Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Post-Modern Road to Serfdom?

When I teach the American Revolution, I try to teach my students the difference that property rights make. In feudal societies, men did not own their property outright. The King or the Lord could, in many circumstances, resume his title to your land and transfer it to someone else. On the vast majority of American farms, the King lacked that right. The Americans thought that taxation without representation was a step back toward feudal property.

The Kelo decision, and actions the government has taken lately in the current crisis, suggest that we, having forgotten what property rights are and are for, are moving away from that part of the American way. Technochracy does not like it when citizens’ rights get in the way of efficient planning.

Mark Steyn points us to this letter from a soon to be former Dodge dealer. If true, it’s worse than re-shuffling legal order for repaying the company’s debt holder.

On Thursday, May 14, 2009 I was notified that my Dodge franchise, that we purchased, will be taken away from my family on June 9, 2009 without compensation and given to another dealer at no cost to them. My new vehicle inventory consists of 125 vehicles with a financed balance of 3 million dollars. This inventory becomes impossible to sell with no factory incentives beyond June 9, 2009. Without the Dodge franchise we can no longer sell a new Dodge as "new," nor will we be able to do any warranty service work. Additionally, my Dodge parts inventory, (approximately $300,000.) is virtually worthless without the ability to perform warranty service. There is no offer from Chrysler to buy back the vehicles or parts inventory.

Our facility was recently totally renovated at Chrysler’s insistence, incurring a multi-million dollar debt in the form of a mortgage at Sun Trust Bank.

Walter Berns on executive prerogative

My teacher Walter Berns surveys terrain familiar to anyone who has been in his classroom. His conclusion:

Questions arise: Was the Constitution or, better, the nation actually in jeopardy after 9/11? Was Mr. Bush entitled to imprison the terrorists in Guantanamo? Were the interrogations justified? Were they more severe than necessary? Did they prove useful in protecting the nation and its citizens? These are the sorts of questions Locke may have had in mind in his chapter on the prerogative. Who, he then asked, shall be judge whether "this power is made right use of?" Initially, of course, the executive but, ultimately, the people.

The executive in our case, at least to begin with, is represented by the three Justice Department officials who wrote the memos that Mr. Graham and many members of the Obama administration have found offensive. They have been accused of justifying torture, but they have not yet been given the opportunity in an official setting or forum to defend what they did.

That forum could be a committee of Congress or a "truth commission" -- so long as, in addition to the assistance of counsel, they would be judged by "an impartial jury," have the right to call witnesses in their favor, to call for the release of evidence including the CIA memos showing the success of enhanced interrogations, and the right to "confront the witnesses" against them as the Constitution’s Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide. There is much to be said for a process that, among other things, would require Nancy Pelosi to testify under oath.

I have a hard time believing that the Democrats who control Congress will permit the kind of impartial inquiry Mr. Berns has in mind.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

I’m betting this book will be worth reading.

How Little Has Changed!

...Krauthammer observes. There’s a lot of continuity we can believe in when it comes to Obama’s policies as commander-in-chief. Our president knows the difference between his moralistic rhetoric (which seems to be serving its purpose) and what he actually has to do to preserve, protect, and defend. From this view, as Steve claims in the thread, Cheney’s manly and thoughtful defenses of Bush’s policies might actually serve as needed and often heeded advice to Obama. The Democratic members of Congress, intellectuals, talking heads and such are another matter entirely.

Leon Kass’s Socratic Turns

Leon Kass’s Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities from last night. geLooking for an Honest Manf: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanisth was largely autobiographical, describing his Socratic turns from science and conventional political and religious thought to a richer understanding of the human condition, to comprehending what a mensch is. Kass will likely be the only mensch ever to be honored by both the Thomas Jefferson Award and the Tocqueville Forum’s Father James V. Schall Teaching Award, honors named after a denouncer of priests and an eminent contemporary priest.

Statistics du jour

How the culture has changed:

But the nation’s intense focus on teenage childbearing has obscured a more fundamental problem in childbearing trends. Last week, the CDC reported that about 40% of American children were born out of wedlock in 2007, more than triple the 11% who were in 1970. This means that more than 1.7 million children were born outside of marriage in 2007. Moreover, the vast majority of these babies -- 60%, to be precise -- were born not to teenagers but to women in their 20s (only 23% of nonmarital births were to teens). Furthermore, the CDC reports that nonmarital childbearing has been rising much faster among adults than among teenagers.

None of this should come as a surprise, given that a 2003 Gallup Survey found that 64% of young adults age 18 to 29 thought that having a baby out of wedlock was "morally acceptable."

Bailout Nation

So yesterday over on the company blog I offered reflections on California’s fiscal catastrophe (where did they get that fat-face pic of me, by the way?), and predicting that the next step would be a federal bailout for the Golden State.

Didn’t have to wait long. Like clockwork, the New York Times steps up this morning calling for exactly that. It’s starting to look like this is going to be a long four years.

Humility, Doubt, and Complacency

Alan Jacobs is right to say that this is the trinity that animates the president’s Notre Dame speech. It’s sort of a caricature of Socratic nonfoundationalism: When it comes to abortion and such, we just don’t know enough about what’s just to do anything new or different that’s more just. That way of thinking, it goes without saying, Obama doesn’t apply to his many "Yes, we can" issues.

The speeches

On page five of his speech, Cheney says in effect that one has to agree with the Bush administration’s strategy or admit that you do not take 9-11 seriously. This is a false dichotomy. Accepting the serious ongoing character of the threat represented by 9-11, there were alternative and, I think, better ways to respond than the Bush administration chose. Cheney addresses the harsh interrogations as “recruitment tool” argument but in a way that confirms that he does not understand the character of the threat we face. For example, after raising this issue he immediately calls into question the patriotism of those who make the argument and then discusses the terrorists, ignoring completely what the argument is really about.

Obama appears to understand what the recruitment tool argument is about but believes that security and our values can never conflict “so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense.” This and some other passages come close to saying that adherence to principle is sufficient to secure. The quoted statement comes toward the end of the speech and the other statements toward its beginning. In the middle, there is an effort to explain how to apply principle to the problem of the detainees at Guantanamo without harming our security. The middle is better than the end or the beginning.

Taken together, the speeches suggest our problem. Those who better grasp the connection of principle and security do not understand the threat we confront, while those who understand the threat, do not understand the connection between principle and security or are beholden to a constituency that does not.

The Audacity of Obama

Speaking at the Archives and using our nation’s founding documents as props was far more appalling than that silly popping up in front of those Greek columns. The President is further alienating Americans from their roots in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We are an imperfect people. Every now and then, there are those who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. We hear such voices today. But the American people have resisted that temptation. And though we have made our share of mistakes and course corrections, we have held fast to the principles that have been the source of our strength, and a beacon to the world.

Has Obama taken to heart the words of Abraham Lincoln, his favorite President, who asked:

"Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?ff "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?ff

Obama does play on an American concern that Bush and Cheney did not appreciate in their rhetoric: The need to be the good guys, and good guys never use terrible means to secure their ends. The latter part is of course naievete, yet it remains part of the American character and needs to be accommodated. (See David Tucker’s take on this below.)

But what must Obama think of this part of the Declaration of Independence?

He [the King of England] has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Does this talk of "barbarous ages" and "merciless Indian Savages" reflect a "rigid ideology"? Is this not part of "our values [that] have been our best national security asset"? Might it not lead to "anything goes" conduct on the part of Americans? Who here is using national security as a "wedge that divides America"?

Noam Chomsky, revealing

I was killing a few minutes before an interview with a high school student, and came across this short Noam Chomsky piece, thinking it was on torture. Well, it sort of is on it, and is it. It is also a good peek into Chomsky’s wretched and tedious soul mind. I’m not dwelling in it, but if you haven’t read any of Chomsky’s deep political thinking--on his loves and hates--lately, this may be a good one to pass over lightly for it is both revealing and mercifully short.

Cheney and Bush Getting More Popular

Well, it’s true that they had nowhere to go but up, and a solid majority of Americans still don’t think well of them. Still, there’s increasing evidence that the former VP’s security concerns are being taken seriously. But as Peter noted below, Obama’s foreign policy may not be turning out to be as bad Cheney feared.

Obama vs Cheney

Here is President Obama�s speech, and then former vice-president Cheney�s talk at almost the same time, on the other side of town. I will have to study both impressive speeches, but, I must say that at first sight, Cheney�s is surprisingly thoughtful. It is possible that we will never have any clearer statements than these of the two possible ways of thinking about our security problem.

The Right to a Good Smoke

Each Year the Chez Francois, a fine eating establishment in Vermillion, Ohio, hosts "The Spring Cigar Smoker." Roger, Danielle, Chris Burkett and I joined a few hundred friends for drinks, a great meal, much wine, and many cigars. The weather, the canal, and the atmosphere combined to make for a perfect evening. The conversation was good and full of serious humor, inspired by this wisdom from George Burns on their menu: "Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal and a good woman --or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle." Here is the fully articulated statement (found on the back of the menu) that the event stands for:

The Chez Cigar Club


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of a good smoke. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new organization, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. We believe that in the right to smoke a Handmade Premium Cigar, sip Single Malt Scotch, enjoy a good Steak with a fine bottle of Red Wine, eat Foie Gras, have our French Fries cooked in trans fatty oils, to discharge firearms for recreational and or self defensive purposes, to invoke God’s name in the public sphere as an acknowledgement of our heritage, to defend our brothers and finally to honor America as the sole lynch pin holding Western civilization together! We support our Soldiers fighting terrorism throughout the world, our Police and Firefighters, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Cigar Manufacturers, Square Groove Gold Irons, Citizens for a free Cuba, The Sopranos and Dancers for Democracy. We hold in esteem William Wilberforce, King Edward VII, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, George Patton, Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, JFK, George Burns, Peter Falk and Ronald Reagan.

"Gentlemen You May Smoke"

We’re for Guns and Babies

The sensible liberal Galston notices that studies show a sharp turn in public opinion away from gun control and for life. He urges our president to give us a Court nominee who’s sensitive to our genuine cultural mainstream, which is a balance or compromise among opposing views and sentiments. He doesn’t explain how that can be done while still having no reservations about the conversation and compromise stopper that ROE (and subsequent opinions) is or at least means to be. We might urge the Republicans to be more sensitive and articulate when it comes to the cultural trends that are actually in their favor.

Obama as Commander in Chief

David Broder thinks that President Obama, even in abandoning positions he took during the campaign, "clearly has taken on the mind-set and priorities of a commander in chief -- and he is unlikely to revert back." Karl Rove agrees (domestic policy is another matter). Obama�s speech this morning, which White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said would cover "military commissions . . . photos, state secrets, transparency and protecting our national security," will be worth reading.

Idol Comments

Although it’s become beneath our NLT pay grade to talk about or even watch TV, I have to say that THE AMERICAN IDOL final show was quite entertaining. It featured CYNDI LAUPER, KISS, STEVE MARTIN, SANTANA, ROD STEWART (struggling charmingly to belt out his first hit Maggie May), and some other famous singers I don’t like that much. Steve Martin, Crunchies please note, played the banjo to a very pretty sort of mountain song he wrote himself. The idol top ten acquitted themselves well singing with these stars, and Adam, in particular, out-kissed Kiss. Kris and Adam, the two finalists, are both smart, classy, and musically inventive young men (that Danny, the number 3 guy, is too). But the result was an injustice. Kris may resonate more with the heartland, but Adam, however over-the-top in certain ways, must be the best Idol singer ever. As Simon says, it is, after all, a singing contest. Kris, quite the gentleman, said after after hearing the result something like: "I don’t know what to say, it feels good, but Adam deserved this." Consent and wisdom don’t always come together, despite Simon’s effort to direct the American verdict. But that’s not to say Kris didn’t earn his victory through brains and hard work: He sometimes soared above his relatively limited vocal ability with arrangements that highlighted the stories the songs actually tell--especially "The Way You Look Tonight." The weakness of Adam, sometimes, was subordinating the song to his amazing voice.

Churchill and the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy

Good timing on this essay by Justin Lyons: "Winston Churchill’s Constitutionalism: A Critique of Socialism in America."
A very good read on a core element--and not often discussed--of Winston’s political thinking (and what that has to do with American constitutionalism). Worth a Romeo Y Julieta, and, as Winston might say, if you have two to choose from, pick the strongest and longest. Of course also have a whiskey and soda with the smoke, for it is a "good drink to draw a sword on."   

The Revolving Debt Door

Amid the discussions of the debt, we sometimes forget that the retirement of the Baby Boomers complicates things in part because it means that the "trust funds" will start selling, rather than buying T-bills, John Steele Gordon notes:

By far the biggest holder of federal treasury bonds is the United States Government itself ($4.2 trillion worth, as compared to $2.7 trillion held by foreigners). Most of this debt is owned by various trust funds, principally the Social Security Trust Fund. That makes the total national debt $10.5 trillion, not $6.3 trillion, 73 percent of GDP, not 40 percent.

The big problem here is that many of these trust funds will have to start dipping into their stockpiles of treasuries in order to pay their obligations in the near future. Medicare is already doing so. Social Security will begin in 2016 according to current projections, as the tide of retiring baby boomers swells.

When the trust funds need the money, they will take their treasury bonds to the Treasury and ask for it. The government will then have three means for raising the money: 1) It can make cuts in spending in other areas of the federal budget (but not to the ever-growing portion that will have to be allocated to interest on the debt, a constitutional obligation). 2) It can raise taxes substantially to bring in new revenue. Or 3) It can go into the bond market and sell still more bonds over and above the trillions of dollars’ worth it will be selling in order to finance the Obama deficits.

Is Sunstein Obama’s Best Choice?

This originalist says so. He’s an impressive scholar, a good guy, a "judicial minimalist," and is for cost-benefit analysis.

Leo Strauss Center Established

At the
University of Chicago

Caffeine and Contemporary Culture

Ceaser and ME reflect on the enduring merits of MAXWELL HOUSE, and Ivan the K adds some disturbng reflections on the disappearance of the communal coffee pot.

Obama at Notre Dame

I agree with Ken below that our president masterfully wowed the Catholic crowd, and his personal charm should be compared to Reagan’s. He talked about working together in service for the common good, and he spoked against selfishness, greed and zero sum games. He repeatedly invoked Cardinal Bernardin and by implication Bernardin’s seamless garment of life. There are many areas where we need to address the needs of the most weak and vulnerable among us, and abortion is only one of them. So we can affirm this president’s charitable, unifying work with only one irreconciliable difference. Just as he respects the good faith of our irreconciliable position, we must respect his. The only problem with this conclusion, of course, is that he only respects our position as a matter of private conscience. The Supreme Court has said that his view is the one, as a matter of liberty, that must inform public policy. And that view, our president suggested quickly, is one in accord with "sound science" and "the equality of women." The president spoke eloquently of the sacredness of every human life, but not of any reasonable public disagreement over who a human being is. The president called attention to the anniversary of BROWN and the fact that, as a result of BROWN, nobody recognizes the good faith of segregationists. He did not add that our Court, of course, has placed BROWN and ROE in the same category as super-precedents. A president who really recognized the good faith of his opponents on the abortion issue would extend them not only linguistic courtesy but the right for pro-life views to be included meaningfully in the political process.

Meeting the Challenge of Obama

Notre Dame address
shows once more how formidable a politician he is--even though he did not go with the draft I posted here a few days ago. Instead of talking about abortion, he referred to his conversion to Christianity. Anyone opposing Obama’s call for civil discussion (even though it ultimately means agreement with him or at least capitulation to his power) is marginalized.

UPDATE: C-SPAN’S coverage of the commencement, including the speech.

In rallying conservatives, especially following hound-dog Huntsman and bail-out Specter, moderation and prudence need to be kept in mind: Reagan remains a rallying point--even though few people under 40 have direct political memory of him. As a leftish student, prepared to mock the gubernatorial candidate, I was charmed by him instead. (A young left-wing student of mine said he was moved to tears when he heard a Reagan speech, despite his loathing for Reagan policies.) I reiterate that Reagan’s own personal background (divorced, Hollywood, California) restrained his opponents from treating him at least initially like, well, like Governor Palin.

The only prominent conservative political figure I know of who has such personal appeal across partisan lines is Justice Clarence Thomas, whose ability to speak out is limited.

One problem with Rush and other conservatives, especially when they defend free markets, is that they argue for Grover’s "leave us alone" coalition yet also want America to be Reagan’s city on a hill. Libertarians as such cannot love any country. Free markets are by definition not patriotic, let alone American.

We are reminded again of Lincoln’s admonition that successful politics requires the combination of
duty and self-interest
. See his Springfield speech, on Dred Scott, June 26, 1857, third paragraph from the end.