Thursday, September 14, 2006

Is Liberalism A More Pragmatic Approach?

In the comments to CA’s post about the relative qualities of moonbats and wingnuts, DB argued the common liberal refrain that liberals are more open to empirical evidence than conservatives. This argument was made famous in an article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, which led to a debate between Chait and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg on (no longer available). Chait contended that liberalism is more pragmatic, while conservativism is more dogmatic.

As a theoretical matter, Chait is probably right. Modern liberalism, which is basically progressivism, is by definition more open to policies that would change society for the better. Conservativism is primarily interested in preserving our current practices and traditions, while progressives propose making changes that would allow society to progress in a favorable direction. They support experimenting via government (top-down) and analyzing the outcomes to see if the programs are effective.

Conservatives (I’m parroting Hayek here) oppose this ideology because they presume that traditions that have lasted this long have a presumption of correctness and changes could have unforeseen deleterious effects that are not easily reversed. They therefore support allowing changes to be made organically (bottom-up), without imposition from the government.

So in fact conservatives are certainly are less open to empirical evidence that might point to favorable government programs because they are not willing to risk forcing adverse effects on society. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to look at the evidence and ignore possible, but unforeseen, negative effects.

Nevertheless I believe DB and Chait are wrong for two reasons. First, the argument ignores the evolution of conservative doctrine over the last 30 years – partly spurred by the influence of neoconservative doctrine – from an ideological movement to a more pragmatic governing philosophy. While fifty years ago most conservatives might have opposed high taxes on ideological grounds (that people should be allowed to keep their own money), today conservatives generally oppose high taxation for pragmatic reasons. Supply side economics and the Laffer curve are in vogue in the conservative movement not because they provide justification for low taxation, but because they provide the reasoning behind the idea that high taxation harms our economy. Conservatives oppose high taxes because it negatively affects the economy, and if the evidence would show that high taxes were beneficial, many conservatives would shift their policy preferences accordingly.

Other examples abound. Irving Kristol strongly opposes welfare because it creates a sense of dependence and generates disincentives for work. Many conservatives oppose SSM because they believe it harms families. They oppose rent control and stabilization because it decreases available housing on the market. They support moral legislation because they believe it makes a better society.

Obviously not all conservatives are pragmatists. The religious right and the paleoconservatives are far less likely to allow empirical evidence to change their mind. They usually have ideological positions, and are not going to change because of evidence. The religious right is not going to support SSM no matter how much evidence shows that gay couples are just as likely to have stable families as straights. Paleos are going to support isolationism even if the preponderance of the evidence points to the conclusion that staying out of world politics harms our national interest.

But that just gets me to my second reason: the assumption that liberals are more pragmatic only makes sense from the liberal perspective. The proposition is only sustainable once one assumes that liberal ideology is correct. Let me explain.

Chait’s argument presumes that both liberals and conservatives have ideological positions that are not subject to empirical analysis, but liberals are more willing to subject the methods used to further those positions to empirical analysis. For example, liberals support wealth distribution because it makes society as a whole better off. Conservatives, however, oppose it even if the evidence shows that wealth distribution improves society.

But this analysis begs the question. Conservatives disagree over what constitutes a better society. To better frame the issue, liberals presume that a more equal society is a better society. Conservatives assume that a society that allows people to keep the proceeds of their hard work is a more fair society. When liberals “prove” that wealth distribution makes society better, they mean more equal. Conservatives might agree that wealth distribution makes society more equal, but not that it makes society better. Basically the disagreement is over values, not methods.

Affirmative action is another example that might better shine light on my argument. Liberals argue that society should act affirmatively to ensure that everyone has equal access to society. This argument by nature is an argument for equality. Conservatives disagree. One source of disagreement is that the evidence does not show that affirmative action works (i.e., that it affords disenfranchised minorities equal access to society). But even if the evidence showed that affirmative action was successful to the extent that it fulfilled its objections, conservatives would still oppose it because they believe a better society is one that rewards people for hard work.

Basically conservatives are willing to subject the methods to reach their ideological objectives to empirical testing, but not their ideology itself. In that way liberals and conservatives are no different.

The Next President of the United States

I saw him on TV last week. Details back at SerandEz.

[Sorry - I wrote it there, then realized it was more fit for JAJC.]

Princeton University Exposes Diebold Flaws

This is a non-partisan issue which every American should be aware of.

The main findings of our study are:

1. Malicious software running on a single voting machine can steal votes with little if any risk of detection. The malicious software can modify all of the records, audit logs, and counters kept by the voting machine, so that even careful forensic examination of these records will find nothing amiss. We have constructed demonstration software that carries out this vote-stealing attack.

2. Anyone who has physical access to a voting machine, or to a memory card that will later be inserted into a machine, can install said malicious software using a simple method that takes as little as one minute. In practice, poll workers and others often have unsupervised access to the machines.

3. AccuVote-TS machines are susceptible to voting-machine viruse! s - computer viruses that can spread malicious software automatically and invisibly from machine to machine during normal pre- ! and post-election activity. We have constructed a demonstration virus that spreads in this way, installing our demonstration vote-stealing program on every machine it infects.

4. While some of these problems can be eliminated by improving Diebold's software, others cannot be remedied without replacing the machines' hardware. Changes to election procedures would also be required to ensure security.

Paperless voting machines should be illegal.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Between Revolution and Insanity

I am not going to venture a guess as to the results of the midterms, but I concede that Republicans stand a very a good chance of losing their majority. Having said that, the difference between the 1994 Contract with America and the current Democratic effort is huge.

Republicans came to power because they had a platform of strengthening an individual’s capacity for self-reliance by reducing government excess. The GOP ran on an idea and won. But what do Democrats have to offer? Their election strategy seems to be solely about one man- George Bush.

After my blogging hiatus, I was compelled to write this piece after seeing a clip from Death of a President, a British film portraying President Bush’s future assassination. Not content to rely on a lookalike or fictional president, the filmmakers actually digitally placed George Bush’s face on an actor.

The degree of personal hatred and cheapening of political discourse is sickening. To be fair, the GOP attempted to gain mileage from bashing President Clinton. But this is different. American foreign policy has been greatly harmed by the left wing’s hate for President Bush. Foreigners gleefully exploit this weakness in the American government and we are all the poorer.

The illness that has captured the fringe of the Democratic party also captures headlines. Recent news stories related to the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have started the process of mainstreaming the mentally ill or hopelessly stupid proponents of conspiracy theories, most of which portray President Bush as the mastermind of these attacks, or the hapless puppet of his neocon (read Jews) masters.

It is convenient to think that these views are in the mainstream. I am more comfortable with the idea that my political opponents are unemployed college kids with a computer and a low intelligence to creativity ratio. I hope this is not the case, although recent events have to make you wonder. Ned Lamont ran against the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President and won on a platform that was mostly centered on Joe Lieberman’s Great Crime—he received a kiss on the cheek from President Bush following the 2005 State of the Union Address. Apparently comity with the other party is treason to the Democrats’ new horde of mentally ill devotees.

I’m generally against compelled speech, but for the good of the country, Democratic leaders ought to publicly agree with and espouse the following platform:

  • The World Trade Center was brought down by Islamic terrorists flying hijacked commercial aircraft.
  • The Pentagon was struck by a hijacked commercial aircraft.
  • Although there were fundamental errors made by the national intelligence community, there was no conspiracy, nor willful blindness, by the U.S. government.
  • The War on Terror is a serious struggle between America’s security and Islamic terrorists who want nothing more than global empire and dead Americans. While there are legitimate and divergent viewpoint on the best method for prosecuting this war, it is a war both parties agree is critical.

This list is simple enough, but I doubt the Democratic leadership will ever embrace it and publicly espouse it. There is too much cheap mileage out there for Bush bashing. And we are all the poorer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Amnesty International: As Clueless As Ever

In JPost today, Amnesty International responds to Alan Dershowitz's critique of their report condemning Israel for committing war crimes. Dershowitz accuses them of being anti-Israel, and AI offers evidence that they are evenhanded and merely interested in criticizing the conduct of both parties.

I disagree with Dershowitz that AI is anti-Israel. AI, like the ACLU, has an extreme position on human rights law and defines any "gray" conduct as illegitimate. But even more, it focuses more on states than terrorist groups. This trend is not limited to Israel, but applies in all cases of war and hostilities.

But AI is clueless. Here are some examples:

1) Amnesty cites the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions as a source for the proportionality requirement. That argument is meaningless because Israel has never signed the Protocols. AI has the burden of proof to show that the proportionality requirement (as laid out by Protocol) is either a norm or custom. The latter requires a mix of state statements (opino juris) to that effect and state conduct following the custom. The former requires that the norm be imbedded in the international legal system. I have yet to see proof that the Protocol's understanding of proportionality is either custom or a norm.

2) Dershowitz argues that if roads are used for military means, then they are legitimate targets. AI makes the shocking flawed argument that

If Dershowitz's interpretation were correct, Hizbullah's indiscriminate bombardment of Israel would be lawful, since roads in Israel are used both by military and civilians. But Hizbullah's bombing was not lawful. It was criminal.

Um, hello?!! If Hizbullah had merely targeted roads, most of us wouldn't have called it war crimes (although hopefully AI would have). But Hizbullah shot thousands of rockets indiscriminately at populated cities, intending to maximize civilian causalities.

3) AI admits that it will condemn Hizbullah in its "forthcoming report." Uh, under AI's definition of international humanitarian law, Hizbullah clearly committed war crimes by targeting civilians. We know where the missiles landed and there's absolutely zero evidence that Hizbullah intended to only target civilian infrastructure. How long does it take write a report on Hizbullah's conduct?

To repeat: I don't think AI or Human Rights Watch is anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Those terms are often bandied around by people with little understanding of the complexities and nuances of the issues involved. But to use AI as a moral compass is simply to stick one's head into the sand.

Affirmative Action and Racial Profiling: One And The Same?

Ilya Somin, a prominent libertarian law professor, argues that racial profiling and affirmative action are similar in method and fails to understand why conservatives and liberals support one but oppose the other. His argument in short is that the basis for racial profiling is that information costs are high, so the government uses race as a imperfect proxy to find possible terrorists.

The underlying logic of affirmative action is similar, in that the admissions officer cannot undergo the costly research process to figure out if the applicant was a victim of discrimination and therefore uses race as a proxy. In other words, in both cases, proxies are used as substitutes because information costs are impossibly high.

At least in the case of affirmative action I think the analogy is flawed because conservatives generally oppose affirmative action not because race is used as a proxy but because (among other reasons) of the ineffectiveness of the program, because the diversity rationale is flawed (and is racist), and because of the divisive effects generated by society's focus on race. Whether the proxy is a generally effective substitute for individualized review is immaterial to these arguments.