Defining Socialism Down

Communism killed some 94 million people in the 20th century. It ranks alongside any other evil of that period, which is saying something. Consequently, no less than Nazism, it is not a word to be casually used or a charge to be lightly made. Both happened in response to Richard Reinsch’s eminently sensible observation in this space that Barack Obama is “not a socialist”—a clause followed hard on by another stating that Obama’s policies were incompatible with the genius of the American regime. Despite the latter clause, this set off a range of posted comments that placed “progressive,” “socialist” and “communist” on the same slippery continuum, with one commentator remarking that they were separated only by meaningless degrees, another claiming that Obama was not a socialist, he was a “radical socialist,” and still another clarifiyng that, no, he was a “fascist” instead.

It is difficult to see what purpose is served by these excesses other than to trivialize charges conservatives ought to take seriously while deflecting punches that might actually land.  Certainly no converts are going to be made by forcing choices to falsely stark extremes—either a state scaled back beyond what anyone in the mainstream of politics, Republican or Democrat, today supports on the one hand or the specter of socialism on the other—that, not incidentally, crowd 62 million Americans who voted for Obama into the same pejorative category.  A charge of communism is a charge of totalitarianism that conjures the Gulag, the collectivization of farms and the deaths by starvation or slaughter of tens of millions. It is not the same thing as socialism, and socialism is not the same thing as progressivism.

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Recent posts and comments on my humble federalism oeuvre—prominently, Richard Reinsch’s sensational post—invite careful thought and reflection. The gravamen, as I understand my critics, is that I’m too enamored with political economy (rationalism, and economics) and too dismissive of the civic, democratic virtues that make government work and last. At the end of the day, that may be right; I’d love to think and argue about it. But I’m in Indianapolis today and at Holy Cross tomorrow and on Thursday back in class again. A few hasty questions, then:

  • Can you make republican government work for devils—in other words, create a machine that will go by itself? Heck no. Madison didn’t think so; I don’t think so; no one this side of Professor Kant does. But that doesn’t get you any closer to the federalism questions. As to which:
  • Is there a reason to think that the demos will be better behaved, and more likely to exercise civic virtues, locally than at the national level? I can’t think of one, and much empirical evidence cuts against it. Even conceptually, the point seems doubtful. If the dominant civic spirit says, “mind your own damn business,” localism may be the way to go. Conversely, if the spirit of civic “engagement” and “participation” says, “help yourself to other people’s money,” a national scale might provide a barrier: it’s a lot easier to organize theft on a smaller scale. Might: You’re playing the odds here. But it’s an empirical question, not one of first principles; and the answer is contingent on the content of people’s character, not on the scale of government.
  • Is it that local government instills civic virtue? My neighbors look perfectly congenial and sensible to me, and the social capital they invest is an enormous benefit. But they also “participate” in school and local “activities” that make me wish for a revolver. It’s very hard to tell where the balance lies. And I’m quite confident that local government institutions don’t instill or foster any of the good stuff. For the most part, they bring out the worst in people.
  • Is there a reason to think that the people’s agents will be better behaved at one level or the other? James Madison—the Madison of the Convention and Federalist 10—thought that an “extended republic” would produce (more precisely, select for) better politicians. The recognition that this is obviously nuts struck Madison in the very first Congress. But it strikes me as equally implausible that the hacks in Albany or Richmond will be any more deliberative or responsible. Some legislatures will be better than Congress, and others will be worse.

More thoughts later.

The Upside-Down Constitution: Recent Reviews and Further Reflections

The Upside-Down Constitution sought to spark a more vigorous and forthright debate about federalism and, more broadly, the constitutional order—beyond a federalism of “balance” and a clause-bound, positivist originalism. I’m gratified that a good number of thoughtful lawyers and scholars have accepted the challenge. Early reviews include terrific pieces by Rob Gasaway, sitemeister Richard Reinsch, and Ilya Somin. Recent additions include a review by James A. Gardner (SUNY Buffalo Law School) in the Law & Politics Book Review (more in a sec); by R. Shep Melnick (Boston College) in The Forum; and by Roderick M. Hills, Jr. (NYU Law School) in the Tulsa Law Review.

Alas, Shep’s piece is behind a pay wall and Rick’s, behind a “you-must-buy-the-physical-volume” wall. I have the e-files but can’t link to them without copyright infringement. Next best option: (1) offer to send the file(s) to anyone who asks; (2) give the authors air time on this blog—not nearly as much as they deserve, but enough to give a flavor and to suggest useful lines of further inquiry and debate. I proffer this post in that spirit; with apologies for its inordinate length; and with gratitude to the critics.

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Friday Roundup, January 4th

Two major misconceptions entertained by the opposing parties of the period are laid to rest. One was held by the Soviet leaders, the other by Western politicians. On the Soviet side there was the strongly held and ideologically conditioned belief, or rather, delusion, that the October Revolution will be followed by similar uprisings in Western European countries inspired by the Soviet example and that these more advanced countries (especially Germany) will provide much needed economic assistance and moral support to the young Soviet state. More than that, the Soviet revolutionary leaders “believed that their revolution would expire if it stayed in one country alone…”

On the Western side, prominent politicians and military men could not bring themselves to believe that the seemingly disorganized and poverty-ridden Soviet state could survive. As Service wrote “no realistic calculus of military power in Europe favored the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution… When the communists…took power in Petrograd, they could not be certain that their government would last more than a few days.” [3]     Arguably the implicit thesis of the book is that neither the birth nor the survival of the Soviet system was predetermined.

  • Hester Peirce writes at Point of Law on the federal government’s continued entanglement with credit rating agencies via Dodd-Frank, which, apparently, urges the SEC to create a new government credit rating bureaucracy. Can’t wait. But there is more to come from Dodd-Frank (the gift that keeps giving) and Peirce provides @Real Clear Policy a list of the top 10 Dodd-Frank rules to watch for in 2013.
  • Don’t miss the Fed-Soc’s SCOTUScast with Richard Epstein on Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States. Our own Mike Rappaport has commented on this case here.

Friday Roundup, December 28th

Hamilton’s declarations about liberty and republicanism and his actions as the first Secretary of the Treasury did little to convince many of his contemporaries that he was sincere.  Jeffersonians routinely accused Hamilton of harboring imperial ambitions, of being a monarchist, and of trying to subvert both liberty and the republican form of government.  Jefferson himself also called into question Hamilton’s loyalty to the United States, his personal courage, and his horsemanship!  More recently, Hamilton’s conservative and libertarian critics have seen him as a “big government conservative” indistinguishable for the most part from the progressive advocates of the contemporary administrative state.  Conservative politicians have become, at least when it comes to style and tone, decidedly Jeffersonian.  Hamilton’s critics’ case has been helped by the embrace of Hamilton by liberal writers such as Michael Lind and by bastions of liberal thought like the Brookings Institution which runs The Hamilton Project, a wonky economic policy unit.

  • David Henderson of Econ Log reviews Luigi Zingales’ A Capitalism for the People.
  • Nathan Schlueter has a short essay “Sustainable Liberalism” that is of the Built Better Than They Knew variety re: the American Founders. This seems worth pondering.

The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

Friday Roundup, December 21st


Wanted: Long-Term Rules for the Short-Sighted Fed

The Cato Journal’s Spring/Summer 2012 volume on “Monetary Reform in the Wake of Crisis” is not to be missed. Contributors include Allan Meltzer, John Allison, James Grant, George Selgin, and Judy Shelton, among others. You could think that so much has transpired since this went to print, more QE, more EU summits, more “Fed twists” that its value has decreased. Not so, however.

For example, Allan Meltzer, author of the magisterial history of the Fed entitled A History of the Federal Reserve, has an essay “Federal Reserve Policy in the Great Recession” that is chock full with insight on the Fed’s behavior of recent years. The essay also limns a way forward to a rule-driven, discretion-limited Fed. The main theme is that “Overresponse to short-run events and neglect of longer-term consequences of its actions is one of the main errors that the Federal Reserve makes repeatedly.” Meltzer charges that the Fed in the Great Recession has engaged in credit allocation and distorted credit markets, incurred an unprecedented volume of long-term assets, evaded the dual-term mandate, engaged in debt management, among other acts. In so doing, the Fed has done things “that are not the responsibility of a central bank.”

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Friday Roundup: December 14th

  • Debt and the Constitution” John Steele Gordon at The American: One of the president’s demands for avoiding the fiscal cliff is that Congress give him the power to raise the debt ceiling, subject only to a two-thirds vote in each house to override him.While it is hard to imagine Congress willingly surrendering so basic a power to the executive branch, I wonder under what authority it could do so. Congress and Congress alone is granted the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States” (Article I, Section 8). Can Congress delegate that power to the president and restrain its own ability to take the power back?
  • The Seen and the Unseen: Richard Rahn reports on the plight of Christine Jacobs, CEO of Theragenics, a medical device maker, that is, you guessed it, offshoring it before the medical device tax takes effect. Not content with going quietly Jacobs penned a letter to President Obama detailing her decision: “In our 30-year history we have treated over 200,000 men for prostate cancer, and we have been proud of our workforce and proud to have treated so many dads, brothers and husbands for cancer. As a public company we have fallen prey to the heavy burden of being public with increased expenses associated with [Sarbanes Oxley] and now Dodd Frank.” She also reminded the president that she had written to him back in 2009, when she stated, “We were paying about $8,000 per employee per year to be public and comply with the new Dodd Frank regulations. That money could be better spent on jobs and expansion.” Jacobs concludes, “Our 30-year-old company has done all our country has asked of it and has been punished. I am immensely sad at this writing.”
  • Fired up and ready to go: The 2013 Annual Federalist Society Student Symposium is March 1-2, 2013 in Austin, TX. The topic is “The Federal Leviathan: Is There Any Area of Modern Life to Which Federal Government Power Does Not Extend?” Discuss

New Liberty Law Talk with Brian Tamanaha, author of Failing Law Schools

Brian Tamanaha, author of the timely new book, Failing Law Schools, comes to Liberty Law Talk to talk about the numerous challenges to legal education in America. This podcast focuses on how legal education was shaped into an academic model, why change to that model is so difficult, the debt and career prospects of students, the rankings god of US News & World Report, and certain salutary measures that would adjust legal education to a model more suited to the changing economic landscape of the profession.

Friday Roundup, December 7th

  • The next Liberty Law Talk is with John Fabian Witt on Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.
  • Energy in the Executive: Don’t miss Jeremy Bailey’s review in this space of Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.