Sacred Rhetoric and Political Discourse

winthropMy previous posts for Law and Liberty examining Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Bible in the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses generated interest that far exceeded my expectations (and those of the editor). These were primarily descriptive rather than critical assessments of the propriety of Lincoln’s references or allusions to Scripture in these celebrated orations. Space constraints did not allow me to explore other issues of interest to me, such as the perils of deploying religion in political—often partisan—rhetoric.

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The Adhoc-racy and the Rule of Law in the 2008 Financial Crisis

Paulson, Bernanke, And FDIC Chairman Make Statement On Financial Markets

When surveying the vast wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis, many classical liberals worry that the most profound damage done was to the rule of law in America.  Though it is difficult to pin down the concept with great precision, the core of the rule of law is simple: we have a government of laws, not men.  Our officials must follow rules that have been publicly and clearly set forth in advance rather than acting on their own caprice, and they are not welcome to simply make up rules as they go along and declare their conduct lawful in retrospect.  Without adherence to this precept, government’s actions can have no basis for legitimacy.

If we closely scrutinize what the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and other agencies of the federal government did in response to the recent financial crisis, there is no avoiding that they made a mockery of the rule of law.  Indeed, as Lawrence H. White puts it, “The approach of Federal Reserve and Treasury officials during this crisis, unfortunately, has been to consider every possible remedy but applying the rule of law.”

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After Indiana: Harmonizing Gay Rights and Religious Freedom

Indiana freedom

After the furor directed at Indiana for enacting a religious freedom measure, some are asking whether it is possible to hit the reset button in the struggle over religious freedom and gay rights. Others are still scratching their heads: What exactly do these state versions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) do? Are they anti-gay? Should people who care about civil rights boycott any state considering them, in order to “take a stand against” RFRA?

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The Philosophy of Governance in Game of Thrones

The HBO television show Game of Thrones, based on the books by George R. R. Martin, has begun its fifth season.  Martin wrote the books in part based on the concern that J. R. R. Tolkien had focused on the war against evil and had neglected the difficulties of governing.  Martin’s books focus on the latter.

I know my Game of Thrones mainly from the television show rather than the books (although I have read the first book).  So it is always possible that my thoughts here might turn out to be inconsistent with later developments in the books.

(Spoiler alert: the following post assumes that you have finished the fourth season of Game of Thrones.  If you have, it is safe to read.)

My view is that Martin believes that desirable governance is something of a golden mean between two extremes.  On the one hand, there is the philosophy of governance of the Starks – Ned and his eldest son, Robb.  Both of these leaders are admirable men in a way – they are mainly honorable and seek to follow moral norms.  Yet disaster befalls both of them.  Ned is killed largely because he does not act strategically or decisively, warning the Queen and allowing her to act against him.  As a result, his family is devastated.

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Nationalize It

In this Liberty Law Talk with James L. Buckley—Judge, Senator, Saint—he proposed to terminate any and all federal transfer programs. That bold program is conceptually and directionally right. Can it be done, though? Answer, maybe—provided that… The raw numbers are prohibitive, and horrifying. Four states (Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Dakota) collect over forty percent of their revenues from the feds. Two-thirds of the states depend on federal transfers for over 30 percent of their budgets. Mind you: these are 2012 data. Federal transfers under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion—a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement for whatever any state chooses to spend—will drive the numbers through the roof.…

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The New Architecture of Legal Education

The recent  architectural addition to Northwestern Law School where I teach – a lovely, three-floor, glass-clad space with high ceilings – reflects a new direction of legal education.  The first-floor has a café with fifty seats and a patio looking out on Lake Michigan. The next two floors are conducive to collaboration, consisting of study rooms and open spaces with comfortable chairs.   The only classroom in this section has no rows of seats or even a lectern but is instead full of tables and audiovisual screens, suitable for negotiation and problem solving even at long distance.

The new space emphasizes an increasingly important part of elite education generally—the opportunity to network with other highly skilled individuals. One can think of higher education as providing three distinct services: transferring information and skills,  signaling the quality of students to employers, providing professional networking opportunities for students.

Nothing better represents the decline of the first function than the plight of the university library.

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Why Do Some on the Left Believe in Income Equality?

In my last post, I discussed why one should care about economic mobility for the poor rather than  income equality.  The basic point is that we should care how well the poor are doing rather than their relative position compared to the rich.  If we can increase the wealth of the poor by $100, we should do so even if that involves giving the rich an extra $200.

So why do some people on the left focus on income equality rather than mobility for the poor.  One possibility is that focusing on income equality allows them to argue directly for the result that they like – equality.  If they had to discuss whether certain institutions, such as free market institutions, helped the poor, it would at best make their arguments messier and at worst sometimes support free markets.  It is safer and simpler to argue for income equality and implicitly assume that money provided to the rich is always taken out of the pockets of the poor.

But this explanation simply moves us back a step: why don’t these people on the left care enough about the poor to focus on their situation, even at the risk of allowing these “argument costs.”  There are several possibilities.

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Against Presidential Libraries: A Modest Proposal


THE WHITE HOUSE—Declaring his intent to cure the public of its worshipful disposition toward the executive office, and consonant with the Whiggish constitutional modesty on which he campaigned in 2008, President Obama announced that the much-anticipated location of his Presidential Library and Museum will be nowhere.

“Presidential libraries are monuments less to the egos of individual executives, which is bad enough, than to presidential gigantism,” Mr. Obama explained in a statement, which was issued in writing in order to diminish the grandeur an Oval Office setting would otherwise have lent it. “The presidency is a swollen institution that distorts our constitutional system.  I consequently will donate my papers to the University of Chicago School of Law, whose faculty I hope will study the constitutional implications of my and other recent presidencies.”

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Is It Time to Sell Google?

Yesterday The European Union sued Google under its competition law. This lawsuit shows either that the European Union understands nothing about the way technological acceleration affects competition or that the EU is biased against American companies or both.

The complaint is that Google has monopoly power in search and that it abuses this power by favoring its own services, like its own travel reservation business, in  the links it provides to queries.   But with a few taps on a keyboard or a click of a mouse, consumers can easily switch from one search engine to another, casting doubt on the EU’s claim that Google has monopoly power.   More importantly, technological acceleration makes it very unlikely that Google could maintain an entrenched monopoly in search over the long haul.  As people spend more time on their smart phones and less time at their computer, Google’s form of search is increasingly displaced by apps.  Another threat to Google is Facebook, which uses the connections of its social network to customize search and advertisements.

The difficulty of maintaining entrenched monopoly in accelerating technologies is not unique to Google.

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Where Have All the Start-Ups Gone?

closed shop with padlock

Robert Samuelson, in his columns for the Washington Post, has done wonders in explaining stuff to econ idiots like yours truly. Lately, he has called attention to the economy’s lousy productivity growth (we’ve been puttering along at 0.9 annual growth) and the striking decline in U.S. entrepreneurship, as measured (principally) by business formation.Those trends are closely associated, and neither is explained by the great recession. What’s happening?

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