Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Free" Congressional Trips to Israel?

From the Christian Science Monitor:

The hidden cost of free congressional trips to Israel
By Former-Senator Jim Abourezk

SIOUX FALL, S.D. Democrats in Congress have moved quickly - and commendably - to strengthen ethics rules. But truly groundbreaking reform was prevented, in part, because of the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to preserve one of its most critical functions: taking members of Congress on free "educational" trips to Israel.

The pro-Israel lobby does most of its work without publicity. But every member of Congress and every would-be candidate for Congress comes to quickly understand a basic lesson. Money needed to run for office can come with great ease from supporters of Israel, provided that the candidate makes certain promises, in writing, to vote favorably on issues considered important to Israel. What drives much of congressional support for Israel is fear - fear that the pro-Israel lobby will either withhold campaign contributions or give money to one's opponent.

In my own experience as a US senator in the 1970s, I saw how the lobby tries to humiliate or embarrass members who do not toe the line.

Pro-Israel groups worked vigorously to ensure that the new reforms would allow them to keep hosting members of Congress on trips to Israel. According to the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, congressional filings show Israel as the top foreign destination for privately sponsored trips. Nearly 10 percent of overseas congressional trips taken between 2000 and 2005 were to Israel. Most are paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, a sister organization of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the major pro-Israel lobby group.

New rules require all trips to be pre-approved by the House Ethics Committee, but Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says this setup will guarantee that tours of Israel continue. Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported consensus among Jewish groups that "the new legislation would be an inconvenience, but wouldn't seriously hamper the trips to Israel that are considered a critical component of congressional support for Israel."

These trips are defended as "educational." In reality, as I know from my many colleagues in the House and Senate who participated in them, they offer Israeli propagandists an opportunity to expose members of Congress to only their side of the story. The Israeli narrative of how the nation was created, and Israeli justifications for its brutal policies omit important truths about the Israeli takeover and occupation of the Palestinian territories.

What the pro-Israel lobby reaps for its investment in these tours is congressional support for Israeli desires. For years, Israel has relied on billions of dollars in US taxpayer money. Shutting off this government funding would seriously impair Israel's harsh occupation.

One wonders what policies Congress might support toward Israel and the Palestinians absent the distorting influence of these Israel trips - or if more members toured Palestinian lands. America sent troops to Europe to prevent the killing of civilians in the former Yugoslavia. But when it comes to flagrant human rights violations committed by Israel, the US sends more money and shields Israel from criticism.

Congress regularly passes resolutions lauding Israel, even when its actions are deplorable, providing it political cover. Meanwhile, polls suggest most Americans want the Bush administration to steer a middle course in working for peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.

Consider, too, how the Israel lobby twists US foreign policy into a dangerous double standard regarding nuclear issues. The US rattles its sabers at Iran for its nuclear energy ambitions - and alleged pursuit of nuclear arms - while remaining silent about Israel's nuclear-weapons arsenal.

Members of Congress may not be aware just how damaging their automatic support for Israel is to America's interest. At a minimum, US policies toward Israel have cost it valuable allies in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.

If Congress is serious about ethics reform, it should not protect the Israel lobby from the consequences. A totally taxpayer-funded travel budget for members to take foreign fact-finding trips, with authorization to be made by committee heads, would be an important first step toward a foreign policy that genuinely serves America.

Jim Abourezk is a former Democratic senator from South Dakota and the vice chairman of the Council for the National Interest.

Friday, January 26, 2007

So-Called 'Conservatives' as Government Centralizers

I'm reading a very interesting but little known book by Edward Handler, America and Europe in the Political Thought of John Adams, Harvard UP, 1964. There are many interesting things about the book but what I want to emphasize here is how mistrustful of the unpropertied masses Adams was. Recall that Adams is nearly universally recognized by conservatives as their prime exemplar in American history, so we get a look at what the biases of 'conservatives' in America are.

While I see Joseph Ellis' book on Jefferson, American Sphinx, as an unfair hatchet job on our third president, reading Handler suggests that if one wanted to, which Handler does NOT, one could write a fairly critical and unempathic view of Adams quite easily. Adams used arguments in support of our war for independence which he later contradicted when opposing the French Revolution. But my primary point here is that Adams was so mistrustful of 'the great unwashed' that it is easy to see how he would have been a centralizer of government power. That he certainly was so is demonstrated by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts during his administration:
The Sedition Act says anyone "opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States" could be imprisoned for up to two years. It was also illegal to "write, print, utter, or publish" anything critical of the president or Congress.
Oh boy, would Cheney and Bush love that law. I think if you look at the types of political attitudes held by so-called American 'conservatives', whether it be Adams, Hamilton, William F. Buckley, or the 'neo-conservatives' of today, you will find them far more friendly to centralized government power than their rhetoric would like you to believe. They preach checks and balances and divided government, they profess reverence for our Constitution, but in practice their anti-democratic tendencies show in their readiness to support central authority and sacrifice civil liberties whenever they see fit.

What's the Matter With That al Maliki Guy Anyway?

I reprint here an interesting letter from Ed Peck, former U.S. Chief of Mission to Iraq.

A Simple Plan to Support Iraq's Prime Minister

Look, it's not really all that hard. If we are really serious about having Al Maliki, the Prime Minister of a democratically elected unity government, carry out his responsibilities, especially the ones we have publicly assigned him, let's give the guy a chance to demonstrate his problem-solving skills in an environment with challeges that are not only far less difficult but also far less dangerous to our interests. Oh... yeah, and his too.

What I propose is just a quick test, with visible benefits for all parties, that lets him show his stuff. Let's bring him over here, and turn him loose to: a) stamp out inner-city crime; b) settle the abortion issue to the complete satisfaction of all parties; c) win the war on drugs; d) end illegal immigration; e) eliminate corruption. Once those tasks are taken care of, and armed with the admiration and gratitude of the American people, plus the solid, no-longer tentative support of the current Administration, he can go home to Iraq - and fix it. (NB. "On the advice of the legal department, we announce that our Rule is no longer applicable in Iraq." - The Pottery Barn, Inc.)

Once back, with the augmented - No, wait, escalated... No, no... OK, got it, surged military presence required to insure that absolutely everyone, everywhere, understands that he is fully, totally, and completely in charge of every single aspect of goverance, the Prime Minister can address himself to resolving his country's issues.

We all know what he needs to do, and quickly: a) rebuild a totally destroyed infrastructure and the shattered economy it used to support; b) institute something resembling a universally accepted, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, cohesive and fully functional government; c) end sectarian violence; d) create large and effective police and military forces; e) institute total stability and security; f) induce forgiveness and, as necessary, memory loss in those who have suffered the most; and g) secure the blessings of liberty to himself and his posterity. Not necessarily in that order.

I estimate he will need a minimum of, say, eight to ten weeks, after which the entire secure and stable nation (Militias, Turkmen, Shia, Contractors, Sunni, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, Saabeans, Christians, Collaborators) will be sitting around multiple campfires, democratic to the core, drinking steaming mugs of cocoa, singing Kumbaya and waving as our forces ride off into the sunset.

Won't that be swell? Won't the world admire us, and respect all that we have accomplished? And won't the Iraqi survivors love us?

However, and it is certainly seems entirely possible that those in leadership positions in this country may already have given a great deal of thought to this, we will clearly have someone else to blame when it doesn't work, despite all the help and support we have given Al Maliki What a loser, and it is all, all his fault.

What have we done, and are not yet finished doing, to ourselves, to Iraqis, and to our regional as well as global interests? A catastrophe while we stay; a different catastrophe when we leave. And I sincerely hope I am all wrong.

Amb. Ed Peck

(Please excuse this effort to employ weak humor to underline the arrogant stupidity of what we are asking of a man in minimal charge of a broken non-country. When our CNI delegation ( met with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad last January, after observing the Palestinian elections in Gaza, he told us that American officials always demand that he stop, right now!, people crossing the border into Iraq. He said he replies by asking for the Border Patrol to come over and explain how they did it with Mexico, so he can apply the same successful approach. Heavy silence follows, as it should.)

Ambassador Edward L. Peck is former U.S. Chief of Mission to Iraq and participated in a CNI delegation to monitor the Palestinian elections and meet with regional leaders in January 2006. A video chronicling the trip, titled "Islam and Democracy," is available on

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Robert Nisbet on U.S. War Preparation

In The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, conservative American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote his opinions regarding why war and preparation for war have become such powerful influences on American government and on the American people (see my earlier post). He argued first that America's participation in World War I had a large impact upon us. However, when addressing why the defense budget and preparation for war loomed so large in the 1980's when he was writing he noted that the Cold War would not do as a complete explanation even though it was the explanation to which observers most often resorted. He wrote (for a book published in 1988) that there were two forces that "would surely continue to operate even if the Soviet Union were miraculously transformed into a vast religious convent [p. 24]." The first of these forces was the military-industrial complex against which Eisenhower warned us. This included a huge government defense bureaucracy and the "militarization of intellectuals" and "intellectualization of the military." The latter involved the universities which had become so addicted to the money flowing from defense expenditures and the " 'terror experts,' 'strategy analysts,' 'intelligence consultants,'" and others who manned institutes and think tanks and regularly appeared on TV. Nisbet wrote (pp. 28-9) quite presciently:
Even if there were no Soviet Union or its equivalent to justify our monstrous military establishment, there would be, in sum, the whole self-perpetuating military-industrial complex and the technological-scientific elite that Eisenhower warned us against. These have attained by now a mass and an internal dynamic capable of being their own justification for continued military spending.... Take away the Soviet Union as crucial justification, and, under Parkinson's Law, content of some kind will expand relentlessly to fill the time and space left.
This prediction proved true in just 5 years during which the Soviet Union did disappear and 'neo-conservatives' stepped forward to argue that the U.S. must take full advantage of this "unipolar moment" to make sure that no other power would be able to challenge the U.S. again. And, indeed, it was these 'neo-conservatives, the Krauthammers, Kristols, Feiths, Ledeens, et. al. who pushed us to spend yet more on the military and who provided the justification for invading Iraq.

The second force to which Nisbet referred was "the moralization of foreign policy" that began perhaps with Woodrow Wilson but continued up to today. Indeed, the so-called 'neo-conservatives' unite both forces in their rhetoric, they are huge cheerleaders for American military might and perhaps the most extreme moralizers of our foreign policy ever. It is these so-called 'neo-conservatives' who trumpet America's remarkable 'exceptionalism' and virtues and advocate using military might to bring 'democracy', 'freedom' and 'free market capitalism' to the rest of the benighted world. The majority of these individuals are also aggressively pro-Israeli and frequently pro-Zionist, and they support the far-right within Israel as well as in the U.S.

Here Nisbet merits the label 'conservative' because he breaks with pseudo-conservatives like William F. Buckley in noting the swelling of central government by the military and in maintaining some skepticism about "America the Virtuous." You cannot stand for small central government AND huge military budgets and an evangelical foreign policy, as people like Buckley and Reagan tried to do.

The Iran Drumbeat Continues

An organization I had never heard of before, the American Foreign Policy Council, has started showing 30 second TV ads trying to gin up fear and opposition to Iran. Running TV ads is a pretty expensive business. I wonder where a relatively obscure foreign policy 'think' tank gets the money to run TV ads??? I'd be willing to bet this money comes from the US government. If you go to the link provided above you'll see that these ads are mere propaganda pieces that the right has used to generate fear and hatred against perceived 'enemies.' Although these ads don't yet call for military action against Iran they are the prelude to such calls. Let us consider some facts about Iran that might be worth considering.

Since Iran is a very mountainous country, getting tied down trying to defeat them would be far more difficult than Iraq. Iran is approximately four times the size of Iraq. Iran’s population is 2.4 times the size of Iraq’s population. The advocacy of aerial military bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities would surely motivate Iran to try to seek revenge in whatever effective way it could and one possibility would be to interrupt its oil exports and send the price of oil high enough to trigger a worldwide recession. Iran could also become more actively involved in helping Iraqi insurgents to oppose us. It could also try to sabotage the Saudi oilfields which are just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

Wikipedia: “Iran is OPEC's second largest oil producer, as it exports between four and five million barrels of oil per day; moreover, it holds 10% of the world's confirmed oil reserves. Iran also has the world's second largest natural gas reserves (after Russia).”

In 2005 Iran exported 856,000 barrels of oil per day to Europe, 597,000 barrels per day to Japan, and 205,000 barrels per day to South Korea.

Iran is also a country with many people who have been educated in the U.S. and there are a very considerable number of Iranians who have a friendly attitude toward the U.S.

Although trying to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is a good idea, just as nuclear non-proliferation is a good idea, the Bush administration's deal to help India's nuclear program, to resrve our right to develop new nuclear weapons, to blink at Israel's nuclear weapons, etc., makes our hypocrisy quite clear to foreigners and makes it less likely we can successfully negotiate with Iran. But negotiate we should, and we will have to be willing to offer something of value to them if we wish to be successful.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thank You Congressman Jones!

WASHINGTON, DC – Today Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC) introduced H. J. Res. 14, a joint resolution concerning the use of force by the United States against Iran. The resolution requires that – absent a national emergency created by an attack, or a demonstrably imminent attack, by Iran upon the United States or its armed forces – the President must consult with Congress and receive specific authorization prior to initiating any use of military force against Iran.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Did the Framers Work to Avoid "Hypertrophy" of National Government?

I'm looking at yet another book by conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, based upon his 1988 Jefferson Lecture to the National Council of Humanities for which he was invited in the Reagan era by the then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Dr. Lynne V. Cheney (yes that Lynne Cheney--this gives an idea how the ideological right got such a foothold in the Reagan-Bush 12 years). In this book Nisbet is imagining what would most strike the Framers if they could see the America of today. His imagination leads him to guess they would be most struck by the "prominence of war in American life", "the Leviathan-like...national government", and how "loosely attached to groups" of kinship and community instead of by "the cash nexus."

This list gives an idea why I tend to see Nisbet as in many ways a genuine conservative but one whose analytic powers were blunted by his recognition by and association with modern right-wingers like Reagan and Lynne Cheney. His analysis is suggestive of the themes of a genuine conservatism but he fails to really draw the conclusions an authentic conservative like Peter Viereck would draw because he was too busy consciously or unconsciously protecting his modern sponsors. His mention of "the cash nexus" as the main glue of contemporary America should have led him to oppose someone like Reagan who absolutely glorified business and the search for profit, indeed, the 1980s were dubbed the era of 'greed'. A genuine Burkean conservative would have to be a thorough-going critic of America's devotion to revolutionary industrial capitalism which was the prime force that destroyed local face-to-face groups and made the 'cash nexus' one of the sole social connectors in modern America. If one is worried about the prominence of war in modern America who is more to blame than super-patriotic, hyper-nationalistic Ronald Reagan who devoted so much money to the 'defense' and 'security' establishment? And it is probably the growth of the power of 'defense' and 'security' that have contributed most to the growth of our "Leviathan-like" national government.

Here I want to stress just one point that Nisbet made which I think is flawed: in writing about the "hypertrophy" of our national government (p. xi) he said: "The Framers had worked most diligently to prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government." Having done a lot of reading lately about the Constitutional period this strikes me as a rather partial and inaccurate generalization. The very purpose of the Constitution was to create a more powerful federal government because of the disatisfaction of 'the Framers' with the perceived decentralization of the Articles of Confederation. Many, if not most, of the arguments at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were over just how strong and centralized the federal government would be. Recall that it was "Federalist" centralizers vs. "Anti-Federalist" decentralizers that marked the parties of that era and it was the "Federalist" centralizers, with a lot of help from 'republicans' like James Madison who won out. In Leonard D. White's The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History he wrote (pp. 13-4):
The event which was seldom absent from memory [in the minds of the Framers at the Constitutional Convention] was Shays' rebellion. The ruling consideration was not the revolutionary ardor of the 1770's but the sober necessity of order, commercial recovery, and fiscal rehabilitation.... A strong executive was attained in the Convention only by the hardest and most persistent fighting. At the outset Edmund Randolph had proposed an executive of three, in order to represent the major geographical divisions and to put the "remote parts" on an equal footing with the center.
As we know this proposal of a three person executive was defeated because the Federalists believed that conflicts and animosities between the three would make for too much conflict and result in inaction. James Wilson "preferred a single magistrate, as giving most energy, despatch, and responsibility to the office [White, p. 14]." Roger Sherman of Connecticut argued (p. 14) "An independence of the executive on the supreme legislature was, in his opinion, the very essence of tyrrany...."

In other words, many at the Constitutional Convention argued against a single executive who would be too independent of the legislature because they feared that would lead to "hypertrophy" of central power and to "tyranny". The power and relative independence and "energy" with which the President might act were precisely the issues fought over at the Constitutional Convention and, as we know, the relatively more centralizing views of the "Federalists" prevailed. This history, it seems to me, cannot support Nisbet's careless generalization that: "The Framers had worked most diligently to prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government." If they had been diligent about hypertrophy they would have kept the Articles of Confederation or at most amended them (which is actually what the Convention's original instructions requested; they decided themselves to write a whole new Constitution). Or they could have accepted some of the many suggestions made at the Convention which would have weakened the executive and truly tried to "prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government."

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Limited Liability Law, Corporations, and Moral Hazard

David Moss in When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager points out (pp. 67-8) that opponents of a Massachusetts limited liability law explicitly made the moral hazard argument:
Another common counterargument was the traditional one: that limitations on liability would encourage reckless behavior. This represented an early articualtion of the moral hazard principle, though the term itself was not used. "Men who are restrained only by the limits of their capital stock," Representative Sturgis maintained, "do not and cannot feel under the apprehension of those who are restrained, each one by his own personal jeopardy,to the amount of all his means: to the extent of his very livelihood.... Your best security always is in the apprehension of your debtor."
Nonetheless, when it came to removing all obstacles to passive investment in corporations, the fear of the moral hazard of irresponsible corporate managers did not carry the day. In 1830 Massachussetts passed a limited liability law.

Moss indirectly also points up a moral hazard of allowing corporations with unlimited liability. When the creditors of corporations could count on all investors to be responsible for the corporation's debt they were thereby encouraged to provide easy credit (p. 66):
the effect was to make credit abundantly available to corporate managers, allowing (and even encouraging) them to borrow recklessly and engage in wild speculation. This is precisely the opposite of what had been argued in 1809, when lawmakers figured that unlimited liability would help to rein in reckless investing.
In 1809 legislators were counting upon corporate investors with unlimited liability to rein in recklessness of borrowing by corporate managers. However, I suspect that Moss' point (p. 64) that "passive investors were largely at the mercy of the corporate directors who managed their companies" was probably most accurate even in ca. 1800. Corporate managers had much control and if creditors--because of unlimited liability--were enticing them with easy borrowing, this was a moral hazard created by the nature of the corporation itself. This situation could have been an argument against corporations.

However, the proponents of a limited liability law used the recklessness of borrowing under unlimited liability as an argument for corporations with limited liability. But corporations with limited liability also were subject to the moral hazard of irresponsible managers. Limited liability might have made creditors more cautious but corporate managers primarily responsible to passive investors still had incentives to be reckless with other people's money. In fact, if limited liability applied to corporate manager-investors it is conceivable there was more manager moral hazard with limited liability than unlimited. With unlimited liability creditors would have an incentive to tempt corporate managers, but managers themselves, with unlimited liability, would also have an incentive to resist temptation.

Another Twist of Public Argument

Another example of an argument used opportunistically to support the passage of limited liability law for corporate investors is cited by David Moss on p. 65 of When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager.
Naturally, proponents of limited liability offered a variety of other arguments as well. One of the reformers' favorites was that unlimited liability was undemocratic, giving wealthy citizens a substantial advantage in gaining access to capital.
Hmmmmm. So the 'democratic' principle is that 'wealthy citizens' should not have 'substantial advantage'? I guess this 'democratic' principle only applies where certain advocates decide it applies.

One More Point About Hypocrisy Regarding 'Moral Hazard'

I have often been impressed with how arguments can be creatively twisted in public debate and in courts of law to support almost any outlandish position. In my last post I noted how first state governments passed legislation enabling corporations thus making it possible to collect the money of many passive investors and place it in the hands of corporate directors, and then these state governments passed limited liability legislation protecting investors from responsibility for corporate debts above the limit of their personal investment. I noted how both the allowance of corporations and limited liability law created their own 'moral hazards.'

It is interesting to note that when Massachussets was debating whether to pass limited liability legislation the then Governor, an advocate of limited liability, used the following argument (David Moss, When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager, 2002, p. 64):
"It is not reasonably to be expected," Governor [Levi] Lincoln had observed in 1825, "that prudent men, except under particular circumstances of personal confidence in their associates, should be ready to incur even the possible risk of utter ruin, for the chance of profit, in the joint stock of a manufacturing concern."
In other words, the Governor was arguing that since investors in joint stock corporations were only passive investors, they required the guarantee of limited liability to be encouraged to invest where they had no opportunity for 'personal confidence in their associates' because the corporate directors were likely not personal associates.

So first the state of Massachussets passes legislation enabling corporations thereby creating a class of passive investors and creating the moral hazard of directors risking other people's money; and then, arguing that this newly created class of passive investors would not be sufficiently motivated to invest unless the state limited their liability as well, created yet additional moral hazards both for corporate directors and passive investors. Instead of arguing that perhaps the state shouldn't have enabled corporations and passive investors in the first place, the Governor parlays the original bet on corporations into the perceived necessity to limit the liability of passive investors in order to provide them sufficient motivation to invest.

To me this is a fascinating use of argument. Instead of considering the hypothesized reluctance of passive investors to risk their money in joint stock companies as perhaps a reasonable hesitancy of 'prudent men', or considering this reluctance as a possible indication that joint stock companies may have been a flawed idea, Governor Lincoln argued that this reluctance to "incur even the possible risk of utter ruin" must itself be swept away by limiting the liability of passive investors and actively encouraging them to risk their capital in joint stock companies.

If one is convinced that corporations and passive investors and limited liability are essential prods to economic growth I guess the Governor's argument makes sense. But there is an interesting lack of concern about moral hazard when it is argued that initial moral hazards were not enough and now we are required to create yet additional moral hazards to encourage both corporate directors and passive investors to take risks they might not normally be willing to take. In this phase of American history government is aggressively intervening in the economy to encourage risk taking. Later it will be argued that workers must take total responsibility for themselves and any even imagined possibility of certain types of risk taking on their part must be severely discouraged.

American Hypocrisy About Government 'Meddling'

In David Moss' When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager it is clearly laid out how much help state and federal governments provided for business and manufacturing in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s: governments provided loans, allowed businesses to raise money through lotteries, provided cash awards for high quality textile products, passed laws enabling incorporation allowing companies to raise money from many passive investors, and passed laws allowing investors to assume only limited liability if the company failed to pay its debts.

Again, many people thought these aids were a good idea and if you do too that is fine. They probably were a good idea. But if government intervention was 'good' when it was helping businessmen to accumulate the fabulous wealth and power they did in the 19th and 20th centuries, why did it become 'bad' when governments turned to help workers and consumers in the late 19th and 20th centuries? I believe it is because having accumulated the vast wealth and power businesspeople had, they then used this to actively promote an ideology protecting their privileges and power. Since many attempts to help workers and consumers would cost businesses somewhat more, and since regulations inhibited the freedom of business to do what it pleased, businesspeople and their many allies within universities, the press, the legal profession, among politicians, et. al. aggresively promoted the laissez faire philosophy that said it was very bad for the government to 'meddle' in the economy.

It had been great for government to do all those things to help business but that was long ago and few remembered or reminded us about all that government had done. After the industrial revolution had completely changed the face of American society creating a huge working class and huge cites where before an agricultural society had existed, now it was bad for government to 'meddle' by passing child labor laws, legislating to protect women workers, passing laws for workers compensation for on the job injuries, etc.

And one of the major arguments used by opponents of legislation to aid workers was that such laws would create 'moral hazard.' If we passed legislation protecting workers against on the job injuries then workers would be encouraged to be more careless and would be discouraged from saving for their own security. Horrors! However, earlier legislation allowing businesses to incorporate and attract many passive investors and limiting the liability of these passive investors--this legislation won the day. Yet, a momemt's thought suggests that allowing corporations and limiting the liability of investors obviously created its own 'moral hazards.' Allowing corporate directors to raise large amounts of money from passive investors would encourage corporate directors to be more careless with Other People's Money than they would have been with only their own at risk. As David Moss wrote (p. 64):
With little or no control over the day-to-day affairs of their corporations, passive investors were largely at the mercy of the corporate directors who managed their companies.
This limited responsibility of corporate directors would encourage irresponsibility or 'moral hazard.' The passage of limited liability laws protecting investors from responsibility for corporate debts also would create moral hazards: such laws protected the director-investors too, thus encouraging them to take more risk with their limited responsibility, and these laws would encourage investors to be less careful with their investment dollars because their corporate debt responsibilities were limited. But, somehow all these pro-business 'moral hazards' that seemed to have worked out well for economic growth were forgotten. When it came to protecting workers and consumers imagined 'moral hazards' were conjured up to oppose and defeat such legislation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Very Important New Article by Richard Falk

In the first number of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies there is a must-read article by Richard Falk on the Bush administration/neo-con/Israeli strategy to dominate the entire Middle East. (You can get a free PDF copy of the article by registering.) This is one of the best articles I've read because it ties together the neo-con, pro-Israeli right's plans--by emphasizing the 1996 Clean Break document as well as the Project for the New American Century document of 2000--with the Bush administration's war in Iraq and current threats toward Iran and Syria.

There REALLY is a plan by extremist neo-cons who are rabidly pro-Israeli (not just pro-Israel but aggressively supportive of the most expansionist right-wing Likud agenda) to see the US and Israel dominate the Middle East and get rid of any Middle Eastern governments of which they disapprove. As Falk points out the Iraq War was to be merely the first step in this strategy. Falk writes that even though the Iraq War has gone catastrophically these people have not at all given up and the Israeli attack upon Lebanon last summer was another step in this strategy which now turns to trying to drum up support for some kind of attack upon Iran. I suspect that the saber rattling of the Bush administration toward Iran in the last few days shows that they are trying to set the stage for either an American attack upon Iran--justified as part of 'hot pursuit' of alleged Iranians across the Iraqi-Iranian border--or an Israeli attack upon Iran's nuclear plants. As Falk writes:
But rather than abandon geopolitical ambitions, it appears from recent developments that Israel is testing the waters for an all-out regional war, with strong encouragement by the US government taking a variety of overt forms: a public build-up of deployed air strike forces backed by war plans for the destruction of up to 10,000 targets in Iran (See Plesch 2006); unconditional diplomatic support for Israel’s responses, including blocking for several weeks in the UN Security Council and elsewhere widely favoured calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon; and the undisguised provision to Israel in the midst of the war of large quantities of aviation fuel and a rushed shipment of additional bombs.
This, unfortunately, is an EXTREMELY SERIOUS matter to which too few Americans are paying attention. Given what I know about the extremism of Bush and Cheney and their extremist pseudo-conservative advisors I believe there is a very significant chance that Bush/Cheney will either do something to initiate war with Iran or support the Israelis in attacking Iran. As Falk says, this risks the chance of a regional Middle Eastern war which could have devastating consequences domestically (oil prices and our whole economy) and internationally.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Funny Bumper Stickers

Here are some ideas for funny bumper stickers someone sent me:

Impeachment: It's Not Just for Blowjobs Anymore

The Republican Party: Our Bridge to the 11th Century

If You Can Read This, You're Not Our President

America: One Nation, Under Surveillance

That's OK; I Wasn't Using My Civil Liberties Anyway

They Call Him "W" So He Can Spell It

Jail to the Chief

We Need a President Who's Fluent in at Least One Language

We're Making Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them

At Least Nixon Resigned

1/20/09: End of an Error

Let's Fix Democracy in This Country First

Great American Myths

What I think of as the American Ideology is based upon some remarkable myths that live on and on though careful examination of our history demonstrates their utter falsity. One of the most central of these myths is that our history and success is based primarily upon 'rugged individualism.' Now don't get me wrong, America is a relatively individualistic country; but this individualism was much more in evidence when Tocqueville made his famous visit to America in the 1830s. This visit was largely before the primary effects of the Industrial Revolution had taken place. In the 1830s there were only the beginnings of manufacturing enterprises and railroads were in their infancy.

Moreover, our individualism was made possible by unique circumstances. We were inhabiting a large and abundantly rich continent whose prior inhabitants were no match for our technology and would in due time be killed or penned up on reservations largely of our choosing. (What happened to the Native Americans is what is currently happening to the Palestinians; if the Israelis are successful, as they have been so far, eventually the remaining Palestinians will be penned up in enclaves largely of the Israelis choosing.) Happening to have settled a very rich and extensive territory with only a small number of people Americans had the luxury of being individualists; there was enough territory so that most families could have their own plot of land to build a home and raise food for at least their own needs. In feudal Europe there was an already existent division of land and tenure that was very difficult to displace; not so in relatively virgin American territory.

But even given these unique circumstances facilitating individualism in America, it wasn't long before our government started to institute policies which replaced a relatively pure individualism with corporate forms. As David Moss wrote (p. viii) in When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager "deep government involvement in the management of private sector risks is nothing new in the United States, despite the nation's reputed commitment to laissez-faire." Or (p. 2): "Even in a country well known for its hostility to government, policymakers have emerged as aggressive risk managers. The purpose of this book is to explain both how and why this has come to be." Indeed, Moss continued (p. 3):
A close look at American history reveals that state and federal policymakers had been [providing insurance against certain economic risks]... at least since the dawn of the Republic. Yet most accounts in the popular press foster the opposite impression--that government 'meddling' with private sector risks is of recent vintage. Articles on the subject often hark back to some earlier time, when America was full of vigor and individualist spirit and when every citizen faced his own risks with a sense of stoic independence and pride. But such a time never really existed.
Let us just take one very important example which demonstrates very clearly that the American Ideology's myth of individualist free enterprise is thoroughly misleading: the legislative creation of public corporations and the passage of limited liability laws to protect passive investors.

The corporation itself, as Chief Justice John Marshall described it (Moss, p. 57) is "an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law." There are 'natural' individuals like you and me; we are naturally occurring beings that it took no legislature to create. 'Individualism' refers to us naturally occurring persons. And business originally was conducted by natural individuals, who owned and managed their own businesses and farms. Even the partnership involved active owner-investors who ran their own businesses. But then the state stepped in and created the corporation which made it possible for there to be passive investors, people who invested capital in a business but were not active managers. Thus, the very creation of the corporation itself, was the result of government supporting through legislation the accumulation of large scale capital for manufacturing enterprise. (Note also that creation of passive investors and corporations contributed to the loss of local, face-to-face community that conservative writers like Robert Nisbet deplore. When business was local and owned and operated by an active investor-owner you were more likely to conduct business and have a relationship with that owner. With the growth of corporations and passive investors more social 'distance' is created between the consumer and the business owner.)

I am not here addressing whether this was a good idea or not; my point is that in the very early history of America government was actively and positively supporting economic enterprise and pushing it away from the true individualism of natural persons who owned and managed their own businesses and farms, toward artificial and corporate forms. This is just as much government 'intervention' in the economy as today's interventions; the difference is that when government 'intervenes' to aid business there are fewer complaints; however, when government 'intervenes' to help naturally occurring individuals with workers compensation, unemployment, old age insurance, or health insurance--then the cries of those who have benefitted so greatly from previous government 'intervention' are heard complaining of government 'meddling', 'moral hazard', and the loss of our 'rugged individualism.'

But having created the corporation through legislative intervention in the economy, this was not enough. Apparently passive investors in corporations who could be sued for any and all debts the corporation incurred was too much of a risk for these rugged individual passive investors to be expected to take. Thus, legislatures passed limited liability laws protecting passive investors against any greater losses than the extent of their personal investment. This shifted risk from the passive investors in corporations to the creditors of these corporations; with such limited liability protections apparently more investors were willing to provide capital to corporate manufacturing enterprises facilitating the use of Other People's Money and the accumulation of capital available to corporate managers.

Again, whether you think this was the greatest thing since sliced bread--as many in America indeed did--or not, is NOT the point of this discussion. The passage of limited liability laws was quite clearly government 'intervention' in the economy just as much as is legislation passed today that would place limits upon corporate power. The difference is that today's corporations were provided these legislative advantages as much as 150-200 years ago and have had this time to grow rich and fat and develop armies of mercenaries who will now come to their aid when any contemporary threat to their government-provided privileges is mounted; indeed, the business class has one whole political party, the Republican Party, devoted almost entirely to defending its privileges. (Yes, the Democrats also are pro-business but of the two parties the Democrats are by far the more likely to try to take small steps to level the playing field by supporting the interests of ordinary working people as well as those of the business class. Besides, I am not anti-business, I am anti-special privileges and power that enable one sector of the society to confuse, obfuscate and dominate other sectors of society.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Why Is 'Moral Hazard' a Problem for the Less Privileged But Not for the More Privileged?

The concept of "moral hazard" is an interesting one; one definition is "if you cushion the consequences of bad behaior, then you encourage that bad behavior (see On the Genealogy of Moral Hazard, Tom Baker, Texas Law Review, December 1996, 75 Tex, L. Rev. 237)." This was a concern with business fire insurance in the 19th century because the latter might increase the likelihood of arson by an unscrupulous businessman. I'm not entirely sure why this isn't an argument against all insurance; if the insurer takes on a good deal of the risk of loss wouldn't the moral hazard argument suggest that the insured would have less incentive to protect against loss? Insurance could be considered a relative of socialism in that it replaces individual responsibility with social responsibility. Of course insurance began with the more privileged classes; merchants wanted to protect themselves against being wiped out by loss of a shipment so they devised methods of sharing risk. When the gentry does it it's not a problem.

Former-Congressman Dick Armey was fond of saying, "social responsibility is a euphemism for individual irresponsibility." This implies that insurance encourages individual irresponsibility as do limited liability legislation, business bankruptcy legislation, etc. However, demagogues like Armey don't attack the latter, they save their venom for legislation that would protect less privileged individuals against risk.

In an interesting book called When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager David Moss describes how it was a terrific idea to protect business from risk in the United States in the 19th century by the use of limited liability legislation for corporations, controls on the issuance of bank notes, bankruptcy legislation to give businessmen a 'fresh start', etc. However, when we get to the beginning of the 20th century and there is a movement for workmen's compensation legislation, or social insurance to protect workers against unemployment and provide for old age, now come the privileged classes and their hired guns screaming that such protections would create 'moral hazard', workers will be motivated to take less care in the workplace, be less motivated to find work, and be less motivated to save for their own retirement.

And we still hear the same worn arguments to this day. If government is called on to help bail out the savings and loans at taxpayers expense that's necessary, however, if government could solve the healthcare insurance mess this would lead to moral hazard and people either using too much health care or not taking good enough care of their health.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Robert Nisbet's Conservatism

American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-96) wrote a book entitled Conservatism: Dream and Reality, which was published in 1986. Nisbet was a widely read, erudite fellow and the book adds some things to other writings on conservatism, at least it articulates some conservative principles in a fresh manner. However, there are several things that bother me about the book. One of these is Nisbet's giving far more words to criticism of the French Revolution than he does to the Industrial Revolution. On p. 64 Nisbet wrote:
Yet another aspect of the conservative philosophy of property in modern history is found in the frequent criticisms of capitalism, together with its industrialism, commerce, and technology, by conservatives. As I have stressed above, conservativism is almost as much a response to the industrial as the democratic revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
I have several problems with this statement: 1) my reading suggests that it is not true that his emphasis has been almost as much on the industrial revolution; as I read him criticism of the French Revolution gets far more attention and always is mentioned first, while the critique of capitalism and industrialism appears as second and something tacked on after fulsome criticism of the French Revolution; and, 2) this "democratic revolution at the end of the eighteenth century" must, in large part be a a reference to the French Revolution and it is at least questionable whether that Revolution was primarily 'democratic' as it had significant elitist elements. In general, I think Nisbet and other conservatives use 'democratic' somewhat loosely. He certainly approves of the republican, representaive system articulated in the U.S. Constitution which was certainly democratic in some sense even if not absolutely so.

His secondary emphasis on the Industrial Revolution and capitalism is important because it seems to me likely that these forces have had far more profound influence upon the modern world than the French Revolution. Certainly this is utterly true of the United States; the U.S. Constitution and federal government were already in place when the French Revolution occurred and although the latter was a topic of heated debate in the U.S. it had minimal influence upon U.S. institutions. However, the only true social revolution the U.S. has undergone is the Industrial Revolution. I believe American 'conservatives' like Nisbet are less consistent in the application of conservative principles to the Industrial Revolution because that would be a bit too non-conformist in the USA. The American Ideology pretty much holds capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in the highest regard for their contribution to American consumer abundance. Nonetheless, I believe it is inconsistent and timid to hold certain principles and yet soft pedal their application where it is politically inconvenient.

Nisbet makes it clear that the revolutionary social change, the destruction of local groups and authority and 'massification' of modern urban capitalist life, the crass materialism, and the individualism of American industrial capitalism are thoroughly repugnant to a genuine conservative philosophy; yet glorification and protection of American industrial capitalism are a major tenet in the pseudo-conservatism of William F. Buckley, et. al. from the the 1950s until today. Under the pressures of political ambition and will to power, actual conservative principles have been jettisoned by American pseudo-conservatives.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Militant Pseudo-Conservatives and Israel Are Leading Us Toward Armageddon

Many opined that after the fall of Rumsfeld and the Democratic Party sweep in the last election that so-called 'neo-conservatives' had been defeated. If you believe that you are endangering yourself and your loved ones. 'Neo-con' and American Enterprise Institute staffer Frederick Kagan is the author of the 'new' troop buildup plan Pres. Bush announced last night. Bush is still thoroughly influenced by and agrees with these American Enterprise Institute extremists.

The London Times revealed Sunday that Israel is planning to carry out an attack upon Iran's nuclear sites with the first nuclear weapons to be used since 1945. The world's craziest right-wingers are still in the saddle. The U.S.'s blind, knee-jerk support for almost anything Israel wants to do in combination with the radically pro-Israel 'neo-conservatives' in this country appear to me to be dragging the world toward confrontations in the Middle East with extreme and unpredictable consequences. This is the path that led us into Iraq: wild, extremist actions, without any plan or apparent concern about what the consequences will be are the modus operandi of these right-wing extremists. We may be treated to an 'experiment' in which we get to see what happens when Israel uses nuclear weapons against a muslim country. The crazy, extremist right is the best recruiting agency the Muslim extremists ever had.

In my original post I pointed out how irresponsible William Kristol was re Iran:
Claiming that Hezbollah, a group supported by Iran but with its own extensive political and social base among the 40% Shia population in Lebanon, is identical with Iran, Kristol suggested that either the United States or Israel “consider countering this act of Iranian (sic) aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? ... Yes, there would be repercussions—and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.”
William Kristol and his pseudo-conservative ilk are not one iota less crazy than the most extreme ravings of the French Revolution's Jacobins.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How Did the US Lose "Community"?

In recent posts I've pointed out the central value that genuine conservatives place upon local, face-to-face, decentralized groups: family, school, church, local government, etc. These are what make up a true sense of "community." Robert Nisbet (1913-96) was an American sociologist and conservative who was invited by President Reagan to give a prestigious lecture in the late 1980s as recognition of his conservative contribution. I haven't read enough Nisbet yet to determine if I'd categorize him as a genuine conservative or pseudo-conservative but I'll be reading more soon. Probably his most famous book was published in 1953 as The Quest for Community which he later republished as Community and Power (1962, Oxford UP). As I said in a previous post:
Usually such analyses [of the loss of face-to-face community] (see Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, first published in 1953) have emphasized the state as sucking up the powers of localities and creating the mass society. I suspect this is because in America it is relatively rare to read mainstream academics who are willing to criticize American industrialization leading to huge centralized corporations as a primary factor in creating atomized ‘mass’ individuals whose primary function is to consume in a self-indulgent fashion.
Let's examine what it was in American life that led to the loss of face-to-face community? In 1957 American historian Samuel P. Hays published a rather popular book entitled The Response to Industrialism: 1885-1914. This is an excellent look at this period. Hays' (pp. 1-2) opening paragraphs stated:
The history of modern America is, above all, a story of the impact of industrialism on every phase of human life. It is difficult for us today fully to imagine the implications of this change, for we did not know an earlier America firsthand.... Looking backward scarcely more than forty or fifty years, [the American of 1914] fully recognized that his country had changed rapidly and fundamentally.... Seldom, if ever, in American history had so much been altered within the lifetime of a single man.... Formerly, perhaps, he had resided in the intimate surroundings of his town or rural community. If he remained there in 1914, he had encountered with some fear the expansion into the countryside of a new urban culture that threatened the familiar order with strange, even dangerous, ides. Or moving to Chicago, one of the nation's rapidly growing urban centers, he had experienced the indifference of city people toward each other, which contrasted sharply with the atmosphere of the small community from which he had come.... If he had been especially sensitive to personal values, he would have looked with horror upon the way in which the impersonal forces of industrialism seemed to place one at the mercy of influences far beyond one's control. In such an atmosphere how could personal character count for anything; how could anyone exercise personal responsibility?
And these are from the first two paragraphs of a 193 page book. I find it difficult to understand how writers like Nisbet can blame the centralized government for the atomization of local communities into mass urban societies where local authority based upon small face-to-face groups has been lost. Industrialization in the 19th century created a 'social revolution' possibly comparable at least in part to the French Revolution. However, since our social values are so partial to business, economic progress and industrialization, I think some writers pass over this because it would seem to attack the very foundations of American values; rather it is so much easier to blame it on the central government because anti-government feeling is almost equal to pro-business feeling in the American ideology.

I am NOT saying that we ought to roll back the clock to a pre-industrial age or any such thing. My point is a descriptive one: if we are trying to understand the breakdown of local 'autonomous' social groups and the trading of local community and local authority for modern atomized 'mass society' then let's be accurate about what the primary cause was; it was industrialization.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Examining Genuine American Conservatism

In my continuing attempt to define conservatism and to clarify what 'conservatism' means in an American context I am currently re-reading Clinton Rossiter's Conservatism in America (Second Edition Revised, 1962). This is a wise and important book that deserves more attention 45 years after this Second Edition appeared.

But let me remind why this whole definitional project is necessary. If one goes back to my first post, Why Pseudo-Conservatives are not "Conservative", you can see that it is essential that I carefully define what 'conservative' actually means. This is necessary preparatory to showing that most of those Americans usually referred to today as "conservatives" or "neo-conservatives" are in fact not 'conservative' at all but are radicals pressing programs of extreme change in American life which, if they continue to be successful, will probably lead to the decline and fall of what has been admirable in American life and values. To a large extent this is the brunt of Claes Ryn's identification of "the New Jacobins" in his America the Virtuous.

Let me briefly sketch some of Clinton Rossiter's main points. First, he distinguished "Conservatism" with a capital 'C' from small 'c' conservatism, and he did so for an excellent reason. Conservatism (capital 'C') is the tradition of socio-political philosophy going back to Edmund Burke (1729-97). Rossiter rightly claims that since America was founded upon a basically 'liberal' tradition that emphasized, reason, progress, individualism, democracy, liberty and equality, and since nearly all Americans subscribe to this basically 'liberal' philosophy, that Burkean Conservatism is not prominent in America's primary traditions. Remember that Burke's founding of Conservatism was a reaction to the first truly social revolution in modern history, the French Revolution. The French Revolution was a truly social revolution because it aimed at society-wide overthrow of most of the foundations of France up to that time: it aimed to overthrow the monarchy as a system of government and replace it with a republican form of government, it aimed to overthrow the higher social orders of nobility and priesthood as privileged rulers of society, with the priesthood it aimed to overthrow the existence of an Established religion and replace it with Reason as religion, and it aimed to overthrow what remained of a feudal economy with one based more on freedom of enterprise (see William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, Second Edition, 1988).

In comparison to the great French social revolution against which Burke inveighed, the so-called "American Revolution" is really more appropriately labeled a War for Independence; it was certainly not a social revolution. Perhaps this is why Burke was relatively sympathetic to American colonial complaints. After the War for Independence America was socially, politically, and legally nearly identical with what it had been prior to that War. Thus, America was founded upon English constitutional liberalism and, since it never had a feudal nobility, a local monarchy or an established religion, it never needed a social revolution; it has been based upon a liberal philosophy from its inception.

So American conservatism must always be seen as existing within this essentially liberal tradition. That is why I quoted Peter Viereck in a prior post so prominently: :
…romanticizing conservatives refuse to face up to the old and solid historical roots of most or much American liberalism…. In contrast, a genuinely rooted, history-minded conservative conserves the roots that are really there, exactly as Burke did…. American history is based on the resemblance between moderate liberalism and moderate conservatism…. The Burkean builds on the concrete existing historical base, not on a vacuum of abstract wishful thinking. When, as in America, that concrete base includes British liberalism of the 1680’s and New Deal reforms of the 1930’s, then the real American conserver assimilates into conservatism whatever he finds lasting and good in liberalism and in the New Deal…. [I]n America it is often the free trade unions who unconsciously are our ablest representatives of the word they hate and misunderstand: conservatism. The organic unity they restore to the atomized ‘proletariat’ is… providential…. So we come full circle in America’s political paradox; our conservatism, in the absence of medieval feudal relics, must grudgingly admit it has little real tradition to conserve except that of liberalism—which then turns out to be a relatively conservative liberalism.(last emphasis added)
Point: Rossiter, like Viereck, shows that American small 'c' conservatism has to be seen as based within an essentially liberal tradition and thus won't be precisely the same as Burkean capital 'C' Conservatism. Indeed, as Rossiter wrote on p. 96:
even in [America's] most conservative moments, when we most want to be at rest, we come to rest on a tradition--the famous Liberal tradition--that speaks out loud and clear in the language of liberty and equality, democracy and progress, adventure and opportunity. This is the reason that no one, neither the foreign observer nor the American himself, will ever quite understand what the American says and does. The American, like his tradition, is deeply liberal, deeply conservative. If this is a paradox, so, too, is America.
However, Rossiter made a point that I believe is fundamental to understanding a force within the American experience that really does come closest to meriting the label "revolutionary": the force set free by American capitalism in the latter part of the 19th century, the force of the Industrial Revolution. Although it is frequently a subordinate point in Rossiter's book, he nonetheless notes that the Industrial Revolution was probably the major revolutionary force in American history (at least, I would argue, until the 20th century). Rossiter (p. 16), when recounting "important events for the rise of conscious conservatism" mentions the French Revolution and Burke's critique of it and then adds "the Industrial Revolution, which made change rather than stability the essential style of the social process...." On pages 94-6 Rossiter enlarges on the significance of the American Industrial Revolution in a passage I consider extremely important and which I here quote at length:
we must... [make] the distinction between change, a transformation of values or institutions in which government plays no direct part, and reform, a transformation... through the conscious use of political authority. Industrialization, which puts children to work in factories, is change; child-labor legislation, which takes them out again, is reform. When men build railroads or invent assembly lines or convert atomic energy into power, thus transforming the lives of millions of people, that is change. When other men pass laws to regulate railroads or raise wages of men on assembly lines or license producers of atomic power, that is reform. Now, if we look again at our history, we find that many of our so-called conservatives, the "wise and good and rich" on the American Right, were in an important sense not conservatives at all. While they could always be counted on to oppose reform, they were casual or at best ambivalent about change. In point of fact, they had an immense stake in social change--specifically, in the transformation of this country from a predominantly agrarian-rural to a predominantly industrial-urban society.... [T]hey worked vast changes in every part of our system. They were, indeed, among the most marvelous agents of social and moral change the world has ever known, and it does them something less than historical justice to classify them simply as conservatives.

The liberals, on the other hand--the great progressives like Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan, La Follette and Wilson--were deeply troubled by the restless, untamed surge toward the Hamiltonian dream of busy factories and bustling cities. Each of these men, in his own generation, saw the order he knew and loved being weakened by the rapid advances of invention and technology. And each, in his own way, looked to reform to chasten change and mitigate its worst effects....

After the Civil War, when at last it became apparent to both sides that government was alone equal to the challenge of change, the progressives shifted their attitude toward political authority from hostility to sympathy, while the men of the Right, who were willing to use government to their own ends but not to see others use it against them, moved into a posture of determined opposition to reform. The paradoxes in the American experience had come to full flower: the agents of change were opposed to reform, the opponents of change committed to it. Small wonder that words like liberalism and conservatism lost much of their meaning for Americans, especially since both sides in the struggle were now arguing in the language of full-blooded Liberalism.
What Rossiter came close to saying here is that it is persons known as 'liberals' and 'progressives' who have been most concerned to 'conserve' the values they saw in American society at its founding and before industrilization and urbanization so profoundly changed it.

Let me just add a note to clarify what I meant above when I said that the Industrial Revolution was the most socially mutative force "at least, I would argue, until the 20th century." I suspect that there have been two forces in American history that have wrought changes coming closest to meriting the term 'revolutionary', the Industrial Revolution that began in the 19th century and the rise of American imperialism that began shortly before the end of the 19th century (see Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow). It is precisely the present-day pseudo-conservative's knee-jerk allegiance to protecting the power of those who run and benefit from huge corporations made possible by the Industraial Revolution and this same pseudo-conservative's thoroughly unbalanced and belligerent support for contemporary American imperialism and world domination that makes the pseudo-conservative the most powerful voice for extremism and radical change on the contemporary American scene. "Conservative" indeed!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Another Set of Conservative Principles

While I'm trying to define the basic principles of genuine conservatism here is an attempt to do something similar by one of the most famous of the New Conservatives of the 1950s, Russell Kirk; click here for his "Ten Conservative Principles."

While I don't have much problem with his ten conservative principles I do believe Kirk took positions, under the influence of Goldwater, Buckley and others, that were contradictory to a genuine commitment to his abstract principles. For example, Kirk says nothing here about what has been justified in the name of American nationalism, 'defense' and 'security.' But many of the things advocated by pseudo-conservatives would significantly conflict with at least these Kirkian principles:
the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
As Claes Ryn demonstrates repeatedly in America the Virtuous, there are no apparent restraints upon the nationalistic passions of most of today's so-called 'conservatives'. And 'involuntary collectivism' is enforced by the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and attacks upon the 'patriotism' of any who disagree with the increasingly dictatorial George W. Bush administration.

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 4

I think there is at least one more basic principle of conservatism that I left out in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3: this involves a distrust of 'direct' or 'plebiscitary' democracy. Ryn, in America the Virtuous (p. 50-1), wrote, "Plebiscitary democracy aspires to rule according to the popular majority of the moment.... The American Framers... had a very low opinion of what they called 'democracy' or 'pure democracy.' They associated it with demagoguery, rabble-rousing, opportunism, ignorance, and general irresposibility.... While envisioning broad popular participation in politics, they sought to shield most of those charged with making decisions from the momentary popular will."

This mistrust of direct democracy may be in part a corollary of the first principle mentioned: since humans are subject to base motives it would be dangerous to trust too much in direct democratic decisions that were not sifted through a system of representation, division of powers, and checks and balances; the latter would increase the liklihood that prudence and moderation would prevail. Again, a problematic tension is created by recognition that governments are frequently more servile to privileged classes and may tend to ignore the less privileged. If a representational system, with division of powers and checks and balances were significantly unfair to less privileged groups and gave little opportunity for change, problems of justice and fairness would likely be created. Such a system might protect against the baser motives of the less privileged while facilitating the selfishness, greed and will to power of the privileged. Indeed, it has been argued that the American Constitution itself was created by and for the more privileged classes of the 1780s (see Charles A. Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution", first published in 1913 and still very readable and interesting; of course, as might be expected this book was savagely criticized by others who thought it was 'un-American'; but see Robert A. McGuire's "To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution", 2003; apparently some still believe that Beard's thesis had merit. For an interesting case study of the privileged classes taking advantage of the less privileged in Massachusetts under the Articles of Confederation see Leonard L. Richards' "Shays's Rebellion", 2003.)

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 I've tried to present a serviceable definition of genuine conservatism, as opposed to the witchs' brew of contradictory beliefs that William F. Buckley and his colleagues pasted together in the 1950s and arbitrarily decided to call 'conservatism'; the latter should be labelled, as Peter Viereck did, pseudo-conservatism. In this post I continue to cite Claes Ryn's views of conservatism as presented in his America the Virtuous. In Parts 1 and 2 I mentioned two essential elements of modern conservatism: 1) the recognition of baser human motives and the imperative need to exert self-control and social control over them; 2) the emphasis upon the importance of local, face-to-face groups like the family, church, and local community; where local leadership is the fundamental basis of social organization as opposed to distant, centralized authorities which drain localities of their power.

A third key component of conservative belief is an emphasis upon the importance of historically evolved, concrete, existing social institutions which are held to represent the wisdom of ages; since they have developed slowly over many years they are believed to serve real concrete human needs. Ryn wrote (p. 45): “For Burke, a civilized society is the result of a slow, protracted, and often painful process of selection and accumulation.” Favored terms conservatives use to capture this are 'rooted', 'historical', and 'concrete.' Conservatives, harking back to Edmund Burke's critique of the French Revolution, are quite suspicious of ‘human reason’ in the sense of “the old urge to replace historically evolved societies with an order framed according to abstract, allegedly universal principles, notably that of equality." It is important to note that conservatives do not oppose all social change; as Edmund Burke wrote: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Rather genuine conservatives advocate small, prudent, moderate, evolutionary changes as specific needs manifest themselves as felt by members of society. Ryn wrote (p. 45): "It is necessary, Burke argued, to approach historically evolved society with respect and humility as well as a critical eye and to be cautious in making changes. Innovation may do damage that the reformers in their preoccupation with their own favorite abstract ideas are not able to foresee.” It is precisely this principle that put the 'conserve' in 'conservatism.' Without a priciple such as this no belief system deserves the name 'conservative.'

This is perhaps the stress of conservatism which contains the most potential for mischief. It is often true that existing social institutions were established and continue to serve the needs of privileged groups within a historical society, and as such they deny many of the needs of the least privileged groups. Certainly some American conservatives have recognized this, e.g., Clinton Rossiter, and if reasonable freedom from exploitation is to be built into a society the means of change would have to include channels through which the least privileged groups could effectively make their needs known and achieve reasonable social changes. The conservative's emphatic respect for existing institutions could easily facilitate the will to power, domination and even tyranny that another conservative principle--the imperative need to control such base human motives--wants to minimize and avoid. This is perhaps the central contradictory tension within conservatism.

Finally, at least according to Ryn, conservatism endorses a modest patriotic pride in one’s countries achievements but it opposes excessive nationalism (p. 79): “Nationalism, by contrast [to patriotism], is an eruption of overweening ambition, a throwing off of individual and national self-control. Nationalism is self-absorbed and conceited, oblivious of the weaknesses of the country it champions…. Nationalism recognizes no authority higher than its own national passion. It imagines that it has a monopoly on right or has a mission superseding moral norms. The phrase ‘my country right or wrong’ sums up this attitude…. Nationalist politics is inherently intolerant, tyrannical, and expansionist. It bullies and creates ever new enemies.” It is in large part this ambitious, self-absorbed, intolerant, tyrannical, belligerent, expansionist, bullying nationalism, as best exemplified by so-called 'neo-conservatives' like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al., that led Ryn to write about what he calls the New Jacobinism.

This is something I intend to pay close attention to in my further readings on genuine conservatism: what is authentic conservatism's relationship to hyper-nationalism and just plain nationalism. Certainly Peter Viereck recognized the danger of what he called "thought-control nationalists." I believe that American nationalism, as aggressively represented by the pseudo-conservative American right, may well lead to the decline and fall of American civilization. I fear crazed nationalists like William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Dinesh D'Souza, William F. Buckley et. al. are leading us into a ditch out of which we may never emerge. I see this nationalistic fervor that considers America always the force for Good in the world that must use its power to dominate and control the rest of the world as perhaps the single most dangerous and suicidal trend in American life. To a large degree it is just this remarkably crazy nationalism that explains why pseudo-conservatives can't do foreign policy.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Does ‘Conservative’ Really Mean?, Part 2

As I said in Part 1 I wish to describe the basic themes and concerns of a genuine, authentic conservatism. My previous efforts at this have been too brief and sketchy. Perhaps some will be surprised to learn of the key tenets of genuine conservatism, especially if you've become used to the pseudo-conservative ideology successfully sold to Americans since the 1950s under the misappropriated terms ‘conservatism’ and ‘conservative.’ The primary concerns of modern political conservatism hark back to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution first published in 1790; Burke is named by most as the father of modern, self-conscious conservatism. In this post I will present some of the views of Claes Ryn’s book, America the Virtuous.

As I stated in Part 1, perhaps the primary belief of conservatives is that human beings are possessed of base impulses and these need to be controlled if we are to have a civilized society. Such impulses include arrogance, pride, a desire for power over others, selfishness and self indulgence, belligerence, ruthlessness, etc. Conservatives see religion, morality and traditional social institutions as teaching and encouraging control of these baser motives. A morality emphasizing self-control is seen as essential to civilized life. In America the Virtuous Claes Ryn, whom I consider an authentic American conservative, wrote (p. 18) that Enlightenment writers like Rousseau, through a “denial of a darker side of human nature—what Christianity sometimes discusses in terms of ‘original sin’—undermined the ancient belief that checks, internal and external, must be placed on individual and collective action.” Much of modern conservatism is highly critical of the positive view of humans expressed during the Enlightenment and is especially critical of Rousseau. Ryn argued that the Founding Fathers who fashioned our representative, constitutional democracy were for the most part conservatives in this sense. “Constitutional democracy assumes a human nature divided between higher and lower potentialities and sees a need to guard against merely self-serving, imprudent, and even tyrannical impulses in the individual and the people as a whole (Ryn, p. 50).”

Ryn continued (p. 55): “In the West, the decentralized society is deeply rooted in Christian ideas of community and virtue, which are akin to earlier Greek ideas…. The individual’s primary moral responsibility is to make the best of self and to love neighbor. This is a demanding notion of virtue, for nothing is more difficult than overcoming one’s own selfishness and behaving charitably toward people of flesh and blood at close range.” Ryn is distinguishing the latter charity from an abstract commitment to the betterment of people who live at a great distance and are not experienced personally like ‘the downtrodden’, ‘mankind’, ‘the proletariat’, or ‘the poor.’ Ryn wrote that (p. 57): “the effect of the old morality of character is to build self-restraint and respect for others… and to reduce the danger of conflict. The emphasis on curbing arrogance, greed, and other types of self-indulgence increases the chances for harmonious relations.”

Frankly, it’s difficult for me to see how this premise of conservatism can be denied, i.e., the base impulses described definitely do exist and are strong in humans; civilization does require control of such impulses. Perhaps some might differ about precisely which institutions are best able to teach such self-control, but the need for it should not be controversial.

A second prime value of conservatism emphasizes the importance of concrete, local, face-to-face groups such as families, small groups, and local communities. Ryn wrote that (p. 52): "Constitutional democracy assumes a decentralized society in which the lives of most citizens are centered in small, chiefly private, and local associations, what the late Robert Nisbet called ‘autonomous groups.’ These can exercise independent authority. In the decentralized society there are many centers and levels of power. Political authority is widely dispersed, enabling regional and local entities to decide for themselves…. People tend to define their own interests not as discrete individuals but as members of the groups that they most treasure, starting with the family and other associations at close range. By the ‘people,’ then, constitutional democracy does not mean an undifferentiated mass of individuals….”

This is an important and possibly little known conservative tenet. In the 1950s there were a great number of social analyses published heralding the coming of a ‘mass society.’ This was a society where small, local, face-to-face relationships were eroded and replaced by centralized authority that was distant from and less influenced by individuals and their small, primary groups. As the natural authority of small, local, ‘autonomous groups’ was eroded, society was said to be “atomized” and individuals had fewer and fewer local ties with one another; they became more and more an undifferentiated mass. With the spread of urbanization and the consequent shrinkage of locality accompanying a less rural society it is hard to deny that this is true to some considerable extent. Usually such analyses (see Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, first published in 1953) have emphasized the state as sucking up the powers of localities and creating the mass society. I suspect this is because in America it is relatively rare to read mainstream academics who are willing to criticize American industrialization leading to huge centralized corporations as a primary factor in creating atomized ‘mass’ individuals whose primary function is to consume in a self-indulgent fashion. My guess is the two primary motives to growth in the central government in America have been (1) the growth of huge corporations in the late 19th century requiring central government as a 'countervailing power' and (2) the huge increase in government due to a more and more massive 'defense' and 'security' presence (the latter probably due in significant part to the growth of American imperialism beginning in the late 19th century, see Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq).

Okay, this post is getting too long! I'll continue in Part 3.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Schumpeter on Imperialism, Part 2

Here's another nice quote from Joseph Schumpeter cited by Claes Ryn's America the Virtuous (p. 11). Schumpeter cited Rome as
the classic example of that kind of insincerity in both foreign and domestic affairs which permeates not only avowed motives but also probably the conscious motives of the actors themselves--of that policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism.
I believe Scumpeter wrote his essay on 'Imperialism' in 1919 so he wasn't writing on the basis of having observed post-World War II America. Schumpeter died in 1950.

On Confusion Concerning the Term 'Conservative'

Claes Ryn's book, America the Virtuous, presents some interesting remarks on the contemporary American confusion surrounding the term 'conservative.' On pp. 193-4 we find:
A particularly striking example of intellectual bewilderment and helplessness are intellectuals who think of themselves as conservatives but who are unthinkingly embracing much of the heritage of the French Revolution. Another example are putative conservatives who assume that a conservative is someone who is more inclined than others to use military power or bullying against other countries.
Again on p. 210 Ryn wrote:
with regard to present political-intellectual discussion, some widely used terms have changed meaning. Some of them have become useless or, worse than useless, perniciously confusing or deceptive.... Much is not at all what it seems.
It is pseudo-conservatives like William F. Buckley who have confused and deceived us about the meaning of 'conservative.'

Ryn also wrote (p. 21):
Paradoxically, in the United States the new Jacobinism also finds expression among people called "conservatives" or "neoconservatives." This is a curious fact considering that modern, self-conscious conservatism originated in opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution. The person commonly regarded as the father of modern conservatism, the British statesman and thinker Edmund Burke (1729-97) focused his scorching critique of the French Revolution precisely on Jacobin thinking.

Schumpeter on Roman Imperialism, Does This Sound Familiar?

In his book, America the Virtuous, Claes Ryn cited (p. 196) a great quote from Joseph Schumpeter's essay on Imperialism. Does this sound at all familiar? Try substituting 'America' for 'Rome' and 'American' for 'Roman'.
There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest--why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs. They were enemies who only waited to fall on the Roman people.
This is the kind of world presence the pseudo-conservative hawks, what Ryn calls the New Jacobins after the French Revolution's Jacobins, are convincing Americans to uphold. As Ryn wrote (p. 191):
Neo-Jacobinism is the main factor behind the quest for American world supremacy.... There are grounds for suspecting that, upon gaining a further hold on power, the new Jacobins will gravitate in the direction of more despotic methods. They are already employing systematic demonization and ostracism of their critics.... As the constraints of American constituitionalism continue to deteriorate, military or other emergencies will provide neo-Jacobin leaders widening opportunities for silencing their opponents as well as for imposing general restrictions on civil liberties.

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 1

Obviously one cannot be dogmatic about what a particular political term means because there is always a certain amount of leeway that users of a language have in defining and redefining a word. Yet it is also true that users of a language do not have infinite leeway in redefining a term that has been in use for 200+ years, as has the term ‘conservativism.’ One typical manner of discovering the meaning in use of a term is by consulting a dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary or OED discovers an early use of the term conservatism in 1835. This makes sense because, although he apparently did not use the word, Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, gave definition to the term in his Reflections on the Revolution in France which was published in 1790.

As I have pointed out before, if one consults dictionaries to discover the meaning of ‘conservative’ we find the following definition in the OED:

Characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged; preservative.
The maintenance of existing institutions political and ecclesiastical.
Characterized by caution or moderation.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines conservative as:

"PRESERVATIVE": tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions;
"TRADITIONAL": marked by moderation or caution; marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners".

Another way to discover the meaning in use of a term is to go back to a defining moment. The defining moment for the modern use of the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘conservatism’ was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution in 1790. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Burke captures a flavor of Burke’s conservatism. His view
implies deep respect for the historical process and the usages and social achievements built up over time. Therefore, social change is not merely possible but also inevitable and desirable. But the scope and the role of thought operating as a reforming instrument on society as a whole is limited. It should act under the promptings of specific tensions or specific possibilities, in close union with the detailed process of change, rather than in large speculative schemes involving extensive interference with the stable, habitual life of society. Also, it ought not to place excessive emphasis on some ends at the expense of others; in particular, it should not give rein to a moral idealism (as in the French Revolution) that sets itself in radical opposition to the existing order.
Thus a look at dictionary definitions and the thought of the founding father of modern political conservatism yields these emphases: 1) a tendency to preserve or keep intact existing institutions; 2) respect for concrete ‘historical’ process, i.e., those specific institutions that have been evolved through past history; a respect for tradition; 3) social change must occur carefully and be designed with moderation and prudence; 4) social change should be activated by specific felt needs rather than ‘large speculative schemes’ for reordering society.

In addition to consulting dictionaries and examining defining moments, another way of discovering what ‘conservative’ and ‘conservatism’ mean is by examining the writings of more recent authors who espouse similar views and hark back to writers like Burke as a model. Writers like this include Clinton Rossiter and his book, Conservatism in America, Peter Viereck and his book, Conservatism Revisited and Claes Ryn and his book, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.

Here I am going to focus upon some of the themes found in America the Virtuous (2003, Transaction Publishers) that define Claes Ryn as a genuine contemporary American conservative.

One theme of authentic conservatism is expressed in this quote from Burke: "All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities."

Conservatives recognize that humans are possessed of evil impulses that need to be controlled; they would emphasize the human propensity to selfishness, pride, a will to power, ruthlessness, willfulness, self-indulgence, arrogance and belligerence, as examples of the evil human impulses that require control. Control takes place through an ethical emphasis upon self-control as well as the restraints of traditional moral doctrines and institutions (Ryn, p 3). It is the recognition of these potentialities for evil that made conservatives recommend prudent, moderate social change and mistrust the ‘large speculative schemes’ of human reason that could so easily be a cloak for private ambition and will to power. It is not clear how one can deny this conservative observation; human impulses to power, self interest and self indulgence, ruthlessness, arrogance, pride and belligerence are difficult to deny.

[I will continue this catalog of conservative themes in future posts.]