Tag Archives: libertarianism

From the referrals, re: Rand Paul’s naive libertarianism

Saw an incoming link from a site called AesopsRetreat to my posts earlier about Rand Paul and racism. They excerpt this line:

“I could say alternatively that racism by businesses has serious negative externalities in practice and I’m ok with government regulation on those grounds.

A commenter on the thread notes:

Rand Paul will win on REAL ISSUES that are of concern to the voters.

Racism is not an issue in 2010. This is not 1964.

Well, perhaps racism is not an issue in 2010, if you are white and live in Kentucky. If those two stipulations don’t apply, perhaps it is more obvious that racism and the violence that accompanies overt displays of racism are pretty scary prospects.

Perhaps I should restate my argument for clarity. I point out that a transaction between an individual and a business not not just implicate the property rights of the individual and the business. The city or governmental entity that issues a business license on behalf of its citizens has a property right interest in ensuring that business is transacted in ways that do not reflect badly on the community and ensure the public safety.

Hence building codes, health codes, etc. Libertarians rarely challenge building codes or health codes from a philosophical point, but if they want to argue that businesses should be allowed to conduct racist business practices, they should maintain consistency and advocate for the abolition of all ground-level regulations that come with obtaining a business license.

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From the comments: On Rand Paul’s naive libertarianism

A friend who wishes to be identified only as “PhantomOutlaw” from www.cross-x.com writes to me in response to my posts (here and here) on Rand Paul’s naive libertarianism:

Can you expound on this “I could say alternatively that racism by businesses has serious negative externalities in practice and I’m ok with government regulation on those grounds.”

An externality is (very useful) economic jargon that just means a spillover cost or benefit of a transaction affecting people who weren’t involved in the transaction. An example would be a coal-burning power plant, where customers purchase electricity but the plant gives off pollution that affects non-customers. That would be a negative externality (which is bad). An example of a positive externality is if my neighbor hires a security guard for his house; if the guard deters thieves from the whole area, not just the neighbor’s house, I benefit from something I haven’t paid for.

In the context of this discussion, I think that government has a role in regulating away the bad things that come with a business actually engaging in racist business practices. Imagine if the steakhouse next to my house began only serving white people. That would probably prompt demonstrations and riots outside my house (negative externality). Now I face increased safety risks and the quality of the time I spend at home decreases.  Additionally, other businesses around the area now face decreased business because the area has a reputation for being racist, something that they weren’t responsible for but suffer from. Clearly these are all legitimate reasons why a government would seek to enforce content-neutral regulations against racism.

PhantomOutlaw continues:

Also, I don’t really understand this argument: “It is not unreasonable that a government seeks to actively curate a city’s image (to enforce voter-expressed preferences) and regulates the business climate with that in mind, nor is it unreasonable that government should seek to prevent the public disorder that inevitably follows racist practices.”

I hear you saying that if a municipality doesn’t want to be seen as racist, then its OK for them to regulate against racism if that is the will of the electorate. I may be missing something here but it seems like Paul would concur with this line, since it would be a state/local law. Additionally, isn’t there an argument for why civil liberties are key and shouldn’t be trampled on by the will of the people.

Sure. The first paragraph just says that a government has the right to shape a city’s image to express what voters want. For instance, if the voters of Columbia want to attract big software companies, they might vote for policies like bike trails and more downtown police officers walking the beat. They might pass new zoning regulations that tell people what they can and can’t do with their property. Sometimes these policies are hotly contested, but generally the ability of city governments to enact those content-neutral regulations is well established.

I agree with a stronger version of your second paragraph. I would say something like this: representative governments represent all citizens, and we don’t allocate citizenship by race or sex. So it is intrinsically a function of government to protect the interests of everyone and a violation of this social contract to allow businesses to be racist. Everyone is represented by government, so the businesses that we allow to exist should not be allowed to discriminate. Otherwise we’d be taxing people for governmental goods and services that flow to businesses that aren’t willing to serve everyone for some arbitrary and wrong reason. No taxation without representation, basically. These are the implicit protections of representative democracy.

The notion of representative democracy justifies federal action. Citizens of all 50 states are affected by the racist policies of one state much in the same way businesses close to a racist business are affected. So I think there is room for the functions of different levels of government to curb bad decisions or policies of other levels of government, and this is not inconsistent with libertarian principles. Hopefully that is a sufficient answer?

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Extended thoughts on Rand Paul and naive libertarianism

So I want to expand on this argument that there is a difference between consensual relations between individuals and consensual relations between individuals and businesses. The thing that Rand Paul gets wrong is that business transactions don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen in a market. Markets (at least legal ones) have the feature that they feature a varied and rich legal architecture binding a business to the larger communities like the cities and states where they have business licenses. In some senses this is a very democratic notion: markets should be accessible to anyone regardless of race because it is only through the regulatory functions of representative governments that they are able to exist in the first place.

In other words, if we have to give everyone suffrage regardless of race, we have to ban racist business practices.

Think of the analogy to building codes. Businesses operate under the very real parameters that they have to conduct business in buildings that are physically safe. If these buildings were not physically safe, and were for instance in a negligent state that inappropriately risked catching on fire, then there are serious obvious negative externalities that exist. If one building is on fire, other nearby buildings are at risk, and there is damage to property and life that must be evaluated. Hence, we have building codes and fire codes (regulations) to mitigate these risks so that one business can co-exist with others in geographic space.

Regulation against racism is much the same. Has anyone ever proposed to Rand Paul that in a world where he refused to regulate racism, racist businesses risk being focal points for violence and riots? The public safety considerations are substantial and presumably justify quite a lot of government intervention (anyone remember the Rodney King riots?) You could come up with a variety of empirically relevant scenarios here.

I understand that part of Paul’s argument is that federal regulation is not necessarily good. That is conceded. But the part of his argument that says government shouldn’t intrude on private conduct does not extend to business conduct and I think it is important that people understand that.

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Thoughts on Rand Paul, racism, and naive libertarianism

I think Rand Paul is absolutely right when he defends the ability of people to engage in private, consensual relations, even if the content of those relations is offensive and wrong, like racism. He is however absolutely incorrect by extending this analysis to businesses like Whitworth’s, and here’s why.

I tend to think of laws against racist business practices in the same way I think of building codes, or food safety regulations. This is because a business implicates more than just the business owner and a customer; the community that the business exists in provides legal sanction for that business’s operation, and with that legal sanction is attached the variable requirements for building safety and good conduct that individual communities deem important and necessary for the operation of business. Regulations preventing racist business practices are no different from the health code or zoning laws in some important ways: they have a branding function that implicates both the business and the community the business is situated in, and they create dangerous environments that require intervention by law enforcement. It is not unreasonable that a government seeks to actively curate a city’s image (to enforce voter-expressed preferences) and regulates the business climate with that in mind, nor is it unreasonable that government should seek to prevent the public disorder that inevitably follows racist practices. I would add that regulations should also be content-neutral as a matter of fairness, but stipulation doesn’t meaningfully change my argument.

I could say alternatively that racism by businesses has serious negative externalities in practice and I’m ok with government regulation on those grounds.

So I think that Rand Paul, as much as I like his robust defense of civil liberties, is guilty of being delusionally naive about these questions.

Here is a couple of other worthwhile reads from Volokh Conspirators Ilya Somin and David Bernstein on the subject.

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On conversations with unions

Talking to union members is oddly libertarian. They seem to mostly be concerned with property rights. Strange.

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Against Sarah Brodsky On School Lunch: Our Moral Obligations and a Libertarian Alternative

Our national school lunch program has a very dear place in my heart. I advocated increasing funding to the program as an affirmative case on a high school debate topic many, many moons ago. I was a novice debater and a poor advocate at the time and I am sure the only reason I won the few rounds that I did was that the arguments for these policies carry their own weight.

The argument is that hunger is perhaps the most meaningful barrier to learning in the classroom. This is because neither the mind nor the body can function at its best when it does not have enough nutrients. This prevents an immediate barrier to classroom instruction that the classroom cannot distance them from. You can provide the social, emotional, and physical distance from the problems in a child’s life in the space of a classroom, but you cannot separate a child from his or her hunger.

It seems worthwhile to me that schools should provide an adequate and nutritious breakfast or lunch option for children, particularly for children in poverty, but poverty alone is not the sole barrier to adequate nutrition. Even large numbers of children in well-off families routinely skip an adequate breakfast and having that option available at school is truly meaningful (Brown et al 2008) in whether or not your students are attentive and able to learn. There are real costs to medications and managing disruptive behavior and the entire system that enforces laws against absenteeism; I think the Brown 2008 study estimates one set of costs at $10 billion annually. Think of it this way: hunger increases misbehavior and hence the amount of non-productive, ‘guard’ labor in the form of security officers, social workers, etc that are necessary to deal with the consequences of misbehavior. Hence what appeared to be a simple problem of hungry children also represents an economy-wide misallocation of resources with many large and hidden costs.

There is a moral argument for providing sufficient diet options for schoolchildren as well. Children do not have a choice about whether or not they are educated; it is the law that they be educated (though parents have wide latitude in determining the direction of that education). In a sense mandating participation in education is a just form of involuntary servitude because children cannot opt out (and most children do want to be in school). It is our moral obligation to provide adequately for them given our constraint on their liberty. I would argue that if we cannot guarantee children the basic commitment to provide for their well being then mandating their participation in education is unjust. Consider the following: if we provide bad, inedible food to prisons, prisoners riot and lawmakers start writing bills. But there are no repercussions for us when we provide ‘spent hens‘ and bacteria-infested meat that doesn’t meet McDonald’s quality standards to children. If children misbehave we medicate them, providing employment for doctors who over-diagnose ADHD and other conditions and over-prescribe drugs like Ritalin that make billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies that make these kinds of mind-altering drugs.

These are reasons why I find  shoddy and uninformed stances opposing investments in our children’s nutrition really disturbing. Here is Show-Me Institute intern Sarah Brodsky slamming what appears to be a notably successful effort in New Orleans (!) to improve access to nutrition:

I read further and saw that my guess was wrong. The “What We’ve Done” section of the website is all about school food. Of the 12 recommendations for change, two call for more local food in school lunches. One suggests that schools establish gardens on their premises because “Students need to grow fresh food and taste what they grow.”

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools is lobbying for something peripheral to a great education. It doesn’t matter where school food was grown, as long as students get a nutritionally complete meal. And gardening, while it’s possibly educational and rewarding, is not a basic human need. If you think of school priorities, like creating a safe environment and teaching students to read, maintaining a garden would be pretty far down the list.

I hope Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools will reevaluate its goals and stay true to its original mission. A couple of questions to consider: Are the most pressing inequities already addressed, so that we can now devote our attention to gardens? Or do neighborhoods and parental income levels continue to keep a great education out of reach for many students, for reasons that have nothing to do with food?

The problems here are obvious! While it’s true that as adequate nutrition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with where food came from, the status quo is so far from satisfactory that this FYI is meaningless. What is meaningful is that students now don’t have access to high-quality food. If it comes from local producers who don’t maximize yields, diluting nutrient content (as is the case with large agribusiness), the food is vastly better. If children aren’t eating meat that tests positive for salmonella four times more often than the meat McDonald’s accepts, or processed wheat products that have been stripped of their nutrient content and instead get access to food produced in less destructive ways, we are all better off!

Here’s the fundamental argument that Sarah’s blind opposition to local food ignores. Industrial food production and distribution happens on a national scale. Unfortunately, it is well documented that regulators don’t do their jobs well in regulating quality and safety. The compelling argument for local food is that being able to immediately hold specific people accountable and not depending on the bureaucracy of a federal regulatory body allows us to prevent children from eating contaminated meat and tortillas and things that would get a large fast food chain in a class-action lawsuit faster than you can say “where’s an attorney?”. Part of the basic economics of information holds that when information is specialized and decentralized it is harder to gather and interpret, meaning that consumers have less information, not more, about their choices.

There are three policy recommendations that I’d like to close with. The first is that we have more school gardens! Even if they’re not by themselves sufficient to feed an entire school the effort is still worthwhile. You get to start changing the outlook children have towards food and their environment and promote healthy living. And it’s a huge educational opportunity! A garden is a natural lab for chemistry and biology classes. It is a starting place for discussions about politics, fodder for historical and cultural education, and if you have a culinary arts program headed by someone like Brook Harlan at Rockbridge High (here is a good profile)here in Columbia, you’re really on to something.

The second is of course that this focus on local food is good. There are inefficient ways and bad thinking that can characterize the advocacy for local food and it is important to be unbiased and scientific; that being said, I think I have made a compelling argument that local food is good because you get what you pay for.

The third policy recommendation is that we encourage more school districts to end the monopoly on providing food services that they retain or contract out to large corporations. Allow multiple private vendors to provide food of certain quality and let competition drive at least part of the increase in quality. In economic language we can note more formally that expanding the market increases the amount of both consumer and producer surplus. It also protects our obligation to ensure basic services to our children. This is really the libertarian way out of the problem and it’s a good example of where interactions between public and private entities provide better services than the status quo, which is dominated by public schools granting monopolies to private lunch contractors.

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Cheap at the Price: A Libertarian Theory of Regime Change

A story from the Washington Post by DeYoung and Abramowitz (9/27/07), contains this tidbit that caught my eye:

Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein signaled that he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a report of a Feb. 22, 2003, meeting between President Bush  and his Spanish counterpart published by a Spanish newspaper yesterday.

The meeting at Bush’s Texas ranch was a planning session for a final diplomatic push at the United Nations. The White House was preparing to introduce a tough new Security Council resolution to pressure Hussein, but most council members saw it as a ploy to gain their authorization for war.

Spain’s prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, expressed hope that war might be avoided — or at least supported by a U.N. majority — and Bush said that outcome would be “the best solution for us” and “would also save us $50 billion,” referring to the initial U.S. estimate of what the Iraq war would cost. But Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to “be in Baghdad at the end of March.”

I want to make an argument about how we should have gone about regime change in Iraq. I argue that we should have credibly offered Saddam Hussein to accept cash and exile in return for regime change (the rest of the story seems to indicate President Bush was never serious about the offer). Even a relatively expensive bribe ($1 billion-$10 billion) would have enabled a transfer of power far less bloody and expensive in human and fiscal terms than the war that President Bush initiated.  Using cost-benefit analysis, that conclusion seems obvious to me; even a pure fiscal comparison between the current costs of the Iraq conflict (a little over $702 billion at present according to www.costofwar.com) would have indicated the relative merits of an exile deal.

This subject is an underexplored subject in the literature as far as I know. An SSRN search came up with two working papers that I thought were immediately relevant, both taking a stance on the option of offering exile to Saddam for regime change. The first paper, by Michael Scharf at Case Western in 2006, notes particularly that:

Admittedly, thousands of lives could have been spared if Hussein had accepted the deal. But at the risk of being accused of blindly embracing Kant’s prescription that “justice must be done even should the heavens fall,” this Article argues that it was inappropriate for the Bush Administration even to make the offer, and that if implemented the exile-for-peace deal would have seriously undermined the Geneva Conventions and the Genocide Convention, which require prosecution of alleged offenders without exception.

The second article, by Leila Sadat of Washington University in 2006, agrees, noting:

Second, this Article challenges the conventional wisdom that “swapping justice for peace” is morally and practically acceptable. Instead, I argue that international negotiators offering exile are neither morally nor legally justified in doing so. Indeed, although it is beguiling to imagine that offering exile to Saddam Hussein would save thousands of lives, or that the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda would have laid down its weapons in return for automatic immunity, the evidence suggests the contrary: that warlords and political leaders capable of committing human rights atrocities are not deterred by the amnesties obtained, but emboldened. As will be discussed below, the cases of Sierra Leone, the Former Yugoslavia, and Haiti suggest that amnesties for top-level perpetrators imposed from above or negotiated at gunpoint do not lead to the establishment of peace – but at best create a temporary lull in the fighting. Indeed, amnesty deals typically foster a culture of impunity in which violence becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

I find both statements rather, well, wrong. I think it’s true Scharf and Sadat woefully underestimate the real costs of war; Scharf says “thousands of lives could have been spared” with Saddam in exile and Sadat says those who offered exile are neither “morally or legally justified in doing so”. I don’t think that either scholar evaluated the true impact of not exiling Saddam; Scharf notes the value of robustly enforcing international legal conventions like the Geneva conventions, ignoring the possibility that a pre-emptive war against Iraq would almost certainly involve greater circumventions of the Geneva conventions than exiling Saddam. Indeed, this turned out to be the case, as many well-documented cases of extra-legal rendition, torture, and violations of civil liberties turned out to be the modus operandi of the organization (President  Bush’s administration) prosecuting the war. Sadat’s article talks about the morality of exiling criminals, but portrays this debate in a vacuum that does not include the costs of war and forced regime change.

I do have the sense that offering amnesty or exile to those in nations where institutions are extremely unstable ( particularly those in Africa) may not be a good idea for practical reasons and also that there is a very real difference between offering amnesty and offering exile. In any case I think there are clear differences between the offering of amnesty or exile to African warlords than to Middle Eastern dictators and that both Scharf and Sadat never really articulate clear reasons why clearly different scenarios are functionally the same (I understand that this is not a completely clear statement and that I haven’t come close to establishing the basis under which I think it is true but that’ll come soon as I progress in this direction).

But I digress. Let’s start from another angle. The difference between the cost of exiling Saddam and the nominal fiscal current cost of the war is staggering, about $701 billion. Even if you are very generous about estimating the cost of getting Saddam’s organization into exile and assume a tenfold increase ($10 billion) the answer is still obvious. Even with an absurdly expensive transition involving substantial amounts of US troops providing security while Iraqis were able to organize elections and start the process of governmental change, we can presume that war still looks like an unattractive option. If we expand our notion of the fiscal cost of war to account for the casualties of the war and the internal conflict that followed (roughly 5,000 coalition members and roughly 100,000 civilian casualties), the comparison is bleakly compelling.

What is the cost of a human life? If that question sounds like evidence that economics is a bleak, amoral science, rephrase the question. What is the value of preventing a human fatality? The US Department of Transportation uses the estimate $5.8 million as the basis for its cost analyses, and also runs the analyses for the higher estimate of $8.4 million. Using $5.8 million as the value for preventing the average human fatality, a rough estimate of the cost of the Iraq war is now

Fiscal Cost ($702 billion) + human cost ($5.8 million x 105,000=$609 billion) = $1.311 trillion

Using the higher value, $8.4 million, the cost of the Iraq war is $1.584 trillion.

Note, furthermore, that the cost estimates here don’t even begin to incorporate other large scale costs associated with the war, like foregone GDP growth, or the implicit costs of the damage done to the US’s status. At this point I really am beating a dead horse with a rather large club, so I’ll move on and save my energy for the seals.

What is the opportunity cost of the Iraq war? What alternative policy options could we come up with for equal to or less than $1.3-1.5 trillion dollars that would leave us better off? The sheer magnitude of the difference between the explicit initial costs of exile vs. the explicit initial costs of invasion would seem to be worth it; even if Iraq devolved rapidly post-Saddam and we still committed the same fiscal resources post-Saddam to the country we still save on the cost of the invasion and are likely to have far fewer civilian casualties.

There is the argument to morality that says we should punish the evil. What this analysis is designed to give is the sense that sometimes the costs of punishing the evil are too high. It is easy to see the evil that Saddam Hussein perpetrated throughout his career (some of it with US backing), but what is less easy to see are the thousands and millions of evils that perpetrate in the aftermath of a war. From the circumvention of international legal conventions on war and human rights, to the blatant corruption and crime that followed as the US gave contracts to private contractors operating as if they were their own law, to the warlords that sought to tear Iraq apart using their own militias, to the million small crimes against children and women and the weak that happen in the absence of law and order, the aggregate evils that flourish in the aftermath of war far outweigh the  singular qualms that we have in sending an accomplished elderly dictator into comfortable exile.

Of course, exile for such a person would never truly be comfortable. Even on the most remote island, Saddam in exile would fear for his life; one does not rule a nation with an iron fist for decades and not make the kind of implacable enemies that would seek extra-legal justice at any cost.

Some make the argument that we don’t want to incentivize dictatorship by paying off current dictators. In a world where the steady-state path seems to be towards liberal democratic governments and we only buy off the dictators in nations where the institutional facilities exist to make a successful transition of power viable, nations transition ineluctably towards democracy and dictators become an endangered species. If we relax these constraints and try to buy off dictators in countries at the margin of institutional continuity and anarchy, this strategy still works if we are able to facilitate the rapid creation of those institutions by stimulating economic growth and increasing the education level of the population.

Note that though I describe the heft of this argument as libertarian (the outcome I describe is achievable solely through voluntary trade and all parties are better off) liberals and conservatives should find much to like about this argument. First, I think liberals would like the argument that wars of these kinds (superpowers vs. marginal third world countries) are outmoded and needlessly wasteful and allow precisely those kinds of government encroachment into rights and liberties that democracies are designed to ameliorate. I think conservatives would like the idea that America can buy peace and profit from it. I think those among us with common sense would like the idea that we can pursue an aggressive foreign policy that doesn’t treat Islam as an enemy and spreads the notions of economic liberty and freedom. The Western victory happens when we get people of different beliefs to understand the idea that differences in religion and belief don’t matter as much as the freedoms and liberties that allow us to pursue wealth and prosperity.

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Important Words from Arnold Kling

President Obama is getting flack from the nutjob nativists for his decision to grant temporary amnesty to Haitians illegally in the United States. This seems like the charitable thing to do to me; economist Arnold Kling at Econlog also notes that it is the libertarian thing to do:

Finally, on another subject, a reader asked me to say more about Haiti. Jeff Sachs offers a predictable proposal for a massive infusion of aid. I have to admit that compared to other things our government does with our money, I see little reason to object. But the libertarian approach to Haiti instead would focus on opening our doors to refugees.

Look at the track record of refugees in America. It seems to me to have worked out remarkably well in most cases, both for the refugees and for America. Now, compare the track record of American military occupation and nation-building, or the track record of foreign aid to underdeveloped countries.

It is my feeling that one of the great failures of the Republican Party is that it cultivates this ethos that America’s greatness and glory is beyond reproach and that America’s status as the sole remaining global superpower gives it the moral right to war with nations and intervene militarily in places like Iraq for the purpose of liberating others. But this dodges the lessons from our history; generally, our attempts at Third World nation-building and geostrategic dominance have met with muddled success at best and spectacular failure at worst.

I can explain this in another fashion. An integral part of the conservative narrative is that A) market solutions work and are generally superior to government policy, B) that the best government is limited government and here you find particularly good defenses of federalism. Both of those ideas seem fundamentally sound to me. But the narrative becomes intellectually bankrupt where it becomes part of the other narrative of American power and dominance. That’s because the narrative of American power as an unequivocal force for good is also a narrative of superior American knowledge and expertise coupled with moral obligation.  But this narrative does not wholly manifest itself as American exports of the ideas of economic liberty and freedom; it also manifests itself as geostrategic meddling, coupled with economic imperialism and schizophrenic focus on particular problems as they are relevant. Many of our problems in the Islamic world, for instance, are rooted in our defense of dictatorships against the Soviet threat, when we should have been directly supporting democracy and economic liberty.

It seems to me that Arnold’s argument is exactly right. The tragedy in Haiti deeply saddens me, but the deeper tragedy is also rooted in the inability of Haiti to sustain economic development and build the institutions that are key to rising GDP and human welfare. We shouldn’t forget that Haiti’s economy and government were critically damaged by a US occupation to preserve US economic interests in the nation, regardless of what the nation’s citizens actually wanted.

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Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The Republican Party isn’t doing so well; after a electoral defeat in the 2008 cycle that in many ways was a repudiation of Bush-era politics, the party finds itself intellectually bankrupt and massively unpopular. Indeed, the most legitimate faction remaining within the GOP is those who identify strictly as fiscal conservative/libertarian, though I fault them for generally not presenting meaningful intellectual opposition to the Administration or to the Democratic party in general.

I’ve argued for years that part of why the GOP is intellectually bankrupt is because of its strident effort to merge multiple, mutually exclusive ideologies under the umbrella of one cohesive narrative. Most specifically, and most relevant to this post and recent events, is the incompatibility of the narratives of the American Religious Right, which argues for a deep level of  government control and leadership in individual lives with the aim of creating a moral, ‘Christian’ nation, and the narratives of classical liberalism and libertarianism, which generally advocate for an extremely limited governmental role as an arbiter of last resort and a provider of public goods like national defense.

Where the GOP ran into trouble is where they made the narrative of religious purity and morality part of their party advocacy. So they actively went after bans on same-sex marriages, abortion, vaccines to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, amongst others, without providing meaningful empirical justifications. The narratives they chose for ther ideas were couched in the language of values, unity, and binary distinctions, without allowing for nuance. Bans on same sex marriages particularly were justified by theoretical objections over the sanctity of marriage (as if government, and government alone, could uphold this concept of a sacred marriage). Such arguments never gained much traction for me; we grew up in a world where some 50% of marriages end in divorce and relational violence is a real problem. The suggestion that most marriages are conducted in a ‘sacred’ or a ‘holy’ manner is quite laughable to me.

Which brings me to South Carolininan Governor Sanford, who resigned his position as head of the Republican Governors Association yesterday after admitting to an extra-marital relationship with an Argentinian woman. His resignation means that the Republicans have one fewer serious presidential candidate to front in the next election cycle; another serious contender, Senator Ensign (R-NV) just admitted to an affair with a campaign worker and resigned from his leadership position as head of the Republican Policy Committee.  The Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who the Republicans presumably thought would provide an intellectual, inspirational point to rally conservatives and counter Barack Obama’s traction with the nation’s non-white voters, had a disastrous appearance on national televison. Which leaves us with Governor Sarah Palin (R-AL) whose jovial ignorance has made her a laughinstock across the nation, even as she feuds with the father of her daughter’s out-of-wedlock child. I don’t know Governor Sanford’s politics that well (I have read that he isn’t a big social conservative) but he is the governor of one of the nation’s most conservative states. Anecdotal example: When I think ‘South Carolina’, I immediately think ‘Christian Exodus‘, a movement of ultra-conservative Christians moving to South Carolina with the goal of gaining a majority stake in democratic policymaking. The wiki is here.

There is a common thread here. The GOP invested a great amount of its image in an essentially unsustainable promise of moral leadership, a promise that is undermined every time a major social conservative is caught with their pants down. But it presents a real problem. In trying to build a national coalition, the GOP embraced too many incompatible narratives and is rendered politically impotent as a result. The downside, as I mentioned earlier, is that they end up failing to present the kind of opposition that renders democracy powerful; the Democratic coalition gets to push through legislative change using economic arguments that really need to be challenged.

My recommendation for GOP party strategists? Dump the social agenda. Because it allows the everyday failings of your leaders to undermine your message and cultivates an anti-intellectual environment, marginalizing key thinkers and discouraging diversity of thought. Those concepts are at the center of any effective political movement. I’m not the only person making these arguments; here is Nobel Laureate Gary Becker (U Chicago) making a more nuanced version of the argument.

EDIT: I incorrectly noted that Sanford resigned as governor; this hasn’t happened yet, though he did resign as head of the Republican Governors Association.

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