I have two recommendations on entirely independent issues. First, I want to recommend Arnold Kling's essay discussing David Brin's theory of the transparent society. Brin's work is important and different (even though it was published some years ago): In brief, Brin sees liberty as flourishing not when the state is weak, but when the state is accountable. Accountability in turn requires that government processes must be open, and that citizens must be vigilant and effective in monitoring and challenging the actions of public officials. According to Brin, the best society is one in which the government uses surveillance technology but the public also…
Archives for July 2013
Yesterday 205 members of the House, defying the partisan polarization that has recently characterized that body, voted for an amendment limiting the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records. Last week a federal judge appointed to the bench by George W. Bush lit into a government lawyer claiming limitless executive authority to assassinate U.S. citizens in drone attacks. The tide may be turning. But most heads in the war on terror ultimately spring from one hydra, and that hydra lives: a post-9/11 authorization of force through which Congress ceded an enormous and amorphous swath of power to the President to wage war without end on an enemy without definition.
Recently, there was an interesting story in the New York Times on meditation and its effects on people’s behavior. As a meditator, I can attest to its stress reduction and general mood improvement properties. But the story talks about its effects on compassion toward others.
We recruited 39 people from theBoston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them topractice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.
WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?
The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing other signoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect —reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.
Frank Buckley is the editor of a new collection of essays entitled The American Illness: Essays on the Rule of Law, which features great scholars in business law, class actions, securities, regulatory law, among other subjects, who look into the ways America has departed from its pivotal commitment to the rule of law. The essays are oriented around the idea that America may be alone among western nations in the variety of ways it is descending from the rule of law. On this point, Buckley opens by suggesting that such a departure might be directly tied to our lagging economic recovery:
More recently, America itself has suffered from an economic decline, and this book asks . . . whether a decline in the rule of law has contributed to this. America sends experts to lecture people in other countries about the importance of the rule of law, but in doing so, do we fail to recognize the beam in our own eye?
Recently, I started following a constitutional law professor listserv for the first time in many years. The listserv is dominated by a certain form of liberal nonoriginalism that might be called activist. One justice who I believe reflects this approach was Justice Brennan, but some current members of the Court might be included in this group as well. This has gotten me thinking a bit about the methodology of activist liberal nonoriginalism.
What is striking about this approach is how much of an overlap there is between a person’s political views and his views on the meaning of the Constitution. This overlap is so strong that might wonder whether the content of constitutional law under this approach is simply one’s political views.
While the person’s political views are a first approximation of the content of constitutional law under this approach, I do think there are some constraints on constitutional law under this approach. First, the constitutional text might seem like a constraint, and in some cases (such as the Senate containing two Senators from each state) it does constrain. But, as anyone trained in these matters knows, one can derive a great many meanings from the words of the Constitution, especially if one accepts relatively loose derivations, as do practitioners of this approach.
It may only be rock and roll, but Alan Krueger, the outgoing chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, likes it, not least because it is economically illuminating. Among the ways in which the economy and the recording industry are alike, he said in a recent address at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, is that outcomes in both depend substantially on luck. The suggestion is that distributions dictated by chance are arbitrary, problematic and—this last point is unstated but seemingly latent—fair game for rearranging. The typical conservative response is to deny that luck rather than merit is at play. But were the point ceded just for fun—and luck stipulated as a potent force in economic affairs—an interesting question might result: So?
One of the consequences of living in an information age is that we are made instantly, and constantly, aware of the disasters around the world, both natural and man-made, and of the enormous suffering that they cause. There are no more far-away lands of which to know nothing, to quote Neville Chamberlain, a man whom nobody would describe as wicked but yet who is the most despised of British Prime Ministers. We are all citizens of the world now.
Knowledge of suffering seems to place upon us an obligation of compassion that is greater than we can possibly bear. We respond in one of two ways: to claim a level of feeling that is greater than we actually can or do feel, in which case we become humbugs; or we harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh.
When Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann released their annual Vital Statistics on Congress this month showing that the 112th Congress passed a record low number of laws, tongues clucked among Washington’s class of chatterers and puritans about dysfunction on Capitol Hill. “The least productive Congress ever,” announced The Washington Post. But when James Madison diagnosed the ills of the American political system on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, paralysis was not among them. The problem was a limitless capacity to pass legislation.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman created a stir when he offered the following comments: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century… . Our one-party democracy is worse.”
I am reluctant to offer criteria for what it takes to be “a reasonably enlightened group of people,” but if Western academic legal theory and political philosophy stand in for what Friedman’s group believes, then we ought to be cautious in our optimism, to say the least. After all, their position is at times murky, and at times at odds with the American constitutional order. On pressing issues, Chinese academics assiduously studying American court cases, published journal articles, academic books, etc. may find an endorsement of China’s policies, not a repudiation of them. Far from “speaking truth to power,” Western academics may simply have nothing to say.
Remarkable is the extent to which ruling class consensus can blot out common sense.
The headlines tell us that more and better US missile defense devices are being tested and deployed to keep pace with Iran’s and North Korea’s increasing capacity to deliver nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on ourselves and our allies. Secretary of Defense Hagel said that these improvements “make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression.” The underlying reality however is that these devices, intentionally designed to be marginally adequate, are inadequate for their minimal purpose. Much less can they safeguard our lives and interests against serious threats from serious quarters: Russia, China, and whatever hostile forces might come into possession of Pakistan’s arsenal.