Category Archives: the art of the state

The Right to Risk Your Life

In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans kept dying, or losing limbs, because they were getting hit by trains. Now, you might say, who cares? It’s people’s own fault if they are stupid enough to walk onto a train track. That’s not, it turns out, how Americans and their governments reacted at the time. As the casualties mounted, the state railroad commissions — relatively new agencies set up to monitor and regulate railroad safety — “conclud[ed] that enough was enough; no man had a right to willfully risk his life.”

So writes Barbara Young Welke in her fascinating work of legal and cultural history, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. When I heard about the other night’s GOP primary debate, in which Dr. Ron Paul emphasized the need for “personal responsibility” and audience members cheered the notion that a man who decides not to purchase health insurance should be allowed to die, I immediately thought of Recasting American Liberty. Continue reading The Right to Risk Your Life

Virtual Representation

Representation is an odd thing. As a professor of mine once hinted, it’s as much an aesthetic as a political concept. Why does red represent anger? Why does a triangle atop a square represent a house? Why do lines criss-crossing one way represent Christianity, lines criss-crossing another way represent the Nazi regime? Why does Anna Eshoo, a person whom I have never met, and whose political views I could not tell you, represent me in Washington, D.C.? (I just Googled Anna Eshoo so as to provide a link, and as a result, for the first time, I now know what she looks like. I pass by her local office on the way to the grocery store, though, and I’ve voted for her.)  Continue reading Virtual Representation

This Would Be Interesting

Adrian Vermeule summarizes John McCormick’s proposal for reforming America:

He proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would establish a People’s Tribunate—a randomly selected group of common citizens whose income or wealth may not be too high and who have not made a career of holding public office, and who assemble for a one-year non-renewable term. Omitting the intricate details of the scheme, the main powers of the Tribunate during its annual term would be to veto one congressional enactment, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision, to initiate one national referendum whose product if approved by the voters would have the force of a federal statute, and to initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each branch of government.

Years and Justice

With the news of the massacre in Norway comes the news that Norway’s maximum prison term is 21 years. The self-appointed pundits are angry:

“Most murderers in Norway spend just 14 years behind bars. The terrorist is 32 years old. He will get out when he’s 53. That means he’s serving about 3 months for every person he murdered. Justice?” asked a blogger at Big Peace.

Now, there may well be arguments to make that 21 years is not enough punishment for the perpetrator of this horror. But this particular argument cannot be it. It rests upon an obviously absurd premise: that there is any number of months, or years, or decades, or eternities that would ever be commensurate to the number of persons he murdered — that would ever amount to “justice.” Continue reading Years and Justice

Our Nation’s Credit Card

Recently, I’ve noticed a tendency among everyone’s favorite denizens — web commenters — to make facile but elaborate analogies between the national debt and their personal credit card bills. But whatevs: when you read some random anonymous typer’s earnest explanation of how the debt ceiling is the precise equivalent of your college-age daughter’s MasterCard limit, you always have the option to assure yourself, “Well, it’s the Internet. Anyone can say anything” and move on with your day.

But now our president, too, has adopted the trope — for instance, last night in his latest speech on the Great Debt Ceiling Impasse of 2011, in which he stated: Continue reading Our Nation’s Credit Card

Don’t Call It -gate

Here’s Bruce Schulman, in his book The Seventies, decrying the proliferation of “-gate”s in American political culture (p. 43):

Watergate would leave a tangled legacy. Most obviously, it triggered the “gating” of American life. Every subsequent scandal—no matter how petty—has received the suffix “-gate.” … From this misleading practice, millions drew the unfortunate conclusion that these scandals somehow resembled each other—that they all revealed the same corrupt, sleazy political underworld.

But the “-gate” suffix confused old-fashioned graft with true constitutional crises. Worst of all, the practice led Americans to conflate Watergate with all the other “-gates” it seemed to generate. Watergate was unique; it forever altered the way Americans understood politics and the presidency, the way they reported and discussed national politics, the way they conceived, investigated, and understood wrongdoing by government officials.

Watergate was much more than a bungled attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex … Nixon’s abuse of power preceded the burglary and extended far beyond it. In the course of unraveling the Watergate story, investigators uncovered a wide range of sordid and illegal activities—a rogue government.

Nonsense Presidents Say

“One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes a huge inconvenience for all of us,” Obama said.

— “Obama calls airport pat-downs frustrating but necessary,” USA Today

This sentence is nonsensical. The “fight against terrorism” has not “created” any security apparatus; the United States government has done that. This convenient phrasing allows Obama to elide over the fact that airport security, like any other government activity, is the result of so many choices among alternatives, made by actual people. Instead, he presents the “whole security apparatus” as though it is being inexorably generated as a second-order effect by some first-order set of decisions called the “fight against terrorism,” and, by implication, suggests that only by abandoning that “fight” could we abandon these particular security measures. This is just a more circumlocutory way of saying, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Continue reading Nonsense Presidents Say

Security Theater

The current hubbub over the TSA’s latest inane, invasive “security theater” measures reminds me of nothing so much as high school. In the wake of Columbine and at the height of the late ’90s “school safety” obsession, my public high school installed two metal detectors in the gym and began requiring all 1,400 of us students to bottleneck through them every morning on the way to class. It was never entirely clear if the metal detectors actually worked, or were being used properly — they seemed to beep at random as students walked through, with no apparent follow-up. The most visible effects of this policy were to make lots of students late for class, and to ensure the daily existence, at least for an hour or so, of a crowd outside the building. Anyone who really wanted to, say, shoot or blow up a lot of students could easily have done so now that we were all conveniently gathered in one place every morning. Of course, what really kept us safe all those years was not these silly “security measures” but the basic fact that the vast majority of people aren’t trying to commit mass murder the vast majority of the time.  Continue reading Security Theater

The Welfare State

David Frum defends the welfare state:

We should remember why the immediate post-Depression generations created so many social-welfare programs. They were not motivated only — or even primarily — by “compassion.” They were motivated as well by the desire for stability.

Social Security, unemployment insurance and other benefits were designed as anti-Depression defenses, “automatic stabilizers” as economists called them. When people lost their jobs, their incomes did not drop by 100 percent, but by 30 percent or 40 percent: they could continue to pay rent, buy food and sustain society’s overall level of demand for goods and services.

Students of political rhetoric, note how the architect of “compassionate conservatism” has now decided (realized?) that the better rhetorical strategy for legitimating a policy in the eyes of American conservatives is to try to distance it from “compassion.” It’s just about economic stability, you see.


What to make of the midterm elections? In the name of restraining government power, what we are instructed to call “the Tea Party movement” unseated the one member of the Senate who voted to restrain government power. Feingold has been compared to LaFollette, and one is indeed tempted to cite H. L. Mencken, who said it best in 1924: “LaFollette will be defeated tomorrow, as he deserves to be defeated in a land of goose-steppers and rubber stamps.” Feingold didn’t dismiss Tea Partiers as “goose-steppers and rubber stamps.” He acknowledged the legitimacy of their concerns and the possibility of common ground. I’ll say it again, anyway: “LaFollette will be defeated tomorrow, as he deserves to be defeated in a land of goose-steppers and rubber stamps.”