Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let's you and him fight, Part 1

(Note: This article turned out a lot longer than I planned, so I'm breaking it into multiple parts.)

There's a question I've long been interested by, and with talk of possible American military intervention in Syria over the past few months it's taken greater prominence again: Where the hell did so many ostensibly anti-war people left of political center- from garden-variety liberals/progressives to more radical sorts to “anarchists”- get the idea that the draft is a good idea as an anti-war measure?

You certainly don't have to look far for examples. Renowned scholar, activist, and alleged anarchist Noam Chomsky has endorsed the draft on that basis. It's the perennial obsession of Congressmen Charles Rangel (lifetimes ratings of 4% from the American Conservative Union, 95% from the AFL-CIO, 92% from the Brady Campaign, 91% lifetime yearly average from American for Democratic Action) of New York. MSNBC talking head and self-described "practical European socialist" Lawrence O'Donnell is a fan. And it's easy enough to find it supported in publications like In These Times, Mother Jones, or London Progressive Journal. You can hardly take a metaphorical step in the comments sections of most major "progressive" sites without tripping over a horde of boosters for the idea when the military and foreign policy are the issue at hand. It may not be a majority opinion, but it's certainly not a rare one

Now, I wouldn't be surprised by folks like that liking the draft as a matter of general principle, as indeed many openly are. If you're a big fan of forcing people to do things in groups, fetishize things like "shared" sacrifice for the state, and/or want to decisively repudiate the idea that a man's life belongs to him and not the rulers of some collective, it doesn't get much better than conscription. But the idea that it would encourage a more peaceful foreign policy as well is still pretty common.

The argument is usually that conscription gives more Americans a direct stake in decisions to use military force by raising the threat that they or someone they love will be drafted and possibly killed, and so will prevent the public from supporting war without good reason. The volunteer military, on the other hand, is said to insulate much of the public from the costs of war by drawing a disproportionate amount of its personnel from particular subsets of society,  typically said to be racial minorities and the poor, who join for lack of other options.

Now, one problem with this is that it's not actually accurate in the modern United States. The poorest fifth of Americans are actually underrepresented in the US military; enlistment rules concerning education and criminal records make a disproportionately large percentage of them ineligible. The military is disproportionately black, but- due to relatively lower Hispanic and Asians enlistment- not disproportionately nonwhite. The actual disparity most worth noting (other than sex, which a draft wouldn't change*) is regional, with a disproportionate number of military personnel coming from the South or the states around the Rocky Mountains. Inconveniently, these are also the parts of the country that are most pro-war, so the supposed mechanism by which the draft would discourage support for war is questionable.

(If any American military draft included women, I'd be very surprised. If that draft were continued into a war of any significant size and length and didn't offer females enough exemptions to make their inclusion a dead letter, I'd be even more surprised. If it actually put female conscripts into the line of fire in any significant numbers, I'd be absolutely shocked. If someone invented some sort of superdrug that gave the average woman the upper body strength and bone density of the average man, those predictions would not change. American conservatives are antsy enough about women's current degree of involvement in the military when they're all volunteers and there's nearly 49 dead men for every dead woman. Actually existing American feminism has a habit of recoiling in horror upon contact with anything resembling equality with non-elite men and retreating into leftish-sounding justifications for traditional protections and privileges. Women currently aren't even required to register for a draft that hasn't actually been used in decades; the idea that any restoration of conscription in the United States would be done in anything resembling a gender-neutral fashion is laughable, and the claims of some conscription advocates that it would or should be are empty showboating.)

And, more generally, the popular cliché about how the wealthy and powerful would lose their taste for war if it were their sons in harm's way doesn't actually hold up to scrutiny very well. Young men of the upper and upper-middle classes have suffered disproportionately in many wars, and not just in pre-industrial societies where the nobility was also the warrior class or where the army was composed of those who could afford to provide their own arms. It's typically been more dangerous in modern armies to be a junior officer then an enlisted man, which historically didn't prevent the ranks of freshly commissioned lieutenants from being filled with the sons of aristocrats or the upper bourgeoisie, and even in the enlisted ranks front-line combatants have often disproportionately been men from comfortable backgrounds simply because they were healthier. Casualties were disproportionately high among men from upper and upper-middle class families in First World War Britain, to cite one conspicuous example; those in power still thought the conflict was worth the lives of well over 800,000 British men.

Joe Biden's son spent a year on active duty in Iraq. Sarah Palin's son spent a year on active duty in Iraq. John McCain's son served in Iraq. The period of all three deployments partially overlapped with the 2008 Presidential race. If any of them experienced some sort of epiphany about the horrors of war as a result, they kept it to themselves. 

A less commonly heard argument, generally limited to more radical circles, is the idea that a conscript (Noam Chomsky slips the euphemism “citizen” in here) army will be less willing than a volunteer (often dysphemized as “mercenary,” as if in unconscious tribute to the modern Left's reactionary Prussian roots) army to fight in imperialistic wars or commit atrocities.

This is historically dubious, to put it mildly. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had “citizen” armies. The Japanese Empire conquered and brutalized much of Asia with a “citizen” army that- just to recap, since some people seem to forget that Asians are not indeterminate clouds of quantum fuzz that only have definite characteristics and histories when white people are fucking with them- slaughtered millions, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians by dousing Chinese cities in cholera and bubonic plague, and torturously killed thousands more researching medical mysteries like "What happens if you saw a still-conscious infant's torso open and start yanking stuff out?"  Every major belligerent in World War I had a “citizen” army. Napoleon conquered much of Europe with a “citizen” army. The first modern “citizen” army in Europe carried out the first modern ideological genocide in Europe on tens of thousand of civilians in the Vendée before it was even half a decade old.

For a bit of irony, that link up above leads to a transcript of a talk Noam Chomsky gave on the occasion of Yasser Arafat's death, condemning the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory... by the State of Israel, which is so enthusiastic about the idea of “citizen armies” that it has mandatory military service for all men 18-21 and is one of the only countries on Earth that conscripts women as well.

For bonus irony, in light of the fact it's radical leftists making this argument, consider the implications of simultaneously agreeing- as Chomsky does- with the statements that:

1.Volunteer armies are full of the sort of brutal, amoral “mercenaries” well-suited to murderous campaigns of aggression and imperialism, while a conscript army would be full of much more humane, thoughtful “citizens” who wouldn't be able to stomach such depravity.
2. Volunteer armies are dark-skinned and poor, while a conscript army would have a greatly increased proportion of whites and the rich.

I don't want to wander too far afield of my main subject, so I leave the question of what a naturally concomitant 3 might be to others.

There's another problem when we look at the American historical record. Proponents of these pro-draft arguments often cite the size of the antiwar movement and the eventual shift in public opinion against the war during America's involvement in Vietnam as an example of the draft having the effect they claim, and the relative lack of a noisy antiwar movement during America's even longer military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a demonstration of how the lack of a draft makes the public tolerant of unjustified military adventurism.

How well does this claim hold up? We'll examine that next time.

(Spoiler alert: Poorly.)

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

2013 Status update

Just in case anybody is still reading this, I'd like to apologize for the extreme dearth of content over the past year. A huge amount of my time and energy have been sucked up by real work and other projects, and various personal circumstances have further drained me.

(On the plus side, I've learned I'm really good at 911 calls. I'm a nervous wreck talking to the nice lady at the animal shelter about my new cat, but have an emergency dispatcher asks me how much alcohol someone consumed before I found them swallowing half a bottle of benzodiazepines and I'm Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, I've been unable to figure out a way to exploit this skill in my work without encountering insurmountable logistical problems.)

Despite this, I'm absolutely not giving up on this blog, and I hope to have things to post here again sooner rather than later now that things are a little less exhausting and insane.  The Superfluous Man WILL live again. Thank you all.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Libertarianism, slave to the unspeakable scourge MARIJUANA!

Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter was recently having a debate with libertarian John Stossel. (Hat tip to Reason magazine's blog, Hit and Run.) In it, she upbraided libertarians for what she regards as their disproportionate interest in that most effeminate of causes, legalizing marijuana:

"Libertarians and pot! This is why people think libertarians are pussies. We're living in a country that is 70 percent socialist. The government is taking 60 percent of your money. They're taking care of your health care, of your pensions, they're telling you who you can hire, what the regulations are gonna be...and you want to suck to your little liberal friends and say, 'Oh, we want to legalize pot."

This is the sort of accusation most seasoned libertarians have encountered before. It's one side of the conservative "Why must you libertarians carry on about drugs so much" criticism, counterpart to the more common argument made by other conservatives that libertarians are wild-eyed madmen whose advocacy of drug legalization makes us too scary for the general public, rather than too bland and inoffensive. Together, they fill in the rare downtimes when we're not being told we're crypto-conservatives who care about nothing except money.

Now, it would be easy- and accurate, and satisfying- to  point out that during the 2012 presidential campaign Ann Coulter not only supported a man who voted in favor of the bank bailouts and instituted the beta release of Obamacare in his home state when the actual Obama's presidency was only a glint in the Chicago Machine's eye, she called him "one of the best presidential candidates the Republicans have ever fielded." And that this makes Coulter's disdain for libertarians' supposedly insufficient concern about economic statism somewhat hard to credit.

It wouldn't be very interesting, though. Since this claim about the supposed libertarian obsession with drugs and/or being palatable to liberals is made so much, I thought it was past time to try actually testing it. My assumption is simple: If Coulter's claim is correct, we should see at least some reflection of it in the top articles and stories at the Internet's big libertarian sites, which I will proceed to examine. This is not the most methodologically rigorous means of probing this question, admittedly, but I think it still has something to recommend it over the standard "pulling stuff out of my ass" protocol usually favored on the subject. I'm writing this in bits and pieces, with each website sampled as I get to it; there's been no cherrypicking.

Because I'm a sporting man, I'm going to exclude the Mises Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education from consideration; using the content of sites for two organizations specifically about economics might seem a little unfair. On the other hand, some might argue that the fact that I felt the need to exclude two prominent libertarian groups from our sample because one is named after an economist and the other is named after the science of economics itself tells against Coulter's claim that libertarians don't talk about the subject much.

April 10th, 1947: Ludwig von Mises addresses the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society

Let's start with the Cato Institute, undoubtedly the best known libertarian think tank in America and probably the world. They once published something- about drug laws, no less- written by Glenn Greenwald, who is not only a liberal but actually has many of the opinions on foreign policy and civil liberties that many conservatives ascribe to liberals in general. (If you want a reminder of what's more typical of actual American liberalism, Google searching "Glenn Greenwald Cato," without quotes, provides a nice crash course.) That certainly raises suspicions. Topping the front page of the Cato Institute on March 5th at 4:32 PM Central Time, we find:

Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens
The Constitutional Case for Marriage Equality
The Fairy Tale on Spending Cuts
The Challenges of Negotiating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
License to Drill: The Case for Modernizing America’s Crude Oil and Natural Gas Export Licensing Systems
Spending Beyond Our Means: How We Are Bankrupting Future Generations
The Flimsy Case for Stimulus Spending

So, six of the latest seven articles are about spending and/or economic regulation. None about marijuana, unless "natural gas" is some sort of drug lingo the kids are using nowadays. Cato does offer a wealth of material against drug prohibition, but it can hardly be accused of lacking interest in governmental involvement in the economy.

Well, maybe the Cato Institute is a bit too staid and stuffy and for the sort of thing Coulter is talking about. Let's try the popular libertarian site, where they take a rather more rough-and-tumble approach and have been known to harbor questionable left-libertarian types like Roderick Long.

For the Wednesday, February 27th edition of the site (that being the day I ran into the original Coulter quote they have) counting both linked and on-site articles posted for the day: an interview with Ron Paul, two anti-gun control articles, one pro-homeschooling article, one  on government spending cuts or the lack thereof, one advocating repudiation of the federal debt, one against the minimum-wage, one about about a police officer facing no punishment except a few traffic citations for killing an innocent person with his off-duty reckless driving, and one each about gold ownership, home security, and nutrition. (Click the screnshot for full size.)

So... nothing, again. certainly has had material condemning the drug war, but, as with the Cato Institute, it doesn't seem to have stopped them from vigorously going after government spending and economic regulation, and there seems to be little evidence of a trying to pander to liberals, much less a fear of offending them.

The subject matter of the article about police misconduct has some liberal appeal, but the content is very much libertarian in a way that most liberals would find uncongenial. The antiwar article might be the sort of thing you'd put up to appeal to liberals, provided you live in an alternate universe where President John McCain took office after defeating Democratic nominee Dennis Kucinich, but on Earth-One's it probably isn't.

Let's try Advocates for Self-Government. They're largely about introducing people to libertarianism and, in contrast to the austerely scholarly Cato Institute or pugilistic, have been known for presenting libertarian ideas in a touchy-feely sort of style that would no doubt have Ann Coulter smelling pussy from miles away. Their front page is full of links to general information about libertarian activism rather than specific issues, so let's swing by their blog for more topical material. It's most recent entries (excluding some tributes to recently passed away libertarians) are:

Repeal the Income Tax! Part 4
Repeal the Income Tax! Parts 1, 2, and 3
Guns: Reframing the Debate
Share Some Facts About Thanksgiving and Big Government
Word Choices: Try Re-Legalization

Success! Drug legalization content! And it's immediately preceded by two other posts about drug legalization, too. Now we're getting somewhere.

On the other hand, if the Advocates were trying to "suck up to their little liberal friends," surrounding said sucking up with stuff condemning income taxes and gun control seems like a questionable way to do so.

OK, how about Reason Magazine? It's known for a strong interest in personal and lifestyle freedoms. It's in bad odor among some paleolibertarians for what they regard as advocacy of libertinism and/or an unseemly drive to fit in with liberals at the expense of libertarian principles. The  people  who were trying to make "liberaltarianism" a thing a few years ago (both of them) get on well with them and have contributed there. As the website for a popular monthly magazine rather than a think tank or academic institution, it is naturally less inclined towards the sort of policy wonkish beancountery that might bias it towards economic topics. Topping their blog at 5:26, March 5th are the following:

Hugo Chavez is Dead
Mike Riggs on the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Trick to Trimming the Federal Budget
Former National Labor Relations Board Chairman: “Time to Pull Plug on National Labor Relations Board”
Most Americans Believe U.S. in Recession, LA Votes for New Mayor, Soviet Veteran Found Living in Afghanistan: P.M. Links
Catch J.D. Tuccille Discussing the NYPD's Pre-Crime Youth Tracking on RT at 5:24 pm ET 
Eric Holder: Yes, Your Government Can Drone You to Death on U.S. Soil
Yet More Evidence That ObamaCare's Cost Reforms Won't Work
My Kid Learns More When He's Home Sick Than at School

We do have one that's implicitly hostile to the drug war, though it's also about government spending. There's one link with strong potential liberal appeal, concerning police misconduct. There's an item on drones that some principled liberals would approve of, though it's also critical of the current administration. And there are three with overtly liberal-unfriendly subjects- criticism of Obamacare, government schools, and federal labor regulatory bodies.

So, a rather weak showing for Coulter's claim, all in all. This is no surprise, of course; the deade and a half I've spent as a libertarian doesn't offer much evidence to support it, either. The nature of her dubious claim is not surprising either, since it fits a larger pattern I've noticed in criticisms of libertarians: A lot of it seems to be from people trying to hide or ignore the fact that libertarians are better at an important part of their own faction's supposed principles than that faction is.

Conservatives talk a great deal about their devotion to reducing the size and scope of government, reducing taxes, reducing regulations and other government intrusions into the private sector, but in actual practice most of them do precious little to show that these supposed principles are actually important to them. Liberals talk about how much they care about civil liberties, personal autonomy, stopping plutocracy, and the well-being and dignity of the underprivileged, and then go on to demonstrate that they don't mean it, either. Meanwhile, conservatives accuse libertarians of being single-mindedly focused on legalizing or outright endorsing "vice" and "license" and ignoring the things conservatives claim to care about, and liberals accuse libertarians of being single-mindedly focused on money and the interests of well-off white guys and ignoring the things liberals claim to care about.

(Probably the most vicious and hysterical attacks on libertarians from left of center in recent years- not that there hasn't been plenty of stiff competition were those reacting to libertarian opposition to intrusive airport search procedures. The fact that this was an unusually prominent example of libertarians actually caring about supposed liberal values like privacy, civil liberties, and individual freedom to choose who is and  who isn't allowed to touch your genitals was not, I think, a coincidence.)

As I've said before, a great deal of political rhetoric involves attacking one's opponents for traits they clearly don't have. With mainstream political groups, though, the nonsense being spewed at least resembles- albeit in a caricatured, negatively spun fashion- what its targets would often like to believe is true. Many conservatives claim to be and, at least among the rank-and-file, genuinely like to think of themselves as the die-hard supporters of free markets liberals falsely paint them as, and many liberals would like to think of themselves as the ultra-tolerant, peace-loving scourges of established wealth and privilege that conservatives imagine they are.

Meanwhile, libertarians don't even get to enjoy that small consolation. It just ain't fair.

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