Monday, December 20, 2010

Spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism

It is important to continue to recall the nature of the ideological battle that was the Cold War. Millions have come of age with no experience of that time and will only know the Cold War through history books if they know anything about it at all. The struggle to spread the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism continues, but in a very different way. We need new words, concepts, and visions to appeal to people around the world.

The Cold War, for example, was won by the U.S. and its allies not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism to other regions that, in the words of strategic thinker Stanley A. Weiss, "helped suck the lifeblood out of communism's global appeal," making it incapable of meeting the widespread yearning for a better and more-open life.

What's often forgotten is that this was mostly done by liberals.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is "federalism" really the solution?

"Federalism" is often touted as a solution to our problems. Usually what people mean by "federalism" is a bias towards state and local governance in opposition to federal governance. I've come to think that this is a phony issue. First of all the same citizens who elect federal office holders also elect state and local office holders. So the idea that there is something uniquely pure and republican about local and state politics is ridiculous. There is no value distinction between these levels of government.

Second, state and local governments have been run just as incompetently as the federal government. In my state there are many local governments that are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the state government has been passing its budgets on smoke and mirrors. There is nothing about local and state government that justifies the romance and fantasy that is propagated by advocates of "federalism."

The federalism argument is rooted in a mid-20th century opposition to a big federal government. Opponents were looking for any alternative to big government and they latched on to "federalism" as a tactic to oppose big government by claiming that local and state government should have priority. But in my state, local governments are struggling with roles and responsibilities that were organized in an industrial society that no longer exists.

So just saying "federalism" doesn't solve any problems. This is why I've lost patience with libertarian and conservative rhetoric about federalism. Libertarianism and conservatism as movements have been dominated by intellectuals who have little practical experience with governance. How many have been city managers struggling with the challenges of local governance? Libertarianism and conservatism have been so focused on opposing the industrial-age managerial liberalism, that they never really addressed how to govern an industrialized society. Classical liberalism is a pre-industrial variety of liberalism and it offers little guidance for the challenges we have faced over the past hundred years.

We need to think about how to apply liberal principles to 21st century realities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs"

Walter Russell Mead is a great resource. I've come to really enjoy reading his blog at The American Interest. The thing that resonates with me is that he recognizes that we are in a significant transition period, which has been a main theme of my thinking for the past several years. The people who are going to make a difference are those who are creatively thinking about the new world that is coming into being. It won't be the progressives, conservatives and libertarians who are all trapped in outdated, 20th century, industrial age ideologies. It is a very difficult task to convince people that their inherited ideology is not the one true way. It requires a kind of suspension of disbelief to recognize that there are legitimate modes of thinking that have not yet been imagined. And then to begin the adventure of trying to imagine them.

America has everything it needs for success in the twenty-first century with one exception: a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.  Figuring out why so many of our intellectuals and experts are so poorly equipped to play a constructive role — and figuring out how to develop the leadership we currently lack — may be the most important single thing Americans need to work on right now.

Regular readers of these posts know that I think that the world is headed into a tumultuous period, and that the United States is stuck with a social model that doesn’t work anymore. 
...
But the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level.  Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.
...
First, there’s ideology.  Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state.  The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day.  An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress.  It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.  The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold.  
The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed.  For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This doesn’t mean that government becomes insignificant.  The state will survive and as social life becomes more complex it will inevitably acquire new responsibilities – but it will look and act less like the administrative, bureaucratic entity of the past. 
...
So there you have it.  The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model.  Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face.  The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it.  They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The European type of conservatism being alien to the American tradition...

Hayek on Conservatism:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.

It is significant that Hayek understood what many Americans do not: that conservatism is alien to America. That the Founders were not conservatives. That the republican ideology on which America was founded is not conservative. That the ongoing improvisation that is the American Experiment is not, nor has it ever been, conservative. We are in a significant transition period right now. In order for us to innovate the next iteration of the American Experiment it is necessary that we strip out the conservative and New Left ideologies from our thinking. We need to see clearly with fresh eyes and we can't do that as long we remain attached to these ideologies.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

America's international order

Tom Barnett:

[S]o if India and China continue to rise peacefully, despite all the trappings of power that would suggest the high probability of conflict, then our system is much to be credited, because we're doing what the British colonial order was never able to accomplish--peacefully integrate rising great powers

"Our system" is of course America's liberal international order that we have been building and defending since WW2. This is one of America's great gifts to the world and one of the greatest civilizational achievements. It is common to point out Britain's empire as a precursor and that is true in a limited sense. The empire is a pre-modern organizational form and Britain's empire happened to coincide with a very unique liberal moment stretching from the 17th century to the early 20th century. This era was one of the most important in human history, and not only because the American Experiment was a spin-off from Britain's liberal empire. But the pre-modern empire was incompatible with modern liberalism. It was America's founders who created the the basic format for a modern liberal order: local rule in accordance with liberal principles operating within a larger system of liberal governance. It was only after WW2 with the collapse of the pre-modern imperial order and then in 1989 with the collapse of the competing socialist order that we began to see the extension of this liberal order internationally. There is no global government, but there is governance that is provided and enforced by the US and the institutions we have created. As other countries rise within this order we need to have an overall strategy for getting them to buy into the liberal international order so that their rise is compatible with and contributes to that order. The liberal international order is the realization of the American Experiment on a global scale. But for it to be successful other countries have to accept it as their own, which requires a persuasion campaign. Unfortunately America's anti-liberal left hates this order and the American right is trapped in a narrow national framework. Both ideologies work to delegitimize this uniquely American order and this is not good for the US or the world. The 21st century requires that we think with greater clarity.

Then and now

If you believed the political rhetoric on the right these days you'd be convinced that our country is teetering on the edge of a totalitarian abyss. It is true that our governments are deeply flawed and need to be reformed but we need to maintain our perspective.

Will Wilkinson

In the age of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, it was profoundly wise to vigilantly stand guard against any possible slide into collectivist totalitarianism. But now, almost 70 years later, it is abundantly clear that the prevailing sort of liberal-democratic welfare state has no general tendency toward tyranny. David Frum is right: we are not on the road to serfdom. 

In the name of reason and liberty

Classical liberalism is not necessarily what a lot of people (including myself at one point) think it is. Many of us have used some variation on "classical liberalism = today's conservatism and/or libertarianism". But is this really true? No. Liberalism in the 19th century was a far more complex political and ideological phenomena than we realize. In the post-WW2 era, the intellectuals who created the modern conservative and libertarian movements selected those 19th century thinkers that they thought would be useful in furthering their 20th century ideological goals. Also many who would recoil in disgust at the idea of "active government" nevertheless support a very active government when it comes to national security.

Daniel Larison:

[M]ost people who call themselves conservatives do not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” and when it comes to war and finance they are often defenders of an activist, centralized state. This actually makes a certain amount of sense, as most people who call themselves conservatives are, when you press them, essentially classical liberals, and classical liberals did not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” either. By comparison with their traditional conservative and monarchist foes in the 19th century, they were advocates for centralism and the expansion of the role of the state in the name of reason and liberty. Standardization, rationalization and uniformity in law and regulation were what most classical liberals prized, which is one reason why they tended to be strong nationalists hostile to the customs and privileges of regions and local parlements. The separation of modern strands of classical liberalism from nationalism (i.e., some forms of libertarianism) is a curious by-product of 20th century American politics, and I am guessing that this owes a great deal to influence of exiled liberals from central Europe on the evolution of these strands of American classical liberalism.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"This Week in Startups"

Discovered This Week in Startups with Jason Calacanis a few days ago and have been really enjoying it. If you're interested in entrepreneurship it's a must watch show.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Start-ups are where the job-creation action really occurs"

The way forward is clearly the implementation of startup-centric policies. The Democrats have been helpfully demonstrating the inadequacy of their old, mid-20th century policies centered around Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government. Unfortunately Democrats won't give up their outdated ideology until forced by circumstances to do so which will eventually happen as their current policies continue to fail to revive the economy. But conservatives are no help here as they keep engaging in behavior that appears to everyone except conservatives themselves as anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim xenophobia. Which only serves to discredit some good ideas about markets by association with this ugliness. A key element as we move forward needs to be embracing immigrant innovators and entrepreneurs but instead the right's behavior is creating an environment that many immigrants perceive as hostile. Thus we risk driving away people who could be making important contributions. Despite this I hope we are able to make the right policy changes to enable immigrant entrepreneurs to stay, become Americans, and help build the next iteration of the American Experiment.

For decades, the assumption has been that small business is the economy’s dynamic engine of job generation. Look at the numbers broadly, and that is the irrefutable conclusion: two-thirds of net new jobs are created by companies with fewer than 500 employees, which is the government’s definition of a small business.

But research published last month by three economists, working with more recent and detailed data sets than before, has found that once the age of the businesses is taken into account, there is no difference in the job-producing performance of small companies and big ones.

“Size plays virtually no role,” says John C. Haltiwanger, a co-author of the study and an economist at the University of Maryland. “It’s all age — start-ups are where the job-creation action really occurs.”
...
For Mr. Silbert, work-force issues trump taxes as a long-term concern. Like many other entrepreneurs, he advocates granting more residence visas to skilled immigrants, especially those who attend American universities.

“The best and the brightest from other countries come here, and then we’re not letting them stay,” he said. “That will damage innovation and job creation in the United States.”

FOREIGN-BORN entrepreneurs have long played a big role in American start-ups. A study that tracked technology and engineering start-ups from 1995 to 2005 found that one quarter of them had a foreign-born chief executive or head technologist; by 2005, the surviving companies generated $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.

There are signs that policy makers are looking to accommodate highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs, says Robert Litan, an economist at the Kauffman Foundation. As one example, he points to legislation proposed this year by Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana. Called the Start-Up Visa Act, it would grant visas to immigrant entrepreneurs who create jobs in the United States.

NYT

Sunday, August 29, 2010

We need to get at it -- "Entrepreneurs Fuel Post-Katrina Business Boom"

This is how New Orleans will be reinvented. These are the people who make America what it is, the people who make us resilient.

"It was that sense of re-evaluation," he says. "It was a personal re-evaluation. It was an economic re-evaluation. It was a cultural re-evaluation. People here were inflamed with that sense that, 'OK, we're not sure what the way forward is, but we need to do something. We need to put ourselves in motion. We need to get at it.' "
...
The boom in entrepreneurs is evident in the numbers collected by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Co-director Alison Plyer says that since the storm, 450 of every 100,000 adults in New Orleans have started a business. That's 40 percent higher than the national rate.

NPR

Become an entrepreneur, not an economist

One of the things that soured me on libertarianism is that it seems to be dominated by intellectuals who talk about the market but aren't willing to put their money where their mouth is and leave the classroom to become actors in the market.

Peter J. Boettke...the 50-year-old professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia is emerging as the intellectual standard-bearer for the Austrian school of economics...

In the last decade at George Mason, he has helped recruit the Austrian school's leading scholars and drawn students from around the world. Roughly 75% of his students have gone on to teach economics at the college or graduate level.

WSJ

Read that last sentence again: "Roughly 75% of his students have gone on to teach economics at the college or graduate level."

Why aren't they becoming entrepreneurs? We don't need more economists. We need people to start businesses. Entrepreneurs are the creative agents in a market economy, they are the ones who make it all work. If you are really inspired by the idea of the free market then why on earth would you become yet another social science technocrat with tenure at a state university? Why wouldn't you want to roll up your sleeves and take action in the market?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fake American-heritage narratives

Crafting narratives to manage your perceptions is not just an occupation of the Left. Since the 1950s Conservatives have been manufacturing a "tradition" and narratives for the purpose of providing legitimacy for their 20th century (now 21st) ideological interests. Will Wilkinson offers some clarity:

Foster is mistaken in the claim that there are “two kinds of libertarian,” one deriving libertarian conclusions from evidence-free armchair cogitation, the others simply discovering a ready-made libertarianism in the trunk of their “uniquely American historical inheritance.” There is no form of libertarianism that simply falls out of our cultural endowment, as American moral culture has never been remotely libertarian. The average Tea Partier is, like the average voter, a collection of reflexes, prejudices, resentments, and demands that add up to no coherent philosophy at all. The heritage of the progressive managerial social insurance state is no less an authentically American one than is the heritage of Jim Crow apartheid, the heritage of utopian collectivist frontier communes, or the heritage of founding-era republican liberty for propertied males. It is the business of conservative elites to fabricate a narrative and ideology of authentic Americanism, and to convince the right-leaning public that this is what their particular concatenation of impulses really comes to, in order to give it some strategically useful partisan shape and motivation.
...
Foster’s worry about my sort of libertarianism isn’t really that it’s a “rationalist” ivory tower abstraction remote from the lived experience of the allegedly natively libertarianish American tradition. It’s that the application of any rational scrutiny (libertarian or not) to the efforts of conservative elites to construct bullshit American-heritage narratives tends to get in the way of elite conservative political aspirations.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Variations on a theme

A comment I left at tdaxp in June 2005:

We are in a 4GW war with Islamic fundementalists. This is a state vs. a non-state actor. And this is not only a war that involves violent action, but it's also a war of ideas. The challenge that we face is in providing an alternative vision to what the jihadists are providing. Now there's been a lot of talk on blogs about the inadequacies of American public diplomacy. The reality is that we don't have time to wait for the politicians and bureaucrats in public diplomacy to get with the program. So what if another level were created, another level made up of non-state actors within the US, that were designed to fight the ideological war (no violence that's the state's monopoly). These organizations would not be subject to the political and bureaucratic labyrinths, but would pursue the ideological war independently. They would be entrepreneurial and able to adapt and respond quickly as circumstances changed. Al Qaeda has adapted itself to take advantage of the characteristics of our free society. What if we marshalled the characteristics of the free society to our benefit? The entrepreneurship, decentralization, the "chaos" of civil society.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

"The real danger for the U.S. isn’t having too many immigrants—it’s not having enough"

Immigration is good for America. Too much of the public debate about immigration is driven by the Right's paranoia and nativism. Yes there are legitimate issues with border security that need to be addressed, but the contribution of immigrants as entrepreneurs and innovators and hard workers far outweighs the negatives of illegal immigration. All the Right is achieving is convincing millions of immigrants and their children that their only political home is on the Left and that's not good for America.

The reality is that immigrants add much more to our economy than they take from it. As Vivek Wadhwa wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek last year, though they ”constitute only 12 percent of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52 percent of Silicon Valley's technology companies and contributed to more than 25 percent of our global patents. They make up 24 percent of the U.S. science and engineering work force holding bachelor's degrees and 47 percent of science and engineering workers who have Ph.D.s.”

A third of all graduate students in America are immigrants—half of those in engineering, computer and life sciences. And between 1985 and 1999 almost a third (32 percent) of America’s Nobel Prizes in chemistry were awarded to immigrants.

Immigrants also compose a key source of American entrepreneurs, from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to Intel founder Andy Grove. Over the past two decades, between a third and half of all Silicon Valley startups had a foreign-born person on their founding team—think of Google’s Sergey Brin, Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar. This is what venture capitalist John Doerr was talking about when he said that America should “staple a green card to the diploma” of any immigrant who gets a degree in engineering. Even more than natural resources, American ingenuity or other factors, what stands at the heart and soul of U.S. prosperity was its openness to hard-working, ambitious, and talented immigrants of all stripes.

The WikiLeaks Information War

Why does it always seem to be the anti-American types who get the strategic citizen idea and have the motivation to implement it?
Some snippets from a post at Rethinking Security on WikiLeaks:

At this point, it seems apparent that WikiLeaks is waging an information war against the US national security establishment.

WikiLeaks is no longer about an abstract desire for transparency--it is about advancing its founder's specific--if somewhat incoherent--policy agenda.

For all of the volumes of writing since 9/11 about public diplomacy, information operations, and such this is a bona fide adversary information operation and a very successful one on the tactical level.

Old comment on waging the war of ideas

Here's a comment I left at Zenpundit back in May 2005:

The spread of ideas is a fascinating topic worthy of much study. In today's world, with the challeneges we face, getting a grasp on how ideas spread is necessary to not only winning the war on terror but also in opposing anti-Americanism and the continued popularity of leftist views. Hayek in his essay "Intellectuals and Socialism" says that proponents of liberty need to articulate a vision of their ideals that can inspire and motivate people. He said that socialists had been very good at this and thus saw their ideas gain dominance whereas the proponents of liberty concerned themselves with technical policy issues that were not capable of inspiring people.

Today we face the challenge of defending the ideals of liberal democracy from various anti-liberal (classical that is) ideals. As we know the revolution in comunication technology over the past 15 years presents us with a vast new paradigm for the spread of ideas. One of the major characteristics of this revolution has been its decentralization. We are now able to bypass all the previous communications gatekeepers. This offers tremendous opportunities for the spread of ideas that in the past would have been marginally significant. For those of us who support liberal democracy, who are inspired by the vision of a free society that guarantees individual liberty through the rule of law, we need to take advantage of this new communications paradigm to create institutions to compete on the international stage. We cannot rely on the government's public diplomacy, we have to take matters into our own hands, bypass gov't and flood the zone with our ideas and visions to oppose Islamist fundamentalism, anti-Americanism and socialism.
...
"I just thought that Phil was pointing to a need not being filled by our elite which has become, over the last couple of decades - somewhat removed from the rest of us in terms of self-identification."

Yes. 9/11 revealed to us the massive failure of our public diplomacy; and now several years down the road it doesn't [seem] that there has been much improvement. We are faced with an entrenched PD bureaucracy that seems to be resistant to the kinds of changes that need to be made. So what to do?

Domestically whenever the liberal/left propose yet another government program to solve some problem what is it that we limited government types (whether conservatives, libertarians whatever) say? We say "Let civil society institutions (churches, charities etc) and the market solve the problem." So I am saying that this should be our solution to the problems of public diplomacy.

We need to be entrepreneurial and
create the kind of enterprises that can effect a change in how people around the world perceive America and our ideals. The left is already very successful at this. Michael Moore is the best example. But where is the pro-liberty, pro-American film director who can inspire people with our ideals?

We recognize that there are all manner of non-state actors operating within and influencing the strategic landscape in the war on terror: Hollywood, MSM, soldiers blogging from the frontlines etc. Our strategy in the war of ideas does not have to be led from above. We can become non-state actors too, operating on our own initiative, independent of gov't, and we can influence the strategic landscape to counter the effects of Moore, Newsweek, and the anti-American Arab and European media.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Tweeting Admiral

Purpleslog tweeted a Selil post about Admiral Mullen's tweet response to the Wikileaks release of secret Afghanistan documents. I wrote a comment and then found that to post it in the comments at Selil I would have to register and I am so sick and tired of registering for everything. I have a notebook filled usernames and passwords from past years like graffiti on a subway car and I'm just not going to do it anymore unless it's really important. So I'll just post my comment here:

"Laying a bloody straw-man at the foot of Wikileaks looks tough, but it is the act of a pompous and arrogant man."

Come on now, this is a tweet. This isn't some Oxford Union debate where Mullen is saying "Resolved: Mr. Assange & his source have blood on their hands."

As you point out this massive dump of documents is so large that other than a few academics no one will ever invest the time to read and understand them. So the battle has nothing to do with logic and theories or analysis of the documents, it's about the perceptions that are associated with the documents. Mullen's tweet is a perfectly valid effort to shape the perception of the documents and can only be judged within that context. There is a narrow window of opportunity to shape perceptions on this issue before the next one pops up. Mullen deserves credit for recognizing the game that is being played, and playing it right.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cafe de L'Enfer

Cafe de L'Enfer -- Looks like my kind of place:



Is Tom Barnett a "pop strategist"?

According to Steve Metz he is:

We need to remember that Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, etc., were not writing in a market environment. I doubt they could find a publisher today. Mahan maybe because the Navy mafia and defense industry would have liked it.

Even university presses look for commercial viability these days, making it hard to find a venue for complex, breakthrough works. Instead we end up with pop strategy like Barnett.

"We committed libertarians are a very small group of people with very unpopular views"

The libertarian movement, created in the years following WW2, has had more than half century to accomplish something. So what does it have to show for itself? Brink Lindsey tells us...

On the one hand, we can point with pride to an impressive blossoming of libertarian scholarship and intellectual activism. Libertarians are now represented in the academy in numbers that would have amazed the original members of the Mont Pelerin Society. The Cato Institute and other libertarian and free-market think tanks have achieved great success in winning a place for libertarian ideas in the political and policy debate. We have made great strides in getting libertarian ideas taken seriously in intellectual and opinion-shaping circles.

But getting taken seriously by tiny intellectual elites is one thing; winning acceptance in mass public opinion is another thing altogether. As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one. The Libertarian Party crested in 1980 with a million votes or so in the presidential election; since then it has contented itself with being a fringe group that is generally scoffed at when it isn’t being completely ignored. And whatever success we’ve had in spreading libertarian ideas, we’ve accomplished very little in the core political task of expanding the number of active libertarians. According to a 2000 Rasmussen poll, only 2% of Americans self-identify as libertarian. To put that number in perspective, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, 6% of Americans believe that the moon landings were faked.
...
So we have some hard facts to face. We committed libertarians are a very small group of people with very unpopular views. And now that Goldwater-Reagan small-government conservatism has more or less disappeared, we have no effective representation in the political arena.

When I discovered libertarianism I was very excited by the ideas and the commitment to freedom. But after several years I realized that libertarians weren't going to accomplish anything. The movement has very little appeal outside the small coven of true believers. They are too passive; they don't engage in the kind of perpetual organization and activism that is required of any movement that actually wants to be successful.

The long-term goal is to achieve a generally liberal outcome. Libertarianism is a variety of liberalism, but it is not one that can actually achieve that long-term goal. So the challenge then is to fashion a variety of liberalism that can achieve that goal, and that is what I am trying to do. Lindsey agrees:

What needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters from across the current left-right spectrum. One that recognizes a more expansive role for government than committed libertarians would like, but which nonetheless supports both economic and personal liberty. Here, then, is the way forward as I see it: to articulate an appropriately inclusive political vision that puts freedom at the center of its commitments.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Energizing the real mainsprings of American power"

Niall Ferguson at the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival

Unlike Britain in 1945, which was crushed by debt and slow growth, doomed to imperial decline, I think there is a way out for the United States. I don't think it's over. But it all hinges on whether you can re-energize the real mainsprings of American power. And those two things are: innovation, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship. Those are the things that made the United States the greatest economy in the world, and the critical question is: Are we going to get it right? Can we revive those things in such a way that, in the end, we grow our way out of this hole the way the United States grew its way out of the 1970s and, of course, out of the 1930s?

So do we have what it takes? I read what conservatives and progressives are writing and I don't see any real commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship. They may try to superficially and opportunistically associate their ideology with innovation and entrepreneurship but neither ideology has a vision for the type of society that we need. America is not Britain in 1945 transitioning from Empire to Socialism. British decline was not about losing the Empire. Why is Japan the 2nd largest economy rather than Britain? It could be Britain, but it's not. It's about policy and culture and drive. What America faces is nothing like what any power has ever faced. We need not just one but several political ideologies that articulate visions that offer us options for the world that we live in. And so Ferguson's critical question: Are we going to get it right? And I ask: do we have the imagination to get it right? The imagination to go beyond the ideologies we have inherited? The point is that the solution to our current problems will not come from what we think we know. It will be a discovery of something that we don't know.

"The Next World Order"

Liberalization-modernization always challenges the pre-modern social order. However it also creates opportunities for classes, tribes, ethnic groups who have skills, talents, and cultures that in the pre-modern world were despised, but turn out to be a perfect match for liberal modernity. I think this would be an interesting area of study for an economist, political scientist, or anthropologist -- maybe a good documentary film idea. Part of the turmoil that pre-modern social orders will experience is the increasing success and prominence of previously despised elements of their society. But it would be wise for these societies to embrace those elements and find a way to integrate them into their unfolding liberalization.

What really perplexes the Chinese, he said, is that scores of nations have engaged in the same sorts of economic reforms as India, so why is it that it’s the Indian economy that has become the developing world’s second best? The speed with which India is creating world-class companies is also a shock to the Chinese, whose corporate structure is based on state-owned and foreign companies.

I have no satisfactory explanation for all this, but I think it may have something to do with India’s much-reviled caste system. Vaishyas, members of the merchant caste, who have learned over generations how to accumulate capital, give the nation a competitive advantage. Classical liberals may be right in thinking that commerce is a natural trait, but it helps if there is a devoted group of risk-taking entrepreneurs around to take advantage of the opportunity. Not surprisingly, Vaishyas still dominate the Forbes list of Indian billionaires.

In a much-discussed magazine article last year, Lee Kwan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, raised an important question: Why does the rest of the world view China’s rise as a threat but India’s as a wonderful success story? The answer is that India is a vast, unwieldy, open democracy ruled by a coalition of 20 parties. It is evolving through a daily flow of ideas among the conservative forces of caste and religion, the liberals who dominate intellectual life, and the new forces of global capitalism.

So why isn't India perceived as a threat in the way that China is? That's a fascinating question, one that deserves a lot of thought. And it is one that China should take the time to really think about. What China and a lot of countries don't understand is that America wants other countries to be successful. But our view is shaped by our experience of the 20th century, and that experience was shaped by the rise of Germany, Japan, and Russia and we are always on the lookout for any country whose rise has the potential to follow their path. India is doing the right thing, they realize what Germany and Japan now know and the Russians have yet to figure out: you can achieve national greatness through economic and cultural achievement within a generally liberal framework rather than through dictatorship, war, and conquest. If China can realize that basic truth and pursue appropriate policies it will achieve great things for its people. And if it can't then it will face American power committed to defending a liberal international order.

Flashback 2003: Bill Clinton on Iraq

It's important to remember these things.

Bill Clinton:

Let me tell you what I know. When I left office, there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for. That is, at the end of the first Gulf War, we knew what he had. We knew what was destroyed in all the inspection processes and that was a lot. And then we bombed with the British for four days in 1998. We might have gotten it all; we might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn't know. So I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say you got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How do you defeat the radical left?

How do you defeat the radical left? What strategy should you use? What ideas, rhetoric, symbols and attitudes should you use? What methods of organization and activism? How do you think about this for the long term, rather than just in the limited framework of the election cycle? How do you win the persuadables over while holding off the true believers?

These are the questions I've been thinking a lot about over the past few years. And it has been my effort to answer these questions that has in large part driven the change in my political views. I don't believe that conservatism and libertarianism are capable of defeating the radical left. In fact I think they do more harm than good. They are deeply unattractive to those who need to be won over and they divert the talents and energies of a lot of good people, like leaves caught in an eddy on a river, into political movements that will never be successful.

In this effort it has been necessary to rediscover and rethink the meaning of the word "liberal." The goal is to craft a variety of liberalism that builds upon everything we have learned since 1776, that is an appropriate response to the challenges and realities we face in the first part of the 21st century, that can appeal broadly to most Americans and to many around the world, and one that can successfully stand on its own and fend off the collectivist, anti-liberal leftism that has plagued us for far too long.

So that is what I am trying to do.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Political organizing is the basis for political movements, which in turn alters the climate for politics inside Washington"

We need to apply to the study of political movements the same approach we see in the study of the military and warfare, with its focus on organization and logistics, tactics and strategy. I think this would do a lot to infuse our political system with more strategic and organizational thinking which could mean that people will feel and be more empowered as citizens.

I would also ask why most observers and analysts pay so little attention to the details of political organizing. Politics is not only about what leaders say and do in Washington and on TV. Political organizing is the basis for political movements, which in turn alter the climate for politics inside Washington.

And yet, if I had to tally up all the reporting that I've seen on the actual work of building the Obama campaign organization it would fill, at most, a thimble. Americans have a notably thin understanding of what it takes to change anything, in part I think because our story-tellers and meaning-makers prefer to trade in myth over reality too. (Thus we get Rosa Parks acting on her own, for example.) This cycle of ignorance is self-reinforcing: reporters don't ask power players about political organizing because they don't understand it; power players don't think it matters because reporters don't ask them about it.

"More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security"

Sometimes Obama gets it right. Unfortunately, since the 1960s Democrats have conditioned themselves sneer at any effort to point out the good America has done in the world and mindlessly regurgitate the tired leftist litany of American wrongs. So it is good that Obama said this and I hope that there are some Democrats who will actually think about what is being said.

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions - from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank - that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades - a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for - and what we continue to fight for - is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

Using "liberalism"

I have taken to using "liberalism" recently in its broader more accurate sense, rather than in the narrow sense that is common in American political discourse. I find it is much more useful and gives more room to think and explore ideas. My goal is to get beyond the classifications that not only artificially limit our range of thought, but actually direct our thinking down pathways to the same conclusions. And I'm just not interested in that. My goal is to arrive at my own conclusions, not memorize a bunch of ideological talking points. Timothy Garton Ash had an interesting essay on "liberalism" --

A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress. The mix of ingredients differs from place to place. Whether some distant cousin really belongs to the extended family of liberalisms is a matter of healthy dispute. But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.

This has been an American argument, some would say the American argument, for more than 200 years. In fact, the United States is still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The California Dream: Entrepreneurship and Activist Government

This was the right formula, but unfortunately this era was followed by one dominated by an intolerant, anti-capitalist, radical leftism that was incapable of comprehending or tolerating these "two seemingly contradictory principles." Part of our task is recovering from the boomer generation's disastrous ideological tendencies and finding a way to build a 21st century American System based on entrepreneurship and activist government.

These places grew before the current malaise infected the state. As Starr points out, California based its ascendancy on two seemingly contradictory principles: entrepreneurship and activist government. Under Gov. Earl Warren, but also Goodwin Knight and finally Pat Brown, the state made a commitment both to basic infrastructure—energy, water, roads, schools, parks—and expanding its economy.

By the early 1960s, this system was hitting on all cylinders. New roads, power plants and water systems opened lands for development for farms, subdivisions, factories. Ever expanding and improving schools produced a work force capable of performing higher-end tasks, and capable of earning higher wages. New parks preserved at least some of the landscape, and gave families a place to recreate.

For Pat Brown, arguably the greatest governor in American history, this was all part of California’s “destiny.” Starr describes Brown’s California as “a modernist commonwealth, a triumph of engineering, a megastate committed to growth as its first premise.” Yet within this great modernist project was also stirring opposition, on both left and right, that would soon place this Golden Age at its end.

Many of the objections were legitimate. The Sierra Club and its many spinoffs rightfully saw the Brown development machine as threatening California’s landscape, wildlife and, in important ways, the appeal of its way of life. More careful controls on growth clearly were needed. The battle over the nature of those controls continues to this day.
Some more angry voices, then as now, targeted the very existence of suburbia, the dominant form of the state’s growth, and eventually sought its eradication.

The Entrepreneurial 10th Mountain Division

I suspect that the WW2-era 10th Mountain Division was the most entrepreneurial military unit in American history.

After the war, ex-soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division fired-up America's modern ski industry. They published ski magazines, opened ski schools, and established ski areas, including Vail, Aspen, Sugarbush, Whiteface Mountain and others. At least 62 ski resorts have been founded, managed, or employed head ski instructors that were 10th Mountain Division veterans.

The Basics

The alternatives are not on the one hand some totalitarian, socialist state and on the other some laissez-faire, minarchist state, and that's it. There are other alternatives if we have the imagination to conceive them. If I argue that we should let markets work and solve problems via voluntary associations that doesn't mean I'm advocating a cold, cruel, survival-of-the-fittest state. Likewise if I argue that government can provide many useful services that doesn't mean I'm advocating a totalitarian, anti-liberty state. We need to get beyond these absolutist, all or nothing conceptions of government and society.

One of the chief problems was this: a modernizing, developing country requires a strong and effective government.  That does not mean that it needs a tyrannical and socialistic one, but it does need a government that is honest and competent enough to establish and maintain the legal, economic and physical infrastructure which a growing market economy needs.  Governments must be able to enforce contracts and the law in reasonably transparent and reasonably timely legal procedures; they must maintain the roads, ports, sewer systems and power generation capacity on which modern and especially urban life depends; they must maintain a sound currency and a reasonable macroeconomic environment; they must either build or sponsor a basic health infrastructure; they must provide a solid educational system.

The US as Superintegrator

I like this:

I foresee that the US becomes for the world, what the Franco-German axis has become for Europe, a superintegrater instead of a superpower

The Hong Kong Myth

There are examples out there of the proper balance between an active government and market economy if people could get beyond their rigid, ideological templates and actually see them:

Actually, where Asian government has succeeded is not whether the government led the way, but where the balance between government and the market was delicately calibrated. Economies work well where governments knew how to let the market work where it functioned best and the government concentrated on what it did best.

The idea of Hong Kong being the freest market in the world is a bit of a myth, considering that half of Hong Kong citizens live in government owned low-cost housing and the government provided superb social welfare. Positive non-intervention did not mean no intervention. It meant that the government provided the environment for the private sector to thrive, without competing directly with the private sector.

The American Experiment and Ralph Ellison's Endless Blues

We tend to focus on hot button issues and ideological battles, but the American Experiment is is an endless improvisation of the unfolding of the realization of what a human being can be. If we can rise to the challenge and craft a vision of America that articulates this in a way that transcends ideology then we will have really achieved something:

In its best sections, this mysterious draft is full of wit, satire, and the chaos that Ellison concluded was so central to the ongoing surprises of American life and for which the United States was uniquely prepared to handle, improvisation by desperate or even surreal improvisation.
That sense of the importance of improvisation beyond measure was written into the founding documents and appeared over and over in the national life and the national response to need or threat. If the chaos is sufficiently epic, so must the improvisations be if anything close to an actual “solution” is to be achieved. That is the fundamental tension at the center of the national life, and Ellison’s fundamental sense of American life.

Other options

Fareed Zakaria:

But the truth is, since the Cold War ended, most people haven’t voted based on deep ideological divides. The majority gravitate toward the center and search for a party or person who seems to reflect their sensibilities, attitudes, and feelings. They want a modern party that feels as though it understands the world we live in.

Two things come to mind. First is Virginia Postrel's thesis that the real competition following the demise of Cold War ideological divides was between Stasists and Dynamists. And second that neither of the two ideologies that dominate left and right really "understands the world we live in." The metaphor of "the center" is not very useful since it does not describe what people believe or want. It assumes the legitimacy of the existing left and right ideologies and does not recognize that the huge numbers of people in "the center" are in fact rejecting those ideologies and want something else. They are not splitting the difference, they want other options. So let's see this as an opportunity and come up with "other options."

Why pubic employees should not be allowed to unionize

Why pubic employees should not be allowed to unionize:

Two City Hall sources said last night that municipal employee unions District Councils 33 and 47 would put their full weight behind the drink tax and garbage fee to preserve city services and, thus, their jobs.

Public employees deserve to be treated fairly, but their unionization is an undemocratic manipulation of the political system.

The 1960s and the rise of conservatism

The United States never had a conservative movement prior to the 1950s. And in the 1950s that newly created conservatism was little more than a fringe intellectual movement with little influence on policy. So when did conservatism move beyond this small group of intellectuals to become a real political movement that could influence policy and elections? The 1960s. The intellectuals who populated the movement in the 1950s were still around in the 60s, but something in society began to change with the coming of age of a generation characterized by intense political passions and an inclination towards zealotry. It was this cohort (most of them boomers but others were a little older, some a little younger) whose sensibilities have dominated our politics and have bequeathed to us a rigid, intolerant partisanship.

When people think of "the sixties," they commonly associate the era with civil rights protest, with the student, antiwar, and feminist movements, and with the rise of the New Left. Yet the untold story of the 1960s is about the New Right. While thousands of youth did join protests on the left, thousands of others mobilized on the right. Many of today's conservative leaders came of age during the 1960s and became politically active during their college years through participation in Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a youth organization founded at the estate of William F. Buckley. Ironically, YAF began in 1960, the same year as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the primary organizations of the New Left...

Idealistic youth from one end of the political spectrum to the other formed movements to reshape American politics. Whereas youth on the left came into ascendancy during the 1960s and early 1970s, the other wing of that generation came into prominence during the mid-1970s and 1980s and began to take over the seats of institutional power. The 1960s must be seen, then, within this larger context: not only fostering protests on the left, but also nurturing a new generation of leaders on the right. Much of the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s was led by people of the same age as leftist activists, not the older generation.

I look forward to the time when that generation fades from the scene and we can move forward with a different political sensibility. It will be interesting to see what politics can be like absent the boomer's zealotry.

Quote from A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and The 1960s by Rebecca Klatch.

In the beginning...

What contemporary political ideology was created by academic intellectuals, who were elitist and anti-democratic, who looked to Europe rather than to America's founding for ideas and inspiration, and who were opposed to classical liberalism? It would probably come as a surprise to many that the answer is: Conservatism.

Conservatism was created after WW2 by a group of academic intellectuals, it was not a bottom-up, grass-roots movement:

[T]he new conservative movement was overwhelmingly associated with colleges and universities. Virtually every one of its spokesmen held a position in academe.

Conservatism was founded by people who were elitist and anti-democratic:

As conservative intellectuals examined the fruits of liberal ideas, they frequently noted with special distaste the spectacular rise of a mass society and the cult of the common man...

[Bernard Iddings] Bell unsparingly castigated the so-called civilization around him. "The chief threat to America comes from within America" -- from the complacent, vulgar, mindless, homogenized, comfort-seeking, nouveau riche culture of the common man. Was this perspective undemocratic? Of course it was, Bell cheerfully conceded. One of the most dangerous assumptions of our time is that the common man "can be entrusted...without skilled leadership, safely to run himself and society." Instead, the masses require "an elite, a democratic elite," that will exemplify excellence and "a more urbane and humane way of living."

Many people mistakenly think that conservatism was founded to champion the ideals of the American founding. Instead the intellectuals who created American conservatism were European oriented. They were inspired by Old World conservatism not the American founders.

A second noticeable feature of the traditionalist group was its extraordinary orientation toward Europe. We have already noted its relative lack of interest in the specifically American past. One must take care not to exaggerate; nevertheless, the principle early acts of recovery were of European conservatives--Burke and Metternich, for instance--not Americans...
...Instead, they imported European insights and took their stand at home.

Not only was the original, Old World conservatism anti-classical liberal, but it was in fact classical liberalism's first ideological enemy, later to be followed by socialism, fascism, and communism. Many of the founders of the American conservative movement after WW2 were also anti-classical liberal:

...nearly all the leading new conservatives took pains to dissociate themselves from the "nineteenth-century liberalism" that was also enjoying a new vogue on the Right. Most vehement was Viereck; his conservatism, he said, had nothing to do with rootless, "cash nexus," selfish, laissez-faire individualism. Russell Kirk also emphasized that his kind of traditionalism was not a defense of materialistic businessmen or the "dogmas of Manchesterian economic theory." "Conservatism is something more than mere solicitude for tidy incomes." In a lengthy critique of Ludwig von Mises...Kirk warned of the dangers of rationalistic, atomistic capitalism and utilitarianism: "...once supernatural and traditional sanctions are dissolved, economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order." Kirk had worked for a "soulless corporation" and had lived in a dreary industrial city; he had no inclination to idealize free enterprise. Robert Nisbet was also critical of the corrosive, anti-social laissez-faire of the nineteenth century: it had weakened social bonds and "accelerated" the aggrandizement of the "omnicompetent State."

All quotes from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George Nash. This is an excellent book and required reading if you want an understanding of conservatism.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Yes, Hayek supported a comprehensive system of social insurance

Will Wilkinson points to the interesting phenomena of some folks on the left discovering that Hayek supported a government-provided safety net. It will be even more interesting when people on the right begin realizing that as well. I've been writing about how my views have changed to supporting both a dynamic entrepreneurial market economy and an active government. Hayek was one of the influences on that change. Hayek:

There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.

Wilkinson comments:

What Hayek had in mind was a competitive market in risk-rated insurance and a competitive market in medical services. No price controls. Let the markets rip. Mandate a certain minimum level of insurance coverage. If you’re uninsurable or can’t afford a policy, then the state pitches in.

Our political debates would be better if we were trying to figure out how to get the best out of both markets and the government rather than being trapped in the never-ending food fight between an uncompromising anti-government right and anti-market left. Hayek offers us a good base to work from.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Civilian officials must promote economic insurgents-entrepreneurs"

Schramm, Litan, and Stangler argue that entrepreneurship should be a key element of our strategy in Afghanistan. It should come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps we should establish an "Office of Strategic Entrepreneurship" to oversee its implementation.

For any economy to grow, for living standards to rise, new businesses must be created. Those local businesses must be allowed to experiment with different ways of solving local problems. Each of these firms can be seen as a type of "insurgent"-starting, experimenting, and growing. Not all will succeed; the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has suggested that, in some cases, new business creation should be discouraged because some entrepreneurs might fail. Progress, however, only comes about through trial and error.

Government provided healthcare

The world's best:

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Active Government And Entrepreneurial Market Economy

Brink Lindsey has an interesting review of Arthur Brooks' new book "The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future." I have not read this book and most likely won't read it, but my interest here is not the book but a comment of Lindsey's that I think is worth pointing out:

The first is free markets; the second, small government. They need not be a package deal. Governments can effectively stifle enterprise and competition without spending a lot of money, while a large public sector and a vibrant private sector can go hand in hand.

Indeed they can. In my words, you can have an active government and a dynamic, creative market economy. These are not mutually exclusive. And I think that this is going to be the ultimate outcome of our political competition. In general the American people are entrepreneurial and support a free enterprise system, but they want government to provide rules for that system. The American people also want a government that can provide a variety of services from a strong military, to infrastructure and social services, to support for science, education and parks, but they want it done in a fiscally and socially responsible manner. And they don't want the burden of these government services to stifle free enterprise. The result will be some practical synthesis of these two positions. This of course will be completely intolerable to both the left and right, driven as they are by a pro-government, anti-market and pro-market, anti-government fundamentalism. The notion that you can be both pro-government and pro-market will not compute. But this combination has been with us since the beginning. America's Founders were not anti-government, they were anti-tyranny, and that's not the same thing. The Founders were creators of governments and their republican ideology gave them the belief that government service was patriotic and positive and that government should take action to improve republican society. Of course industrial age organization and the innovation of the welfare state were beyond their experience so we have no idea how they would have responded. But their republican and liberal ideals were not necessarily incompatible with the required innovations of later generations. After all they invented the modern liberal republic and were at the leading edge of social and political innovation of their era. What are the leading edge ideas of our time? That is where the Founders would be. They were not conservatives, "standing athwart history yelling stop!" Rather they were a rare generation living between the pre-modern and modern worlds, living on the edge of a continent, building a civilization out of nothing, they created the liberal modernity that would prevail 200 years later and prove to be the only sustainable mode of organizing a modern society.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflections: Updating Classical Liberalism for the 21st Century

Another theme that emerged on this blog was "updating classical liberalism for the 21st century." This is the notion that has really resonated with me and that drives much of my reading and thinking. I grew up in a Democratic family and so entered adulthood with a generally liberal worldview. But my parents weren't ideologues or true believers and I was enough of an individualist that I arrived at views that spanned the political spectrum. Eventually as I neared 30 I became more interested in politics and made a conscious decision to develop or discover a philosophy of freedom, of the free society. Right about that time I came across libertarianism and felt an immediate affinity. My introduction was via Virginia Postrel's book The Future and It's Enemies, which is still one of my favorite political books. Regardless of how my views change I am now, have always been and will always be a Dynamist. Shortly thereafter came 9/11 which changed everything. I was surprised to find that many libertarians saw the US government as more of a threat to liberty than radical Islamists. And thus began a process which over time led me away from libertarianism.

For the next several years our response to 9/11 and our effort to defeat radical Islamism was my primary focus. I remember a discussion among libertarians after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which revealed a rift between those who supported the war and those who did not. And I responded that I was pro-liberty and that meant that domestically I supported rolling back government activity but that internationally I supported an active government. This was an important moment for me because I realized that being pro-liberty sometimes meant being pro-government. The center of gravity of libertarianism is an anti-government attitude. I struggled with this for a few years and eventually stopped describing myself as a libertarian choosing instead "classical liberal."

But what was a classical liberal? It took me a long time to figure this out because there is no intellectual history of liberalism from beginning to the present. There are books about different aspects of liberalism's history but no book that really covers it all and puts everything in the proper perspective.

Liberalism is a vast ideology, it includes libertarians but also New Deal liberals; people who think government is the primary threat to the individual and people who think that government is the primary ally of the individual. Liberalism has many forms and styles. It is different from one culture to the next, different in the agricultural age and in the industrial age and the information age, different for a small country and for a superpower, different when addressing issues within a state and issues between states. People created hybrids, created syntheses of liberalism and conservatism, liberalism and nationalism, liberalism and socialism, and the American Founders created the most successful synthesis: liberalism and classical republicanism. But there is no "pure" form of liberalism, no one true way. It is always a neverending improvisation. Always an attempt to apply abstract principles to specific circumstances. And always imperfect.

The forms of liberalism that were appropriate responses to specific eras and challenges and circumstances are for the most part inappropriate in other eras etc. Therefore we are faced with the responsibility and the opportunity to craft forms of liberalism that are appropriate for our time, for our challenges, for our sensibilities. The classical liberalism of the 19th century was appropriate for its time, but not for the industrial age. That doesn't mean it was wrong, just that industrialization posed challenges and created opportunities that pre-industrial "classical" liberalism could not address. The industrial age liberalism created in the mid-20th century was imperfect but appropriate for its era, but that time has now passed.

And so here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, at the beginning of an era where the old liberalism is no longer appropriate and a new liberalism has not yet been crafted. But we have the good fortune to be in at the beginning. Too many people are wasting their creativity, intelligence, energy and resources either defending the old liberalism or attacking the old liberalism.

And so as I am now at the other end of a long decade I find myself with a different perspective from where I began. My core beliefs remain the same: I recognize the inherent value of each individual and support a social, political, economic order within which individuals may pursue their own ends and attempt to actualize their potential while respecting the rights of others to do the same. This type of society will always require a market economy. It will at times require an active government and at other times require a more restrained government. I am willing to support both depending on the circumstances. But either way that government must be administered in a fiscally responsible manner. I have no interest in either anti-government or anti-market attitudes, I find them both to be distractions. In the end my primary loyalty is to the American Experiment. And my goal is to realize the true potential of the American Experiment in our era. This will be neither "progressive" nor "conservative" but something else entirely.

So I no longer think of myself as a classical liberal, but rather as a 21st century liberal. But the details have yet to be worked out so that will mean nothing to anyone. And the goal is not to "update" an older form of liberalism, but imagine a newer form of liberalism.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections: Strategic Citizen (Updated)

I started this blog to explore a few ideas. They represent a particular time in my life, that time is over and I have moved on. Some of those ideas are more a product of that time and aren't really relevant to me now, others though were the basis of where I've gone with my thinking since. Many of my views have changed and this blog doesn't really reflect where I am at today, although many things remain the same. One theme of this blog that really captured my imagination during this time was the Strategic Citizen.

I came up with the idea of the Strategic Citizen because I was frustrated with the ongoing failure of the Bush Administration to implement a campaign of ideas against radical Islamists and for America. It was in Feb. 2005 that the idea occurred to me that because of advances in communications technology ordinary citizens could run sophisticated campaigns of ideas that in the past would have been the sole province of government agencies. And it was in 2006 that I came up with the term "strategic citizen" as an effort to capture this idea in a couple of words. During the years leading up to this I had been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug and was saving up money to start a media business and was always looking for an entrepreneurial solution to problems. It was also a time when I had been reading the essays Glenn Reynolds was writing for TechCentralStation that would become the basis of his book Army of Davids, when there were a lot of discussions of decentralized networks, spontaneous social orders, and of course the rise of the blogosphere that empowered ordinary individuals and challenged existing old-style media companies. It was also a time when Al Qaeda itself was demonstrating that it could run media campaigns without the large governmental bureaucracies that too many people in the US felt were necessary. Al Qaeda used off-the-shelf technology and decentralized networks to successfully disseminate their ideas and influence perceptions. Why couldn't ordinary Americans do the same? It was obvious to me that we could. I thought it was a good idea and tried to persuade other people that while not everyone could serve in the military or work in intelligence, law enforcement and diplomacy, they could become participants in the war of ideas and have a positive impact in a way that had never been possible before. But with a few exceptions, no one was interested or they didn't believe that it would work, despite the evidence that it was already working for our adversaries. In retrospect I probably should have done more to champion the idea, maybe set up a website dedicated to it and written longer pieces to flesh out the idea. But at the time I was trying to start up my business and that absorbed most of my energy and attention. I was trying to live up to the idea I was championing and become an entrepreneur and strategic citizen rather than just talk about it. Unfortunately I ran out of money before I was able to make enough money. But I learned a lot from that experience and plan to build on that as I pursue the next iteration of the business. I still think the Strategic Citizen was a good idea but in order for its potential to be realized I had to persuade other people to buy into it and take action and I was never able to do that. In the end though it doesn't really matter. And it doesn't matter that the federal gov't was never able or willing to get its act together in public diplomacy/strategic communication.

Addendum: The first time I wrote about the citizen-directed idea campaigns was in February 2005 in a comment at the now defunct Daily Demarche blog. Unfortunately the comments are no longer accessible, all that remains is his comment on my comment. I was most definitely not referring to "pen pals" when I talked about "citizen diplomacy." Nor was I suggesting that government sponsor anything.

Phil advocates "citizen diplomacy", and says "We Americans should be our own advocates." This is an excellent idea with a long standing tradition- we used to call folks who practiced this pen pals. Is there any reason the government can't sponsor modern day pen pals via the internet? It's a small thing, to be sure, but that is what large successes are built on. Michael adds to this thought: "This is a two way road. We are all on it. But we can not even get this message straight in the US let alone in the world. I like the idea from Phil's idea: "citizen diplomacy". We Americans should be our own advocates. It is not about the dollars but what we do with the dollars." Well said. Engaging any interpersonal problem at the individual level is the quickest way to root out misconceptions.

The first time I used "strategic citizen" was in a comment on a Fourth Rail post in April 2006.

Perhaps we need to develop the concept and skills of the "strategic citizen". The citizentry is not hermetically sealed off from the war. Third parties don't have to be hostile. With our entrepreneurial culture and today's technology there is no reason why "strategic citizens" can't create friendly non-governmental organizations and media that can take an active role in this new kind of warfare.