Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The "Gate-"ful dead... although he's really still alive, I guess. I just needed a pun, y'know?

Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat” is to blame. It’s his fault that the annoying suffix "–gate" is added to the end of every pseudo-, quasi-, and semi- scandal out there (it was even, in an ironic example of historical turnabout, applied to journalist Dan Rather, in Rathergate). This blight on American historical nomenclature, or Gategate as it prefers to be called, now has a central figure—Mark Felt. I hope he’s happy.

He’s no hero, though, that’s for sure. I’m not psychologizing Felt’s motives here, either; whether or not Felt thought he was doing his patriotic duty or just being exemplarily moral is irrelevant. Historical context is what is important.

Watergate has a certain infamy about them, as one of the darkest moments of presidential misbehavior, at least among people of my generation. Ask a random person under twenty-five who's the worst president, and Nixon will be the default response, simply because of the mar left by Watergate. But was Watergate all that bad? (Whether or not Nixon was a good president, I’ll leave to each person to decide, after considered reflection. At least Ben Stein seems to like the guy.)

Watergate was not the height of presidential misconduct, and Felt no hero. In his epic telling of the American story, “A History of the American People,” historian Paul Johnson collects a slew of examples of much more egregious executive conduct:

Bad habits had set in under FDR. He had created his own ‘intelligence unit,’ responsible only to himself, with a staff of eleven and financed by the State department ‘Special Emergency’ money. He used J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the IRS, and the Justice Department to harass his enemies, especially the press and business, and to tap their phones, the mineworkers’ leader John L. Lewis being one victim. FDR’s use of the IRS to ‘get’ names on his ‘enemies’ list’ was particularly scandalous and unlawful. FDR had made persistent efforts to penalize the Chicago Tribune, which he hated, in the courts, and to get the New York Times indicted for tax fraud. He even used the intelligence serve to bug his wife’s hotel room. …. Kennedy had been privy to CIA assassination plots and had been a party to the coup which led to the killing of his ally Diem, though he had opposed the murder itself. At the Justice Department, Bobby Kennedy in 1962 had agents carry out dawn raids on the homes of US steel executives who had opposed his brother’s policies. In their civil rights campaign, the Kennedy brothers exploited the federal contract system and used executive orders in housing finance (rather than legislation) to get their way. They plotted against right-wing radio and TV stations. They used the IRS to harass ‘enemies.’ Under Kennedy and Johnson, phone-tapping increased markedly. So did ‘bugging’ and ‘taping.’ JFK’s closest aides were stunned to learn in February 1982 that he had taped no fewer than 325 White House conversations. The large-scale womanizing of Martin Luther King was taped and played back to newspaper editors. The efforts made by LBJ to protect himself from the Bobby Baker scandal, already mentioned, included the unlawful use of secret government files, the IRS, and other executive devices.

Until the Nixon era, the media was extremely selective in the publicity it gave to presidential wrongdoing. Working journalists protected Roosevelt on a large number of occasions, over his love affairs and many other matters. They did the same—and more—for Kennedy. The fact that Kennedy shared a mistress, while he was president, with a notorious gangster, though known to several Washington journalists, was never published in his lifetime. In Johnson’s struggle to extricate himself from the Bobby Baker mess, the Washington Post actually helped him to blacken his chief accuser, Senator Williams
In fact, part of the reason the WaPo was dead-set against Nixon was personal vendetta:
The Washington Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, was particularly angry, not to say hysterical, because he believed (without any warrant) that the authorities, at Nixon’s insistence, were maliciously opposing the Post’s application for broadcasting licenses. Hence, unlike the rest of the press, the Post had Watergate stories on its front page seventy-nine times during the election and from October 10 began publication of a series of ‘investigative’ articles seeking to make the Watergate burglary a moral issue.
This is not to say that no wrong was done at Watergate. Obviously, breaking into that building was illegal. But even here, for those actually involved (Nixon had no knowledge of the event, and certainly didn’t authorize it) justice was denied. G. Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate “burglars” (nothing was actually stolen) was given a 20 year sentence and slapped with a $40,000 fine—a punishment completely out of proportion for a first time break-in where nothing was broken or stolen.

And, as noted, Nixon had no knowledge of this. The group that broke into Watergate had initially been created by Nixon to stop leaks of administration secrets, which had been happening with a startling, and, frankly, nation-endangering, frequency. After the famous leakage of the Pentagon Papers, Kissinger finally told Nixon that something had to be done, or else no nation would enter into secret negotiations with America, for fear that info would be leaked about it. So this group, called the "Plumbers," was formed to get the leaks under control. No one really knows what the group was doing at Watergate, but it smacked of amateur cloak-and-dagger election shenanigans, and wasn't part of anything ordered from higher up.

Watergate wasn’t as bad as many think it was, especially when taken in historical context. And Felt was no hero, that’s for sure. That some would say he is, is scandalous. Feltgate, anyone?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Death Tax and Morality

The inheritance tax, or the ‘death tax’ as it is dysphemistically called, has seen the tide of public opinion turn against it, much to the bewildered consternation of liberals and socialists.

Many don’t understand why the inheritance tax should be opposed. Those that would inherit the wealth of the rich haven’t earned this money, and so have no right to it. It is a blatant, yet easily remedied, violation of egalitarian principles, is it not? Why should some children come into the world millionaires, while others struggle to make by with the barest of possessions?

Paris Hilton is regularly mentioned as an example of the dissolute and privileged scion, the spoiled inheritor of unearned, and even corrupting, wealth, who is created by the inheritance tax. What possible justification can there be for repealing a tax that only affects the super-rich, and, even then, only by preventing exorbitant and unearned wealth transfer to an undeserving heir, who, in turn, is corrupted by it?

There are a few arguments offered for the death tax, the primary one being that it allows for the accumulation of capital, and acts as an incentive for the continued creation of wealth. But this is primarily an economic argument, and one that doesn’t entirely answer the critiques mentioned above. Although this economic argument could be molded into something of a moral argument, I would probably find such an argument distasteful, as it’s main thrust would be one of expediency, rather than principle. That is, the argument would simply deal in monetary amounts (i.e. more total wealth would be created without the inheritance tax, so we should abolish it), rather than in principles, such as liberty, equality, etc. I am loathe to accept arguments of expediency over arguments of principle.

Of course, economic liberty is, in itself, a worthy principle. But such an argument might falter as the death tax presents a special circumstance: is it possible to violate the liberty of the deceased? I think this argument would still stand, for various reasons, but it is not the position that I want to develop now.

In Constitution of Liberty, Austrian economist and social philosopher F.A. Hayek wrote on the death tax:

Many people who agree that the family is desirable as an instrument for the transmission of morals, tastes, and knowledge still question the desirability of the transmission of material property. Yet there can be little doubt that, in order that the former may be possible, some continuity of standards, of the external forms of life, is essential, and that this will be achieved only if it is possible to transmit not only immaterial but also material advantages. There is, of course neither greater merit nor any greater injustice involved in some people being born to wealthy parents than there is in other being born to kind or intelligent parents. The fact is that it is no less of an advantage to the community if at least some children can start with the advantages which at any given time only wealthy homes can offer than if some children inherit great intelligence or are taught better morals at home.
If it is “unfair” and deserving of remedy that some inherit millions of dollars unearned, which gives them unfair advantages over others, then is it not also “unfair” and deserving of remedy that some are born with uncommon faculties of intelligence, or with sturdier bodily constitutions, or with fairer features, that, in turn, give them unfair advantages?

The child whose parents are industrious will be able to benefit by an abnormally large material inheritance. The child whose parents are world-class pedagogues will be able to benefit from their special, and intimate tutelage. The child who has loving, attentive parents will be able to benefit by the inculcation of superior values and the gaining of a healthy self-image. All of these children will benefit in special ways according to the uniqueness of their parents, but only one will be considered unworthy of his inheritance, and as a justified target of state sponsored intervention. That is unfair.

But what of the Paris Hilton example? Why not have the inheritance tax for the children? This is a bizarre argument for liberals to make. Usually liberals claim to abhor legislating morality (a claim which is, nonetheless, usually framed so as to constitute nothing more than a logical fallacy), but here, they embrace it.

So, the lifestyle of a Paris Hilton is condemnable? And not only that, but condemnable to such a level that inheritance theft is justified? Leaving a large inheritance can be seen as nothing more than another type of parenting. Maybe some parents think that they have nothing to offer there children except monetarily? This is not a far-out example. Take the stereotypical workaholic, philandering billionare businessman. This person might realize that they are a bad parent according to the usual standards of parenting. Therefore, as their attempt at parenting, they attempt to “buy” the love of their children. Why is this form of parenting deserving of a special, state-sponsored opprobrium (whether it is deserving of societal opprobrium, is of course, up to each individual constituting that society) and subsequent taxation?

Now, we will go back to Hayek. He offers another reason to oppose inheritance taxes:
There is also another consideration which, though it may appear somewhat cynical, strongly suggests that if we wish to make the best use of the natural partiality of parents for their children, we ought not preclude the transmission of property. It seems certain that among the many ways in which those who have gained power and influence might provide for their children, the bequest of a fortune is socially by far the cheapest. Without this outlet, these men would look for other ways of providing for their children, such as placing them in positions which might bring them the income and the prestige that a fortune would have done; and this would cause a waste of resources and an injustice much greater than the inheritance of property. Such is the case with all societies in which inheritance of property does not exist, including the Communist. Those who dislike the inequalities caused by inheritance should therefore recognized that, men being what they are, it is the least of evils, even from their point of view.
Hayek rightly takes it as a given that parents will try to gain every advantage for their children. The parents of the rich will naturally mobilize there resources in this same endeavor. It is therefore better that they be allowed to merely transfer riches than, instead, try to corruptly use these riches to gain a job or some position of privilege and wealth to continue the family dynasty. The inheritance tax also encourages the search for loopholes and the use of shady economic dealings to preserve the wealth to be inherited.

Hayek’s mentioning of Communist nations is very apt. In nations with great redistribution of wealth, is there greater equality? William Vallicella, a philosopher at Boston College, recently posted some relevant musings:
The paradox, then, is that the enforcing of equality of wealth requires inequality of power. But, as Lucas points out, the powerful are much more dangerous to us than the wealthy. Your being wealthy takes away nothing from me, and indeed stimulates the economy from which I profit, whereas your being powerful poses a potential threat to my liberty.
People naturally strive for power, but, in America, this quest for power has been sublimated into the quest for the dollar, which then must be used in the great freedom matrix known as the free-market, in consensual exchanges with others. If the dollar loses its connection to power, power in its unadulterated form will again become the goal. Such an eventuality is not to be sought after.

Thus, the death tax is flawed in principle. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “No taxation without respiration!”

Friday, June 03, 2005

Equality v. Diversity

Are equality and diversity at odds?

This is, in many respects, a loaded question. I have written many words on the essential incoherence of “diversity” as it is conceptually applied on university campuses. To recap, one such argument I have used against diversity runs as follows:

(i) Diversity means difference.
(ii) All individuals are inherently and immeasurably different
(iii) Groups consist of individuals
(iv) Therefore, all groups are inherently, immeasurably different
(v) Therefore, all groups are inherently, immeasurably diverse.

So, if groups are already immeasurably diverse, then increasing their diversity is a vacuous, indeed ridiculous, idea. To make the idea cohere, diversiphiles are forced to erect an arbitrary standard of difference—that is, they pick a specific difference that they want to be present among individuals. For diversiphiles, it isn’t enough that each group is immeasurably diverse, but, rather, each group must be, specifically, racially diverse (other kinds of diversity, are, presumably, of less importance).

In the past, I have also identified this undue focus on the essential difference imparted by race as a form of proto-racism. Diversiphiles, in order to disguise the fact that they are solely focused on race (and identity politics of the most sordid nature) say that certain attitudes and beliefs can be correlated with race. Each race brings a certain unique viewpoint to the table, and consequently must be represented in a group if this viewpoint is to be heard. But races cannot be used as a proxy for ideas and beliefs—all black people don’t act the same, and the actions and mannerisms of one black person cannot be extrapolated to the black populace as a whole. To believe such is to explicitly accept racist attitudes of the most invidious, and socially destructive, kind.

But let’s ignore all that for now, and return to my initial question: Are equality and diversity at odds? Let’s say that diversity constitutes a coherent ideal of laudable intragroup difference. Can such a concept of inextricable difference (diversity) be reconciled with a belief in essential equality?

I pose this as only as a conundrum for modern liberals—I deny both equality and diversity (at least the peculiar diversity popular today) as laudable principles. I will compile a post later on the myriad flaws with egalitarianism, but suffice to say that it is flawed, and fatally so. But, for modern liberals, or any who hold both diversity and equality dear, doesn’t the acceptance of both lead to a contradiction?

Diversity (again, I speak here of the bizarre, academic usage of this term) says that some people are possessed of certain differences that set them apart from others. These differences are of such an unbridgeable, insurmountable nature that they cannot be taught, and, indeed, the only to share them is to have a person possessed of those differences present at all times. Thus, a Latino possesses certain, infinitely unique “diversity” characteristics apart from whites, who possess their own, infinitely unique “diversity” characteristics. These characteristics cannot be acquired by members of other races; each race is different, and insurmountably so.

But, if each group is uniquely different (and, in fact, SO different that racial discrimination is justified to force proportional racial representation) what does this say of the equality of individuals? In what sense are we equal if we are indelibly different? And not just different, but an essential difference, which diversiphiles view as legitimate grounds for discrimination?

Diversity and equality are at odds. This is because diversity is a sort of perverted individualism—it is the extrapolation of the characteristics and moral worth of the individual to the group. By embracing a pseudo-, or semi- individualism, diversity must abandon equality, as individualism and equality are by nature opposed (or at least this seems obvious to me).

But, there is a way in which this does lead to a bizarre, corrupted form of equality. Diversity, by subsuming the characteristics of the individual to the group, makes all individuals within each group egalitarian. Therefore, although groups (whites, Native Americans, blacks, etc) are unequal, the individuals within each group are equal to the other individuals of that group (although maybe I shouldn’t use the word “individual”). Diversity, it could be said, promotes intergroup inequality (whites and blacks are unequal), but intragroup equality (blacks are equal, amongst themselves). The vileness of such a demarcation of individuals according to race should be apparent.

Diversity is a veritable grab bag of undesirable concepts. It denies individualism in its true form, only to embrace a corrupted form of it, denies a universal equality in favor a racist, debased intergroup equality, and justifies, indeed requires, the use of identity politics.
Granted, of course, that we allow diversity the presumption of coherence. I can see no reason, at this time, to do so.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Moral Relativism at AI

Instapundit has a long post up about Amnesty International’s continuing shameful characterization of Gitmo as “the Gulag of our time.” Such a remark requires a truly breathtaking amount of moral relativism, liberally mixed with hysterical anti-Americanism, before one would even begin to think that such a comparison would be warranted.

The Gulags, representative as they are of the tragic, arbitrary death and suffering inflicted by the totalitarian communism of Russia, are one of the great tragedies of the modern era. Gitmo, on the other hand, is a Paradise on Earth for captured terrorists, minus the nubile virgins.

Deroy Murdock at National Review gives a small taste of what the “Gulag of our time” is like for those detained:
Troublemakers wear prison-style orange jumpsuits and mainly are confined to rudimentary accommodations. But those who follow camp rules wear white outfits and exercise seven to nine hours daily, often playing soccer and volleyball. In quieter moments, “chess, checkers and playing cards are the most requested items,” Rhem wrote. As for reading, “A security official explained Agatha Christie books in Arabic are very popular and that camp officials are working to get copies of Harry Potter books in Arabic.”
They’re reading Harry Potter? They're boarding the broomstick to hell with that one; Allah will not be pleased.