The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, May 26, 2005


I have not been able to get myself exercised about the Newsweek/Koran flap. Let's review the bidding:

1) Any U.S. resident can buy a Koran at a bookstore, and desecrate it to his heart's content, and this is perfectly legal protected speech in the U.S. I am too lazy to do this myself, but it has occurred to others. In light of this fact, I am at a loss to see how the U.S. government can respond to calls for punishment, or even give an honest apology. Expression is protected; objects like books are not. It is better that Muslims should find this out sooner rather than later.

2) In the riots, it appears that a mosque was burned. I cannot say for certain whether any copies of the Koran were destroyed in the process; but it puts the veneration of the book in a different perspective.

3) Even the Newsweek-bashing seems overwrought. Without the benefit of hindsight, I think most people would have agreed that they tossed in a not-very-important aside, which received little authentication because it was not a crucial part of their story. They could be faulted for not anticipating Islamic hypersensitivity; but would we really prefer a Newsweek written with those sensibilities?

Some Moslems can abide the idea of a society where Koran desecration is simply not a punishable offense; some, apparently, cannot. As I noted in my previous post, our lack of language to distinguish these two cases is a major weakness in the ongoing war. We will not obtain victory until our enemies are dead or their will to resist is destroyed; so we had better find a way of identifying our enemies more precisely.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


A frequent comment, especially from the right, is that the U.S. gets surprisingly little credit from the Islamic world for its good deeds on behalf of Muslims. For example, see today's Belgravia Dispatch.

The expectation for such credit rests on the presumption that there is some fellow-feeling among Muslims, and in particular between Muslims of widely different sects and cultures. What real evidence is there for such a feeling?

It is part of our blindness to treat Islam as a single religion, for example by saying that "a mosque" was damaged without specifying the sect to which the mosque belonged. We should insist on distinctions like this, not only in news reporting but in official policy. The oft-repeated statement that "Islam is not the enemy" begs a definition of Islam, and protects our enemies without fully reassuring our friends.


John Cole is pioneering a new intellectual fashion, criticizing conservatives for being overly critical of the media. The best discussion I have seen is from Jeff Goldstein. Neither party, however, seems to make the obvious point that government (and ruling party) hostility to media is an inevitable dialectical response to the media's anti-authority mindset.

There are two types of bias in the media. One is the ideological bias so frequently commented on elsewhere; the other is the bias in favor of "explosive" scoops and "gotcha" stories. No reporter has ever gained fame and fortune by pointing out everything government officials do right. With Republicans solidly in power, these two biases reinforce one another.

What is an administration to do? Any policy justifications it offers will be deconstructed; any factual analyses will be cherry-picked for harbingers of doom. The natural response is to tell the press nothing; to depend on non-mainstream disseminators of news, like talk radio and now blogs; and, for the activist, to discredit the (temporarily) hostile press.

CNN were willing to whitewash Saddam Hussein's regime in exchange for continued "access". It is possible that they are incapable of seeing the domestic parallel?

An inquisitive, independent press is a crucial strength of the American system. A press forced to bargain for access, with more favorable coverage leading to better information in the future, would seem far inferior even to the current status quo. How can the current struggle between government and press be defused before it reaches this state?

I don't have a good answer here. Government has an incentive toward secrecy, which the press must combat. But in a world of competing sources of truth, the tendency of the press to denigrate some (government and corporate) while uncritically amplifying others (ideologically pleasing nonprofit) gives its readers a picture which is distorted to the point of delusion.

One thing I am sure of is that the struggle to control the news should be seen for what it is, and should be waged publicly. If we get many competing points of view out there, cheek by jowl, citizens have a good chance of successfully balancing them. Doing this in the blogosphere requires a strong stomach, because you are never more than two clicks away from a howling extremist. But I can envision an amazing opportunity for a news source which would filter the debate, not by removing one side, but by removing the rough edges and guaranteeing its readers a civil discourse.

Kaus in 1999

Mickey Kaus recently relinked an old column of his, on "The Curse of 'Compassion'". Written in the early stages of the Bush-Gore race, when "compassionate conservative" was untested new rhetoric, it discusses the moral and pragmatic weaknesses of compassion in government.

One particular observation is striking:
Because it appeals to an essentially charitable impulse, Compassion Politics is fragile. If citizens believe the government is engaged in a big United Way drive, they'll give generously when economic times are good. But they will naturally stop giving when they feel pinched themselves.
If true, this would imply that Republican incumbents are partly inoculated against the effect of economic hard times -- as long as they are not seen as big spenders. This would be more easily accomplished if they were not in fact... big spenders. Who would have known "compassionate" meant "former"?

[Update: I find myself, if not in agreement, at least in synchrony with Matthew Yglesias. Immediately afterwards, though, he proceeds to remind me why I have no options. It seems to me that Mr. Yglesias's vision of the Republican party -- as greedy plutocrats seeking power at any cost -- is almost identical to his vision of the Democratic party.]

[Update 30 June: Jonah Goldberg joins the ranks of the uncompassionate.]

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Protecting Taiwan

"Now that," Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising in him like bile, "that is so much bullshit."

My recent post, criticizing Glenn Reynolds for casually suggesting that America should perhaps arm Taiwan with nuclear weapons, has attracted sufficient comments that it is worth addressing them in a separate post.

One commenter suggested a historical parallel between Taiwan and pre-WWII Czechoslovakia; we will explore both this analogy, and that of post-WWII West Germany. First, a brief time line.

28 October 1918: With Austria-Hungary facing defeat and collapse, Czechoslovakia declares its independence. It is quickly recognized by the Allied powers.
13 March 1938: Germany annexes Austria.
30 September 1938: Chamberlain and accede to Hitler's demands at Munich.
15 March 1939: German army invades Czechoslovakia.

December 1946: American and British zones of occupied Germany are merged to form "Bizonia" [sic].
June 1948: German currency reform
June 1948 -- May 1949: Berlin blockade.
21 September 1949: Federal Republic of Germany formed at the invitation of the Western Allies.
1948 -- 1990: Cold war.

Of course, West Germany was not sold out. American forces remained as a tripwire, implementing Truman's postwar policy of containment of the Soviet empire. These forces, inadequate in themselves, were backed with a credible threat of the use of atomic weapons should they be overrun.

The analogous strategy with Taiwan should be obvious. No nuclear arming of proxies is required, just as Germany is to this day non-nuclear. But the first step to this kind of protection is official recognition that Taiwan is a nation. Shamefully, America still has given no such recognition, due to Chinese pressure. Compare this with the response, measured in days, to Czechoslovakia's independence in 1918.

It is likely that America, for its own part, has held off recognition in order to retain it as a bargaining chip against China. I think this is a losing strategy, since it gives China an incentive to prolong the crisis. This is the real coupling between Taiwan and North Korea.

My interlocutors suggest that we should arm a nation whose nationhood we do not recognize, as a blow in a war we will not admit is being fought. I will unambiguously support Taiwanese nationhood. I will support a U.S. presence there, in defense of that nationhood, commensurate with what we currently (and unnecessarily) maintain in South Korea.

And I will continue to maintain that Mr. Reynolds's suggestion is "suicidally stupid." It takes a special kind of insouciance to reach for nuclear weapons first, and diplomacy second. It's not only overkill, but ignores the obvious prerequisite -- the equivalent of attacking a fly with a machine gun, when you not only have a flyswatter but have to push it aside to get the gun.

Friday, May 20, 2005


In my recent post on the newly-immobile poor, Altruism, I discussed the relationship of a liberal pundit:
Mr. Drum, a writer, would not be significantly affected by broader unionization. He is a more likely millionaire than those whom he seeks to protect. Nowhere is there any hint that his advocacy is based on self-interest; so let us accept, in good faith, that it is not. He sincerely seeks to protect the less fortunate masses, but their problems are not his problems.
On the subject of criminals, rather than the poor, G. K. Chesterton had this to say [in "The Secret of Father Brown"]:
But what do these men mean... When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his ‘criminal skull’ as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour.... So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious.
I believe there is an important commonality here. Mr. Drum, the best of his breed, is thoughtful, generous and intellectually honest. He is sincere about helping the poor, just as Chesterton's criminologists were sincere about apprehending criminals. But his designs to help are influenced by his perception of the poor as a separate entity, an empirical mass of strangers.

There is a failing on my own side, as well. Father Brown's secret was that he could adopt the criminal's views, warping his own judgement until he understood their thoughts and motivations. This true understanding is where true compassionate charity must start, and there is no reason to suppose that I possess it in any larger measure than does Mr. Drum. Where his weakness is entomology, mine is projection -- substituting my own feelings for others' in the largely wishful belief that they might be similar.

There are some positive externalities to this sort of projection. In particular, a policy designed to maximize opportunity -- the policy I would desire were I among the immiserated poor -- would have the effect of encouraging hope and endeavour.

Opportunity is, roughly speaking, the slope of the curve of reward as a function of effort. At a given fixed level of resource commitment, this slope can only be increased by lowering the bottom end of the curve; in short, by further immiserating the very poorest. I have written more about this dilemma here. Serious advocacy of personal responsibility for the poor must recognize this cruel effect, just as serious advocacy of social welfare must recognize its tendency to create a cycle of meaningless misery and casual brutality.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bruce in 1962

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lenny Bruce was performing in California. Don DeLillo recounts the scene in Underworld:

"We're all gonna die!"
Lenny loves the postexistential bent of this line. In his giddy shriek the audience can here the obliteration of the idea of uniqueness and free choice. They can hear the replacement of human isolation by massive and unvaried ruin. His closest followers laugh the loudest. Their fan-fed vanity is gratified. They're included in Lenny's own incineration. All the Lennies. The persecuted junkie. The antihypocrite. The satirist and nose picker. Lenny the hipster fink. Lenny the ass mechanic, girl-spotting in hotel lobbies. Lenny the vengeance of the Lord.
"Powerless. Understand, this is how they remind us of our basic state. They roll out a periodic crisis. Is it horizontal? One great power against the other. Or is it vertical, is it up and down?" He seemed to lose his line of argument here. "The U.S. is putting up a naval blockade. Fine, good, groovy. D'ya hear what he said?" And Lenny did his basso head of state. "Any offensive military equipment being shipped to Cuba gets stopped dead in the water by the U.S. fleet." He jabbed at some imaginary lint on his lapel, signaling a shift, a bit. "And there's this woman sitting out there in Centralia listening to the speech. She hears, Maximum peril. She hears, Abyss of destruction. She has a job dishing out meat patties in the school cafeteria and she comes home exhausted and turns on the TV and it's the President of the United States and he's saying, Abyss of destruction. And she sits there in her cafeteria whites, with her shoes off, picking her feet. Her name is Bitty. She's thinking they preempted Lawrence Welk so this Irish Catholic millionaire can talk about Abyss of destruction. Then she thinks, Hey, wait, that's a movie title, right? Sure, it's one of those hard-boiled cynical crime dramas in moody black and white. I saw it with the Muscular Dystrophy Mothers of Central Kansas. The speech goes on and on and Bitty's trying to register the enormous -- and the President says something about, Swift and extraordinary buildup. Soviet missiles in Cuba. But she thinks he's talking about the grease in her oven. Yeah that greasy buildup's beginning to bug me, man. She has this oven cleaner she's eager to try. Works fifty-two percent faster than the strongest industrial acid. She tries to concentrate on the President's speech but everything he's saying sounds like a pitch for insect repellent or throat spray. And Bitty's sitting there in Emporia or Centralia and she gets up out of the chair and goes to the phone and calls her friend DeeAnn. DeeAnn is the local movie expert. DeeAnn reviews movies for the cafeteria workers' newsletter, Meat Patty Week. And Bitty says into the phone, Who was in that movie the President's talking about on TV? And DeeAnn says, You're asking me about movies? At a time like this?"
Lenny bent his knees and spread both arms wide, his mouth stretched in a rictus of gaped and grinning terror.
We're all gonna die!"
I was not alive at the time, and I probably represent the fading rearguard of the generation able to remember the terror of these times, if only secondhand. I read A Canticle for Leibowitz and "The Last Objective" and On The Beach and Second Variety and Thunder and Roses, and in doing so I tasted the edges of the fear that stalked through older minds night and day.

Who would bring those times back? Who can be nostalgic for such a feast of ashes? But see this appalling post from Glenn Reynolds:

For a warmongering global imperialist power, America seems to be insufficiently feared.
UPDATE: Hmm. If Taiwan "acquired" a few dozen thermonuclear weapons, would the calculus change?

Mr. Reynolds is suggesting that the U.S. precipitate a Taiwanese Missile Crisis; in a potential Cool War with China that hasn't even started yet; despite having made it through the Cold War without nuclear-arming our proxies. If we will defend Taiwan with nuclear weapons, we should say so convincingly, and do so if needed, ourselves.

Eloquence fails me; I could write a dictionary, not a brief, against this reckless, immoral, shortsighted, swaggering, cynical, naive, warmongering, egocentric, and suicidally stupid idea. Mr. Reynolds owes the world a prompt, clear and pointed retraction.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Kevin Drum comments on a New York Times survey article on income mobility [the online version is surprisingly link-rich]. He points out a highly plausible cause:
Ever since World War II, the United States has done a phenomenal job of sorting people by talent. Not a perfect job, but an astonishingly good one nonetheless... But there's only a moderate amount of sorting left to be done. Random chance, both in nature and nurture, will always play a role in life outcomes, but that role has gotten smaller and smaller as the sorting has progressed. The result is that life roles have become more hardened. While incomes of the well-off have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, working and middle class incomes have stagnated.

Mr. Drum seems to have discovered what the right wing would call the "Marching Morons problem", after the infamous C.M. Kornbluth story. [In fact, since he does not discuss growth rates, it is not really the problem of marching morons, but of Hanging-Out Morons or some such.] I fear that his conjecture is largely correct: the tremendous increase in individual mobility since World War II has indeed "sorted" society, leading to stratification by intellectual capacity (or, at least, by the capacity to perform the intellectual tasks posed in society).

Let me make clear that I do not believe that this sorting has a significant geographic element. The smartest people in the country are not being collected together in New York (or out of New York, either). But within New York, or Houston, or Wichita, they form different societies that do not mingle, do not offer mutual support, and most assuredly do not intermarry.

Suppose we have truly almost finished creating a genetic intellectual underclass. Mr. Drum [who matriculated at Caltech] is manifestly not a member thereof. He is concerned with providing for them:

And yet, we're supposed to believe that an increase in Social Security costs from 4% of GDP to 6% over the next 50 years is cause for panic. We're supposed to believe national healthcare would bankrupt us — never mind that our current dysfunctional system is the most expensive and most unfair on the planet. We're supposed to believe that broader unionization would ruin American industry, home of the highest profits and most highly paid executives in the world. We're supposed to believe that the nation's millionaires, having already had their tax rates slashed by a third over the past two decades, are still being bled to the bone by federal taxes.

Mr. Drum, a writer, would not be significantly affected by broader unionization. He is a more likely millionaire than those whom he seeks to protect. Nowhere is there any hint that his advocacy is based on self-interest; so let us accept, in good faith, that it is not. He sincerely seeks to protect the less fortunate masses, but their problems are not his problems.

I do not intend, here, to undertake a pragmatic critique of Mr. Drum's proposals. Suppose, instead, that the poor and unfortunate fully appreciate their position; they have read the studies on declining income mobility, and so on. The Democratic Party offers them help from above; for those who are not going to succeed, it says, we will make sure you get health care and housing. But the would-be beneficiaries of this largesse tend to spurn it. Improbable does not mean impossible; poverty is not preterition; and they cling to the perhaps illusory ideal of being able to improve their own lot.

Finally, we are in a position to say what is the matter with Kansas. Two small things, like ghostly leeches clinging to the human heart: dignity, and hope.

Monday, May 16, 2005


Another risible editorial in the Times, this one entitled "As the iPod Stays Hot, It Risks Lising Its Cool" by Ken Belson:
Many successful gadget makers have wrestled with this issue and few have conquered it. Palm organizers, once signature accouterments in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, barely register a yawn when they are pulled out at dinner parties.

Let's put this in the form of a quiz. Do you think the developers and manufacturers of the PalmPilot would prefer:

1) That their product should become ubiquitous, with commensurate sales; or

2) That their product should remain an exotic showpiece, suitable for impressing slack-jawed yokels like Mr. Belson "at dinner parties"?

Apparently Times readers are assumed to favor door #2. There's some shiny glass beads in there too!

The Devil You Know

Joseph Britt finishes with a bang at Belgravia Dispatch [where his striking improvement over the past months makes him a blogging power in his own right]. In discussing the role of regional powers in addressing the world's leading humanitarian crises, he is not blind to the possibility that perhaps their leaders, and even their people, simply do not care:
I will not reprise the arguments on this subject other than to express doubt that an Arab culture indifferent to genocide will ever be reliably hostile to terrorism. That is the implication of Darfur of most immediate concern to us.
China's historical memory of foreign interference in its own affairs, the bloody history of the Chinese Communist senior leadership that -- let us be frank -- makes it less sensitive than Westerners are to the vast human suffering in North Korea...

I think there is more than a possibility that Mr. Britt's worst fears are correct: that the starvation of millions in North Korea, and the slaughter of thousands in Darfur, are issues of no import to the leaders of neighboring countries. This makes Mr. Britt's call for action -- for public pressure on these regional governments to do the right thing -- far more, not less, relevant and pressing. If I am wrong, then I and other hawks who support the forcible reconstruction of the Arab self-image must be shown this. An Egypt which can accept a moral duty to protect the innocents in Darfur deserves more respect and operational latitude than one which cannot.

Conversely, if the leaders of even the most advanced nations of their regions, the Egypts and South Africas, are in fact amoral (according to our Christian-inspired morality), then this should also be known as widely as possible. The moral history of these governments is a nearly unbroken string of failures, but a public failure would be a teaching moment for Western adherents to the axiom of moral equivalence and the doctrine of engagement at all costs. By their actions, let us know them.

Friday, May 13, 2005


From the New York Times [as reprinted in the Daily Telegraph], an editorial ["Superheroes Who Vanquish the Big Stars"] by A. O. Scott:
Comic books are the foundation of a fan culture once derided and now celebrated as the province of nerds, misfits and losers -- young men, like their idols' alter agos, who could compensate for their social marginality by coming the the rescue of the society that had spurned and mocked them. Their origin stories are tales of shame, victimization and abandonment overcome by lonely discipline and endless self-sacrifice.
On Two Blowhards, as part of a discussion on Weirdos and Culture:

The cultureworld exists in defiance of normal life because the people in it really do stand in opposition to normal life. Normal life made them suffer. Not only can they not forgive, they're determined to find meaning in that suffering. They didn't suffer back in high school because they were weird. No, they were made to suffer because they were special -- special and better.

In the cultureworld, among others who are like themselves, these sufferers don't have to wrestle with being strange, out-of-control, vindictive people with loony and burning fantasies about their deep-down superiority to the rest of us. They get to compete on their own terms.

Could the contrast be any clearer? In the comic-book world, these unhappy children, unable to grow up, would develop super powers or diabolical machinery and wreak vengeance on unhappy mankind. In our world, they move to Greenwich Village and wear black, which on balance doesn't seem so bad.

[Update 16 May 2005: added link to NYT article, courtesy of Mr. Whitlock.]

Thursday, May 12, 2005


Greg Djerejian has written a long review and retrospective of Bush's first term-and-a-bit. He is particularly cogent on the subject of Saddam Hussein:

He was a unique danger, a sadistic strategic blunderer perched in the middle of one of the most volatile regions in the world. To not have gone after him in a post 9/11 world, after he refused to bow to the will of extant U.N. resolutions, would have been to give the lie to the seriousness of America's intent in a new and dangerous era.

This is, in a nutshell, why war in Iraq was necessary. It was not made necessary by George Bush's actions, though he assuredly brought it forward. Rather, military confrontation in Iraq was the only way to preserve international law as a force for influencing the behavior of countries. The alternative to Bush's action was acceptance of a world in which "international law" would consist in resolutions, criticisms, diplomatic slaps at prestige, and perhaps, in extreme circumstances, economic sanctions (though the sad case of Darfur illustrates that such sanctions can generally only be imposed on countries with nothing to sell).

These weak tactics are effective only when they are not needed. A dangerous regime is so precisely because it is not part of any "community of nations", and attacks on its standing in that community can have no effect. In dealing with such regimes, only two tools are available: force, and the threat of force.

The Clinton administration tried, in the main, to make do with only the latter tool. This is a form of free riding, expending the credibility earned with blood; and, inevitably, it steadily lost its effectiveness. In the long run, the threat of force cannot be detached from the use of force. The credibility lost in the attempt can be regained in only one way.

If not Iraq, where would the next war have been fought? What bloody acts would have been carried out, within and across their borders, by nations fearing no meaningful reprisal? I, for one, am thankful not to know the answers to these questions.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Falsehood

Some of my previous posts have attempted to explain or predict various interesting aspects of the future; these are, within space and time constraints, as true as I can make them.

This is not such a post.

To begin, consider the effect Kennedy's assassination had on his legacy. On November 20, he was a hard-loving boozehound, horse-trading with Congress; but after his death he grew into the titanic hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the hero and good man who would have wanted the Great Society and Apollo. The putative desires of the dead were far more influential than the inspiration of the living, however eloquently put, could ever be.

Now, consider George W. Bush. He appears courageous, determined, and confident of his own cause to an extent his detractors would call fanatical. But his power to inspire followers without equally invigorating his enemies is limited. Death could change that. Cheney's oft-stated unwillingness to run for President would evaporate; he would become the anointed and inevitable successor.

The timing is tricky; it has to be early enough that there's no clear Republican candidate to compete with Cheney, but late enough that Cheney is not seen as a full-term president. The summer of 2007 seems about right to me. Bush is bearing up very well under the knowledge that he'll soon have to take one for the team; Laura can never be told.

So, pull your tinfoil hats down tight, because know you know The Plan. And, since you and Alex Whitlock are the only people who read this blog, it won't be hard for them to stamp you out.

[Note: this idea is not original to me; see Mark Steigler's "A Simple Case of Suicide" [Analog, May 1983].]

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Let us start with C. S. Lewis's comment on the future, from The Screwtape Letters [ch. 15]:

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. But this is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the past and it has a determinate nature and, to that extent, resembles eternity. It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it, we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. . . . Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. . . .

To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too—just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. . . .

But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future. . . . We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

With that in mind, consider this. Or this. Or this. Well done, Screwtape.


If anyone here is not reading R. Alex Whitlock, then it's time to click over for his exceptional post on the "common ground con". Among other gems:
The reason I get suspicious when liberals start talking about "common ground" is that they are quite frequently planning (consciously or subconsciously) to simply walk you through the steps they walked through to come to the conclusion that they did. When you break with them at one point or another, they'll start all over at the begining of the track and repeat it.
Read the whole thing. G'wan, shoo!

Monday, May 09, 2005

So-Called Democracy

It is generally accepted [outside of a weird recent strain of synthetic alarmism meant to belittle the recent progress in the Middle East] that democracy in a given country is a certain good thing, benefiting its own citizens, its neighbors, and the world. I confess that I myself have a tendency to support democracy for its own sake, for reasons similar to those voiced by G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy [ch. 4]:
If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary... The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.
In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves -- the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
[Emphasis mine.]

However, the manifold alleged benefits of democracy, almost without exception, in fact stem not from democracy itself but from the rule of law favoring no man. It is the rule of law which enables ownership, personal responsibility and reasoned risk-taking, security and hope for the future. The role of democracy in all this can be reduced to a single point: Democracy provides the only known mechanism for preserving the rule of law. This is the sole empirical reason for desiring democracy for others.

Thus democracy is necessary in order to receive "the benefits of democracy" -- but it is not sufficient. Institutions to implement and enforce the rule of law must be present, and democracy alone cannot create them. The Bush administration seems to act with awareness of this, though it is palpably absent from the President's admirable but vague speeches on the subject.

So far, this should be familiar ground. Now let us consider the tools which empower the protection of democracy and law. [One of these is probably the arming of economic stakeholders, but I do not wish to delve into that issue here.] Citizens must have the expectation that lawful rule is the usual case, and illegality the exception; they must have the freedom of speech, and the tools of communication, to evaluate illegality; and they must have the power to act against abuses.

The first criterion (expectations) expresses the needed commitment from the populace. Without this expectation, each individual and interest group will self-interestedly pursue socially destructive strategies, such as stealing common assets before their neighbors can. Democracy requires optimism, to such an extent that the fabled optimism of Americans should be no surprise.

The third criterion (power) is just the crudest expression of the need for democracy. Thus we turn now to the second criterion: communication. Much has been made of the potential of the internet as a tool for freedom, because of its importance in this regard. However, there have been free democracies without telecommunications -- the United States in 1905, for example. The key point is not that communication must be long-distance, but that the scale of easy communication must be commensurate with the scale of government.

In the Iraqi case, the oil revenue problem and the presence of Iran mean that no smaller scale is readily available; thus Iraq must be built as a large unitary state. However, in other places such as Latin America, where these problems are absent or less pronounced, a more federal approach would almost surely lower the bar to stable and lasting democratic government. [See also here.]

[Update 9 May 2005: Perhaps I underrate, or misunderrepresent, President Bush above:
Hadley said during the trip Bush will deliver speeches stressing that democracy is more than elections. He said Bush will emphasize the importance of respect for minorities, rule of law, and inclusion of minorities in political systems.
Hat tip: Publius, via Instapundit.]

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Voice of Monsanto

Further to my recent post on Malloch Brown, I would like to explore the likely effects of widespread telecommunications on the developing world. It is clear that this increased knowledge will strengthen the individual, and thus will be opposed by despotic governments. However, this obvious idea has several ramifications.

First, the dominance of English will be increased throughout the developing world. Assuming that most speakers of non-European languages (besides Chinese and Hindi) will find little of interest in their own language, English is the obvious choice. This will tend to increase America's soft power.

Second, the organization of the internet (such as it is) is optimized for wealthy, first-world consumers. Consider the Google search for "build a crop irrigation system" (not quoted in the search -- the quoted version yields no results). The results are widely disparate, but they are not what I expect a third-world farmer would need. The search for "irrigate crops" is still less useful. [Admittedly, this is not a complete survey; other problems, such as obtaining machine parts or evaluating vaccines, are harder to model but unlikely to differ much.] This shows a need for a new type of portal and content aggregator; but, due to the limited disposable income of the target audience, the existing portal model is unlikely to prove attractive. Instead, the most feasible business model seems to be a portal operated by, and giving priveleges to, some company with sales prospects in the region. Given the internet's dual role as commerce tool and news distributor, this will lead companies into a powerful but unfamiliar role.

Now we should consider the tension between the portal operator and the government. The former will seek to attract an audience by maximizing its news and entertainment value, while seeking profits by minimizing the visibility of competitors' products. The government, of course, will desire exactly the opposite.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Outliving One's Usefulness

King Coal died on Monday. Long live King Coal!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Small but Hungry

R. Alex Whitlock has posted on the un-American nature of the property tax [somewhat mysteriously, his post is titled The Case Against the Sales Tax]. Comparing land ownership with free-and-clear ownership (e.g., of cars), he notes:
We've apparently decided that property (land property, to be specific) is different. If I own a tract of land outright, I still have to pay the government to keep it. I have to make payments on that land for the rest of my life. A lifetime of payments on my own property.
This is completely accurate. I would only add that this tax structure is inevitable, given the small size of municipalities (compared to the mobility of workers and consumers). A property tax is about the only tax they can levy and enforce. City- or county-level sales taxes are just a recipe for large stores just outside the county line, taunting the aldermen.

It is worth noting that the only place in downstate New York with low property taxes is New York City -- which has the size and muscle to raise money with a 4.5% income tax.