Dismantling the Leftist Academic Complex: A Conversation with Roger Scruton

foolsRoger Scruton is certainly no stranger to Liberty Law Talk. His return is occasioned by Bloomsbury's republication of his 1985 title, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, a book that caused tremendous academic controversy, threats against the publisher, and the book's eventual scuttling by Longman, its original publisher. Scruton's crime was to have attempted to take the New Left seriously, finding it severely wanting, if not absurd. We revisit the book's fallout, discuss its ideas, and consider the state of contemporary Leftist thinking.

Democracy’s Last Period Problem

The budget deal last December was notable for its neglect of any reform to entitlements. The Obama years will likely be remembered for the utter failure to come to grips with our burgeoning unfunded obligations, which remain the greatest threat to our future. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the eloquent economist Caroline Hoxby:

         Programs such as Social Security, Medicare and disability have needed reform for many years because they are not fiscally sound. They will predictably impose an increasing burden on the economy. Today’s young Americans will have to be heavily taxed when they are adults to pay for benefits mainly enjoyed by previous generations. This will discourage them from working and upgrading their skills, causing future growth to slow. Most economists have agreed year after year that these programs need attention, yet reforming them always takes a back seat to agonizing about the latest crisis—even when we know that such agonizing cannot help much and that we must let the economy re-equilibrate.

Sadly, reform seems further away than ever, as Republican presidential candidates are largely silent about the issue and Democratic candidates want to add to entitlements by increasing social security benefits. One reason for less serious talk about reform, let alone action, is simple: the baby boomers are either now collecting old-age entitlements or getting ever closer to the day they will do so. Politicians are leery of annoying this massive, aging voting bloc.

This issue highlights a little discussed danger for democracy—its last period problem.

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Progressivism Makes Immigrants Unwelcome

Last week President Obama gave a speech to newly naturalized citizens at the National Archives. His remarks show why immigration, long rightly praised as an essential part of our heritage, has become a source of ever greater controversy. The President failed to acknowledge that it is the principles of limited government and individual rights that make United States a welcoming place for immigrants because they assure that newcomers cannot tip the political balance to make life worse for those already here.

Instead, the President celebrated the raw power of democracy to make “progress,” change that can come at the expense of long time residents.The President did suggest that one of the “binding forces” for America is “loyalty” to “the documents” that surrounded the new citizens at the Archives. But he never identified these documents by name, quoted any language from them, or explained why they have an enduring claim on our loyalty. In particular, President Obama cited almost none of the liberties protected by the Constitution and nothing of the structure of federalism and separation of powers that protects those liberties.

It is hard to believe this was mere oversight. His administration has notably failed to defend both the structure and rights that are actually in the Constitution.

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The End of American Democracy?

Matt Yglesias argues that American democracy is “doomed.” Along with some over-the-top scenarios of military coups and the like, the essay contains sober—and sobering—analysis of our predicament, based on a pretty good survey of the PoliSci literature.

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The Wrath of Cons

D Brooks

David Brooks is in an angry and spiteful mood. Perhaps he’s even getting to be a bit unhinged, as history is putting his vision of American conservatism onto its rubbish heap.

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An Eternal Introduction

USA Constitution Parchment

When I read the preface, I thought: What a great story awaits the reader. The authors of The Constitution: An Introduction, Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen, father and son, spent nine summer vacations together discussing the original Constitution and the Amendments. I wish I could have been privy to the conversations. Did the father ever say to the son, “you changed my mind on this point?” Did the son ever say to the father, “you changed my mind on that point?” After all, I think, the key to introducing America is by way of a dynamic conversation within and between the generations. Their aim is both lofty and restrained: to write an introductory book that is “rigorous, accurate, and scholarly” yet at the same time “brief and readable.” But they fall short.

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More American Exceptionalism: Less Dangerous Populists

In both parties’ primaries a real populist is running, the kind of person many of the Framers would have called a demagogue. On the Republican side, the billionaire says we can deport all illegal immigrants and he will persuade Mexico to give the money to build a fence.  Although he proclaims himself a conservative, his most substantial complaint about big government appears to be that he is not running it.

On the Democratic side, a self-proclaimed socialist argues that the problem with government is that it is not even bigger. He wants to sharply raise taxes and provide more government jobs. He also wants to criminalize all kinds of voluntary acts, from choosing to work at mutually agreeable wages to trading goods and services with foreigners, including those for whom that trade may mean the difference between subsistence and penury. This tribune of equality would ground down the truly destitute of the world.  And, sadly, both these candidates are riding pretty high in the polls.

But these candidacies actually show the relative health of the United States compared to the most comparable democracies—those in Europe. Our populists of right and left are less bad then their populists, less likely to win power, and even in power less likely to do permanent damage.

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The First Progressive?

The first canon of Progressivism is faith in human reason. Politics for the Progressive is a science not in the Aristotelian but in the Baconian sense. Political questions are not prudential complexities to which human judgment approaches better or worse answers but rather moral rigidities with right or wrong solutions wholly within the ambit of the all-powerful human mind. The distance from that schematic to administration by experts is brief. In fairness, that portrayal substantially attenuates the chain. But a recent family visit to Monticello served as a reminder that, however ironically, Thomas Jefferson is one of the chain's first American links.…

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Progressivism, Purposivism, and Historical Contingency

For its lay audience City Journal asked me to explain the King v. Burwell decision, which permitted federal exchanges under the Affordable Care Act to receive subsidies. Within its brief compass, I made two points.

First, I suggested, contrary to some conservative commentators, that the majority opinion did not demonstrate that Chief Justice Roberts was unprincipled but that instead the decision followed from a principled purposivist theory of statutory interpretation. I showed why the theory was wrong: like Mike Rappaport, I believe the meaning of the provision was clear and neither purposivist nor intentionalist interpretation should be allowed to defeat a clear meaning. This analysis of Roberts’ opinion comports with my more general view that four justices labeled conservatives are often fractured, because they are more legalists than ideologues, whose different interpretive methods lead to different results that are sound under their principles even when the principles are unsound.

Second, I noted that the effects of purposive interpretation are generally friendly to progressivism because it allows judges to choose overriding purposes that advance progressive goals that were not written into law. But let me be clear that any aid that purposivism gives to progressivism is not a reason to reject purposivism, just an effect of that interpretive method.

Here is an analogy.

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The Dangerous Weakness of Modern Progressivism

Immigration Executive Action

Modern progressivism’s relatively weak legislative coalition explains much of the behavior of the Obama administration and the new threats it poses to our constitutional order.  As I discuss in an article just published in the City Journal, under FDR and even LBJ, the Democratic party had much more enduring power in Congress. Moreover, these administrations were not nearly so hamstrung as is the Obama administration by deficits and high government spending caused in no small measure by previous progressive experiments. Thus, previous progressive administrations could often be more forthright in the proclamation of their goals and rely on their large legislative majorities to enact and revise the central parts of their programs.

But the Obama administration needs to compensate for its relative weakness by misleading the public and exalting executive power even beyond the previous efforts of progressives.  For instance, the President’s repeated promise that you can keep your health care insurance and doctor was necessary to enact the Affordable Care Act, because in our more affluent society the great majority are happy with their health care.  As I note in the piece:

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