentrated groups cannot get their way when a conflict develops between the groups. Democrats are thus overconfident that the demographic rise of minorities will make Democrats the natural party of government.

Public sector unions and minorities represent another important coalition for the Democratic party in urban areas. Yet this coalition has already begun to fracture, most notably because of education policy. Continue Reading →

When Westphalia Fades

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What is wrong with America? It does not seem to work anymore. Low employment, static wages, burdened business, persistent poverty, destructive lifestyles, exploding debt, threatened entitlement bankruptcy, and stagnation generally seem to be its future, following the path to decline set by Old Europe the century before.

It may seem peculiar that a peace treaty signed in 1648 might hold the answer. Continue Reading →

Common Core Invasion: How It Will Alter Higher Education

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Supporters of the Common Core repeatedly claim that Common Core was a state-sponsored initiative, that the nation’s governors originated in 2007-8 this wonderful idea, and that the federal government had really – but really – nothing to do with these wonderful career- and college-ready standards that will propel many more of our students to be competitive in the global marketplace.

I will ignore for a moment what those supporters “forget” to mention – that the standards were produced in a secretive non-public process, that they were funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and private DC-based lobbying organizations, and that they had little input from their actual stakeholders: teachers and the public.

Instead, I will focus on how well Common Core standards match their own claims and aspirations. Continue Reading →

Announcing Keith Whittington as April Guest Blogger

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Keith WhittingtonI am very pleased to announce that Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, will be blogging @ Law and Liberty for the month of April. I know that we are in store for an interesting array of posts on constitutional jurisprudence and other subjects.

Keith’s books include Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review (Kansas, 1999); Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History (Princeton, 2007), and American Constitutionalism (Oxford, 2012) (with Howard Gillman and Mark A. Graber). He is currently finishing a history of the judicial review of federal statutes and a collection of source material in American political thought.

Harvard to Go Egalitarian

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Cambridge, MA, April 1, 2014


Harvard_Veritas_The_Truth_Will_Set_U_FreeIn a move designed to foster diversity and to create a university that “thinks like America,” Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard University announced yesterday that the school will embrace egalitarian admissions. The school will no longer give priority to students with good grades, high SAT scores, and impressive extra-curricular activities. Such policies have, Dr. Faust acknowledged, created an “elitist” and “inegalitarian” atmosphere at the college. “It is unacceptable in 2014 to be favoring the intelligent over the unlearned, and the energetic over the slothful,” she proclaimed. Continue Reading →

Politics and Liberty in Game of Thrones

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I watch the Game of Thrones for the politics, and there is a lot of political insight to admire. In anticipation of the next season that begins this Sunday, I thought I would comment on some of it.

An overarching theme is the nature of power—what is it and where does it lie. The two Kings on the Iron Throne portrayed so far—Robert Baratheon and his successor Joffrey– are not the real powers within their own kingdom. They are either insufficiently vigilant or insufficiently self-possessed to enjoy enduring authority. Even kings must exercise power through agents. Game of Thrones in large part reflects this principal-agent game and these two principals lack the self-agency to control their external agents. As Machiavelli recognized, only people of a certain character can wield power over the long term.

Mancur Olson (and Thomas Hobbes before him) understood that a stable monarchy was a great advance for liberty over warring barons, because the king has incentives to invest in the prosperity of his people so as to gain more taxes and more power rather than simply to seize the assets of his subjects. Game of Thrones vividly illustrates this truth. Once there is no agreement among the leading houses on the successor to Robert Baratheon , death and destruction reign instead. And Robert’s own displacement of his lawful predecessor, Aerys II of the House of Targaryen, weakened the royal legitimacy that his death then undoes.

The most powerful noble House in the series—the Lannisters— boasts the motto: “We always pay our debts.”  Continue Reading →

Government Wrongdoing and the Need for Oversight

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In a world where government does so much, there is all the more need for transparency and public oversight. Here, of course, would be the place to insert a joke about the most transparent administration in history, but to be honest these problems are not restricted to one party.

A recent report issued by the Project on Government Oversight, based on records acquired from the government, indicates that Justice Department prosecutors have engaged in a large number of serious infractions:

An internal affairs office at the Justice Department has found that, over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work. The violations include instances in which attorneys who have a duty to uphold justice have, according to the internal affairs office, misled courts, withheld evidence that could have helped defendants, abused prosecutorial and investigative power, and violated constitutional rights. From fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2013, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) documented more than 650 infractions, according to a Project On Government Oversight review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and from OPR reports. In the majority of the matters—more than 400—OPR categorized the violations as being at the more severe end of the scale: recklessness or intentional misconduct, as distinct from error or poor judgment.

While this information is helpful, it would be even more valuable if the particular prosecutors who engaged in the wrongdoing and the cases involved were identified. Yet, the Justice Department refuses to do so. This is yet another example of government protecting its own employees from proper scrutiny.

In 1993, Deptury Attorney General Philip Heymann announced a policy of broader disclosure.

Subsequently, OPR released detailed accounts of investigations naming the offenders in some cases where misconduct was found. Those accounts, which OPR described as summarized reports, were more elaborate than the brief summaries in the annual reports.

This was a step in the right direction. But alas the Justice Department under George W. Bush “abandoned the policy Heymann had articulated in 1993”:

In a 2008 story about a “growing shroud of secrecy” at OPR, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Justice Department had reversed the Clinton-era policy. It didn’t say when that happened, but it reported that Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis said it was his decision to excuse the OPR from preparing summaries of cases that might be released to the public. According to the newspaper, Margolis said the decision reflected a lack of resources and concern about balancing public interests with the privacy rights of individual attorneys facing accusations.

How compelling! The Justice Department was merely saving public resources and protecting privacy. That government attorneys who have engaged in misconduct that affects the interests of specific individuals should have privacy interests is hard to justify.

As with so many other things, the Bush Administration paved the way for the Obama Administration.

It is time for these policies to be reversed. And for the Congress to take action. One reform would be to authorize the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate attorney misconduct, a power it currently lacks. Legislation supported by Senators from both parties has been introduced to authorize such investigations.