Principle limitation

This claim strikes me as a fairly disingenuous interpretation of “Catholic Social Thought”:

>The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules — free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government — asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread — it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.

It will all depend, of course, on what one means by “limited” or even perhaps, “principle.” Both liberals and conservatives want “limited” government “in principle”. Pointing out that principle in defense of this or that merely demonstrates the degree to which one fails to understand that reference to ambiguous principles resolves nothing.

As if it were yesterday

Sometimes it seems like so long ago that we marched off to war in Iraq. For some, that distance has blurred their memory of events. Writing the "grown-ups" or, as it has become known in the blogosphere, the "very serious persons," foreign policy piece, Sebastian Mallaby, professional contrarian, illustrates that very smart looking people can make some really silly arguments:

Clinton's rivals are contemplating history and deriving only a narrow lesson about Bush: Don't trust him when he confronts a Muslim country. But the larger, more durable lesson from Iraq is that wars can be caused by a lack of confrontation. The Iraq invasion happened partly because the world had lost the stomach to confront Saddam Hussein by other means. By 2002, the sanctions on Hussein's regime had been diluted, and there was pressure to weaken them further. Hussein was no longer "in his box," to use the language of the time: If you believed that a resurgent Saddam Hussein presented an intolerable threat, it was worth taking the risk of unseating him by force, sooner rather than later.

Alone among the Democratic candidates, Clinton has the honesty to insist that the case for war was reasonable at the time — even if, with the benefit of hindsight, the invasion has proved disastrous. In sticking to that politically difficult position, Clinton is saying that, despite its awful risks, war can sometimes be the least bad choice. She is not running away from military power, even in a political climate that makes running attractive.

That's not how I remember it. Nonetheless, more annoying that Mallaby's ignorant contextualizing of history ("at the time") is his pointless hypothetical ("If. . . "). The point of history is not to relive it, but to learn from it: one can learn from history because we know what happened. And you can't forget that all of the things said by Bush, et alia, about a resurgent Saddam were false–false in the sense of not being true.

If you believed that they were true, indeed, then you believed that Saddam posed a threat. But you had a false belief. And more than that. Bush's false belief about Saddam was rather less justified than Joe Citizen's: Bush and his war making party had access to facts that made the case for war against Saddam even less justified than it otherwise appeared. Mallaby writes all of this on the manifestly silly premise that any opposition to Bush's policies–foreign or domestic–can only be explained by the silly ad hominem of Bush derangement syndrome.

I suppose it's "deranged" and "immature" to have been right.

Dawn of time

David Brooks writes a piece entitled: “The Outsourced Brain.” Finally, one might think, a confession.



>Since the dawn of humanity, people have had to worry about how to get from here to there. Precious brainpower has been used storing directions, and memorizing turns. I myself have been trapped at dinner parties at which conversation was devoted exclusively to the topic of commuter routes.


>Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

Right. “Losing.”

For the rest of us, the availability of information seems to suggest that we are responsible for knowing more, not less–with great knowledge, after all, comes great responsibility.

Big boss man

Commenters on the website make all of the good points about George Will’s latest failure to understand that general rules of human behavior have obvious limitations while the imagination of those who would like to cheat does not.

>Restrictions on freedoms, and especially freedoms as fundamental as those of the First Amendment, require serious justifications. So the question is: To what pressing problem did the university’s $100 limit respond? Or is it merely another manifestation of the regnant liberalism common on most campuses — the itch to boss people around?

The reason for this? Some kid broke the universities rules regarding spending for a school election. Are the rules fair? Maybe not. But that’s got nothing to do with the McCain-Feingold campaign law:

>Thus do the grossly anti-constitutional premises of McCain-Feingold seep through society, poisoning the practice of democracy at all levels

Nor is “you’re not the boss of me” the proper response to rules you don’t agree with.

Blind them with values

Michael Gerson, former Presidential wordsmith, delights readers of the Washington Post’s editorial page twice a week. Why the Post or anyone would hire a former administration official (of the current administration) to hold forth on its op-ed page is an ever deepening mystery, especially since, though a speech writer, or perhaps propter hoc, Gerson so frequently doesn’t rise above the intellectual level of Jonah Goldberg-style “liberals are fascists” name calling. Today Gerson writes:

>This creates an inevitable tension within liberalism. The left in America positions itself as both the defender of egalitarianism and of unrestricted science. In the last presidential election, Sen. John Kerry pledged to “tear down every wall” that inhibited medical research. But what happens when certain scientific views lead to an erosion of the ideal of equality? Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a rising academic analyst of these trends, argues: “Watson is anti-egalitarian in the extreme. Science looks at human beings in their animal aspects. As animals, we are not always equal. It is precisely in the ways we are not simply animals that we are equal. So science, left to itself, poses a serious challenge to egalitarianism.”

The tension between the factual or factual-type assertions of scientists and the values of fraternity, sorority, liberty and equality follow from the very nature of the two different enterprises, as any twelve-year old knows. Anyone who has ever noticed the difference between an “is” and an “ought” knows that this is the case. It’s not peculiar to “liberalism,” unless (and perhaps this is the case), Gerson’s conservatism is ludditism.

. . . like the pilot of a ship

Another puzzling piece from the nearly always puzzling Stanley Fish. He takes the usual line that “everyone advocates a point of view,” so everyone is a partisan, but then fails to understand the difference between principle and strategy. He writes:

>But the report gets off to a bad start when its authors allow the charge by conservative critics that left-wing instructors indoctrinate rather than teach to dictate their strategy. By taking it as their task to respond to what they consider a partisan attack, they set themselves up to perform as partisans in return, and that is exactly what they end up doing.

He then goes on to criticize the strategy of the American Association of University Professors. They set themselves up as “partisans” in the minds of those who can’t read very well. A few paragraphs later, Fish writes:

>My point is made for me by the subcommittee when it proposes a hypothetical as a counterexample to the stricture laid down by the Students for Academic Freedom: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up ‘Moby Dick,’ a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel?”

>But with what motive would the teacher initiate such a discussion? If you look at commentaries on “Moby Dick,” you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don’t find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.

>If the intention were, as claimed, to produce insight into Melville’s character, there are plenty of candidates in literature for possible parallels – Milton’s Satan, Marlowe’s Faust, Byron’s Cain, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shakespeare’s Iago, Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, to name a few. Nor would it have been any better if an instructor had invited students to find parallels between George Bush and Aeneas, or Henry the Fifth, or Atticus Finch, for then the effect would have been to politicize teaching from the other (pro-Bush) direction.

>By offering this example, the report’s authors validate the very accusation they are trying to fend off, the accusation that the academy’s leftward tilt spills over into the classroom. No longer writing for the American Association of University Professors, the subcommittee is instead writing for the American Association of University Professors Who Hate George Bush (admittedly a large group). Why do its members not see that? Because once again they reason from an abstract theoretical formulation to a conclusion about what instructors can properly do.

Bush is the President. The president is kind of a like a captain of a ship, insofar as he is a leader of people. Leaders of people can lead well or badly. Is Bush like the one who leads badly, or not.

The more obviously silly point of Fish’s argument is that he seems to think literature can only refer to other literature. So, if it’s parallels you’re looking for, don’t look at real people. Literature has nothing to say about that. Besides, easily offended Bush lovers might be offended.

Armed with information

A PBS show about a successful but financially strained state run health care program for the poor in Tennessee featured someone–a state representative dead set against the program–who said: not all problems can be solved with money. Fair enough. But all money problems can be solved with money, and that was a money problem. David Broder isn’t far away from that when he writes:

>What I learned about Leavitt in his years as governor is that he is blessed with vision that sees future policy challenges and developments more clearly than most politicians. In this case, he is visualizing a radically different kind of medical marketplace, in which families armed with specific information about the treatment success and prices of hospitals and doctors can shop at will for the best quality and most affordable care.

There’s no shortage of information about health care success. Here’s one that even I know: seeing a doctor for basic health care needs increases one’s healthness quotient. The primary shortage, as anyone can tell you, is access to affordable health care for millions of employed as well as unemployed people.

So cool it’s uncool

Michael Gerson, protege of the great David Brooks, visits a coffee shop near his home in Northern Virginia. He sees pictures of radicals, makes some remarks about how they were Stalinists, or something, and draws the conclusion that the left suffers from radical chic. Not only that, but the right is so cool its uncool: it’ll never be popular man. That’s right, you’d never be cool enough to wear a Reagan shirt.

But only late in the piece does he notice the obvious:

>Some on the left are suspicious of this trend, which social critic Thomas Frank calls “commercialized dissent.” “It is,” he told me, “symbolic of the eternal revolution of the market” and its “constant search for the new.” “The ideology expressed is generally not liberalism; it is the ideology of the market, libertarianism.” Political trendiness of the Body Shop and Whole Foods variety, in short, has little serious emphasis on economic or social justice.

A t-shirt with Che Guevera is not the same as membership in the Democrat(ic) party or the affirmation of its non-work camp or internment policies. No matter, the right has branding problems of it’s own:

>But there also should be concerns on the right. On its current track, the emotional branding of the Republican Party among the young will soon be similar to Metamucil. The party’s emphasis on spending restraint and limited government may be substantively important, but these themes are hardly morally inspiring. And the Iraq war is a serious drawback among younger voters — except, of course, among those 20-somethings with buzz cuts who actually fight the war. Appealing to cause-oriented consumers will require addressing issues such as global poverty and disease, global warming, and economic and racial justice. This reality of the market is also a reality of American politics.

“Spending restraint and limited government” is about as true as saying the democrats are the party of “big government.” But the weirder thing is the claim that those fighting the Iraq war do not find it a drawback, as if they (and not the belligerent scribes at NRO and elsewhere) were the real cheerleaders for the cause of being in Iraq (and later Iran and Syria).

Sicut Philosophus docet in II Ethicorum

George Will, comedian:

>Explaining a simple proposal to help people squirrel away gold for their golden years, Hillary Clinton said that a person “should not require a PhD to save for retirement.” But can even PhDs understand liberalism’s arithmetic and logic?

This is funny. He says little about either arithmetic or logic, but a lot about the meanings of words:

>SCHIP is described as serving “poor children” or children of “the working poor.” Everyone agrees that it is for “low-income” people. Under the bill that Democrats hope to pass over the president’s veto tomorrow, states could extend eligibility to households earning $61,950. But America’s median household income is $48,201. How can people above the median income be eligible for a program serving lower-income people?

The Stagirite offers again some simple and obvious instruction:

>How this is to happen we have stated already, but it will be made plain also by the following consideration of the specific nature of virtue. In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little- and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little- too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this- the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.

“Low income” is much like quantities of food for ancient Greek wrestlers: it’s relative to how big you are (your family that is) and where you live.

Dirty hands

More frequent than George Will’s use of “traduce” is David Brooks’ dichotomizing:

>And so there are two kinds of politicians: those who become creatures of the process, and those who, like Pryce, resist and retain the capacity to be appalled by what they must do.

Only two? But notice, they both do the same thing. Perhaps the more appropriate conclusion would be there is only one type of politician. But that wouldn’t be a specious dichotomy anymore, it’d be a specious generalization.