Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Our Greatest Failures, Part 1: An Overview

     People find it difficult to admit their mistakes. The larger the mistake, the greater the reluctance to admit it. This is natural, for with the recognition of a mistake goes the responsibility for correcting it. Responsibility, despite its signal importance as the defining characteristic of adulthood, is something few persons willingly accept.

     In his masterpiece The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein wrote that in moral terms, there is no such thing as “the State.” Indeed, as important as that observation is, an even stronger statement is possible: all moral weight lies upon the individual who takes action, never on some postulated collectivity, private or public, from which he hopes to obtain “justification.” (That was the fundamental rationale of the Nuremberg Trials.) Similarly, all responsibility must rest with individuals, for in reality individuals are all we have.

     However, and tragically, the recognition of and acceptance of responsibility for mistakes has become rarer than a downpour in Death Valley. This is especially devastating in the public sphere. It becomes ever more so as that sphere expands.


     Those who remember the Iran-Contra affair will probably remember the most unfortunate words Ronald Reagan ever spoke: “Mistakes were made.” Such a passive-voice locution is always an attempt to avoid assigning responsibility for a mistake to an identifiable individual. While it remains disputed whether Reagan had any personal involvement in the dealings, his rhetorical collaboration in exculpating the perpetrators was the low point of his Administration...one that those of us who admired him wish we could forget. But this is the way of the politician: as far as possible, he takes credit for good developments and distances himself from the bad ones. To do otherwise can leave him in need of an actual job.

     When a mistake becomes a policy of national scope, no one is willing to go near it, whether to accept responsibility for it or to undertake its correction. The techniques politicians and “policy wonks” employ to evade those unpleasant tasks are several. Five of the most frequently employed are:

  1. Blame-shifting;
  2. Counterattacking the accuser;
  3. Distortion or concealment of the evidence;
  4. Post facto changes in the policy’s nominal objective;
  5. Assertion and enforcement of a taboo against raising the subject.

     There are undoubtedly others.

     The critical fact is, of course, that unless mistakes are recognized and admitted, they cannot be corrected. Moreover, the determination that a mistake not be candidly addressed implies something even worse: a shift of focus to irrelevancies, e.g., watching inputs rather than outputs. This can compound the damage from a policy mistake to an unpredictable degree.


     Perhaps additional clarity is needed here. Perhaps we should explicitly define a mistake in policy. But this, too, is a painful process, for it involves an apprehension of the proper sphere of government.

     In the American scheme, which is rooted in a conception of God-given, inalienable rights and a Supreme Law founded upon them, a government is an agent with enumerated responsibilities and delegated powers with which to address them. The shorthand term for this is constitutionalism, a quasi-contractarian approach to creating a valid government. That a true contract, binding only upon those who have explicitly assented to it, is impossible as a matter of course is a stumbling block philosophically, as Lysander Spooner has demonstrated. Nevertheless, the constitutional approach comes as close to securing Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of “the consent of the governed” as any approach to government ever tried.

     It is an undeniable fact that the federal government of the United States has violated its constitutional bounds repeatedly for more than a century. (Indeed, there are those among its elected officials who boast about it; more numerous, in fact, than those who deplore it and endeavor to correct it.) This gives us a basis for assessing the federal government’s mistakes. Though in specific they’re far more numerous than a single Liberty’s Torch essay can comprise, they can be aggregated under a small number of headings:

  • Paternalism laws;
  • “Sovereign immunity;”
  • Lax control of our borders;
  • Assumption of “welfare” duties;
  • Government involvement in education;
  • Privileging of groups, including the “disabled;”
  • Racial / ethnic / religious integration by force of law;
  • Displacement of proximate cause by “deep pockets” in tort law;
  • “World policeman” responsibilities, “democratization” efforts, and “foreign aid.”

     Though it appears nowhere in the Constitution (and indeed, some would argue, albeit fallaciously, that it is Constitutionally impermissible), I would add the failure of immigration law to preserve America’s original racial, ethnic, and religious demographics. These were culturally integral to the thinking that gave rise to our constitutional federated republic. Their dismissal has given rise to incoherencies of several kinds among the populace; one need only look at those regions where Hispanic separatism (e.g., La Raza, Aztlan) or Islam has gained a foothold to understand this.

     While it is true that the originators of these mistaken policies are almost all dead and buried, it remains the case that they are mistaken – explicit contradictions of the Constitution than have had terrible consequences – and must be corrected. Correction, however, is inhibited by that nasty unwillingness our public officials have to accept responsibility for the consequences. That reluctance is powerfully reinforced by “political correctness” and agitation by legally privileged interest groups with “rice bowls to protect.”


     This essay is labeled “Part 1,” and rightly so. I intend a rather extensive look at the most significant of our public policy mistakes, what it would take to correct them, the mechanisms that must engage them, the consequences of initiating correction, and the results for which I would hope. I have no idea how long the series will run. I can only say, here at the outset, that there’s a lot of work to be done.

     More anon.

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