Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why Are Our Elites so Stupid, Take II

To repeat the closing line from my last post, if recent events have not done much for my faith in democracy and the common people, they have done even less for my confidence in purportedly enlightened elites.

I have long been aware of many of the capital flaws of elites (enlightened or not) -- their tendency to confuse their own interests with the common good, their stubbornness in protecting their own privileges and status, their gross overreaction to even the slightest challenge to their domination.  But I don't think it was until this last decade that I became aware of another capital flaw of elites -- their incredible denseness.  I had no idea that elites were so utterly unwilling to learn the lessons of evidence that was staring them in the face.

My first clue to that was with the Iraq War.  Public and elite opinion are both at fault here -- both foolishly allowed themselves to be stampeded into it.  (Although to what extent public opinion was driven by elite opinion is a different question).  But at least the public was willing to learn something from the debacle.  The general public seems to have learned that making open-ended military commitments to reshape countries on the far side of the world in our image is not a good idea.  Elite opinion does not seem to be so quick on the uptake. Reading the Economist in 2002 urging war in Iraq without giving any coherent reason for it was bad enough. Reading it now explaining that just because military intervention went badly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. is no reason not to try it in latest confrontation they have cooked up.  Elite opinion on foreign intervention is sounding very much like that famous definition of insanity -- to continually keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result.

But public opinion is running a fair record of overruling elite opinion on starting foreign wars.  More dangerous is the matter of economic policy.  What is really dangerous here is that elite opinion and public opinion share the same basic, but mistaken, intuitions.  People's basic gut-level intuition tells us that if everyone else is cutting back, government should cut back too; that no one should get an unfair break; that inflation is particularly noxious under conditions of stagnant wages, and that falling currencies are something to get upset about.  The problem is that these gut-level intuitions are wrong, at least under current economic conditions.  When everyone else is cutting back, someone needs to spend more to keep the total economy from shrinking.  When the economy is shrinking, everyone needs a break, fair or unfair.  When the debt burden becomes crushing, inflation is just what we need to shrink it.  And when an economy becomes stressed, a falling currency is therapeutic.  Furthermore, it is not true that a common failing of democracy is that it prevents government from taking painful but necessary measures because the public is just not willing to make the sacrifice.  Quite the contrary, in times of crisis, the public is willing and eager to make material sacrifices.  What the the public (and the elite as well) refuse to sacrifice is its basic intuition of what should be done.  Thus I would say that the difficulty in selling fiscal conservatism in good times is not that it is unpleasant or that people are unwilling to make the sacrifice, but that it is counter-intuitive.  People just don't feel the need for sacrifice when all is going well.  It is proving equally difficult to persuade the public not to make sacrifices in bad times because basic intuition says those sacrifices are called for.

But if public opinion and elite opinion are essentially the same in their moral intuitions, and equally wrong, elite opinion his been the more harmful.  When conditions get bad enough, the public will ultimately try anything, even violating its intuitions.  Elites pigheadedly stick to the old formulas that have been so ruinous before.  I can think of several reasons why this might be so.  One is that the public is not all that well informed on what actual government policy is at any time, but is mostly just aware of results.  Thus during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's day, Keynesian economics could persistently poll badly, the public could persistently say it was worried about deficits and wanted Roosevelt to cut spending -- and Roosevelt could persistently be wildly popular and be reelected by a landslide and only see his popularity fade when he actually cut spending and returned to recession.  In the end, policies did not matter as much as results.  Elites, on the other hand, are more closely informed about what government is actually doing,  while relatively shielded from the actual consequences of what they are inflicting on the public.

Yet they are not shielded altogether.  Various lefties come up with various far-fetched theories about how really a depressed economy is in the elite's interest and that is why they resist any cure.  I find such arguments unconvincing.  John Kenneth Galbraith once caustically commented that our financial elites preferred Hoover over Roosevelt even though Hoover caused greater losses to capital than anyone since Lenin.  And with all due discount for exaggeration, he has a point.  For stocks to lose as much as 90% of their value cannot possibly be in the interests of our plutocrats.  So why did they hate Roosevelt so much, just because he imposed more taxes and regulations in return for saving the economy?  And why do they so hysterically overreact to the tiniest criticism from Obama?  And why do they persist in demanding such disastrous policies in Europe?  I do not think it is too glib to say that it is because our elites are dense -- and that giving up their denseness would mean giving up their authority.

I saw a fascinating article somewhere arguing that one of the reasons Paul Krugman is so hated, and so often criticized as elitist is that his prescriptions violate people's intuitions -- that to be told no, your intuitions are wrong, trust the economists whose specialized knowledge means they know better is deeply offensive to most people.  But it is less offensive to general public, who hear this sort of thing all the time from a lot of experts, that it is to our business leaders who specifically consider themselves experts on how an economy works and resent being told that some ivory tower professor who has never run a business knows more than they do.  And that, I suspect, is what really lies at the heart of elite resentment toward the FDR's, the Krugmans, and all the other people who would revive the economy without seriously changing the underlying economic order or distribution of wealth, but in a manner that violates basic elite intuition about what should be done.  Part of it is simply the usual elite hypersensitivity about the slightest infringement on their power and privilege.  But part of it is that it threatens not so much their existing wealth and power, but the basic source of legitimacy of that wealth and power -- their ability to run an economy.  A serious economic downturn inherently calls that ability into question and elicits a defensive reaction from our economic elites to begin with.  But a proposed remedy that violates elite intuition looks like a frontal attack.  Even if it does not directly threaten the existing distribution of wealth and power, merely to suggest that people who hold wealth and power might not know best how to use it is perceived as an existential challenge to their hegemony.

So I suppose maybe the maddening denseness of purportedly enlightened elites is closely linked to their defensiveness of their wealth and privilege and overreaction to the tiniest infringement against it.  For elites to admit that they might be wrong is to call their whole claim to power into question.

All of which closely ties in the the topic of my next intended post -- the elections to European parliament.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Is Democracy so Great, Anyhow?

In writing about the failures of democracy, I have been making the unstated assumption the democracy is good and that its failures are bad.  But recent events have rather undermined my enthusiasm for democracy. Seeing one newly democratic government after another veer off in a disturbing direction has not done much for my confidence in the virtues of the common people, and, after all, if the common people are not virtuous, giving them power can be disastrous.  Nonetheless, if recent events have not done much for my confidence in the common people, they have done even less for my confidence in purportedly "enlightened" elites.

As for the failings of the common people, I look back to old history books I read in high school and college, about the simultaneous rise of democracy and nationalism in Europe in the late 19th Century.  These two trends, one good, one bad, occurred together, one holding bright shining promise, the other little more than a distant menace -- until it exploded in to orgy of destruction that was WWI, and again into WWII.  At the time, I could dismiss this as mere coincidence.  The fact that these two developments occurred hand-in-hand was simply an accident of fate, or perhaps engineered by sinister elites to defuse class struggle by channeling aggression outward.  But looking at the rise of democratically elective governments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and of growing popular mobilization in China, it is becoming increasingly clear that this was a comfortable illusion.  Nationalism sells.  Scapegoating of vulnerable minorities sells.  Appeals to baser instincts are more successful than appeals to better angels.  And it is of no use for conservatives to argue that these are reasons to reject ethnic diversity, that ethnic uniformity is the only hope for democracy to succeed.  This is nonsense for several reasons.  One is that ethnic uniformity can be highly subjective.  The tendency to factionalism is deep in human nature, and people are quite good at magnifying minor difference into major ones if that is all they have to work with.  Another is that ethnic uniformity is a fantasy.  Ethnic groups do not line up neatly on one side or the other of an artificial line.  Achieving ethnic uniformity is a blood, brutal business, one that we wish to avoid.  And finally, assuming no domestic minorities to serve as scapegoats, these aggressive impulses simply turn outward, from civil strife to international war.  We can certainly hope that the people of Eastern Europe or the Middle East can learn from Western Europe's mistakes and refrain from their most ghastly manifestations.  But hoping to avoid WWI or WWII is not setting the bar very high.

I should add here that the failings of democracy and the common people are not the ones that democracy's elite critics have so often claimed, from Classical antiquity down well into the 19th Century.  Their criticisms took two general forms -- that the people are fickle, and that they are too eager to tear down their betters, i.e., that they are always eager to punch up.  Neither of these is born out.

Complaints that the people are fickle really amount to saying that the people (like elites) may define politics in terms of leaders, but the really make their judgments based on results.  Suppose there are food shortages and the people riot and overthrow their leader and cheer on a new one, who promises cheap bread.  Cheap bread fails to materialize, so the people riot and overthrow this leader and flock to the banner of yet another, and so on indefinitely.  In one sense, the people are being fickle -- they have no lasting loyalty to any leader.  But in another sense they are being perfectly consistent -- they want cheap food.  Their wishes may not be realistic, but they are altogether consistent.  A leader, no matter how popular at the outset, will never stay popular if he governs badly.  And a leader who starts out unpopular may win the people over by doing well.  Furthermore, as this post points how, starting with extremely strong popularity can actually be a disadvantage because it means people have unrealistic expectations that are bound to be disappointed.  I think many of democracy's aristocratic critics recognize this -- that the people's purported fickleness is simply a tendency to turn against leaders who don't deliver.  But they resent the people for lacking loyalty and not standing by a leader through bad times.  I would say it depends.  A leader who has banked significant political capital can hold onto the people's loyalty for a significant time and get a reasonable chance to turn things around.  But in the end, no one's political capital lasts forever.  Fail to deliver and the people will turn against you.  Indeed, philosopher Karl Popper cited this as the capital virtue of democracy -- it gives a mechanism for getting rid of leaders who have outlasted their usefulness without resorting to violence.

This, incidentally, closely matches a modern criticism of democracy, that the people are unwilling to make sacrifices, and that it is almost impossible to pass necessary but unpopular measures.  But the events of the recent economic downturn have proven this accusation false as well.  In fact, in time of crisis, the people are eager to make sacrifices, whether helping out their fellow citizens in a natural disaster, the sacrifices associated with war, or austerity measures in times of economic downturn.  It is true that the people lose patience when asked for more and ever more sacrifices because they perceive such calls (usually correctly) as evidence of incompetent management.  What has proved to be difficult in the recent downturn is persuading people to go against their intuitions and take necessary but counterintuitive measure.  (But more on this in my next post).

The other elite criticism of democracy, that the people left to themselves will overindulge in punching up and just want to tear down their betters is not born out by the evidence. That elites are so constantly afraid the majority punching up reflects two things.  One is an exaggerated fear for their prerogatives and believe that the slightest infringement on elite prerogative is the prelude to some all-out assault.  The other may stem from cases in which a formally democratic system had degenerated into a cozy little oligarchy and the oppressed public was engaging in the sort of destructive punching up that really does happen in non-democratic systems.  John Stuart Mill in his preface to de Tocqueville's Democracy in America addresses these common elite fears and why they are groundless:
It is not easy to surmise any inducements of interest, by which, in a country like America, the greater number could be led to oppress the smaller. When the majority and the minority are spoken of as conflicting interests, the rich and the poor are generally meant; but where the rich are content with being rich, and do not claim as such any political privileges, their interest and that of the poor are generally the same: complete protection to property, and freedom in the disposal of it, are alike important to both. When, indeed, the poor are so poor that they can scarcely be worse off, respect on their part for rights of property which they cannot hope to share, is never safely to be calculated upon. But where all have property, either in enjoyment or in reasonable hope, and an appreciable chance of acquiring a large fortune; and where every man’s way of life proceeds on the confident assurance that, by superior exertion, he will obtain a superior reward; the importance of inviolability of property is not likely to be lost sight of.
In other words, the democratic public does not engage in excesses of punching up unless outward democratic forms mask a true oligarchy.  But then, although he seems to deny that this is a true tyranny of the majority, Mill acknowledges the real faults of democracy:
It is not from the separate interests, real or imaginary, of the majority, that minorities are in danger: but from its antipathies of religion, political party, or race; and experience in America seems to confirm what theory rendered probable, that the tyranny of the majority would not take the shape of tyrannical laws, but that of a dispensing power over all laws. The people of Massachusetts passed no law prohibiting Roman Catholic schools, or exempting Protestants from the penalties of incendiarism; they contented themselves with burning the Ursuline convent to the ground, aware that no jury would be found to redress the injury. In the same reliance the people of New York and Philadelphia sacked and destroyed the houses of the Abolitionists, and the schools and churches of their black fellow-citizens, while numbers who took no share in the outrage amused themselves with the sight. The laws of Maryland still prohibit murder and burglary; but in 1812, a Baltimore mob, after destroying the printing office of a newspaper which had opposed the war with England, broke into the prison to which the editors had been conveyed for safety, murdered one of them, left the others for dead; and the criminals were tried and acquitted. . . . It is not so much the riots, in such instances, that are deplorable; these might have occurred in any country: it is the impossibility of obtaining aid from an executive dependent on the mob, or justice from juries which formed part of it . . . For where the majority is the sole power, and a power issuing its mandates in the form of riots, it inspires a terror which the most arbitrary monarch often fails to excite.  
Mill then makes a sort of half-way apology for such lawless outbreaks of mob rule -- they are short lived and not really dangerous because "[There is] no permanent class to be tyrannized over. The subjects of oppression are casual objects of popular resentment."  In that, Mill was entirely wrong.  Despised racial and religious minorities were, indeed, a "permanent class to be tyrannized over, and oppression of these groups proved to be prolonged and intractable.  He makes the further argument that, although the US has temporary outbreaks of majority tyranny in the form of mob rule, at least it does not have the more permanent oppression of unjust laws.  Given that at that time large swaths of the country by law permitted slavery, his argument is most unconvincing.  (And even most free states had harshly discriminatory racial laws).

Mill, like de Tocqueville, gropes at, but fails to quite grasp, the true capital flaw of democracy -- its deplorable tendency to kick down.  Polished elites, from Classical times to the 19th Century feared that democracy simply meant mob rule.  The events Mill and deTocqueville describe show that such fears were not altogether unjustified.  But polished elites were quite wrong in believing that they were the most likely targets of the mob.  The most likely targets were some despised ethnic minority.  This was the great stain on democracy in the US, it is proving the great stain on newly democratized countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; and it is spreading like cancer in Western Europe as well.

This being said, if recent events have not done much for my confidence in democracy and the common people, they have done even less for my confidence in purportedly "enlightened" elites.  A subject to be addressed in my next post.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Luther v. Borden

So, to continue from my last post, the brief armed rebellion against the government of Rhode Island ended up in a case before the US Supreme Court, the case of Luther v. Borden, in which the rebel forces sought to be declared the lawful government of Rhode Island.  They did not make this claim under any supposed Second Amendment right of armed rebellion, but perhaps that could be excused on the grounds that at the time the Federal Bill of Rights did not apply to the states.  Instead, they sought recognition under the Guarantee Clause of Article IV, Section 4, "The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence."  Note that two portions of this Section are relevant, both that the Federal Government is to guarantee each state a republican government, and that it is authorized to intervene on behalf of state governments to suppress rebellions.  Taken seriously, this clause appears to allow the people of a state to appeal to the Federal Government if their state government is not a republic, and the state government to appeal to the feds if the people violently revolt.  What is to happen if these two provisions come into conflict, i.e., if the people violently revolt against a government that is not republican, is not addressed in the Constitution.  It was this issue that was brought before the Supreme Court in Luther v. Borden.  It was this issue that the Supreme Court evaded.

The plaintiffs in the case had attempted to prove in the lower court that theirs was the legitimate, republican government of Rhode Island.  The lower court ruled against the, so the plaintiffs appealed.  The Supreme Court held that the lower court had been mistaken in even addressing the issue at all.  Chief Justice Roger Taney (of Dred Scott infamy) wrote the majority opinion, which is revealing.  In effect, he says that the courts are without authority to decide which government is or is not the true and legitimate government.  Instead, courts must accept the de facto government as legitimate and lawful because the overthrow of the government necessarily means the overthrow of the courts along with it.
Judicial power presupposes an established government capable of enacting laws and enforcing their execution, and of appointing judges to expound and administer them. The acceptance of the judicial office is a recognition of the authority of the government from which it is derived. And if the authority of that government is annulled and overthrown, the power of its courts and other officers is annulled with it. And if a State court should enter upon the inquiry proposed in this case, and should come to the conclusion that the government under which it acted had been put aside and displaced by an opposing government, it would cease to be a court, and be incapable of pronouncing a judicial decision upon the question it undertook to try. If it decides at all as a court, it necessarily affirms the existence and authority of the government under which it is exercising judicial power.  (48 US 40).
In other words, if you want to overturn an existing government, peaceably or violently, don't count on the courts to find your actions legal; to do so would be contrary to their nature and function.

The opinion then turned to the Guarantee Clause and the issue of whether a government that disenfranchises some 60% of adult white males can be considered "republican."
The fourth section of the fourth article of the Constitution of the United States provides that the United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion, and on the application of the legislature or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence.  
Under this article of the Constitution, it rests with Congress to decide what government is the established one in a State. For as the United States guarantee to each State a republican government, Congress must necessarily decide what government is established in the State before it can determine whether it is republican or not. And when the senators and representatives of a State are admitted into the councils of the Union, the authority of the government under which they are appointed, as well as its republican character, is recognized by the proper constitutional authority. And its decision is binding on every other department of the government, and could not be questioned in a judicial tribunal.
In other words, by allowing a state to send representatives to Congress, Congress is recognizing its government as "republican" and is beyond the authority of the courts to question.  Another matter beyond the authority of the courts is whether or not the Federal Government chooses to intervene in a rebellion against a state government.
If there is an armed conflict like the one of which we are speaking, it is a case of domestic violence, and one of the parties must be in insurrection against the lawful government. And the President must, of necessity, decide which is the government and which party is unlawfully arrayed against it before he can perform the duty imposed upon him by the act of Congress.
After the President has acted and called out the militia, is a Circuit Court of the United States authorized to inquire whether his decision was right? Could the court, while the parties were actually contending in arms for the possession of the government, call witnesses before it and inquire which party represented a majority of the people? If it could, then it would become the duty of the court (provided it came to the conclusion that the President had decided incorrectly) to discharge those who were arrested or detained by the troops in the service of the United States or the government which the President was endeavouring to maintain. If the judicial power extends so far, the guarantee contained in the Constitution of the United States is a guarantee of anarchy, and not of order. Yet if this right does not reside in the courts when the conflict is raging, if the judicial power is at that time bound to follow the decision of the political, it must be equally bound when the contest is over. It cannot, when peace is restored, punish as offences and crimes the acts which it before recognized, and was bound to recognize, as lawful.
So, once again, the Supreme Court emphasizes that the Federal Government may legitimately suppress a rebellion against a state government -- or, presumably, legitimately side with a rebellion and overthrow a state government.  But either way, the courts may  not second guess its actions, but must accept them as legitimate.  Also note, once again, the assumption that the militia is an organization called into force to suppress rebellions, not an organization whose whole purpose is to engage in rebellion.  Taney goes on to say that, although the President did not, in fact, call out the militia to suppress the rebellion, he did recognize the Charter government as legitimate, and the courts may therefore not second-guess him.

The final issue was whether a state may declare martial law.  Taney says that it may.  "Unquestionably a military government, established a the permanent government of the State, would not be a republican government, and it would be the duty of Congress to overthrow it."  But he argues that martial law in this case was simply a temporary expedient, appropriate to the emergency of an armed rebellion.  This is fairly unremarkable, except that it goes against the unstated assumption in much of the writings of insurrectionists and their fellow travelers, that the Federal Government is the sole danger to liberty, and that the states must be presumed to do no wrong.  Roger Taney, that champion of states rights, does not agree.  In fact, he is prepared to say that in some cases, it may even be the duty of the Federal Government to overthrow the government of a state!*

Associate Justice Levi Woodbury wrote a dissent that was considerably longer that the majority opinion.  He describes at greater length than the majority opinion the injustice that existed in Rhode Island under the Charter.  One gathers that he had some sympathy to the Dorrites.  Indeed, at one point his opinion does appear to affirm the right of revolution against unjust government:
If it be asked what redress have the people, if wronged in these matters, unless by resorting to the judiciary, the answer is, they have the same as in all other political matters. In those, they go to the ballot boxes, to the legislature or executive, for the redress of such grievances as are within the jurisdiction of each, and, for such as are not, to conventions and amendments of constitutions. And when the former fail, and these last are forbidden by statutes, all that is left in extreme cases, where the suffering is intolerable and the prospect is good of relief by action of the people without the forms of law, is to do as did Hampden and Washington, and venture action without those forms, and abide the consequences. Should strong majorities favor the change, it generally is completed without much violence. In most states, where representation is not unequal, or the right of suffrage is not greatly restricted, the popular will can be felt and triumph through the popular vote and the delegates of the people in the legislature, and will thus lead soon, and peacefully, to legislative measures ending in reform, pursuant to legislative countenance and without the necessity of any stronger collateral course. But when the representation is of a character which defeats this, the action of the people, even then, if by large majorities, will seldom be prosecuted with harsh pains and penalties, or resisted with arms.
Nonetheless, he ultimately says that it is not for the courts to decide whether a revolution is justified or not and agrees with the majority on all things except the issue of martial law.  Here he is in a bit of a quandary, because most of the protections of individual rights in the Constitution only protected them from the Federal Government and did not extend to the states.  Nonetheless, he cites various sources, including English common law, the US Constitution, and various bills of rights.  He includes three amendments to the U.S. Constitution -- the Fourth Amendment (no entering a private dwelling without a warrant), the Third Amendment (no quartering troops in a private house), and the Fifth Amendment, "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger."  In other words, no civilian may be tried by military courts.  But, once again, he does not say anything about a right to rebellion being protected by the Second Amendment.  He also concludes that the Federal Government has the sole authority to declare a true "war," including a civil war, as opposed to the mere suppression of a rebellion, which is something less than a war.  Only true "war" justifies martial law; anything less must be prosecuted as mere crime.  Woodbury sets forth what he considers justified in response to a rebellion at some length:
Congress omitted or declined to do anything, and that the President also declined to consider a civil violence or insurrection as existing so as to justify his ordering out troops to suppress it. The State, then, in and of itself, declared martial law, and the defendants attempted to enforce it. In such a condition of things, I am not prepared to say that the authorities of a State alone can exercise the rights of war against their own citizens; persons, too, who, it is to be remembered, were for many purposes at the same time under the laws and protection of the general government. On the contrary, it seems very obvious, as before suggested, that, in periods of civil commotion, the first and wisest and only legal measure to test the rights of parties and sustain the public peace under threatened violence is to appeal to the laws and the judicial tribunals. When these are obstructed or overawed, the militia is next to be ordered out, but only to strengthen the civil power in enforcing its processes and upholding the laws. Then, in extreme cases, another assistance is resorted to in the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. And, finally, if actual force, exercised in the field against those in battle array and not able to be subdued in any other manner, becomes necessary, as quasi war, whether against a foreign foe or rebels, it must first, as to the former, be declared by Congress, or recognized and allowed by it as to the latter, under the duty of the United States "to protect each of them against invasion" and "against domestic violence."
Taken at his word, Woodbury appears to believe it is the sole authority of the Federal Government to declare martial law.  This is, when one gets down to it, something quite dangerous -- bringing the entire might of the Federal Government to bear in ruling through military force.  Presumably he declared this a sole power of the US Government because it was a state exercising the power in this case, and he believed it most unlikely that the Federal Government would actually do so.  But the Civil War proved a different matter altogether.

In short, we have a Supreme Court decision regarding an armed rebellion against an undoubtedly unjust and unrepresentative government which contains no reference whatever to the Second Amendment or a guaranteed right of revolution in the Constitution.  It also makes clear that the courts will not and cannot countenance a violent revolution against government, since their authority rests on the legitimacy of the government that formed them.

I am not clear whether insurrectionists believe that the Supreme Court will ever endorse their actions, but this sounds like a loud and clear, "NO."

*This precedent proved useful, in ways Taney could not have foreseen, during Reconstruction.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Armed Insurrection and the Dorr Rebellion of 1842

To state the obvious, the US Federal Government has never been violently overthrown, nor has anyone ever seriously attempted to overthrow it.  There have been a handful of overthrows or attempts to overthrow a state or local government.  At least one such attempt ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court -- the Dorr Rebellion.

The Dorr Rebellion took place in Rhode Island in 1841-42.  Unlike all other states, Rhode Island had never adopted a constitution, but continued to operate under its colonial charter.  Under the charter, only (adult, male) landowners could vote.  It was not a serious restriction at the time the charter was written because most inhabitants were farmers at the time, but as the state urbanized and industrialized and took in immigrant laborers, more and more inhabitants were excluded from the vote, until by the early 1840's no more than about 40% of all white men could vote.  The led to a dominance by rural interests that was strengthened further because each town had a single representative, regardless of population.  Clearly, the situation was an injustice, but the controlling interest in the state were (unsurprisingly) unwilling to change it an blocked all attempts.  After attempts at reform through the system failed, reformers resorted to extra-legal measures. They called their own, extralegal constitutional convention, drafted a new constitution, and put it up for referendum, which it overwhelmingly passed (particularly among propertyless men who were denied the vote under the old charter).  The reformers then called elections under the new, unofficial constitution and had a slate of candidates elected, led by "Governor" Thomas Dorr, while the limited voters under the old charter elected their own set of officials.  Two rival sets of officials claimed office, but it was the Charterite candidates who held the actual levers of power.  The Charter government declared martial law, called up the militia to suppress the rebellion and (since the militia mostly stood to gain under the new constitution and were therefore of dubious reliability) asked for federal intervention as authorized by the Constitution, Article IV, Section 4.  President Tyler declined to intervene, not because he believed the rebellion to be lawful, but because he saw little danger of violence, but he did make clear that he might change his mind if he saw a real danger of violent rebellion.  In fact, the Dorrites attempted to seize the Providence arsenal (even in those days, there were military weapons denied to civilians), but were defeated and scattered.  The violent rebellion was over.  Soon afterward, the state authorities got the message and prepared a new constitution that greatly expanded voting rights.

So what is one to make of the Dorr Rebellion?  On the one hand, in many ways it seems made to order for insurrectionists.  Clearly it was in response to genuine oppression and injustice which had proven itself impervious to lawful remedies.  It was untainted by the pro-slavery elements and (mostly) untainted by the nastiness of racism that make so many Southern insurrections so distasteful.  It was also successful in the sense that, although it did not violently overthrow the Rhode Island government or even seriously threaten it, it did serve as a wake-up call and persuaded the Charterite government to institute necessary reforms. On the other hand, it did not, after all, violently overthrow the government, as insurrectionists seem to favor.  But another reason the Dorr Rebellion may not play a large part insurrectionist lore is that it ended up in the Supreme Court and resulted the decision of Luther v. Borden, not a very favorable decision to the insurrectionist cause.

Next:  Luther v. Borden

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Are We Finally Catching up with the Mad Revisionist?

I previously linked to the Mad Revisionist as the ultimate in satirical lunacy.  Yes, that's right.  The Mad Revisionist denies the existence of the moon. At last, I thought, a refutation of Poe's law.  No one could possibly take this seriously.  And when I see on Facebook someone arguing that it is the height of arrogance to dismiss any belief as to crazy to consider, I offered a link to the Mad Revisionist to show that, yes, some ideas really are not worth considering.

So imagine my surprise recently when one of the crazies I see on Facebook said, "The north stars, Mars, ORion's Belt and the big dipper are not stars. They have electronic fields surrounding them that appear as changing arrays of red, blue, green and orange. rotating colors ~ every 2secs or so."  And she received the answer, "I'm wondering why we have not noticed this effect before!!!!! Is it possible that they've camouflaged these stars somehow, maybe via holographic projection from satellites?"

So, no one is disputing the existence of the moon just yet.  But apparently some people believe that the North Star, Mars, Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper are hoaxes!

Poe, you are a genius!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Post-Bundy Standoff, and Why Militias are Alarming

To follow up on my last post, we could have a teaching moment here, on why private armies gearing up for possible war on the Federal Government are dangerous and not good guardians of liberty, even apart from the issue of race.  To recap, at least some local residents have found the militias an ominous presence.  Some local hotels have received threats from them.  And no sooner was the standoff over, than the militias started quarreling among themselves, escalating to the level of fist fights and threats to shoot, though no actual shooting.  I assume militia members would dismiss any local residents who found them intimidating as hysterics who failed to understand their good intentions, threats as the work of a few bad apples, and quarreling among themselves as the work of FBI provocateurs (though they might disagree on who the provocateurs were).  But I would say that these things go to the very nature of the militia movement and are good grounds for worry.

Some people ask, what is the harm in preparing for the extremely remote and mostly hypothetical possibility of the need for violent revolution.  After all, if (as is most likely), that day never comes about, nothing will come of it.  But I see a number of things wrong with forming private armies and constantly gearing up for war.  Some are views I have long held; others are brought into sharper focus by the recent events on the Bundy Ranch.

The militia movement is heavily fear-based.  Let's face it.  People do not, in fact, invest so much energy and world view as militia members do in something they consider an extremely remote and mostly hypothetical possibility.  People only invest such energy in something they see as a real danger.  David Frum offers a revealing quote from Wayne LaPierre of the NRA:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?
Frum suggests that this is a good way of expressing racial anxiety without ever actually mentioning race.  But to me what is truly extraordinary is the level of pure anxiety at work here.  The overall message is loud and clear -- Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Or consider this response to sale of a "smart" gun electronically programmed to be fired only by its owner,“If Iran fires a ship launched missile with EMP causing nuke that explodes at 50,000 ft off shore that fries my electronics … will my gun function?” So apparently this person considers being hit by an Iranian missile to be a serious danger.

Fear undermines trust is essential to the working of a civic society.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong in saying that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but underneath it is a real point -- that exaggerated fear can amplify manageable dangers.  Fear is, IMO, the most powerful of all emotions because it is the only one that taps directly into the self-preservation instinct.  And taping into the self-preservation instinct taps into, not just our animal nature, but our cornered animal nature.  And we all know how dangerous a cornered animal is.  Certainly, it is my opinion that fear is a greater threat to democracy than power lust because the most power-crazed leader is harmless without followers.  And what is most likely to motivate followers is fear.  Robert Altemeyer's hypothesis is the same; he found that authoritarians score high on the fear scale and the sense that the world is about to collapse into chaos, and that fear leads to aggression.

The militia movement assumes that only brute force matters.  Hobbes can say that clubs are trumps, but he was, after all, describing a society emerging from an extended civil war.  Mao could say that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, but he was describing a country in which legitimate, functioning government had broken down entirely.  This is a topic I have commented on before.  Moral authority and trust are what make the civic society work.  The assumption that only brute force matters leads to "a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies."  Freedom and democracy depend, not on the constant threat of force, but the renunciation of force as a political tactic.  Security is never won by an ever-escalating arms race.  And the sort of society that would arise from what the militia movement proposes would not be democratic government, or no government, but government by whoever has the biggest arsenal -- a most undesirable state of affairs.

And finally, the tendency to faction is deeply rooted in human nature.  Any movement will be riven with factions; it is simply human nature to do so.  The question is not how to avoid factions, but how to keep them within civilized bounds.  Militia members will presumably tell you that the best way to restrain factions is to arm them to the teeth and give them military drill so they will all know the consequences of stepping over the line.  See all my sub-headings above for why I don't think this would be a good idea.  There are two main reasons revolutions so often end up devouring their children.  One is the innate human tendency to factions.  People who stand united in considering the status quo unacceptable may have very different view on what should replace it.  The other is lies rooted in guns and the brute force mentality.  Once you accept violence as a legitimate way of resolving political differences, the habit can be very hard to break.  I have long believed that if, by some miracle, the militia movement ever did take over the country, the different factions would be at each other's throats in no time.  As events at Bundy Ranch have shown, it may happen ever quicker than that.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Post-Bundy Standoff

The Clive Bundy standoff has receded from the headlines, which is a shame, because the smoldering embers of it are worth watching -- and should dispel any notion that the militia movement is our best champion of liberty, even apart from the issue of race.

The local Congressman, Steven Horsford (both black and a Democrat), has alleged that militia members had established an intimidating presence on the highways and were setting up checkpoints and checking ID's.  Hotel keepers have complained about threatening phone calls, bomb threats, and even in-person threats.  David Neiwart (no fan of the militia movement), says that journalists in the area have found no evidence of roadblocks or checkpoints.  He has found ample evidence of factional disputes among the armed men, with a most interesting video they have released.  Apparently the Oath Keepers heard a rumor that there would be a drone strike on the camp and withdrew, the the great anger of the other groups present.  Listening to the video, several things about it are striking:

  1. The primary speaker talks very much in military terms, speaking of "the enemy," the chain of command, and war.  He clearly sees this as war.
  2. All important decisions are put up for a vote.  This certainly gives the organization a democratic (and, in that sense, decidedly un-military) appearance.  But the votes tend strongly toward unanimity, since all people present are essentially in consensus, and what would happen if there was serious dissent is an interesting question.
  3. One of the women present (the group is predominantly male, but has women as well), mentioned cancelling a Republican caucus meeting to attend.  This is, once again, evidence that the distinction between these fringe groups and the mainstream is not as clear-cut as one  might wish.
  4. They attribute the dispute to provocateurs.  This is not entirely paranoia.  It is my understanding that the militia movement really is riddled with FBI provocateurs, and members legitimately have grounds to be wary of them.  But it can easily turn into paranoia, and an assumption that any difference of opinion is the work of provocateurs, and that anyone who disagrees is necessarily a traitor.  
Neiwart also displays a video from the Oath Keepers (real military types and probably better disciplined) describing the two sides as breaking into fist fights and threatening to shoot each other. They are generally contemptuous of the militia types for having weak military discipline and regard them as amateurs.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Clive Bundy and the Mainstream

With the Cliven Bundy standoff retreating from the headlines, it is time to return to my ongoing series on guns, the Second Amendment, and armed rebellion.  What is remarkable and disturbing about this latest incident is not that there was an armed standoff between the federal government and the militia movement, or that the government backed down without bloodshed, but the amount of mainstream support the militia types received during the ongoing showdown.  This is something new.


At Ruby Ridge, the FBI and ATF were shocked at the amount of support a white supremacist facing firearms charges received, and the extent of a nascent militia movement supporting him.  But mainstream conservatives stayed well away.  When the FBI and ATF first began besieging the Branch Davidians, talk was becoming popular in some circles about the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to stockpile a large private arsenal to wage war on the federal government, and quite probably to start shooting if they tried to shut it down.  But when such a thing happened, there was no initial outburst of support from gun culture. Only later did the "Patriot" movement adopt the Branch Davidians as their own.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they began an investigation of both incidents and found much, quite legitimately, to criticize.  They found many ways that the FBI and ATF could have handled both sieges better and without bloodshed.  But what they did not find was that law-abiding citizens were being unfairly persecuted just for exercising their rights to wage war on the Federal Government.  In fact, they ultimately decided that, although they had many tactical criticisms, they supported the ultimate decision to shut both groups down since they were, after all, preparing to wage war on the Federal Government.

The Montana Freemen in 1996 were a different story.  In this case, the FBI had learned its (tactical) lessons from the previous experiences and avoided a shootout.  Instead they backed off, but pinned the Freemen in and eventually negotiated their surrender.  Once again, there was no great outpouring of mainstream support. Militia-type Bo Gritz attempted to negotiate an end to the siege but ended up giving up, saying that the Freemen were too nutty for him.  And if they were too nutty for Bo Gritz, we may safety assume they were too nutty for Rush Limbaugh and Republican politicians.  (Fox New had not yet begun broadcasting).

In 2000, of course, a Republican was elected President, and in 2001 Islamists destroyed the World Trade Center, and suddenly waging war on the Federal Government stopped looking patriotic.

Well, once again, a Democrat is in the White House, and armed rebellion against the federal government is once again patriotic. Clive Bundy had been grazing his cattle on federal land for 20 years without paying grazing fees, and when the Bureau of Land Management came to confiscate them, he called out the militia movement to resist.  And this, time, mainstream conservatives, including five members of the Arizona legislature, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller, and, of course, Sean Hannity on Fox News.  Of course, all of these deserted him when Bundy began making racially questionable remarks. And attempts to give these remarks more "context" are unlikely to make much difference -- our sensitivity on race is such that anything that might be perceived as insensitive is deadly.

But then again, as this segment points out, it was an open secret that Clive Bundy and his friends had some very radical views even apart from their views on race -- such as the view that the Federal Government was barred by the Constitution from holding any land at all except for military bases, that it had no legitimate law enforcement powers and, indeed, that the Federal Government could not legitimately exist at all!  It is possible, I suppose, that Fox News types and some of our more libertarian Republican politicians believe that it is illegitimate for the Federal Government to hold land, that our National Parks should be turned over to the states to manage, and other federal land auctioned off to ranchers, timber companies, and mining companies.  But I doubt that any of them would deny the Federal Government law enforcement powers (what, no one to hunt down terrorists!), much less deny its legitimacy altogether, even if a Democrat is in the White House.

Confronted with Bundy's radical views, the usual response on the mainstream right has been that of course, they do not agree with them, but they are concerned about the heavy-handed, "paramilitary" approach of the BLM.  They have a legitimate point there.  The militarization of our police forces is, indeed, worrisome. Opposing it with private paramilitaries is also worrisome.  But surely it is no coincidence that the right wing did not get seriously worked up about this militarization until one of their own was the target.  Consider the appalling militarization of the police that has taken place in the context of the War on Drugs.  I am not aware of Fox News being one of its leading critics.  But even assuming it has, suppose some drug dealer adopted the theory, not only that federal bans on drugs are unconstitutional (some libertarians hold that view, but that the Federal Government has no law enforcement powers whatever, that its existence is illegitimate and, that if it tries to flex its muscle, he has the constitutional right to offer it armed resistance and possibly start a violent revolution against it -- wouldn't such a view be seen as alarming to most mainstream conservatives, even ones who are pretty hard core?  And wouldn't they, after all, be right to be alarmed?