You are currently viewing archive for April 2007
Category: Farmer's Favorites
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
This is actually the very first Bosque Boys post, which appeared on March 9, 2006; it also appeared in the Waco Tribune, March 3, 2006.

Benjamin Franklin purportedly cautioned: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Although the provenance of that statement is not without questions, the quote accurately reflected the spirit of the Imperial Crisis and the American Revolution. When Franklin and his compatriots finally “pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to a War for Independence, they perceived themselves fighting to maintain their rights against a renegade government illegitimately accumulating power and threatening liberty.

Once liberty was defended and independence won, however, Americans found governing more problematic than many of the revolutionary slogans had implied. Motivated by the conviction that “power was the enemy of liberty, but too much liberty was also the enemy of liberty,” the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 yielded the Constitution, which created a more centralized government and traded some liberty for stability.

The framers created a federal system in which the national government shared sovereignty with the states, at the same time asserting the supremacy of the new consolidated government. Although the Constitution backed away from the rhetoric of 1776, the framers showed respect for their revolutionary experience and bowed to their political reality. They placed limits on the new government, and they divided power into three branches, charging each component with oversight of the other two in order to provide “proper checks and balances.”

The framers would be struck by the current form of their handiwork as it has evolved over the course of two centuries. Notwithstanding, the problem that they identified as the central dilemma of Republican government, the tension between power and liberty, has remained constant in American history. And the antidote that they prescribed, competing sources of power, “counteracting ambition with ambition,” creating institutional interests and pitting them against rival interests, has served remarkably well to protect liberty from power over time.

The ancient problem and the eighteenth-century curative speak to an important current question: how much power shall we allow the President to exercise in exchange for security in a hostile world? How much power is too much? When does the power of the presidency pose an unacceptable threat to our liberty? These questions are not unprecedented. Much of our present dilemma is systemic and historical. There is no place on Mount Rushmore for presidents who remained satisfied with the scope of their power. Generally, presidents attempt to enlarge the power of the presidency; it is an institutional instinct.

Having said that, no practiced student of American history would trust ruling presidents to determine wisely the limits of their own power. That role falls to the other branches. In addition to those provided in the founding document, extraconstitutional interests have emerged in contemporary America as powerful players in the oversight of presidential authority. These agents include the opposition party in our two-party system, the free press and the giant federal bureaucracy, all of whom have contributed to the current examination of presidential power. As a result of this healthy debate, the legislative and judicial branches, which remain potent and jealous interests, ultimately and rightly, will determine the extent of presidential authority in this latest chapter concerning power and liberty.

Of course, all of these institutions serve merely as surrogates for the people. The power undergirding all these branches (constitutional and otherwise) is rooted in popular sovereignty. Benjamin Franklin, commenting at the close of the Constitutional Convention, optimistically predicted that a well-administered Republican government could last indefinitely. But the pragmatic Franklin also worried that self rule could easily “end in despotism…when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” The gravest threat to liberty comes when the people abdicate their crucial role in the process. May an enlightened debate with regard to the balance between liberty and power continue to flourish.
I wrote the following in July--but little has changed since then:

If someone had come to me ten years ago and told me that there were some excess human embryos laying around in a freezer somewhere, the waste product of a completed in vitro fertilization procedure, and we could use those terminal embryos in an experiment that might lead to advances toward curing diseases, I am almost certain that I would have said (without hesitation): "Go for it!"

But it is not ten years ago. Unfortunately, I have listened long and hard to nearly a decade of debate, and now I am unflinchingly ambivalent.

I grew up believing that "life began in the womb." "Life begins in the Petri dish" takes some getting used to. After almost a decade, I still wonder: if the embryos are human life, why are we allowing so many to be created and then frozen and eventually destroyed? Isn't that a much bigger problem than experimentation?

But I also hear the voices who are troubled by the larger issues in this debate. I believe in the sanctity of human life. I agree that there are dangerous precedents in what we do here. And I wonder about the long-range implications of the genetic engineering aspect of this process.

In this debate, I have been most swayed by my negative reaction to what the proponents have said. Today on C-SPAN [July 18, 2006] Tom Harkin was trying to explain how "potential human life" was not as valuable as "real human life." Listen to a politician for a while, and you start to realize how fraught with future peril this process (how slippery this slope) really is.

On the other hand, Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith (two GOP stalwarts of conservatism) are set to vote for the Harkin-Specter bill today.

A few things worth considering:

1. There is no "federal ban" on embryonic stem cell research. This is a debate about funding. Shall we as a community spend our common funds in this particular way?

2. There is too much hype and politicization. Our sick friends and relatives are not being held hostage by this policy decision. No one is going to "get up and walk" in the foreseeable future, if this bill passes and the President signs it into law.

3. Many researchers and entities are working on embryonic stem cells. Big states and other nations are coming up with big dollars to move this along. The federal money is mostly symbolic (and political).

4. It is true, according to reputable opinion polls, that a large majority of Americans favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But that does not mean that a presidential veto circumvents the "political process." A presidential veto is the political process. All the people elect the president, and we expect him to execute the duties of his office to the best of his ability and, as Lincoln said, "with firmness in the right as God gives [him] to see the right."

5. There is precedent for localizing troubling national moral issues. The federal government has often punted on intractable moral questions (e.g., slavery, temperance, sex). A decision not to fund embryonic stem cell research with federal money because of the lack of moral clarity is a compromise not at odds with our history.

More on the politics of stem cell from last November (late October actually) here.
Category: Farmer's Favorites
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
The blog is lazily celebrating its first full year of existence as a full-time political blog. Our official first post was on March 9, 2006. As a belated commemorative note, I am reissuing some of my favorites.

Something from last July:

"Cynicism About Democracy"

It strikes me that many of my recent comments in re "democracy" and American foreign policy carried a certain scornful dismissiveness. While I stand by my substantive analysis, I probably offered them in a misleading tone. Perhaps a few caveats and some nuance would be helpful.

What of democracy?

One problem: we are generally imprecise in our language. What we enjoy today in the United States (and often call "democracy") is a hybrid of republicanism (self determination through representative government) and democracy (popular sovereignty, rule by the people). In our system, power is invested in all the citizens--but generally exercised by a professional and learned political class. More importantly, for us, "democracy" has also become shorthand for a national culture of market-oriented economics, individual rights and equality of opportunity.

An aside: James Madison et al viewed raw democracy as "mob rule" and a recipe for disorder. While the framers of our constitution adamantly believed in government of the people and for the people, they were quite cautious concerning government by the people. The founders would not be surprised by the current tumult in the Middle East. They would have seen clearly the potential calamitous problem with democracy in that region: radical elements might use elections to take control of government and install themselves as dangerous but "legitimate" states.

For Americans, the Age of Jackson brought the beginning of a change in attitude, and within a generation, all elements of the American political system embraced the rhetoric of "democratic" government. Republican virtue, which idealized an elite class of statesman divested of their own self interest (disinterested), gave way to the "Democracy," which seized on an increasingly broadly distributed franchise and advocated, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "self interest rightly understood."

In the decades that followed the War of 1812, the American democracy became inextricably coupled with the Market Revolution and forever linked with self improvement and free labor as a means of social mobility. In essence, the American Dream became not just political freedom, as defined in the Declaration of Independence or Bill or Rights, but economic opportunity as well.

Our calls for "democracy" in the Middle East are not necessarily demanding one-person-one-vote government. We are actually endorsing a broader, loosely defined idea of self-determination, which includes individual empowerment and a personal investment in stability among the people of the region. In our shorthand, democracy means a modern, educated, connected society in which the citizenry rightly understand their self interest--and act accordingly.

I have indicated that the subtext of this plan for "democracy" in the Middle East includes introducing Muslims to the pleasures of consumerism. Economic self interest, "rightly understood," is a key component within peaceful societies based on government by the people in the modern world.

This is not a new idea. In the midst of WWII, the Allies (USA, Great Britain & USSR) all agreed on "pastoralization" for post-war Germany. That is, the German nation was to be dismantled and de-industrialized and remade into an agrarian state, deprived of its status as a world power and forever defanged as a war-making threat.

But by the end of the war, the United States backed out of the gentleman's agreement. The United States opted for rebuilding and re-industrializing the defeated German nation in order to create a powerful democratic partner and strategic ally in a crucial part of the world. A few years later, after the "loss of China," the United States pursued the same policy in re Japan. As we know, these gambits paid handsome dividends.

Were these initiatives altruistic (giving the gift of freedom to our vanquished foes)? Or opportunistic (creating a lucrative economic partnership)? Or strategic? The answer is most likely "Yes." None of those explanations are mutually exclusive.

When we speak of "spreading democracy," generally, we are not cynically covering our ugly American imperial bent. Most of us genuinely believe in the superiority of our system of government and our way of life. We sincerely believe in the "greatness" of our system, and we want to share it with the "less fortunate." Would we like to make a buck and achieve our own security in the process? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, the initiative to remake the Middle East, however wrong-headed it may prove to be, is based on good intentions, national pride and a specific set of successes in our not-too-distant past.

For the record, I am not completely cynical about the power of democracy.
Category: Farmer's Favorites
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
The blog is lazily celebrating its first full year of existence as a full-time political blog. Our official first post was on March 9, 2006. As a belated commemorative note, I am reissuing some of my favorites. By the way, my favorites are usually the ones in which I proved most prescient.

Something from last summer that still plays pretty well:

What Happens "When our Patience Wears Thin"?

Last Thursday (July 20, 2006), Real Clear Politics ran a Victor Davis Hanson essay entitled, "Patience is Wearing Thin," in which VDH argued that the West was running out of civilized choices in the Middle East and hinted that we might soon resort to massive retaliation against terrorists and their benefactors.

VDH reasons that despite the "conventional wisdom" against an additional American military mission aimed at Iran or Syria, the United States (and the West) may come to realize that "diplomacy, aid, support for democracy, multiculturalism, and [partial] withdrawal" does not satisfy the troublesome Islamists. At which point, once our patience is exhausted, we will "opt for hard and quick retaliation" and eschew our historic concerns for humanity, local sensibilities and world opinion.

I could not disagree more.

An aside: This VDH essay reflects the rapidly accumulating frustration and mounting dejection even among stout-hearted, intelligent, patriotic Americans.

The ugly truth: the conventional wisdom that our hands are tied, unfortunately, is absolutely right. If you are Iran (or North Korea), there is very little peril in disdaining the United States right now. Syria is a bit more vulnerable, because of internal uncertainty and weakness, but they might ask as well: what is the United States going to do?

There is no military option.

There is one insurmountable obstacle to another military expedition in the region: American public opinion.

Presently, the American people are in no mood to support any unprovoked aggressive military action anywhere in the world. Americans are no longer convinced that our invasion of Iraq was necessary. Much worse, they are thoroughly unimpressed with our government's administration of Iraq and increasingly pessimistic about our ability to remake the Middle East.

Because the President has lost the American people, he has lost the "loyal" opposition in Congress and is beginning to lose politicians on the periphery of his own party. In addition, the President's inner circle of advisors is in the midst of extended acrimonious hostilities with large parts of the executive bureaucracy. And the media and academia, also at odds with this President from the outset, now emboldened by his weakness, bombards him with derision and destabilizing accusations continuously. The President cannot go on the offensive in the Middle East because he cannot get off the defensive at home. This president does not have the time or the standing to prepare the nation for a greater war in the Middle East. We are stuck.

In the end, I agree with VDH's concluding statement, if not with his reasoning that undergirds the sentiment:

"So in the meantime, let us hope that democracy prevails in Iraq, that our massive aid is actually appreciated by the Middle East, that diplomacy ultimately works with Iran, that Syria quits supporting terrorists, and that Hamas and Hezbollah cease their rocket attacks against Israel -- more for all their sakes than ours."

What happens when our patience wears thin? We go home. We leave rather meekly (see Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia), and we are unlikely to blow up the place on the way out.