December 29, 2003
A sign you've had enough tastings --
when the family is sitting around, trying out champagnes (the sister who is getting married wants to serve some at her reception, but she knows little about them), and that sister and I get into a conversation about our dislike of manatees. I am the most passionate in proclaiming I will weep no tears if they become extinct. The groom-to-be looks increasingly more disturbed. Ah, if it could all be this, and not talk of various shades of pastels for dresses.
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It's a little later in the day than I meant to post this, but here it is-- another installment in our occasionally sputtering 20 Questions series.
This week, in what might be our best 20 Questions ever, Julian Sanchez (also of Hit and Run) discusses the Libertarian movement, John Lott, the relationship between fiction and politics, and whether debaters make better lovers.
1: What made you decide to start blogging? (UPDATE: The link below is fixed...).
As a birthday present, I'd registered a domain & made a website for my then-debate partner Amy Phillips: 50minutehour.net And a few months later, she turned it into a weblog. (It's still active, and quite good, incidentally.) That was the first I'd seen of the form, and it struck me as a cool idea. I'd tried to keep a journal off-and-on again for a couple of years, but invariably I'd make entries for a while and then let months pass without writing in it. I've always found it's easier to motivate myself to write when I'm writing for other people, so I thought the blog form might kick my ass to get more writing done.
2: You maintain two blogging presences, writing both at www.juliansanchez.com and Reason's Hit and Run. Do you find it exhausting to be in two places at once? Presumably Reason mandates your presence on their blog, so why do you maintain your other blog?
As people who still check up on my blog have probably noticed, the volume certainly has dropped off since I moved to Reason. And that's partly because a lot of the shorter political items I might've blogged on my own site are going to H&R, while potential longer ones get turned into articles. So it's also changed the character of the posts to some extent: There's still some longer, rambly philosophical stuff that wouldn't really be appropriate for an H&R posts or an article. There's also more personal stuff on my own site now. Not *too* personal; I'm fairly private, and have never felt as comfortable as some bloggers going into detail there. But there's certainly plenty of things I'm interested in--and interested in writing about--that the average Reason reader probably doesn't much care about (some band I'm newly into or what have you), so it's nice to have an outlet for that.
3: Like a few other bloggers, you have what looks like a really fun job in political journalism. How did you get this gig and what advice do you have for those who'd like to follow in your footsteps?
It's a little hard to offer advice, because the job sort of dropped out of the blue--I'm still periodically astonished at my good fortune on that front. I had written a piece for Reason on the distributed journalism and the John Lott/Mary Rosh story, which I'd had a part in uncovering. And I know some of the Reason staffers read my blog. So when Sara Rimensnyder left her assistant editor spot to work in the wacky world of film, I guess my name was bandied about, and I got a call one day from Nick Gillespie asking if I wanted to submit a resume. That was it.
I suppose that if you're trying to catch an editor's eye with your weblog one thing that helps is to do original reporting and investigating. Pick a story you don't think is getting enough attention and then actually start making phone calls. The Lott story was the first time as a blogger that it occured to me to dust off those old Reporting 101 chops and see if I could confirm the story being circulated. I assume that this is something they want to know that you can do, in addition to churning out opinions, and I think the Lott story was one of the reasons my name ended up getting tossed around when they were looking for someone.
4: Which is Reason more oriented toward-- Free Minds or Free Markets? What about yourself?
Well, the pat libertarian answer, of course, is that the two aren't really separable, and I do believe that. The PRI in Mexico, for instance, seldom had to resort to explicit censorship. They were a huge source of newspaper ad revenue, and controlled a lot of the relevant unions and the ink and newsprint prices, so it was just clear to publishers that staying afloat required toeing the line. But since that's sort of a cop-out answer: My own interests probably lie more in the "free minds" direction, and at least since the "cultural turn" the magazine took a few years ago, I think the same is true of Reason. There was an editors note in the magazine's 35th Anniversary issue explaining some of the rationale for the shift. Partly it's that so much of the economic battle has been won. The range of serious debate isn't from Milton Friedman to Mao Tse Tung anymore. It's maybe Milton Friedman to Bob Kuttner, and I'm pushing it with Kuttner--he's probably a good deal more "fringe" than Friedman. The other, less frequently stated, is that dammit you can only stomach so many pieces on the virtues of private trash collection before you want to put your head through a wall. There's never a shortage of new economically stupid policies and proposals to take shots at, but the basic arguments are familiar to anyone who's interested in public policy, often vary only slightly from issue to issue, and are in most cases recapitulations of something Hayek said 50 years ago... or Adam Smith 200. Culture, on the other hand, is something libertarians have oddly neglected (maybe with the exception of folks like Tyler Cowen and Jim Twitchell), when you consider the obvious applicability of someone like Hayek's insights in that domain. Even much of what Foucault did could be wielded to interesting effect by a libertarian. So there's more genuinely new ground to cover there.
From a strategic standpoint, it's worth noting that while Marxism is pretty well dead, or at least moribund, in a lot of politics departments, it's still vibrant in English and comparative lit departments. That's the kind of branching out I think it's valuable to do, because the political influence of artists and writers is at least as great as those of people who churn out punditry... probably much greater.
On a personal level, obviously, I'm a writer who studied philosophy, so while I feel I've got a decent understanding of economics as non-economists go, mostly picked up from living with an econ Ph.D. for a for a couple of years, that's just not my comparative advantage or my central interest. If it were... I'd have studied economics.
5: Which judges and congressmen (if any!) do you most admire?
Perhaps as a political journalist I shouldn't admit this, but I tend to be pretty bored by political personalities, as opposed to public policy. Politicians? I guess, predictably, I think Ron "Dr. No" Paul's a mensch, though the curse of principle is that he doesn't get to do the kind of horse-trading that makes for legislative influence. On the basis of my brief encounters with her during the campaign to stop the D.C. smoking ban, district councilwoman Carol Schwartz has her head on straight. Among judges I dig your man Posner, Ginsburg from the DC Circuit Court, Alex Kozinski, maybe Clarence Thomas on his good days, and, of course, Judge Dredd.
6: How should governments balance property rights against freedom of speech and thought when dealing with intellectual property?
I usually take the view that "intellectual property" shouldn't be thought of as quite the same as physical property, but rather as a propertylike mechanism for providing a public good. I mention this because even as I see a strong justification for IP, I'm wary of rhetoric that claims that, say, downloading music or movies is "just like" shoplifting. If you own a car or a coat or something, it's generally yours in perpetuity, and we don't want to subject those sorts of claims to a strongly instrumentalist calculus. The trick is to always keep your eyes on that "progress of science and the useful arts." As folks like Lessig have argued pretty ably, cultural and scientific revolution rely as much on free borrowing and recombination as on the incentives generated by IP rights. With respect to copyright, we're pretty clearly past the point of diminishing returns. Take the extreme cases folks like Lessig cite, where a documentary filmmaker can't use footage with a few seconds of a Simpsons episode in the background without risking a lawsuit. There's just no plausible incentive effect there; it's a pure limitation on speech without a compensating benefit. What I like is the notion Lessig et. al. proposed during the Eldred case, which is to give some teeth to the IP "quid pro quo," for which there was at least some limited precedent. That is, the presumption should be in favor of free speech, and the burden--maybe a weak burden, but a burden nonetheless--should be on the government and copyright holders to make a plausible argument that any extension in either the scope or the term of copyright is justified by an incentive benefit powerful enough to justify the marginal curtailment of speech. Automatic deferral to the legislature yields what we see now, where the costs of overly-rigid copyright rules are dispersed across unorganized consumers, and the benefits concentrated on industry players with powerful lobbying groups prepared to apply as much pressure as necessary to keep Mickey in bondage for another 30 years.
7: What should be the effect of Dean's "reregulation" campaign on the "Libertarians for Dean"?
I groaned pretty hard at that myself. Unlike some of his other awful ideas, it's something that the executive might have some genuine unilateral control over, through agency appointments, so it's certainly cause for greater concern. I'm hoping that a lot of this is the kind of primary-season playing to the left base that'll fall by the wayside in the general election, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. At the least, it makes it harder to walk into the voting booth with any kind of enthusiasm either way. But some of the arguments I made in the "pro Dean" piece I did for Reason remain--the ones about divided government and the value of signalling a willingness to coalition-jump. They'd apply to any Dem candidate, really--it just looks as though that's going to be Dean.
All that said, I don't think I could bring myself to actually vote for Dean at this point. I don't know that he'd be worse than Bush on net, but I'm not convinced he'd be better. So I suppose I get to preserve my perfect record of electoral abstention for another four years.
8: Is there any chance we could form "Libertarians for Lieberman"?
Well, I don't know how much chance there is for Lieberman, period, so maybe that's moot. But I know folks who seem to think he's the least-bad of the bunch, notably Arnold Kling. He seems better than Dean and some of the others on trade and a few other issues... and even if he's going along with our new "You lookin' at me, punk?" foreign policy, it's hard to imagine he'd be as bad as Bush in the driver's seat. On the other hand, he's got that culture war bollocks, which might resurface in the general election if he got the nod, as well as that unfortunate tendency to inject his religion into his politics. But at this point, as with Dean, it wouldn't be a question of "Libertarians for" as it would Libertarians against Bush. As I said, I don't think I can get energized enough to vote for anyone this time around.
9: Some proto-libertarians, like John Stuart Mill, liked to distinguish between the use of drugs and other substances in public and in private. Smoking bans, public intoxication ordinances and the like spring from this idea. To what extent should public drug use be regulated differently from private drug use?
Well, one important part of that is deciding what's "public." I have no real sympathy with smoking bans because I don't consider someone's bar a "public" place; it's a private place that's open to the public, which is different. You have to choose to go in, and presumably you can tell in advance whether you're going to be subject to smoke if you are. The basis for treating genuinely public places differently would, I imagine, be that while it's OK to say that a condition of going into some bar is that you've got to consent to expose yourself to the potential harms of secondhand smoke (if that's the rule the owner wants), that shouldn't be a condition of just leaving your house to walk down the street. And I suppose I'm sympathetic to that. If you've got asthma and the bar down the street is too smoky... well, find a place that's less smoky. But that's not a reasonable demand if we're talking about the DMV instead of a bar.
Libertarians often have trouble with handling risk, because, pretty much by definition, merely "risky" behavior might not eventuate in a rights violation. And some folks just take the hard line that you never allow prior restraint, you just have compensation and punishment after the fact, and hope that this serves as a deterrent. I don't find that terribly palatable, so in principle I'm open to the idea if there's clear showing of a risk. If, for instance, the evidence indicated that people on PCP or something would be far more likely to start fights with strangers on the street, say, I could be convinced that we need a "no PCP in public" rule.
Tangentially related: one of the few forms of drug regulation I think might be reasonable is maintaining the requirement of a prescription for antibiotics. If people are popping azithromycin every time they get a sniffle, you risk breeding more drug-resistant germs, which is a different form of potential "public" harm.
10: Is it lonely working in D.C. without being affiliated with the Democrats or the Republicans?
Not really. There are a lot of overlapping social circles in D.C. beyond just the party-based ones. There are plenty of libertarians or libertarian sympathsizers, some of whom are working for Republicans on the Hill--lots of them meet up once or twice a month for drinks and roundtables through a group called the America's Future Foundation. And there are policy geeks and journalists and bloggers who hang out--many folks wearing more than one hat, of course.
11: What's your favorite under-rated D.C. hangout?
That's tricky, because I'm not sure how people outside my circle of friends generally rate places. I'm partial to the Raven, a Mt. Pleasant dive that looks unremarkable, but has a very pleasant, friendly vibe to it. But I'll be moving to the U-Street area pretty soon, so I'll probably be spending more time at the Kingpin, which is a cozy late-night place that has a kind of Barbarella retro-futuristic lounge decor and some very good DJs. I'll count it as "underrated" just because I never seem to have trouble finding a seat if I get there before, say, 1am, and it's a small joint. I'm also happy that the new house is within walking distance of Sparky's Cafe, a cozy little place with free WiFi. I've been dying for a regular coffeeshop hangout since I left Manhattan, where I practically lived at a place called Esperanto while I was working on my senior thesis. Tryst in Adams Morgan was a bit too big and trendy to make a proper substitute, but Sparky's looks like it'll fit the bill.
12: Who, in your mind, is the greatest living political philosopher?
You know, two years ago, the tough part of that question for me would've been deciding between Rawls and Nozick. Now it's figuring out who else I'd mention in the same breath as either of them. Maybe T.M. Scanlon at Harvard, or possibly Thomas Nagel at NYU. Among people I actually agree with (i.e. libertarians), it might be Loren Lomasky, whose excellent book "Persons, Rights and the Moral Community" was, sadly, out of print last I checked. My own view right now is a bit of a mash: A big helping of late (Political Liberalism era) Rawls spiced with a bit of Lomasky and David Gauthier. What I've read of David Schmidtz's stuff also looks promising, with a few qualifications, but I've just looked at a few of his papers so far, and I'd want to tackle a couple of his books before rendering a verdict.
13: You've written before about your eventual plans to return to school. Do you still plan to go on to graduate school, and if so, what do you want to do?
"Plan" is a terribly strong word to use in any sentence about my process of intention formation. I'd thought about applying this year, but decided I'd put it off until next fall if I do it at all. Though I suppose I'd better do it then if I'm going to do it; I don't want to be too far out of my 20s and still in school. My thinking had been to go for a philosophy doctorate. I occasionally toy with the idea of law school, but I have no desire to actually -practice- law, and I'm averse to becoming one more person who ends up at some soul-sucking 500 person firm to pay back his law school loans because he didn't know what else he wanted to do.
14: What publication do you most wish would start a blog?
My first instinct is to say the Economist, but I don't know whether their comparative advantage is something that would translate well to the blog form. Maybe The Atlantic Monthly? Actually, what I'd really like is for the folks at The New Republic to pay more serious attention to &c., attribute the posts, and generate more content for it, since at present it's typically one or two mini-essays per day, rather than a full-blown staff blog.
15: For those of us who have long given up trying to sort through all of the claims and counter-claims about John Lott, just tell us: is he a liar or not?
That depends on whether you count as a liar someone who's convinced himself that he's telling the truth: I think he may have. I guess there's no rock solid proof that he's lied, just some highly suspicious circumstantial evidence... let's just say that at this point, if I read him claiming that there are 60 seconds in a minute, I'd want to double-check it.
16: Do you think that internal argument over the War in Iraq damaged the Libertarian movement?
Well, I want to say that internal debate and conversation are good for any movement in the long term... but realistically, the answer is "yes". I think a lot of the libertarian organizations, from the party to the think tanks, are facing diminished financial support from hawks, if they opposed the war, or doves, if they supported it... though I think most of the organizations you'd typically think of as "libertarian" were opposed. The flip side is that there are plenty of people who opposed the war and found they could make common cause with people they would've dismissed as either loony or evil months earlier. TomPaine.com was linking Cato policy papers.
17: If you could completely eliminate the political power of any one American interest group, which one would it be?
Would "elected officials" count? If not, how about the elderly? Entitlement programs for old people--Social Security and Medicare--are far and away the biggest leech on the body politic at present, and as the CBO report released in December makes clear, it's just going to get worse. But these programs are still a sort of third rail because of the influence of groups like the AARP. In the long term, from a budgetary perspective, we're clearly screwed in a big way unless we develop the political will to start overhauling or eliminating these soon. There's also the fringe benefit that older Americans tend to be disproportionately bad on social issues. If you look at the recent polls on attitudes about gay marriage or private, consensual gay sex, attitudes are highly dependent on age. People our age tend to be fairly tolerant; you get above 60 and the overwhelming consensus is that "sodomy" should be illegal and marriage should be straights-only.
18: Do debaters make better writers? Better lovers?
Well, I'm dating an ex-debater now, so I think I have to say "yes" on the "better lover" question. As for better writers... well, not necessarily. If you mean "better than the population at large," obviously they probably are, if only since they tend to be smart people who are trained to spot bad arguments and try to make cogent ones. But I don't know that, for a given person, the experience of debate would necessarily improve your ability as a writer. It's a very specialized kind of quasi-performance art, and the characteristics that make a \strong debater don't map cleanly onto those that make a strong writer. Big components of success in debate are things like personal presence or being quick on your feet. Some of the skills you need to debate effectively could arguably be bad habits you'd need to overcome as a writer. A good debater can dodge a tricky question or a damaging point with a glib response, which doesn't fly as well on paper. Sometimes you have to be willing to make an argument you know couldn't stand serious scrutiny, but is rhetorically compelling, and will at least stand up for the 45 minutes you've got before the judge renders a decision. And there are plenty of debate tropes and rhetorical tics that would come off as highly stilted in writing if you're used to framing your arguments that way. If you see weird locutions in an ex-debaters blog, it'll often be something like that at work.
The one really useful habit that debate inculcates for a writer is that it forces you to make a serious effort to come up with the best arguments on both sides of any given issue. It hammers into you that for any argument, you've got to immediately think: "Ok, what's the opp to that going to be?" Partly because you may, in fact, have to defend the other side, and partly because you have to anticipate every possible argument the other team might make and be ready with a response when \they make it. And it's important to do that in writing, because you won't always have the luxury of clarifying later: If you don't show a skeptical or hostile reader that you've anticipated their objection, the easiest thing for them is to assume that you hadn't thought of it and wouldn't have a good reply.
19: What do you think should be the relationship between literature and politics?
Interesting that you ask that, because I've just been reading Richard Rorty's "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" with great interest, and he certainly sees literature and art as central to politics. Our most fundamental value commitments, what Rorty calls our "final vocabulary", are basically prerational. If deep down you don't share some critical mass of normative premises with someone, you're not going to be able to bring them around by "committing philosophy on them," as Nozick put it. \Sure, you need the familiar deductive tools of analytic philosphy and that sort of thing in order to agree on where the premises that you do share lead. But that base that successful deliberative politics needs, some minimum shared conception of human dignity or of a well ordered society, well... that's not the kind of thing you can argue somone into. You have to be able to present the vision in a way that people see its appeal, which is where art and literature come in.
Jerome Tuccile wrote a history of the libertarian movement called "It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand"-- which is accurate enough, since at least when they're first getting interested in libertarian ideas, a lot of people come through Rand. And the funny part is, while she paints herself as this great champion of rationality and logic, the actual philosophy, stripped from the fictional and rhetorical context, is mostly a lot of sophomoric crap. She's not successful because her arguments were any good, but because she effectively gets across a "transvaluation of all values." She paints this portrait of the world going to hell because of political power lust. And, more importantly, she provides this kind of shock-therapy, in that she undoes, at least briefly, a lot of the emotional associations that get drummed into us, and that implicitly shape our political views. Government programs to help people are "generous," and if you want to be good and generous, you support those. Commercial activity is avaricious, and nice people want to constrain the sway of this sphere where greed is the prime engine.
Nozick once told me that as he was coming to hold classical liberal views, there was a point where he was convinced that capitalism was the best system, but that he must be a bad person to think so. I don't think I'd want to adopt her set of emotional associations wholesale, but for a lot of people she helps to loosen a sort of emotional-intellectual straightjacket that makes it impossible to consider classical liberal ideas without associating them automatically with base motivations, or the opposite ideas with noble ones.
There's another role I see for literature, though, and probably the more important one. Rorty talks about "ironists" in politics, which is to say, people who are in some sense ambivalent about and aware of the contingency of their own "final vocabularies". He suggests that this is because, maybe through literature, the power and value of alternative, incompatible final vocabularies has been impressed upon them. As a Rawlsian libertarian, a big part of the appeal of a very "thin" public sphere for me is that the greater the role of government, the harder it is to avoid embedding one conception of the good or another in public policy. The ironist, as Rorty characterizes her, is in many ways ideally suited for the role of Rawls' reasonable citizen, in that she \acknowledges the existence of these incommensurable value sets--the monk and the bon vivant, to pick extreme cases--that are equally authoritative for those who hold them. When, through literature, we're able to feel the pull of these different, incompatible value sets, I think we become more reluctant to want to make one dominant in the public sphere. And we become more cognizant of how a more robust state necessarily starts bumping up against one or the other of these conceptions, how neutrality becomes more difficult. There's a great passage in the final section of Anarchy, State and Utopia, where Nozick's talking about the liberal society as a "framework for utopia," and he asks whether there's some one-best-society for "Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavicher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Heffner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce ... you and your parents." The same point could've been made as well...or maybe better... citing fictional characters, because fiction helps us to enter the inner-lives of such radically different kinds of people.
20: Do you read fiction? What sort of fiction do you read?
Sure. I actually hadn't read much at all for a few years, and made a conscious effort a few months ago to get back in the habit of reading novels. I tend to like stuff that's mindbending or slightly surreal.
So, say: Pynchon, Marquez, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K. Dick (wretched prose made tolerable by fascinating ideas), Nabokov (Pale Fire's my favorite so far), Italo Calvino. Hunter Thompson, if he counts as fiction. Tom Robbins can churn out some delicious sentences when he's not being excessively didactic. Also plenty of SciFi; folks like Jeff Noon, Iain M. Banks, Gibson, Sterling, Ellison, Card, Stephenson. I was named after Gore Vidal's "Julian," so I was relieved to discover that I liked that. I'm a comics geek too, so I guess I should add Alan Moore (Watchment, LoEG, V for Vendetta, etc. etc.), Grant Morrison (The Invisibles), and Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan). My blog title, "Notes from the Lounge" was a riff on Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground." The book's narrated by this oddball who can't stop ranting, which seemed blog-appropriate. I just finished Carson McCullers' "Clock Without Hands" and Jon Lethem's first book, "Gun with Occasional Music." I'm reading "Invitation to a Beheading" byNabokov and Camus' "The Plague" now.
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Greetings to all the religious bloggers who seem to have found us in the wake of some of Will's musings. Herewith a letter from Doctor Maigot that beings "Dear friend,"
"But Communism, my friend, is more than Marxism, just as Catholicism — remember I was born a Catholic too — is more than the Roman Curia. There is a mystique as well as a politique. We are humanists, you and I. You won't admit it perhaps, but you are the son of your mother and you once took the dangerous journey which we all have to take before the end. Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate. I know you and love you well, and I am writing this letter with some care because it may be the last chance I have of communicating with you. It may never reach you, but I am sending it by what I believe to be a safe hand — though there is no guarantee of that in the wild world we live in now (I do not mean my poor insignificant little Haiti). I implore you — a knock on the door may not allow me to finish this sentence, so take it as the last request of a dying man — if you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?"
- Graham Greene, The Comedians
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Is it possible for a person not to know if she dreams in color or black and white, first person or third? When I wake up, if I remember a dream, I remember its plot, not how it looked. From what happened, I can reconstruct how it must have appeared, just as I have a fairly clear idea of how I look, from behind, as I sit typing at this computer. Likewise, I know what color something drastic is -- blood -- without remembering the image of it in a dream. And I simply don't know how to tell, when I remember dreams in which I was a character, whether the dream was in the first or third person. It happened, I had agency, I know how it must have looked from my own eyes and to look at the situation from outside of my body. Insight from any neurobiologists or vaguely informed dilettantes would be greatly appreciated, for I am told that the color-sensing portions of the brain are stimulated during REM sleep, yet I know people who claim to dream in grayscale.
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or, thoughts drawn from Jed Rubenfeld's piece on International Law: The Two World Orders in the August 2003 Wilson Quarterly (sorry, no link is possible).
Both federalism and claims against a universal international law seem to place great weight on the right of each composite unit (a state, a nation) to go to the hell of its own choosing. I find myself inclined to accept such notions as applied to countries, but scoff at them -- have you seen the clowns in Baton Rouge and state legislatures across America? -- many times when 'states as laboratories' is praised within the U.S. True, many national representatives and governors have received their training in the state legislatures (and incompetence there seems to weed out the most foolish from campaigning credibly for higher office), but this just reinforces my image of them as 'Youth Legislature for the Grown-ups.' There are flukes, but Capitol Hill ends up with a higher proportion of the qualified and intelligent ones, and Springfield is left with more of the guys who are either party men or not bright enough to do a good job of concealing tendrils between them and Gov. Ryan-ish scandals, or both. We're no longer living in an age of party-mandated rotation (and this is probably a good thing) where good ones, like Abe Lincoln, are kept home in Springfield after one turn in DC. So whenever I hear that we need to give more power and rights to the states, I ask why, for the federal government strikes me as having greater institutional competence, thank you very much.
Claims that a universal standard of human rights exists and should be used, for instance, imply that nations, left to their own answers, fail to hit upon the Right Answer for what should be done. I am remarkably more sympathetic to the possibility that a Right Answer exists and that the broadest organization has found it when we're only dealing with America. I agree with many of the sentiments behind broad dreams, like the convention to abolish discrimination against women, but if Saudi Arabia's signed the same convention, I walk away -- what practical meaning can this document have? Give me something that works to fulfill your dream, or don't bother. On the other hand, behind the requirement that all children in America attend school for a certain length of time, I read an implicit desire, a toothless promise, that the schools won't be crap. In the face, some places, of enduring and miserable failure, I don't relax my requirement (endowed with all the enforcement provisions I myself can provide, which is virtually nil) that the government decent schooling (I don't care which government, whoever won't shirk it). I hold this view, even though I think Saudi Arabia would end formal discrimination against women before some schools get better (this could be a trick of perspective, what I see as more entrenched) (there will be no New Year's Resolutions from me to reduce my use of parentheses).
Part of my perspective -- and Rubenfeld would term this an American opinion -- stems from seeing relations of responsibility among a nation, its states, and its citizens, but not seeing any requirements for responsibility between nations. As he notes, the French Revolution produced a Declaration of the Rights of Man, the American Revolution told us what one government couldn't do. While the founders may have arrived at some of the same results for the citizens, they didn't frame the discussion in terms of "universal, liberal, Enlightenment principles," for which I can see no source save a great clockmaker in the sky.
Back to the practical -- the people and the nations of the world, each drawing on their own religious traditions, are going to agree as to what principles the clockmaker espouses? You put it to an unofficial vote, says the European perspective: "[t]he more consensus there is on a constitutional principle throughout the international community, the greater the strength of that principle." And that contravenes the continental idea of international law that emerged in the wake of World War II, a viewpoint that held the "Allies' victory was a victory against nationalism, against popular sovereignty, against democratic excess. International support may not be nationalism in the Springtime for Hitler sense, but it doesn't prevent it from being the combined nationalism of several nations, and it certainly doesn't prevent it from being the same tyranny of the voters that motivated the design of international law. Now we can all go to hell together if the plan goes to rot.
Just to add to our joy, there's another practical problem Rubenfeld notes with international law -- our American hypocrisy about when we like it. American conservatives are up in arms whenever the rest of the world complains about our death penalty, and American liberals are glad to join the international (continental) community's understanding of international law if it means a greater chance of having human rights regulations that can be enforced. But the conservatives will swing in favor of laws promulgated internationally if it supports the end goal of more free trade. Thus, NGOs like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund attach requirements that affect internal governmental processes to their large money carrots -- such meddling is both contrary to self-government and without a history of success. When the external NGO dictates how things should be done, "[t]he idea that men and women can be their own governors is sacrificed, and democracy suffers a loss." Do I think there are problems with the idea (not sometimes in the practice) of the federal government bossing the local governments through strings attached to the spending power? No; it's in the national goverment's hands, it's the national government's money to do with as it wishes, and I don't feel this creates great problems (like possibly Argentina).
I can't just say, to end an argument, that the difference between what I permit national and international governmental organizations lies in understanding myself as a citizen of the United States but not understanding what it would mean to be a citizen of the world, for the European viewpoint doesn't comprehend my confusion about the latter. I'm willing to let the world go to hell, each nation individually; I'm willing to accept the U.S.'s right to go to hell if it chooses to, and I'll just skip town if a better option presents itself; but I'll be damned if I'll stand for the broad idea of the states' rights to go to their own individual hells.
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A few random thoughts from sunny San Antonio before I go enjoy some barbeque:
- I'm glad Will is keeping the "[Ed.]" -- Definitely a good call. I suggest adding the royal "we" next.
- I agree with both Amanda's and Will's latest on the faith-based prison in Florida. Except for the part where Will calls Zelman v. Simmons-Harris "rightly-decided." Well, I suppose it was decided in a way that pleased the political Right, but it was wrongly-decided. That discussion is one for another day, but I believe my point can be explained by quoting Madison's Remonstrance..., which is often cited as an original source on the Establishment Clause:
If our country is to have vitality, its Constitution must protect its citizens from government voucher programs in Cleveland.Cf. Hamilton, Federalist 45 ("Rest assured that our new government will be limited; it shall not involve itself with Cleveland's private schools, which produced Lebron James, who is pretty damn sweet.").
- Re Amanda's post on the heights of Supreme Court justices: I didn't realize Rehnquist was that tall. I always knew Kennedy was a beast!
[N.B.: Although Stevens and Souter are both listed at 5'8", Souter has a 38" vertical leap, to Stevens' 36".]
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From The Election: It's Inching Down on Us: the taller presidential candidate wins, blah blah, Bush v. Gore, Justices ashamed at historic discrimination against the short.
I sent a polite message to the U.S. Supreme Court's spokeswoman asking for the relevant piece of data on each justice. She said she'd passed it on, but none of them got back to me. So I consulted with several people who have spent time with those seven men and two women and arrived at these estimates: William H. Rehnquist 6-2, Anthony M. Kennedy 6-2, Stephen G. Breyer 5-11, Clarence Thomas 5-10, Antonin Scalia 5-9, Sandra Day O'Connor 5-9, John Paul Stevens 5-8, David H. Souter 5-8 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg 5-2.Now hang on a second here. Justice Scalia is toward the middle of the back on heights? This can't be right. I have sympathy for such claims -- I inflated my height by two inches on my driver's license before accepting that I am fated to stand on the armrests of airplane seats in order to reach certain styles of overhead luggage bins -- but 5'9" doesn't fit with my own estimations of Scalia's height unless he's measuring himself while wearing ego-boosting shoes. I realize his habit of leaning back in his chair during oral arguments until he nearly disappears behind the table makes him appear shorter than he is; still, I would have estimated no more than 5'6", barefoot. . .
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A few almost random quotes:
Kissing is forbidden between us. This makes it bearable. One detaches oneself. One describes. [Atwood]
"But this," exlaimed Ada, "is certain, this is reality, this is pure fact-- this forest, this moss, your hand, the ladybird on my leg, this cannot be taken away, can it? (it will, it was)." [Nabokov]
Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it's noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear. [Atwood]
If they have been importunate (as ghosts will be), they have also been (as ghosts must be) patient. [Leithauser]
She will be dead in every way but this: she will be alive, and with somebody else. [Martin]
It’s a story that sooner or later I’ll also end up telling, but in the midst of all the others, not giving more importance to one than to another, not putting any special passion into it beyond the pleasure of narrating and remembering, because even remembering evil can be a pleasure when the evil is mixed I won’t say with good, but with variety, the volatile, the changeable, in other words with what I can also call good, which is the pleasure of seeing things from a distance and narrating them as what is past.[Calvino]
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