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August 26, 2011

This Is Why The Argument Over Michelle Obama Confuses Me (And Why I Am Often Confused In Arguments)

I will address this in longer way, regarding Rick Perry's proposed Trans Texas Corridor.

I have recently learned -- according to some -- that apparently it is contrary to the idea of a limited state to build roads. Michelle Malkin recently linked an article stating that Perry did not adequately respect "property rights" because this proposed road-building endeavor, like all road-building endeavors since the foundation of the Republic, involved the use of eminent domain to condemn and seize property from citizens.

I am baffled about this. Eminent domain is clearly listed to be a power of the federal government in the fifth amendment (with the protective, property defending caveat that the owner must be given "just compensation" in exchange for the taking). States of course always had that power. (And, I just learned, prior to the 5th Amendment, compensation wasn't even offered, usually.)

But there seem to be some people now questioning whether powers of the state expressly listed in the Constitution are "unconstitutional."

I keep wondering, as far as some of these New Parts of the Constitution I didn't even realize existed, "Where the hell are you getting this from?"

I had thought that historically a radical libertarian would say the state's functions are limited to:

1, defending the borders from foreign invaders,

2, providing police to keep the peace and protect the citizenry, and

3, building and maintaining roads and ports,

but I now seem to see chatter that 3 turns out to be sort of unconstitutional. And people don't really say why; they just sort of assert it. It was unconstitutional for Rick Perry to suggest building an extensive highway system in ever-growing Texas.

Really?

Where are you getting this from? When did we decide that of the 3 undeniable functions of the state -- admitted even by the hardest of hard core libertarians -- we were, without voting on it or even much discussing, subtracting 1 to leave only 2 functions of the state?

Anyway, this is connected to Michelle Obama. Let me explain.

There is tendency among conservatives -- particularly now -- to cast virtually every single discussion of policy in terms of whether or not the state even has this power in the first place.

In many cases, I think this is a sanguinary development. Conservatives keep saying, "Why are we assuming, as an initial matter, the government needs to act at all, and instead proceeding directly to questions of in what manner shall it act?"

I actually agree with that. I think that is long overdue. We need to have that discussion. Every new law should begin at Step 0. Not Step 1. Step 0 -- an inquiry into a, does the government have this power? and b, even conceding it does have this power, is it urgent that it should exercise this power?

However, we seem to have ventured into an Undiscovered Country in which things I know for a fact are constitutional and have always been done by the state (or states) -- since the days when we were colonists; since the Articles of Confederation; since the Constitution; since the Golden Age of libertarian thought in the 1920s -- are now simply being claimed to be unconstitutional, without even an argument as to how this surprising conclusion came to be held.

I think arguments are getting very sloppy here. I think disputes that are accurately about proper policy keep morphing into arguments about general philosophical/theoretical arguments about the power of the state, and furthermore, we seem to be frequently steering into wildly ahistorical territory in asserting, without evidence, The state never had x power.

In the situation of Michelle Obama's eat-right nonsense, there are two strains of argument being made, and I become confused between them.

The first, advanced by, for example, Jewell, is that this is jackass policy which is counterproductive as kids will not eat badly-prepared, boiled and mushy carrots, so even if you think you're making them "eat healthy," guess what, you lose, the kids are actually just eating Combos instead.

That's a policy criticism. I get that.

The second argument, which always pops up, almost immediately, is some kind of argument that Michelle Obama, or the state itself, simply does not have any power to advance any policy whatsoever in this sphere. This argument has the advantage, as a tactical matter, of ignoring the pesky details of actual policy and simply declaring at the outset no policy choice is "right" for there is no power to effect any policy at all.

However, as tactically useful as that argument may be, it has the disadvantage of being... wrong.

Whether you agree, or disagree, with the current policy chosen by your school administrators -- and you probably disagree, and are right to disagree -- it is simply not true, and will not become true by simply claiming it enough times, that school policy was never before in our nation's history set by school boards and state lawmakers.

I keep finding that arguments that should be about policy questions keep morphing into these ahistorical claims -- often not explicitly stated, but you can read between the lines -- that the state doesn't have the power to make decisions in the schools it runs.

This is sloppy. If you're going to make that claim, make it explicitly, and be prepared to show your work as far as historical citation.


Instead the claim just keeps being made in a sort of stealthy way, with recourse to general expressions of annoyance like "Stay out of my life," or whatever, but the animating principle behind such sentiments is that the state has exceeded its power.

In some cases this is undeniably true, and it should be proclaimed, vigorously.

In some cases this is undeniably false, and it simply isn't true the state has exceeded its historical powers -- it is simply the case that it exercising those powers in a stupid, deleterious, arrogant manner.

To keep confusing one argument for the other results in confusion on the part of a respondent, as he doesn't know which of these two arguments is actually in play at any moment.


Why does this argument always make an appearance in every situation?

1, it's a sexier argument. Rather than talking about mundane details of workaday policy, we're talking about the State and its proper relation to the Citizen and the impact on Freedom so ensuing. An important argument, but like anything sexy... well, there's always time for The Sexy. Sexiness draws interest.

2, it permits everyone to discuss the issue in some way, even people who may not know any details about the issue at all, because they can always step back, take the view from 10,000 feet, take an argument about specific details and turn it into one of General Principles, and start offering an opinion within five minutes.

I get that. I do that too. When I don't have anything specific to say, I say something general. I'm not being condescending when I observe this is standard operating procedure for virtually all humans in some kind of discussion or debate.

However, it is often the case that the resort to General Principles is misplaced, as it simply is not true that General Principles supply an answer, regardless of details.

It is said we need to reevaluate, discuss, and consider the powers we grant the state. I agree. However, note that "evaluate," "discuss" and "consider" are parts of that sentence.

It's getting a little bizarre that every discussion quickly becomes an assertion (by some) that the state doesn't have this power, doesn't have that one, never had that one.

In some cases, that's right.

In the case of Michelle Obama, it is not correct to say First Ladies have traditionally kept out of citizens' business. This is false. First Lady Laura Bush's campaign was for literacy and reading more (especially directed at kids, of course), so it simply false to claim that Michelle Obama is acting outside the portfolio of duties for first ladies.

You may say that she is acting poorly, and making dumb errors, and the rest, but it is simply false to claim she's doing something novel and somehow destructive of liberty.

No one nagging at you is eroding your liberty. You might not like the nagging, but people have the right to nag. If you don't like nagging, tune it out. You don't have the right to freedom from nagging.

The rest of it with Michelle Obama is dumb laws and dumb policies implemented by the schools, and those should be criticized, but the stealth underlying assumption in many cases is that "school boards have no right" and guess what? They do. They always did. If you want them to act better, you take them over.

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but it is beginning to drive me batty. It seems every single day I am learning that something else is "unconstitutional," very often without any explanation about this conclusion at all.

And the reason I'm pushing back on this is not because I'm a RINO, but if we are to have a discussion about the proper role of the state and the constitution's framework for its powers, we actually have to have an actual discussion, where assertions are challenged and questioned then, only if they pass muster, adopted as general caucus policy.

Perry's Trans Texas Corridor may have been dumb for reasons of policy (I have no idea) but it is simply wrong to keep this drumbeat up that The state is not permitted to build roads and condemn property for these purposes.

On some of these things I am becoming exasperated. People who claim to revere the Constitution really need to respect it enough to look things up before making claims about what it says.



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posted by Ace at 03:42 PM

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