Living Free together

We are a richly diverse society. Our fellow citizens have different religions, tastes, and political views. When expressed by mature, good-hearted people, this makes for very interesting dinner parties and cultural life. An important reason we have successfully lived together harmoniously in the past is that our laws and culture leave us free to make our own choices and live as we see fit. But this requires a general agreement and commitment to allow such diversity and broadly accepted rules or norms for our interactions with others. It requires treating others and their choices with respect and knowing where the social boundaries are. It also requires trust in and respect for the institutions that oversee and mediate our social interactions.

When the person we voted for losses, we must respect the result. All the more so the loser herself must respect the choice of the majority of voters. When a court passes judgement, we must respect it. When we disagree with proposals from the “other side”, we should clearly state the reasons for our disagreement rather than condemning them as enemies.

We seem close to losing these minimal requirements of a peaceful, free society. The present atmosphere has turned poisonous. Violence in response to outcomes we don’t like—threatened by some shameless politicians —would be a huge loss to to the orderly and peaceful life we have known.

One element of this poison—this atmosphere of hate—is the perpetration of lies (or of misinformation to use a more polite term). Social media has made it easier to spread lies. But it would be terribly wrong and contrary to the values that have helped our flourishing, to blame Facebook, Twitter, etc. for circulating lies. It’s fine to offer suggestions to them for improving the quality and usefulness of their platform, but we are the ones circulating the lies. “Social media and fake news” The hammer that drives a nail or smashes a head is not the perpetrator of either. The person holding the hammer determines its use.

Yesterday two respected friends tweeted the following:

“Last night, Dem Mary Peltola was elected to US House beating Sarah Palin — even though in the first round of ranked-choice-voting, Peltola finished 4th, with just 10% of the votes, compared to Palin’s first-place finish of 27%”

But this is a total lie. I don’t know who invented it (and it was surely not for honorable reasons) but my friends must accept the blame for their role in retweeting it. The truth, as reported in the Washington Post (and I confirmed it with the WSJ) is that:

“Peltola had nearly 40 percent of first-choice votes after preliminary counts, which put her about 16,000 votes ahead of Palin. [Only] Half of the Alaskans who made Begich their first choice ranked Palin second,”

If that all sounds a bit strange, it reflects the operation of the innovative and promising rank choice voting.

One of the structural weaknesses in our system that we need to fix is the establishment of congressional districts that are “safe” for one or the other party. This tends to favor primary candidates with more extreme views who then are pretty much guaranteed to win in the general election. Thus, rather than strengthening the center, which is more representative of the population at large, we are strengthening the two extremes.

Rank choice voting, which was used in Alaska, is a structural change in the election process that can help lower the temperature and restore political representative who are more broadly representative of their continuance. Such structural changes can be helpful and are needed, but at the end of the day we must each take personal responsibility for our own actions. Tweeter does not post or retweet anything.  We do and we need to take our personal responsibilities seriously.

It is helpful from time to time to remind ourselves of the enormous progress our societies have made in the last several centuries after tens of thousands of years with no progress. Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley have just provided us with a beautiful collection of such data in their just published book Superabundance: The Age of Plenty“Superabundance”  This is what we have to lose.

Our Right to be Free

Our country was founded and has prospered on the proposition “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 Happiness.” We jealously guard our individual liberty. We are free to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. This liberty is subject to two major conditions: we must live with the consequences of our choices and actions, and our actions cannot interfere with the same exercise of freedom by others. We never fully live up to these high principles, but they do define the goals we continue to and should continue to aim for.

When our actions or circumstance fail to sustain us, we do step in to help those in distress, whether from family obligations or friendships or a government administered social safety net. We continue to debate and refine its features.

Determining the boundary between those actions I am free to choose, and those that unacceptably affect others is not always easy. Walking in public naked is not acceptable in most societies (except at designated nude beaches). While this would not infringe on the freedom of others to behave as they want, it would “force” them to see something they do not want to see.

I chose this example because it does not fall neatly into something purely private that I have a right to do (walking around my home naked) or something clearly and obviously damaging to others that I do not have a right to do (driving my car through my neighbor’s garden).  In the realm of social norms, I can walk in public dressed in many ways depending on the society I am in.  A man might freely walk around in a dress (if he chooses the neighborhood carefully) without getting knocked down in some societies but not in others. Such social norms are important in defining and guiding acceptable public behavior and they vary across societies and over time. Such norms are continuously debated.

But clearly my freedom to swing my fist ends where your face begins. If you are infected with a contagious disease, you do not have the freedom to walk around potentially infecting others even in the most libertarian of societies (e.g., lower Manhattan). I assume that anyone sick with Covid-19 knows that she must isolate/quarantine herself.

But what about someone who doesn’t feel sick but hasn’t been vaccinated?

Any establishment has the right to require that only vaccinated people work or shop there and/or wear face masks. And I certainly have the right to attend only those performances or eat in those restaurants that impose these requirements. These are implications of freedom.

Surely everyone understands and accepts these propositions.  So why is there such controversy over wearing masks and getting vaccinated? I don’t know the answer to this question but will suggest a few factors that I think are important. That such health issues have become so politicized is almost more distressing than the fact that in the United States 728,000 people have died from Covid-19 by October 10, 2021.

One reason is that some people are pushing back on being told what to do by the government. Such behavior is common in freedom loving children but rather unseemly in adults. Another is that vaccines were developed with miraculous speed and their effectiveness and potential side effects are not yet fully known. None the less the evidence is overwhelming that being vaccinated significantly increases your prospects of living and surviving the infection compared to those who are unvaccinated. Another is that during the Trump administration medical policy and advice became quite politicized. Many of us, often with good reason, stopped trusting the messages from the CDC and FDA. And to this day government messaging remains poor. Rather than offering advice based on the most recent evidence (which can change over time) and the reasons for those recommendations, government pronouncements are often confusing and sometimes sound like demands. Many of us have lost trust in the government’s pronouncements. Unfortunately, some people have put their trust in unreliable sources of information and even, in some cases, in deliberately malicious sources (and we can’t always blame Russia). 

Where our choices and actions affect only ourselves, we should be free to do as we like and benefit (or suffer) from the outcome. Where our actions affect others, more or less directly, social norms and government rules should limit our choices. In societies where its citizens live by the golden rule and respect these norms, beneficial behavior is followed voluntarily — enforcement is not a serious problem.  We must determine the sources of information that we trust carefully and based on such information we must treat our neighbors with the respect we expect from them.

Protecting our freedom is critical but it is not enough. We must also exercise it virtuously. The “fusion” of freedom and virtue has been (most of the time) the basis of American success. We seem at risk of losing both. Get vaccinated now for everyone’s benefit. Please.

The Thanksgiving Revolt

Sadly, Thanksgiving and healthcare more generally has been politicized (or “weaponized” as I said in a report to the UNDP with regard to the monetary system in Yemen–my advice was that nothing as important as the monetary system should be weaponized). Why are normally sensible (I am being generous on this day of giving thanks) people behaving like rebellious teenagers? Among other reasons, I think, it is in part because they are being treated like children. We can demand that our children do this or that (at least when we don’t have the time or patience to explain why they should do this or that as part of preparing them to become adults).

Mature, independent minded adults (i.e., typical Americans) bristle when told that they must stay home, or cancel Thanksgiving dinner and other social activities, even when they suspect that it is the prudent thing to do. Our government should not be dictating our behavior in a free society. There are exceptions, of course, for the protection of the rest of us. We are (or should be) free to do what we like as long as we do not infringe on the right and ability of others to do the same. For example, we don’t permit people infected with communicable diseases to wander around in public endangering the rest of us–quarantining those with active cases of Covid-19 is properly required.

We each have our own assessment of the risks of infection and our own willingness to take risks.  We should be free to make our own decisions about what to do (as long as we are not endangering others–yes you should wear a face mask if you go out).

What should the government’s role be? The government should provide the best information available on what those risks are and how best to mitigate them. Not everyone agrees on what the data says.  Where that is the case, the government (CDC basically) should be honest about the disagreement and the basis of the government’s consensus judgement. This is a constructive, helpful role and a proper way of dealing with adults. Somehow too many political types have acquired the tone of voice with which one might speak to children. And if that weren’t bad enough the government provides conflicting information. Fortunately, our stable genius is no longer listened to and his quack remedies will fade from our memories.

We need an honest and less intrusive government that advises rather than dictates. We need fellow citizens who civilly share their views with us while respecting, even if not necessarily agreeing with, ours. We have a long way to go but let’s rally and raise above the muck we are in.  Oh yes, and happy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789

Thanksgiving Proclamation

[New York, 3 October 1789]

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Saving our free society

The vast majority of every new generation want to make society a better place. They support policies that they believe will contribute to making society fairer and “nicer.” As they age their altruism may tilt toward self-enrichment and self-protection at the expense of fairness (cronyism), but initially their motives are pure. The key issue is what policies they believe will help make society a better place. “The-search-of-purpose-nature-and-nurture-genes-and-culture”

We can be thankful that American voters in throwing out a dishonest, divisive, egomaniac didn’t endorse the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.  We seem to have moved back to the broad center.  “Dan Mitchell–a victory for Biden-a defeat for the left”  It is hard to know where to look for and find the truth today, and our society will suffer because of that.  But as we review and debate the policy proposals of a Biden administration, we must remember that we are all looking for the truth about what will make our society better (fairer, freer, and more virtuous).  We must listen to each other’s concerns and carefully evaluate each other’s proposals. But we have a duty to ourselves and our neighbors to study history for what has worked and what hasn’t and to do our best to understand why limited government and maximum reliance on our own decisions and the decisions of our neighbors is the best framework in which to help make society better.

The growing number of today’s youth who look favorably at socialism (whatever they understand that to be) is worrying because it reflects an incorrect assessment of what socialism has always delivered. To today’s youth: If you really care about making society better, take the time to study the history of socialism and learn why it failed and is bound to fail and why societies that are freer and law abiding are both more virtuous and more prosperous. “Socialism-as-seen-by-millennials”

Socialism as seen by Millennials

“Seventy percent of millennials in a new poll say that they are somewhat or extremely likely to vote for a socialist candidate.” “70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist”  That, and the current lead of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, means that those of us who believe that capitalism is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity have a job to do to convince millennials that they are wrong about Socialism.  If Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, which I doubt, his long history of support for Soviet communism will be marched out by the Republicans. “Bernie Sanders support of communism is a moral failing”  As recently as a few days ago, Sanders was praising Fidel Castro. “Bernie-sanders-didnt-mention-the-dark-side-of-education-in-castros-cuba”  Sanders is not even a registered Democrat. But my concern is that so many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z’s (born between 1995 and 2015) are attracted to Socialism. We need to convince them that it will not deliver the better society that they think it will.

We need to start with the recognition that these new generations, like all of their predecessors, want to do the “right thing.” “The-search-of-purpose”  They are searching for how best to address the deficiencies of life in America today. While dire poverty has been reduced from over 90% to less than 10% by capitalism, there is still that 10%.  Adult literacy has been at 99% for a few decades but the quality of public school education has been declining.  Only half of elementary school students in California are proficient in English (i.e., performed at grade level). “California-school-test-scores-2019”  And so on. The question is how to address these problems? What should we do to further improve our lives economically and culturally? Should we increase the role of government in directing resources and making our decisions or reduce it or adjust it? Do we need more Socialism or more Capitalism?

In 1919 the “Old Bolsheviks,” Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote in the widely read The ABC of Communism, that the communist society is “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production.  As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.  I urge my young friends to read the fuller account in Ralph Raico’s  “Marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities”

The theoretical and historical/empirical cases against Socialism are overwhelming, at least to those of us who lived through the cold war and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the Israeli kibbutzim more gradually in the 1960s through 1980s.  Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela provide contemporary examples.  Sanders and many millennials reject these examples (sort of) as reflecting the bad luck of state capture by bad guys (I am not aware of any bad girl examples). But the centralization of the power to direct businesses and people that is the essence of Socialism, is a natural and powerful magnet for bad guys.  No socialist regime has escaped the opportunities and temptations to favor its friends and relatives with government contracts or protections from the horrors of competition. “Crony capitalism”  Venezuela is a particularly shocking example of the rapid deterioration of one of South America’s wealthiest countries.

Sanders often points to the Scandinavian countries as examples of the softer democratic Socialism he now says he has in mind.  But he is fifty years out of date. The experiment with “democratic socialism” by, for example, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s was a failure and abandoned in recent decades. “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy”

Socialism has failed historically because it lacks incentives (financial rewards) for hard work and the development of better mouse traps, provides incentives for corruption, and is really hard to “get right.”  National Socialism (Nazism) and other versions of socialism involved top down control over many aspects of society.  But the central allocation of resources and decisions about what we may and may not do–central planning–suffers from serious informational challenges even when made by smart and totally honest people. Friedrich Hayek had much to say about the importance of prices in a market economy for providing critical, decentralized information on people’s preferences and thus on the optimal allocation of resources. “The Road to Serfdom”

But we are not likely win over the younger generations to capitalism just on the bases that it has given us standards of material well-being and individual freedom unimaginable several hundred years ago.  We also need, I think, to defend its moral superiority while offering promising remedies to its remaining deficiencies.

The morality of capitalism rests, in my view, in its capacity to give us, and to protect, our ownership of the fruits of our own labor. This means also the freedom to decide how to live.  It is a system in which we bear the primary responsibility for our own decisions and actions and their consequences.  It is a system that flourishes in a culture of trust and mutual caring and thus encourages such values. It is a system that rewards and thus encourages virtuous behavior. The top down, central planning, central control of socialism tends to have the opposite effect.  A common saying in the Soviet Union (USSR), while it still existed, was that “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

America was unique in its time (exceptional) in establishing a constitution and government in which the people gave up limited authority to their government to protect their property and liberty, rather than, as with the Magna Carta, the sovereign giving up some of its authority to the people.  See American Exceptionalism.  In the personal freedom this provided and the accompanying responsibilities it imposed, Americans flourished in every sense of the word more than most. Those who fall behind or floundered were not ignored.  It was a country of free and virtuous people and as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his presidency in 1809: “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”[1]  Seymour Martin Lipset in the middle of the 1990s used the concept of this exceptionalism to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.…”  I would hate to see that change.

Countries differ in the balance of personal freedom and security (safety net, police, army) they seek. But in the most successful ones the provision by the government of security is limited and well targeted to minimize its infringements on personal freedom.  Here are my earlier thoughts on improving the government’s role in and contribution to an orderly free market, capitalist system: “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017”

Let me end with a quote from Winston Churchill to drive my point home: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”  Indeed, Capitalism has its flaws, but Socialism has no success stories that we should strive to emulate. The way to move forward is to repair the flaws in a Capitalistic free market society.

[1] Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900).

We will always have terrorists

The cancer of ISIS is metastasizing. As it losses its caliphate in the Levant, it is being reborn here and there across the globe. We will always have it or its successors or something like it, in the same way that we have always had gangs, mafia, murderers, and thieves. We can and should minimize their number and the damage they do but we will never eliminate them. The real issue is determining where we want the balance between freedom and security.

There are many reasons for the eternal existence of criminals and their crimes but one is that we are unwilling to create the police state and its repressive and intrusive measures that would be needed to eradicate them totally. In short, we prefer to live relatively free and accept some risks of terrorist acts relative to a safer alternative with significantly curtained freedom. As we evaluate government policies to protect us from terrorists, it is worth reviewing and keeping in mind where we have drawn the line between the risks of freedom and the restraints of greater and greater degrees of security. The line is always under review and adjusted a bit this way or that depending on conditions.

Some data from the U.S. helps us keep perspective. Over the past twelve months in the U.S. 104 people were killed by terrorists, 6 of whom were killed at the hands of Islamists. In comparison, 37,461 people died in automobile accidents in 2016. In response to the risk of death on the highway we regulate the right to drive, requiring a license, and enforce speed and other traffic regulations but we have not prevented people who qualify for a license from taking the risks of driving. A year ago I shared some interesting data on the causes of unnatural deaths in the U.S. in the following blog:

On average 2,500 people choke to death per year while eating, yet the activity remains relatively unregulated.

Protection from terrorists

My heart goes out to those in London who died at the hands of the British born citizen, Adrian Russell Elms, now going by the name of Khalid Masood. May Keith Palmer, Leslie Rhodes, Kurt Cochran, and Aysha Frade rest in peace. Whether he was a terrorist or a mentally disturbed citizen, he inflicted terror. How should we react?

Like health care reform, some topics never seem to go away. Indeed, striking the right balance between freedom and security is and should be under constant review. However, some approaches should be rejected out of hand. Trump’s travel ban would not have helped (hopefully it will never be implemented). In fact, his disgraceful gesture is a political stunt that does harm if anything at all. His rumored ban on carrying laptops and tablets in the cabins of flights from ten Middle Eastern and North African (predominantly Muslim) cities, while the same items may be checked and thus carried in the hull of the same plane is incomprehensible (other than as a protectionist measure, as only non American carriers fly from these cities). Beyond jeopardizing the cooperation we need from these countries to more effectively combat terrorism, these two measures are hurting our tourism and “jobs in America.”

Reasonable measures should be taken to detect and deter organized terrorist undertakings, without undermining our privacy and freedom of movement. But most attacks since 9/11 have been by lone wolves who didn’t have any actual contact with terrorist organizations. Anyone can decide to drive their car or truck into a crowd as was done in France, Germany and now England. No one in their right mind would suggest extending a travel ban to all road travel in the U.S. as a way of keeping us safe. U.S. traffic deaths have fallen significantly from 54,589 in 1972 to 35,092 in 2015 but dramatically exceed any from terrorists. With the advent and wide spread use of driverless cars such deaths will plummet dramatically in the future. But we accept that risk and drive anyway. No sane person would propose keeping every one home as a safety measure. In any event over 25,000 people die from accidents in their home in the U.S. every year. “Our risks from terrorists”

A full, rich life entails taking calculated risks. It is prudent to limit risks were the cost of doing so is not excessive in terms of our freedom of movement and quality of life. We need to keep this in mind when considering the measures we want our government to take to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

A related but different issue is how best to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and the like. During his presidential campaign Trump stated that: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” “Trump on terrorists families.” Such an approach does not accord with the lessons of experience (aside from being repulsive and violating international law). Combating terrorist groups requires cooperation from the countries in which they operate and from the people in whose neighborhoods they live, etc. The International Crisis Group has distilled these lessons in the following report. From its executive summary they state that Trump’s “administration… should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.” “Counter-terrorism pitfalls-what US fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda should avoid”



What do Trump supporters want?

Dear Jeff (Giesea),

Thank you for reaching out to non-Trump supporters in the search for dialog and better understanding. I fully agree with you that we need civil discussion, which requires assuming the good intentions of those across the table.

As a Trump opponent, I voted for Gary Johnson, the starting point for me is to understand what you and other Trump supporter hope the Trump administration will do. Why did you and so many others support him? I don’t buy the liberal press’ (sorry for using short hand and thus inaccurate, but convenient labels) contention that most of his supporters are racists, bigots, etc. who actually liked and supported Trump’s rudeness, potty mouth, etc. Most of his supporters probably overlooked these character flaws (just as Hillary supporters overlooked rather than embraced her decades of dishonesty). But what did you and the others support? Trump’s protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti- Muslim rhetoric seems to reject long standing Republican Party and conservative positions. His threat to challenge the freedom of the press to criticize him hardly squares with conservative respect for the constitution.

You kindly responded to my question of why you supported Trump with six points only one of which referred to Trump (that you thought he would provide “big, bold thinking and executive-style leadership.” The other five referred to problems with current leadership and directions. In short you want change. Now we need to discuss what those changes should be.

It is now time to turn to a discussion of policy issues, something almost totally lacking in the most ugly, ad hominem campaign I have ever seen. In fact, as President elect Trump begins to spell out his positions he is already walking back many of his earlier more extreme positions, or at least what we thought were his positions. The way forward with the dialog you are helping to promote is to seriously undertake an examination of specific policy issues to see what we can agree on and where we disagree and why.

I think everyone agrees that our immigration policy is broken and needs to be fixed. So let’s explore what we each think needs to be fixed and the best way to do. Our rapidly aging population (more and more retired people relying on a shrinking working age population to grow our food etc) will require more immigration to survive. The important issues are who those immigrates should be, how to most effectively control the process, and what to do about existing illegals. Let’s have that discussion.

If we have learned anything about Obama Care it is that slipping through legislation that enacts significant changes on the basis of a narrow majority is a serious mistake. Significant changes should require broad support and that will certainly be true in the Trump administration as well.

What is behind Trump’s protectionist rhetoric? He is not likely to actually violate very beneficial international trade law and slap large tariffs on China for currency manipulation (something they are demonstrably not doing any more). When in the campaign he said that he would demand that Boeing stop sourcing its aircraft parts abroad in order to bring those jobs home, he seems not to have considered that the resulting higher cost of Boeing’s planes would reduce global demand for them thus costing American jobs (not to mention his general attack on free market efficiency). I expect to see such demands vanish, but what are the improvements in our trade agreements that Trump (and you) thinks are desirable? Lets have that discussion.

The separation of church and state and the freedom of religion enshrined in our constitution are fundamental to our values as a nation. There is no blood test to determine if you are a Muslim or a catholic or a Jew. Religion isn’t and can’t be a test of who is allowed to visit America. But striking a proper balance between our freedom and our security is a serious challenge. The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, was a serious intrusion on our freedom in the false name of security in my view, but lets discuss with the new Trump administration how best to balance the powers of government to protect us, against the risks of big brother overly controlling us.

Many of us have rebelled against the excesses of “political correctness” on university campuses and else where (I have written several blogs on the subject). The traditional goal of the university is the unrestrained pursuit of truth. But in its place good manners (civility as you rightly put it.) are essential if we are to live peaceably together and flourish. I would love to see Trump and Hillary together call upon their supporters to respect, though not necessarily agree with, the views (and property) of their opponents—of everyone.

Thank you again for promoting this dialog.

Terrorism: Security vs. Privacy

We all care about our personal and national security and about our individual freedom, of which our privacy is an important element. Measures that serve both are win win and thus uncontroversial, but often measures that enhance one diminish the other. How and when to use such measures (tools) involve agreement on the balance of risks between security and privacy. Striking the best balance requires public review and debate and constant monitoring as I have discussed before.

Tools that enable our government to collect information on and track individuals can enhance our security by detecting and hopefully interrupting plans to carry out terrorist attacks. The existence of such capabilities, e.g., to monitor phone calls, emails, payments, and physical movements, also create the capability of collecting such information on people for other purposes, e.g. for commercial or political espionage. Governments through out the world have used such tools to monitor and suppress the “undesirable” activities of their foreign enemies and sometimes of their own citizens. Limits and safeguards on the use of such tools can mitigate the risk that they can be misused to get private information on individuals for other unwarranted purposes.

Finding the best balance between security and privacy is difficult but important for our freedom. We know or assume that we know how Russia, for example, uses surveillance tools on its own citizens. We generally believe that our own government only uses such tools to enhance our security. But the risks of and the growing actual misuse of government powers for political ends (e.g., targeted IRS audits on political enemies, illegal surveillance of a government employee’s girl friend or wife, etc.) are challenging our, perhaps, naïve faith in the honestly of our government. Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified email and Russian theft of U.S. government personnel records are nothing compared to the temptation to steal historical data on the activities of Donald Trump and Mrs. Clinton.

The credible rule of law is one of the critical foundations of our personal freedom. It both protects and limits the extent and domain of our privacy. The principle of “Innocent until proven guilty” is an essential element of the rule of law. It evaluates whether an act has violated the law. In a free society people are not punished for acts contemplated but not committed. Acting against people the state believes might be likely to or inclined to violate the law, for example, that it thinks are likely to commit a terrorist act, would violate this fundamental principle of a free society. An exception to this general rule would be the arrest of a person having the instruments and ingredients for making a bomb and supported by evidence that he plans to make and use the bomb.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 9/11, public sentiment shifted its balance between security and freedom in favor of security. The so-called PATRIOT act signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, reflected that shift by infringing on our privacy and traditional rights in ways that would not have been accepted earlier. Moreover, measures that were initially considered temporary and emergency in nature have become increasingly accepted as normal. Even after a slight curtailment of the provisions of the PATRIOT act when it was renewed in 2015 most of these measures were left in place. No one seems shocked today that the government maintains a “No Fly” list based on suspicions that certain people who have committed no crimes might be potential terrorists. Such profiling unsurprisingly results in Middle Eastern Muslims dominating the list, a racial and religious discrimination that violates existing anti discrimination laws and would not have been tolerated before 9/11.

It is not unusual today to hear people who claim to appreciate the importance of the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of speech) suggest that radical Islamist websites that attempt to recruit ISIS Jihadists should be blocked. Most of my friends are too young to remember the anti-communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s from which we coined the term McCarthyism. It was a time when a frightened public saw communists under every bed. Soviet spies, a legitimate target for arrest and punishment, were often confused with Marxists (communists), who espoused an economic system now rightly discredited. Those of us who still support freedom of speech believe that bad and pernicious ideas are best defeated with reasoned counter arguments. We believe that it is potentially dangerous to our freedom to allow our government to determine what we can read, hear, or see.

Edward Snowden did our country a great service by forcing a public discussion of what safeguards are needed to strike the balance desired by the public between their security and their privacy. I have written about Snowden before:    I recently viewed the movie “Snowden” and the documentary about the same events called “Citizenfour” and highly recommend both. The Heritage Foundation has contributed to this discussion in the following half-day seminar. I particularly recommend the opening session with Michael Hayden, who makes a number of interesting and thoughtful observations.

The level of discussion, which is to say the lack of serious discussion of these issues, in the American Presidential campaign is distressing. I am reassured that some very bright and thoughtful people are discussing them. In addition to the Heritage seminar cited above, the New American Foundation recently held an all day seminar on these issues that started off with an excellent presentation by Andrew J. Bacevich (starting at about 24 minutes into the video)

We can not remind ourselves often enough that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” And, we should add, courage.

What to do about Syrian refugees?

When frightened most people take or support steps to reduce risks to their security even at the expense of their liberties or other normally valued principles. Failure to do so might even be considered foolish if such steps might actually increase their safety. On the other hand, we regularly accept small risks in exchange for more interesting lives. The fact that 92 people died every day on average in the U.S. in traffic accidents in 2012 (about the same number who died from falling) has not kept most of us home, where we would have faced the risk that an average of 7 people per day died from home fires.

I am prompted to return to this subject (for an earlier blog see: by a recent Bloomberg poll in which the majority of adult American’s surveyed (53%) following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people said that “the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees.” Leaving aside that this is an almost unnoticeable share of the more than 3 million Syrians who have fled their country and the 6.5 million displaced within Syria, and leaving aside the causes of the horrors from which they are fleeing, are we justified in refusing to accept refugees if it makes us safer? But before taking that on, we should have a clear understanding of whether it is likely to make us safer.

The concern, of course is that among these poor desperate souls, terrorist might pose as refugees in order to gain entry to the U.S. (or Europe) in order to wreak havoc. Despite best efforts this possibility cannot be ruled out any more that we can rule out dying by fire if we lock ourselves in our homes. But the recent Paris attacks were carried out by French and Belgian citizens, not refugees. “Then there was the curious case of the Syrian passport found near the body of a suicide bomber. Who takes a passport to a terrorist operation? Someone who wants it to be found.” (Frida Ghitis, CNN, November 18, 2015:

Gaining entry to the U.S. as a political refugee is a time consuming and difficult process. I have written a number of letters in support of applications by Iraqis and Afghans I have worked with and that is a very small part of what is required. Ms. Ghitis’ very interesting article continues: “The Paris operation had multiple objectives. The passport was a way of provoking the West to turn against refugees. The attack sought to provoke France, NATO and Europe to fight ISIS and the public to turn against the Muslim population and against refugees. ISIS wants a war between Islam and the rest of the world, with Muslims on its side, as a way of creating and expanding its so-called ‘caliphate.’ ISIS wants the world’s Muslims to feel they are at war with the modern world. It also wants to stop the flow of Syrians to the West, because it’s more than a little embarrassing that Muslims are fleeing its utopian Islamic ‘state.’”

In short, the risks of terrorist attacks (or attacks by deranged students at schools, etc.) in the U.S. come almost totally from our own citizens, just as do virtually all other crimes, violent or otherwise, in the U.S.  We call their perpetrators criminals and have vast and expensive programs to minimize such acts and to protect us to the extent compatible with our values from the crimes that nonetheless still take place. Aspects of these programs are the promotion of respect for the rights of others and for law and order and addressing and minimizing injustices toward individuals or groups that might provide the basis for grievances and hostility. For the rest we rely on the police to maintain order and arrest those who persist in crime (violent or otherwise). Crime and its perpetuators have always been and always will be with us. Some approaches to containing them have worked better than others and we should continuously strive to find the most effective balance between our freedom and our security.

So will ending the already negligible immigration of Syrians or Muslims improve our safety? If anything at all, it will worsen it by alienating and angering some of the almost 3 million Muslim’s already living here. The cry by some Governors and Presidential candidates and others to close the door to Muslims is much more likely to turn an American Muslim into a terrorist than to prevent one from entering the country from abroad. Thus these ugly cries by understandably frightened people fail on all counts (the promotion of American values and the promotion of security).

We need champions of the “Land of the free, home of the brave.” We have been the “Home of the free because of the brave;” not the brave young men and women sent off as cannon fodder to fight wars all over the place by deranged neocons but those brave enough to stand tall for the values of human respect and freedom that have (and hopefully still will) define America.