Apostles of Violence
“Ukrainian events have demonstrated,” writes Maria Snegovaya in The New Republic, “that control of violence is still at the very essence of the state.” She says Vladimir Putin’s aggression proves that Max Weber’s definition of the state — an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force — is still relevant, even though we in the West “tend to think of the ‘monopoly on violence’ as a metaphor.”
We do? That would be news to the relatives of Kelly Thomas, a homeless California man beaten to death last year by police officers (who were later acquitted). And to the relatives of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was shot to death by New York City police officers (who were also acquitted). It would be news to a lot of black and Hispanic men who have been stopped and frisked in the streets of New York — or bent over the hood of a squad car anywhere in America.
The idea that governmental violence is merely metaphorical would be news to the employees at a gold mine in Chicken, Alaska, who were stunned last year when armed and armored agents from the EPA swooped in to search for violations of the Clean Water Act.
It would be news to Gibson Guitar Corp., subject to an armed federal raid for using the wrong tariff code on imported wood. It would be news to Audrey Hudson, a reporter whose home was raided in October by armed federal agents who seized her files and notes. And it would be news to countless others whose property was seized through eminent domain.
Governmental violence is not a metaphor. It is not even an aberration. It is a daily occurrence. Often it is entirely justified: If a bank robber would rather shoot it out with the cops than surrender peacefully, his death will bring no loss to the world. If Osama bin Laden starts a fight with the U.S., then America should end it.
Still, Putin’s aggression does draw attention to the prevalence of state violence — and the often incoherent attitude toward it on both sides of the American political divide.
During the Bush years, progressives spent a great deal of time lamenting American militarism. They found the promotion of American values through brute force misguided and cruel. The neoconservative project of reshaping the wider world through hard power was, progressives said, arrogant. Abusive. Bullying. As a piece in The Nation explained: “U.S. involvement abroad, even when well-intentioned, is perceived on the receiving end as heavy-handed meddling.”
“For eight years we have paid the price for a foreign policy that lectures without listening,” Barack Obama said in a 2008 speech at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington. In that speech, he said the U.S. needed to try a different approach — engagement. Development assistance. “Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation,” he declared.
Conservatives — at least the interventionists, which is still most of them — scoff at this. They say the world is full of bad actors — actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened nations willing to use force to do it.
But then turn the discussion to domestic affairs. Suddenly progressives are more than happy to use the coercive power of state violence to make the world a better place, as they define it.
Economic inequality? Redistribute wealth. Obesity? Tax the Twinkie and ban the Big Gulp. Health care? Make everyone buy insurance – and dictate what kind. Concepts common to foreign policy — such as sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination — go right out the window, replaced by heavy-handed meddling. After all: The country is full of bad actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened parties willing to use force to do it.
Many conservatives display no more consistency. For years, voices on the right have ridiculed the federal government’s utter inability to get anything right. The standard conservative critique holds that government is inept, corrupt, and grotesquely wasteful; peopled by incompetent bureaucrats whose only concern is in expanding their fiefdoms; and completely blind to the law of unintended consequences. Government, say conservatives, has no business telling a company what benefits it must provide and no business telling families how to raise their children. Butt. Out.
Until the discussion turns to foreign affairs. Then all those concepts common to domestic policy — individual sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination — go right out the window. Suddenly it is perfectly fine for the United States to order the rest of the world around. And when it does so, there will be no incompetence, no corruption, no self-interest, no unintended consequences. When the U.S. marches off to war, the federal government can do no wrong. And if you don’t stand behind the troops, pal, feel free to stand in front of them.
Both sides are half-right. The state might have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but that doesn’t mean it should be prodigal with the stuff, either at home or abroad.
Voter-Shaming Finks Should Mind Their Own Business
“The privacy of the ballot booth is a core American value,” declared James Valvo, director of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, two years ago. “Allowing individuals to make their own decisions about their government … free from coercion from either side, is paramount.”
Valvo was criticizing “card-check” legislation to let unions organize through other than secret ballots — and he wasn’t alone. Ballot secrecy, declared AFP Virginia’s Ben Marchi, was “the bedrock of our democracy.” AFP waged a loud and sustained campaign on behalf of the secret ballot in union fights.
Too bad AFP doesn’t practice what it preaches. If it did, then it would not have sent out “voter audits” tattling on people who, AFP believes, do not vote with sufficient regularity.
As the Chesterfield Observer reported last week, county resident Steve Serrao got one such report card in June. It listed him as a non-voter. His wife, Renee, who teaches government, strenuously disputes that. “We’re contacting you and your neighbors today to let folks know who does and who doesn’t vote,” the report card says. “As you can see below, your neighbors who have voted are concerned about the community’s well-being. Are you?”
Nancy Meacham of Roanoke got a similarly ominous audit from the group in November — as did others around the state. Many of them felt, quite rightly, that the mailings amounted to rank voter intimidation.
AFP wasn’t the only group this year to employ such tactics. So did the Democratic Party of Virginia. “The chart below shows your household’s public voting record in past elections as well as an empty space which we will fill to indicate if you vote in this year’s election on Tuesday, November 5th,” reads that party’s mau-mauing missive. “We intend to mail you an updated chart after the election that will show whether or not you voted. We will leave the space blank if you do not vote.”
According to state officials, the left-wing Voter Participation Center likewise sent out similar letters to citizens it deemed “BELOW AVERAGE.” “After the election,” the VPC wrote, “we will re-evaluate your voting record and hope to share it with your neighbors to see if there is improvement.”
The VPC gained notoriety last summer when, as The Times-Dispatch reported, it sent 200,000 voter registration forms, many to “already registered voters, as well as to children, non-citizens, the deceased and family pets.”
This was not fraud itself, but it was a long way from seemly. In 2008, a felon used a form sent by the VPC to vote illegally, for which she received a (suspended) 10-year sentence. Is AFP proud to emulate the tactics of the VPC? For that matter, is the liberal group proud to emulate the tactics of the conservative one?
None of the senders should be proud of invading other people’s privacy and harassing them to do something they are under no obligation to do: The right to vote also entails the right not to vote.
No one should have to justify exercising a right; rights, by definition, justify themselves. Nevertheless, for many people, not voting is an entirely rational choice: The cost of learning about the candidates and the issues often outweighs the benefit to be had from casting a ballot whose odds of making a significant difference in the outcome are infinitesimal.
Many people make a much bigger difference through other means — mentoring kids, volunteering, charity and civic groups. Government is far from the only avenue for doing good.
Yet the threatening tenor of the mailings suggests there is something shameful about exercising such a right. Public shaming of this sort is nothing new; it has been used often throughout history — usually by exceedingly undemocratic and illiberal regimes, such as ancient Rome, Puritan America, contemporary Iran and 20th century communism.
It is the communist culture — citizens informing upon citizens, show trials for dissidents and backsliders — that echoes most loudly in the letters: “Comrade Jones has squandered the opportunity he has been provided to strive for the betterment of the People. The People have a right to expect that Comrade Jones will direct his every effort to the class struggle. By setting his own ego and contentment above the interests of the proletariat, Comrade Jones has demonstrated behavior unworthy of a Bolshevik. He has betrayed his fellow citizens, who have committed themselves completely to the collective good. …”
Many people — harried single mothers, fathers working two jobs, adult children caring for sick parents — simply have more pressing things to do on Election Day than vote. AFP and Co. might think otherwise. If so, too bad: It’s not their call to make — and none of their business in the first place.
N.B.: Ben Marchi is no longer with AFP-Virginia. He writes: “Like the Roanoke Times, who published the names and addresses of conceal carry permit holders, AFP-VA’s actions are unfortunate and not in keeping with its past record of forcing Speaker Howell to record subcommittee votes, pushing successfully for specific spending cuts and exposing legislators’ abuses of the working papers exemption to FOIA laws.”
How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control
Conservatives took a break last week from their sensible skepticism toward big government in order to embrace the liberal logic of gun control. That logic is familiar to anyone who has ever spent much time kibitzing the gun debate, and it goes like this: Government should infringe on, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.
Whether gun-control laws actually produce the desired results is a matter of great dispute. But liberals will happily cherry-pick the data that best make their case. (Why should they be any different?) They will then argue as The New York Times did in 2010, when it denounced a Supreme Court ruling upholding gun rights: “The arguments that led to Monday’s decision,” the newspaper intoned, “were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real and bloody.”
Translation: Don’t give us any of that airy nonsense about rights. People’s lives are on the line here. This, in essence, was how conservatives reacted last week when a federal judge said New York’s stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional.
Stop-and-frisk was “a policy that has saved thousands of black lives,” wrote noted civil-rights icon Ann Coulter. The Wall Street Journal agreed: “If the judge’s ruling isn’t overturned, the victims won’t be in the tony precincts (but) in the barrios and housing projects.” Channeling The Times, Daniel Henninger of The Journal griped that “when liberals weigh the reality of physical threat … against hyper-abstract interpretations of constitutional rights, abstraction wins.”
According to National Review, “intelligent police work” had “reversed what seemed 20 years ago to be an inescapable descent into lawlessness, indecency, and chaos.” Writing in City Journal, Heather Mac Donald concurred: “New York’s 20-year reprieve from debilitating violence may well be over.” She fretted the ruling could “signal the end of the freedom from fear that New York’s most vulnerable residents have enjoyed.” In Commentary, Seth Mandel depicted stop-and-frisk as a “fight to keep the city’s minority neighborhoods safe.”
And, sure, that might be the intent. But then you can claim all sorts of policies will keep a city safe, including a total ban on firearms and surprise house-to-house searches for drugs. If the ends justify the means, then you can do just about anything you want. Conservatives usually like to think they’re a little more high-minded than that.
The other trouble with such consequentialist rationales is that they depend on producing the right consequences. So naturally, conservatives simply assume stop-and-frisk deserves the lion’s share of the credit for New York’s falling crime rate. But crime has fallen steeply across the country — including in many places that did not employ stop-and-frisk.
What’s more, conservatives seem to have forgotten their own prior explanation for the Big Apple’s progress: the broken-windows theory. That theory, popularized by the late James Q. Wilson, posited that tolerating minor crime such as turnstile-jumping and vandalism created an atmosphere major crime found inviting. To discourage major crime, therefore, crack down on petty crime. You can read volumes on how “James Q. Wilson’s thinking about crime and policing saved lives and transformed cities for the better” in the City Journal article “Man of Reason” (by Heather Mac Donald) — and several others just like it.
Mac Donald now defends stop-and-frisk by pointing out blacks and Hispanics are the primary perpetrators of violent crime in New York — so it only stands to reason that they should be the primary targets of stopping and frisking. This epitomizes the racial-profiling fallacy you also see in the debate over Muslims and terrorism.
It’s undeniably true that Muslims have committed most of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. in the past couple of decades. But this does not justify viewing all Muslims with suspicion, because while there have been only a handful of attacks, there are something like 1.6 billion Muslims. The odds that any one of them is a terrorist are, therefore, vanishingly small. (Not surprisingly, the same NYPD that carries out stop-and-frisk got into hot water a couple years ago for infiltrating mosques and other Islamic institutions.)
By the same token, just because most perpetrators in New York are black or Hispanic does not mean most blacks or Hispanics are perpetrators. After all, most homicides are committed with guns — but that does not mean most gun owners commit homicide.
The NYPD’s defenders also contend the police did not stop and frisk minorities at random; they stopped those who acted suspiciously. This is true only if you consider perfectly normal behavior suspicious. Judge Shira Scheindlin found, for instance, that (as a news account put it) “officers sometimes stopped people on the grounds that the officer observed a bulge in the person’s pocket; often it turned out that the bulge was caused not by a gun but by a wallet.” Other causes for suspicion: “being fidgety” and “walking in a certain way.” That sounds ironclad, doesn’t it?
In fact, stop-and-frisk is not a tremendous success but a tremendous failure, because such stops turn up contraband only 2 percent of the time. In other words: 98 times out of 100 the officer’s suspicion is unjustified.
If any other program had a 98 percent failure rate, conservatives would hold it up as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with big government. That they’re so eager to defend a failing program when it happens to target minorities makes their professed concern for “the most vulnerable” ring a trifle hollow.
The Right Is Wrong About Defense
And here’s why:
First, look at the big picture. From 2002 to 2011, inflation-adjusted defense spending rose 64 percent. In 2012, defense spending shrank 6 percent. Sequestration hacks real Pentagon spending levels all the way back to where they stood in … 2007. Was the U.S. military woefully undermanned and underarmed in 2007? Of course not.
If you include homeland security, intelligence and foreign aid, then national-security spending totals more than $840 billion. All individual income taxes total $1.1 trillion, just $260 billion more than that. True, defense spending has shrunk as a share of the overall budget — thanks to exploding outlays in social-welfare spending. The remedy for that is to cut the latter, not pointlessly inflate military spending just so it can keep up.
And speaking of catching up: At present, the U.S. accounts for 46 cents of every military dollar spent worldwide. America’s military allies add another 22 cents. That means the rest of the nonaligned world spends only 32 percent of global outlays on arms, and America’s potential enemies — such as China, Iran and Russia — spend only about half of that. They have a long way to go even to get within spitting distance of parity.
What’s more, the U.S. is winding down the second of two wars. Reducing troop strength from a wartime high of more than half a million Army regulars to slightly less than half a million five years from now hardly qualifies as hollowing out the service. Yet many conservatives seem to think any reduction in troop strength is a disaster. That’s like insisting food-stamp levels should remain steady even after the end of a recession.
Second, a grotesque amount of Pentagon spending goes to waste — as even conservatives will concede. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “most major weapons system development programs … have cost overruns of over 30 percent.” The Heritage Foundation has identified $70 billion in annual savings. That’s 40 percent more than the cuts imposed by sequestration. So contrary to what Hagel claims, deep spending cuts need not require the mothballing of carrier strike groups. They simply require doing the job right.
A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office found that in just two years “management failures added at least $70 billion to the projected costs” of major weapons systems, The New York Times has reported. A single program — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — “accounted for $28 billion of that increase.” And yet, as a piece in Roll Call noted last month, the F-35 “has been shielded from the sequester” even though it “is almost a decade behind schedule, expected to cost $1.5 trillion and yet critical systems still don’t work. … The F-35 performs poorer than many legacy aircraft.”
The principal reason for the GAO-identified cost overruns? “The Pentagon began building the systems before the designs were fully tested.”
There’s a similar story to be told about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The average cost per ship has doubled since the program’s initiation; the Navy is buying more even though testing won’t be finished for another six years — “we are purchasing first and testing second,” says California Rep. Jackie Speier — and a recent GAO report says “current LCS weapon systems are underperforming and offer little chance of survival in a combat scenario.” Little chance of survival – despite $40 billion in outlays. This helps defend America exactly how?
Matching the military to its peacetime mission and cutting out the waste would permit a substantially smaller budget without diminishing America’s ability to defend itself.
This leaves just one rationale for unbounded military spending: jobs. Conservatives insist military outlays must remain high in order to sustain employment levels. Are they serious? Then apparently all their critiques of the Obama stimulus were wrong, and government really is great at creating jobs. Who knew?
Except, of course, government isn’t. Every dollar Washington spends comes from the private sector — which is far more efficient at allocating economic resources to their highest and best use. True, some economists defensibly claim deficit spending can stimulate the economy; does this give conservatives an escape route? Far from it.
Never mind their aversion to deficit financing generally. Those conservatives who believe in the power of government to stimulate the economy should support even deeper cuts in defense spending. That is because other kinds of spending would stimulate the economy even more, for several reasons. Example: Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, point out that the labor intensity in education is higher than the labor intensity of the military, which relies on machinery much more than schools do. So if job creation is the goal, Congress should shift funds from the Pentagon to education.
What’s more, a lot of defense spending ends up overseas: “U.S. military personnel spend only 43 percent of their income on domestic goods and services … while the U.S. civilian population, on average, spends 78 percent of their income on domestic products.” A sailor might blow his paycheck in Bangkok or Berlin, but a teacher is more likely to blow it in Baltimore or Brooklyn.
The truth is that the jobs argument is just plain wrong. Industry-funded studies may claim devastating harm from defense cuts, but they have a powerful motive to paint a grim picture: From 2001 to 2010, defense-industry profits quadrupled. You can’t blame the industry for wanting to keep the spigot flowing.
Disinterested observers, however, find something rather different. The Pacific Research Institute’s Benjamin Zycher points out that inflation-adjusted defense appropriations rose every year from 1981 to 1989, then fell in eight out of the next 11 years. If defense spending were as important to the economy as conservatives pretend, then GDP should have moved up and down in tandem with the Pentagon’s budget. Nothing anywhere close to that happened. Except for two years — 1982 and 1991 — the economy grew steadily throughout the period.
To conservatives, government is a bloated bureaucracy in pursuit of an inflated mission that wastes untold billions with no accountability. They detest that sort of thing when it wears the name of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Education. So why do they give it a pass whenever it puts on a uniform?