A Brief Window to Reduce Presidential Power

White House Washington DC behind bars

First, in the truest tradition of conservative thought, the bad news: At this time on Wednesday, one of the major parties in American politics will be institutionally invested in inflating a presidential office already swollen beyond healthy constitutional proportions.

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The United States Must Not Become a “Normal Country”

Peter Thiel gave an interesting speech endorsing Donald Trump. Many people are very unhappy about the endorsement. I am ambivalent about this aspect, because it is beyond my poor powers of calculation to determine which of the worst pair of major party presidential candidates in American history would do the most long-term damage to the republic. But I disagree strongly with the theme of his speech—that what American needs is to become a “normal country.”

What Thiel seems to mean is that America should resemble most other nations, which are less interventionist in foreign affairs and whose citizens see themselves as acting out of interests rather than some set of unique principles. Becoming a normal nation in this respect would not only represent a change from America’s historic role in the world but be against our long-term interests.

The United States is a very unusual, indeed extraordinary nation, because it is founded on principles rather than ethnicity or conquest. And its principles were mostly fine classical liberal ones. That has made it look and behave very differently from other nations. For instance, it has not had as large a welfare state as other industrial nations or even a socialist party. One of my greatest fears is that this election is making it more “normal” in this respect.

The Republican standard-bearer is not trying to trim our burgeoning entitlements; the Democratic candidate, now influenced by the socialist Left of her party, wants substantially to increase them. Insofar as citizens see themselves as part of a “normal nation” rather than one dedicated to principles of liberty, the United States will decline, as the ever-larger entitlement state creates economic stagnation and a war of all against all.

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In the Moonlight


Get ready to hear a lot about a new film called Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), it is a beautifully directed and brilliantly acted portrait of a boy struggling to find his identity in a milieu of poverty, violence, and drugs. The reviews have been rapturous: a “masterpiece”; “even better than you’ve heard”; a “gem,” and “one of the best films of the year.”

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Does Benefit-Cost Analysis Attempt the Impossible?

ROI analysis

Before tackling some of the practical problems involved in the use of Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA), I want to take a look at two foundational questions.  How do we incorporate the interests of affected individuals into a BCA model?  And how do we assemble those individual interests into a social welfare function that allows us to make a collective decision?

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Testing the Logic of Veto Points

Interior view of the House of Commons, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1853.

Conventional wisdom is that separation-of-power political systems are inherently conservative in the sense of being a status-quo preserving institution. As one adds veto points to the legislative process, the thought goes, less legislation will be implemented relative to a system with fewer veto points.

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Previewing the Jurisprudence of Empathy

Columns at the U.S. Supreme Court

Whatever may be said about Gavin Grimm’s legal case, the plaintiff in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G.—which the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear—should be credited with handling the lawsuit with the dignity and courage required for a teenager to assert a public position on an intimate matter. One only wishes Grimm and the advocates pursuing the case showed similar empathy for those who are, with equal sincerity, maintaining competing views—views that transgender advocates are using the courts to delegitimize.

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The Value of Tradition in a Post-Enlightenment Age

In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition.  If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued.  Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.

Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.

Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created.  Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition.

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Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois: A Conversation with Steven Smith

modernityThis discussion with Steven Smith, author of Modernity and Its Discontents, explores what it means to be modern and why an age that has produced so many gains and advances has also produced so many counter-enlightenments and apocalyptic responses. To love the modern age well, do we need to love it moderately?

A Lawless Labor Agenda

dept of labor

In prior posts (here and here), I looked at the pro-union agenda of the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board, and the anti-employer policies undertaken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Department of Labor. The leadership of the Department by Thomas Perez deserves a closer look, for Secretary Perez has brazenly promoted the objectives of organized labor at the expense of the rule of law.

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Using Benefit-Cost Analysis to Harness the Administrative State

Environmental Law

Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) is now widely known and used, but it is also widely misunderstood – by many of its advocates as well as its detractors.  Over the next few weeks I want to examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of BCA as a normative science; and, yes, that phrase is an oxymoron, which is a source of much of the controversy.  BCA is an imperfect answer, but often perhaps the best available answer, to the question of how a society should go about making collective but not unanimous choices.  Nowhere is its use more contested than in its application to decisions by regulatory agencies.

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