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A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Miracle of America — a Review


TCI don’t read a lot of political autobiographies. Indeed, this may have been the first one. And I’m not sure why I decided to do so. Perhaps because Cruz has seemed something of an enigma: a hyper-ambitious, self-promoting appellate lawyer with all the right enemies; an ideologue from his teens who went through the Ivies and the Bush campaign but seems to say the right things; a sophisticated and subtle questioner prone to simplistic statements; a far-right, wacko-bird, bomb-thrower who writes bipartisan legislation that gets signed into law. What does Ted Cruz really believe in – apart from Ted Cruz?


How Small Do You Want Your Government?


Reflecting upon our debates – or, at least, disagreements – about WHINOS vs RINOS, I began to wonder if there was a difference in assessment of the relative merits of a GOP presidency vs a Hillary/Warren/Sanders (HWS) presidency. We probably all agree that anyone is better than HWS, in at least the short term. But how much better?

If you think things are bad, but not too bad, and in many important areas trending well, then the difference is pretty big. If you think things are really, really bad indeed, then the difference is pretty small. The first camp wants the immature bomb-throwers to shut up and let the adults win the election. The second camp thinks the important thing is to wake the sheeple, and if this election is lost it is a small price to pay for the longer term objective of saving the republic (if that is still possible).

But what do we mean by “bad?” And how does the presidency figure in this? One approach is to ask what would be an acceptable, long-term, sustainable size for the Federal government. Now, government size is notoriously hard to define and/or measure, so I have arbitrarily chosen two measures: number of pages in the Federal Register, and Federal outlays per capita (in 2014 dollars). To give you some context, the two graphs below show their evolution over time.


The number of pages in the Federal Register per year is a proxy for regulatory activity. It’s not necessarily a great proxy, but it does, I think, give a flavor of the activity of the regulatory state. Prior to 1935, there was no Federal Register: Before the New Deal, it wasn’t needed. (The graph is from the Congressional Research Service (PDF).)


Federal outlays per person, on an inflation adjusted basis, give another window on the absolute size of government. (The idea that things should be measured as a proportion of GDP has a lot of problems.) This graph is from Mercatus. It goes back only to 1945 because … I don’t know. The 1948 figure is $2,214. (Remember, these are 2014 dollars.)

My questions to you:

  1. How many pages should the Federal Register have in a normal year? (It would have a lot of pages in a year that a lot of regulations were repealed, so ignore those.)
  2. What should be the Federal outlay per person (in today’s dollars) in a normal year?

By normal, I mean on a long-term, stabilized basis, ignoring transitional costs and world wars.

You might also comment on whether you think there is any correlation between the size of government one considers appropriate and one’s approach to the forthcoming election.

Politics is the Art of the Impossible


shutterstock_111393362It is a well-worn trope of the left — from the mere ‘liberals’ to the looniest of the loony left — that politics should not be the art of the possible, but rather the art of making the impossible possible. No less a deep thinker than Hillary said “The challenge is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”

Who can doubt that the left has been spectacularly successful at this? To take only the last few years, compulsory state adoption of SSM, ObamaCare, and executive amnesty have accomplished what was routinely declared impossible within the lifetime of this website.

More insidiously, the very institutions of society have been co-opted to continually redefine the possible ever-leftward. The Fourth Estate, the universities (and education as a whole), the entertainment industry, charity, and organized religion all hew to the line that — whatever the problem is — more government is the answer. And now science as been dragooned to the statist cause: if there is no actual crisis, we’ll invent one.

Playing by the rules — limiting oneself to the ‘possible’ — is to lose the game before it starts. So we see Rep. Paul Ryan’s breathtaking audacity in trimming a percent from the acceleration in the growth of the increase in the real size of government. It’s scored by the CBO! Parts are bipartisan! To suggest anything different would be … impossible! Or on amnesty and illegal immigration, to suggest anything but surrender is to push against the limits of the possible.

Another way of acting would be to see where these limits come from and remove them. Journalism? A dying industry. Help it on its way, don’t pander to it. And for goodness sake, don’t let it define the terms of selecting candidates. Education? Doesn’t work, can’t work. Shut it down and let the market — that is to say, people — develop a thousand alternatives to the monolithic, government dominated, state-worshipping boondoggle it’s become. Charity and organised religion? Cease all cooperation (co-option) with (by) government. No government grants to NGOs to spend on lobbying government. No government programs that involve churches just as long as they render all to Caesar. No government sponsorship of social justice talkingshops.

Radical? Yes. Unrealistic? Not really. There was a reality where there was no self-important Fourth Estate, no giant education/statist complex, no government takeover of morality. Impossible? Certainly, if one is to play the game. I note that the other side doesn’t. And they’re winning.

If you think politics is the art of the possible, you aren’t playing politics. Politics is playing you.

Do You Care About Policy?


543aa0efafaf9fc76f8b47a2_thumbI know you care about which glasses a candidate wears, or which surname he carries, or what her temperament is, or what he’s voted for or who he’s hired or — most importantly of all — what (you guess) the Low Information Voters are going to think about him or her. And all these have significance. But will you care about the policy positions a candidate takes? Will you read the white papers, or even the summaries on their websites? Will you seek out commentary on Ricochet discussing these matters?

If not, why not? Because you think that no matter what a candidate says he believes, it is actions that speak louder than words, and in the end it’s the content of a candidate’s character rather than her briefing box that counts? Because the margins for maneuver in Washington are so slim that no matter what a President wants to do, the most important thing is that he or she not be Hillary, Liz, or the other guy? Because policy positions are all produced by the same collection of think-tanks and focus-tested by the same collection of consultants, candidate to candidate, election to election?

Or is it because you think evaluating policy is best left to the experts? Or simply boring?

If you do plan to assess the policy positions of the candidates, would you share your thinking on Ricochet? Would you undertake to do so now, so the candidates (I assume Peter still asserts that Ricochet is read in the halls of power) know we’re watching?

Everything You Know About FIFA is Wrong


shutterstock_82074565FIFA is a shadowy tax-free organisation whose army of bureaucrats has been extorting bribes for years while they auction off the rights to host the World Cup. All that is evil about FIFA is personified by Sepp Blatter, who was forced to resign as a result of corruption investigations led by the FBI. Because FIFA controls world football with an iron fist, only change at FIFA will clean up the game.

Right? Wrong.

FIFA is a private organisation that pays taxes, publishes audited financial statements, and by-and-large is remarkably transparent (the recent election of the President was overseen by notaries and streamed live on the web.) It employs some 200 people in its general secretariat. None of them were arrested or are suspected of having taken bribes. For good reason – they wield little power.

The major decisions — including the major decision that the western press cares about i.e. where the World Cup is to be hosted — were taken by the Executive Committee of FIFA.* The members of the Executive Committee are the President and a female member (really) elected by the congress, and 23 members appointed by the confederations.

The congress is the 209 national football associations, who act on a one-country one-vote basis. The confederations are groupings of the national associations, on a largely geographical basis: CONMEBOL (South America), AFC (Asia), UEFA (Europe), CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North America and the Caribbean), and the OFC (Oceania: i.e. a handful of Pacific islands). The confederations are independent of FIFA. Who the confederations appoint to the Executive Committee is up to the confederations, just as who the national associations send to represent them at the congress is up to each national association.

National competitions are, obviously, run by the relevant national association. One-off matches between national teams are arranged by the two national associations involved. Competitions between teams from more than one country in a region are run by the confederation(s) involved: so, for example, UEFA runs the Champions’ League (a club competition) and the Euro (a competition between teams representing their countries).

The only competitions run by FIFA are the finals of the World Cups – age group, women’s and the big one. (The Club World Cup, featuring the winners of the Champions’ League and the other confederations’ equivalents is the only club competition run by FIFA. You probably haven’t heard of it.) The qualifying competitions for all these cups are run by the relevant confederation.

All of the age-group and women’s World Cups lose money for FIFA. The only real source of income comes from the rights to sponsor and broadcast the (big) World Cup finals event (which is also the most expensive event to run; did you know there is hundreds of millions of prize-money paid to the associations that perform well at the World Cup, or that the travel and accommodation expenses of the participating countries are covered, or that money is paid to clubs for the loss of services of their players taking part in the World Cup?).

Any rights to sponsor and broadcast all other football/soccer matches in the world belong to the clubs, national associations or confederations involved. It was in relation to bribes to award rights to various competitions in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL that the arrests in Zurich were made. Nothing to do with FIFA. The people involved were ‘FIFA officials’ in the sense that they had been appointed by their confederations to the FIFA Executive Committee or one of its sub-committees or dependencies, but there was nothing FIFA could do about that, and they were not acting their FIFA capacities when they allegedly accepted bribes or formed a conspiracy to commit wire fraud or whatever the A-G wants to hang them with.

There are two exceptions to this mentioned in the indictment: the $10 million dollars paid by the South African Football Association to the Caribbean Football Union; and an attempt by a challenger to Blatter to bribe his way to the presidency of FIFA last time around. This second has already been dealt with by FIFA with very public banishments. The first is more interesting.

For some national associations – those in rich countries, basically – the sale of sponsorship and media rights surrounding the national team brings in lots of revenue. For everyone else, the power conferred by being appointed to the Executive Committee – or having influence over the Executive Committee – is a valuable thing. It is entirely appropriate to use one’s vote to support the candidate that offers to do most for football in the country you represent, whether that be by arranging friendly matches (so you can sell the associated media and sponsorship rights), or building high-tech football stadia, or just paying money. Taking a benefit for yourself, however, would be wrong.

When the South African Football Association was seeking to host the 2010 World Cup the South African government agreed to make a $10 million payment to the Caribbean Football Union (a sub-group of CONCACAF) as part of the African Diaspora Legacy Programme. The payment was made by FIFA withholding $10 million from the amounts to be paid to (basically) the South African Football Association and, instead, paying the sum directly to the CFU. As it happens, the CFU was run by the corrupt – and later banished – Jack Warner, who, it is alleged, pocketed the money himself. Whether this last fact was known by the (democratically elected) South African government is an interesting question, but not one for FIFA.

This is as ‘close’ as the current allegations get to Sepp Blatter. Which is to say, not close at all. Mr Blatter is no saint. He is a politician. But to blame him for corruption in the Caribbean and Latin America in relation to organisations he has no control over and sporting events that were outside his remit seems a bit harsh.

So why, having been triumphantly re-elected, did he resign? One could do worse than to take him at his word:

Since I shall not be a candidate, and am therefore now free from the constraints that elections inevitably impose, I shall be able to focus on driving far-reaching, fundamental reforms that transcend our previous efforts. For years, we have worked hard to put in place administrative reforms, but it is plain to me that while these must continue, they are not enough.

The Executive Committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible. We need deep-rooted structural change.

The size of the Executive Committee must be reduced and its members should be elected through the FIFA Congress. The integrity checks for all Executive Committee members must be organised centrally through FIFA and not through the confederations. We need term limits not only for the president but for all members of the Executive Committee.

I have fought for these changes before and, as everyone knows, my efforts have been blocked. This time, I will succeed.

Interesting times are ahead. Just don’t expect to learn any of it from the media.

(As an aside, FIFA doesn’t even control the laws of football/soccer. For historical reasons they are set by the International Football Association Board, made up of representatives of FIFA, and the English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh football associations.)

* The new FIFA constitution reserves the decision on the host country for the big World Cup finals to the congress.

What is the Virtucon Project?


aristotleI have been forcibly reminded by recent megathreads that there are conservatives who do not think the size and scope of the state is a pressing issue. Some of these folks, approaching things using the lens of virtue ethics, have a different diagnosis of what is wrong with society, a different idea of what needs to be done, and a different approach to what is permissible to achieve these ends. They are suspicious of markets, and fear that a focus on small government is not just electorally disastrous, but fatally distracts from the real issues facing the country.

Below I set out — largely in the form of collected paraphrases — what I take to be the virtucon project, in so far as I understand it. There are gaps, and I have no doubt made mistakes. The first paragraph, in particular, which is entirely of my own making, might be objected to as too rough and ready a summary. I have, however, tried to lay out the virtucon case in good faith, and invite corrections and additions.

The Virtucon Case

Virtue is those habits or dispositions of action that promote human flourishing. People are not innately virtuous, but they have the natural capacity for virtue. Because virtue involves habit, it is something learned through practice and repetition, and therefore requires a society that provides the appropriate incentives and correctives until immaturity is overcome and the habit is internalised. Human flourishing, or human excellence, or the proper end of being human, is not a choice but an objective property of what it is to be human — a key component of which is rationality. A good society is one which advances human flourishing; and here “good” is also an objective standard.

America today is wrestling with new and sometimes terrifying questions about justice and obligation. Deep social and spiritual problems have arisen in our modernist, technocratic, democratic state. Gripping moral questions are before us. Frightening moral challenges are looming over our heads. Many, or most, people are miserable, lonely and vicious. People are unprepared to tolerate the consequences of free markets in a technologically expanding world. Alienation is a big problem, exacerbated by large markets and a sort of specialization. Our society is having a  hard time grappling with the tension between our egalitarian social ideals and the sizable inequality that free markets create. The Western world is falling prey to fear and envy.

A complex, careful analysis is needed to diagnose and respond to these challenges. We need to answer the big questions about human excellence and human community, family, life and the complex relationship between political freedom and virtue. Direct moral reasoning is required. This diagnosis is a massive project. We need to understand what the moral challenges are that make the administrative state seem necessary to us; for that we need an analysis of markets and human good. We need more complete answers to a deeper problem than the size of the state.

We need to offer a complete and satisfactory vision to the American public. We have to be armed with a better, truer, more ennobling vision. We need to assess the current state of our society and craft a message Americans will find compelling. We need to find ways to present a vibrant, hopeful conservative vision of what our society can be, and make them believe that it can be realized. We need to find some new ways to pitch traditional morals.

The highest goals are human excellence, happiness, virtue and a thriving society. Human good involves living a life of activity of the soul in accord with reason, habituating oneself in the virtues. Why have a government at all if it’s not going to be focused on the good of human beings? People in authority have special obligations to discern the good as well as they can. Historically, rulers took it for granted that they were obliged to be interested in the goodness and thriving of their people. We have to balance the various goods and claims of justice to the best of our ability. Good habituation is necessary to virtue, and that depends to some extent on having a healthy culture. The virtuous man doesn’t need laws to tell him not to indulge in vices, but — on an earlier point in the path to virtue — before he’s developed proper discipline, he might be tempted by those vices, and that might derail his moral development well before he has the opportunity to be virtuous.

The virtucon differentiates between freedoms that are supportive of virtue and ones that contribute little or nothing to the virtuous person’s existence, while potentially derailing some from the path when they’ve hardly begun. The democratic process can be used to regulate or ban certain vicious things. We can’t trust the common people to be good, especially in a state where they are morally malformed by a degraded culture. The aim is to build a culture that reinforces virtue and goodness.

Markets can fail. The outcomes of free markets are not necessarily just nor conducive to human good. There are many potentially good reasons for wanting to impede particular effects of free markets, or just to persuade people on a widespread level that markets are ruining their lives. The market approach to sex, marriage and babies robs these phenomena of their context as part of an organic whole and forms an attack on human dignity. It’s quite hard for people to develop the wisdom and maturity to see this at the ages at which it matters. Societies are obliged to find ways to mediate the natural tensions that arise when we try to recognize the infinite worth of persons and also allow some to enjoy far greater privilege than others.

The Tea Party strategy of “less, less, less” does not work. Most people aren’t too worried about things like religious liberty issues. The perception is that Republicans are selfish, racist plutocrats who want to screw over poor people. The libertarian populists and reformicons have some productive ideas, plausibly responsive to the problems and concerns that people actually have. But the main thing is to contextualize what is being offered within a larger vision and to help people understand what that is.

Some Questions

What are the terrifying, gripping, deep, frightening moral questions we are facing?

How is the task of rethinking and reformulating morality/society to be done, and by whom?

Is the criticism of markets and/or modernity and/or enlightenment individualism an inextricable part of the virtucon project?

What is the point of winning elections? Is the virtucon project a political one, an apolitical one, or a supra-political one? How is reformicon incrementalist instrumentalism consistent with a virtue-based society?

If I promise to promote courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty and righteous indignation can I also abolish the Department of Education?

Can We Get Free Market Innovation in Healthcare?


nurse2Everyone knows how the dead hand of the FDA turns the development and delivery of new drugs into a multi-billion dollar process. And everyone knows about the liberal wish-list of compulsory coverage for health insurance products. But the extent to which regulation has progress-proofed the status quo is rarely appreciated. From ‘Certificates of Need’ — whereby investments in health facilities require the blessing of central-planning bureaucrats — to the socialization of insurance pools through ‘Community Rating,’ to forced coverage of pre-existing conditions, everything in the current system either unwittingly or deliberately resists innovation.

Where only giant organisations with vast compliance departments can meet the inhumanly complex requirements of ever-shifting regulation, where laws, upon regulations, upon rules bake-in the assumption that health insurance is the only means of delivering health outcomes, is real innovation possible? Where can the Ubers, AirBnBs or Googles of health possibly come from? Indeed, where can the sliced bread, resealable bags, or pop-tops of health come from? Where is the room for the thousand little improvements that can make life so astonishing for consumers, when the law assumes that the way things were done in 1964, 1972, or 1986 is the only way they can be done, and woe betide anyone who suggests otherwise?

America has a thriving industry inventing the next machine that goes “ping.” What it doesn’t have is innovation — let alone continuous innovation — in the wider sphere of health delivery. Instead, it has chosen to preserve, in the amber of legislation and interest-group enforced inertia, a particular industry configuration.  Sadly, there is precious little political appetite for breaking the mold.

So, to answer my question: no, we can’t get to free market innovation in healthcare from here. At least, not without major and radical surgery.

Image Credit: Shutterstock user Yuganov Konstantin.

Grant Me Freedom and Small Government — But Not Yet


libertinesda mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo — St Augustine

Ricochet contributor Rachel Lu wrote an article in the FEDERALIST yesterday, taking the left-anarchist wing of the libertarian movement to task for wanting to dissolve the bonds of family and community. At least I think that is who she is attacking — it is never quite clear who actually holds the views she disagrees with (although she almost implies it is Ben Domenech). Nevertheless, the core of her argument is that, yes, freedom is great and all, and small government is a fine idea in theory, but until a strong conventional morality is re-established in society they are just too dangerous.

Small government will not succeed unless people have a strong ability to govern their own affairs. That requires a culture that provides people with clear norms and expectations, and replaces the hard and impersonal boundaries of law with the softer forces of social approval and sanction. What we need, in short, are traditional morals.

I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.

[N]eutrality [ed. which I take to mean ‘state neutrality’] [in the culture war] won’t work either, at least if we’re thinking about the broader conservative outlook. All conservatives agree that government should be smaller than it is. But the culture also needs to recover its moral bearings if freedom is to have a chance.

This view seems rooted in a conception of big government as a mechanism detached from the culture war, so that all it takes is the right set of policies to animate the vast bureaucratic apparatus and the decline of civil society will be reversed. Thus Lu takes the small-government reasoning (which she rejects) to be:

The main reason culture wars have reached such a fever pitch is because the state is too big. If we can limit the size of the state, then people can simply live as they like without settling hotly contested moral questions.

But there are those who would argue quite differently. The reason we have a society of atomized individuals is precisely because big government inevitably accrues power at the expense of family and community. Big government is a player in the culture wars, has its own side, and — by its own ineluctable logic — dissolves the conventional morality Lu would like to see restored.

In short, small government is not a way of surrendering in, or stepping away from, the culture wars, but the indispensible first step in winning them.

Add into the balance the undeniable fact that, in the big government we already, the apparatchiki are all on the other side.  One can but conclude that this attempt to smuggle big government ‘conservatism’ back on to the agenda under the ‘libertarian moment’ flag will do much for the government part of the equation, and, like all the attempts before it, nothing for conservatism.

Image Credit: Flickr user penguincakes.

Old-Timey Classroom

Compulsory Education: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the US education system is messed up.  Opinions differ as to what — precisely — is wrong, what can be done to fix it, and whether fixing it is possible or even desirable.  One thing we should all be able to agree with is that making education compulsory in today’s world makes no sense.

I am not arguing that education is bad.  I am not arguing that attendance at school should be officially discouraged.  I am arguing (among other things) that forcing the most vulnerable in our society — the children of the poor in the inner cities and deprived rural areas — to attend institutions that we know do not work (or that are actively harmful) is a colossal waste of resources that actively prevents better things from happening.

What would happen in a state that repealed its laws on compulsory education?  For one thing, there would no longer be a need for a legal definition of “education” that homeschoolers, religious academies or on-line course providers would have to comply with.*  For another, the vast majority of children would continue to attend schools.  At the margin — older children for whom the last couple of years of high school are a waste anyway, and children in areas with terrible schools (or terrible parents) — there would be a drop in school attendance.

But it is at the margin that the market provides discipline and innovation creates value (yes, those are basically the same things.)  Humans like to learn — otherwise there wouldn’t be non-fiction sections in book shops (or Amazon, if you’re reading this next year) — and people need to know stuff.  A free society is particularly good at providing things people like and/or need.  I won’t pretend to know what might replace the inner-city public schools where boys are more likely to get shot and girls more likely to get pregnant than to acquire a taste for learning, but I’m willing to bet it’s not worse than the alternative.

Old-Timey Compulsory Education Newspaper HeadlineOne can imagine other effects of removing the gun pointed at the heads of our children.  If there is no legal definition of “education”, then there is no legal definition of “teacher” (or, indeed, “school”).  As in other areas where human ingenuity is allowed to respond to the needs of actual people, the types of services available to parents and children might multiply as the entrenched interests lose power.  Who will be the first to build the Uber or Airbnb of K-12?

In this day and age, compulsory education laws restrict the middle class’s choice of educational possibilities while entrenching the lower class in a corrupt (and corrupting) government education system.

It’s time to say no.

* Although this might be embedded in child labor laws e.g. “no one may employ someone below the age of X who has not imbibed Y years of statist propaganda.”

Photo Credit: Flickr User crackdog.


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