Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Rand Paul interview

May 17, 2015

On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Fairfield’s Central Park.

As you will see from the transcript I’ve produced below, my questions sought to pry into Paul’s philosophy of government. I asked these for a couple of reasons, one was that I had no idea what answers he would give and I was genuinely curious what they would be, but also to gauge the depth of Paul’s philosophy, to determine whether he had carefully contemplated the issues or was spitting out bromides.

My commentary on the exchange, and my general thoughts on Paul informed by his speech that afternoon, follow the transcript.

I had a little trouble getting my recorder to start, so by the time the transcript starts I’ve been talking to Paul for a few seconds. During that time, I told him I wanted to begin by asking him questions about philosophy. That is why the introduction appears abrupt.

Hallman: What justifies government itself? Coercion seems like it’s wrong when it’s done by private individuals. It’s commonly believed that when government does it, that is an exception, that there is something special about government that justifies its coercion. What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion? To put it more pointedly, why is taxation not theft?

Paul: I think the best way to answer this is that we all inherently believe that for me to use coercion to tell you to do something as an individual is wrong. We have this idea that there is a non-aggression principle that aggression is something we shouldn’t use on another individual. Governments do use aggression and do use coercion. I don’t think we give up on the principle of saying it’s wrong, what we do is we acknowledge that it’s wrong, but we acknowledge that we want as little of it as possible. So really, it’s an argument that government that governs best, governs least because you have to give up some of your liberty to have government.

Now, if you want to be a purist and say all aggression against other individuals, governmental or individual, is wrong, then you’d believe in no government, but most of us believe we need some government, we need some stabilizing force in society, and so you give up some of your liberties.

I always tell people there are two reasons we minimize government: there’s the liberty argument and the efficiency argument. The liberty argument is, if you tax me 100 percent, then I’m zero perfect free. [If you] tax me 90 percent, then I’m 10 percent free. So the thing is, we want to minimize taxation because it is a form of coercion. So we don’t want a lot of it, we want a little bit of it if we have to have some government.

The efficiency argument is what Milton Friedman put forward, and Milton Friedman said nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as their own, so it’s an argument for not giving a lot of money to a distant government, because they’re not very wise in how they spend it, and if you have to give it to a politician, you’d want to give it to a more local politician because you have more interaction with that politician, and ultimately you’d rather keep more for yourself because you’ll make wiser decisions than government.

Hallman: Yes, certainly. I’m not against all forms of coercion. What I was trying to get at is if you think there is something special about government that gives it political authority. That is, is there something about government that allows it to coerce people in a way that private individuals cannot? Surely, we understand there are extreme cases where a private individual can coerce someone [such as] in the case of self-defense or to prevent something very terrible from happening. I guess what I’m trying to get at is …

Paul: Most societies, in their original state, decided there would be a social compact.

Hallman: Ok, so it’s a social contract argument?

Paul: It kind of is, but nobody actually signs it.

Hallman: Right.

Paul: It’s an unstated, acceptance or agreement among a community that there will be some government. It isn’t abandoning the principle that government has to use coercive force. It’s acknowledging that, and trying to minimize that.

Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?

Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.

Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.

Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.

Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?

Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.

[Questions by the radio station]

Hallman: Senator, I wanted to ask you a question about the use of drones and drone strikes. Of course, you became very famous for the drone filibuster you did a few years ago. The United States military is operating under a protocol that allows it to claim a very low number of civilian deaths because of how it counts civilians. Any male who is military age, whether they are armed, whether they’re a known member of al Qaeda, regardless of their identity, is counted as a combatant in a drone strike. Is that something the federal government needs to change … that the military needs to change that policy, to look at how it conducts drone strikes?

Paul: Yes. If you look at what we do, I think drones like any other weapon, can be useful in war, but I do think that ultimately there is an infinite amount of people who will rise up once you eliminate one level of leaders … another group lines up. Inevitably, there are accidents that happen, when a bomb lands on a wedding party, you inflame the thousand relatives of those people for the next … until memory is forgotten, which is sometimes centuries. So, we have to protect ourselves, but we also have to be aware that we have to do it in a way that does not make the situation worse.

COMMENTARY

To my opening question, it sounds like Paul thought I was asking him “Why is coercion justified?” and not the question I actually asked, which was, “What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion?”

After having a day to reflect on this question and why Paul did not answer it directly, I don’t think the question was too vague, and that Paul couldn’t tell what I was asking. Rather, I think the question is so rarely posed to legislators that Paul did not have a prepared response to it. I don’t fault him too much for this, since I’m fairly certain I would have gotten the same response from the other 99 senators.

When I clarify that I’m not asking about coercion generally, but specifically about the difference between governmental and private coercion, Paul alludes to the supposed “social compact,” while immediately acknowledging that it’s not a real compact that citizens have agreed to.

Social contract arguments do not make sense to me. The reason contracts have moral force is that the parties agree to them, so the fact that the social contract was not agreed to means it does not have the force of an ordinary contract.

My views on this subject are influenced by having just read Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority,” in which he counters arguments for political authority, including social contract arguments. One variation he considers, and perhaps the one Paul meant, is a hypothetical social contract, one that we would have agreed to had we known all the facts, or something like that.

Imagine someone who is knocked unconscious and needs a life-saving operation, but we cannot obtain the person’s consent before operating. We can surmise the person would have agreed to the operation had they been able to, so we are justified in operating on the person. Is this analogous to a hypothetical social contract? No. In our example, the reason we are justified in operating is that the patient cannot consent. If the patient remains conscious and informs us they do not want an operation, we are not justified in forcing them to have one. This is analogous to how we find ourselves in the face of government coercion. We are in a position to consent to coercion, just like the conscious patient is able to consent to the surgery, so therefore government must obtain our consent before governing us. It cannot rely on hypothetical agreement when actual agreement is achievable.

IMMIGRATION

One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:

Friedman: Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?

To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.

Immigration restrictions appear to cause misery on a level the welfare state does not and could not based on any reasonable expectation of how Congress would respond to a large influx of immigrants. (If 600 million people immigrated to the country, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes, because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.

The average Haitian experiences more than a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States, so my contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.

I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.

DRONES

I was a little disappointed in Paul’s answer to my question about drones, although I admit it was not well formulated. Perhaps what I meant to ask was more along the lines of “Is it moral to kill military age men whose identities we don’t know?” but it came out jumbled.

Paul’s answer focused entirely on the blowback from drones and not on the potential wrongness of using drones to kill, which is what I was clumsily asking about. For instance, perhaps there is nothing wrong with hitting a beehive since bees have little to no moral worth, but it is still imprudent because the bees might sting you. But when we’re talking about firing a missile at a house or a car full of people, we’re not talking about bees, we’re talking about humans, and while bees might not have moral worth, humans do.

Paul did not give any indication as to whether he thought all military age males in a “strike zone” should be regarded as militants or not.

SPEECH

Paul gave a fantastic speech that afternoon that could have been lifted from the Libertarian Party’s platform. He touched on many civil liberties issues such as his opposition to the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and his opposition to civil asset forfeiture. I felt I was witnessing a sea change in the Republican Party as the crowd applauded Paul’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Libya. Although, here again, I was dismayed that Paul chose to focus on the ways in which the wars helped America’s enemies rather than on the deaths they caused.

He denounced detaining American citizens indefinitely without a trial, without clarifying whether it was also wrong to detain a non-citizen indefinitely. He mentioned the case of Richard Jewell, who some members of the media believed was responsible for the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, but who in fact helped to evacuate the building upon discovering the bomb. Paul used the case to caution against jumping to conclusions about the guilt of potential terrorists.

“What would have happened if Richard Jewell had been a black man in the 1920s?” Paul asked the crowd.

SUMMARY

By the end of the day, one thing about Paul was clear: He is the most libertarian presidential candidate who has a chance of winning. He is among the few candidates I’ve interviewed who is explicit in recognizing the wrongness of coercion and the presumption of liberty that advocates for government must overcome.

To that point, it is possible and even likely that other candidates will be more libertarian than Paul on select issues, but on the whole I believe Paul will be the most pro-liberty candidate in the field.

BOOK PITCH

As Paul was walking out the door, I showed him Michael Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority” and told him to read it. I explained that it had convinced me of the correctness of anarcho-capitalism, and I told Paul that I believed an anarcho-capitalist society was attainable. I mentioned that I knew Paul’s father Ron was familiar with Murray Rothbard, another anarcho-capitalist (Rand said he knew Rothbard, too).

Before entering his car, Paul told me that our current society was far removed from anarcho-capitalism, and that we would never get there without people like him moving society in that direction.

If Rand Paul becomes president, and the government comes crashing down, now you know whom to thank. ☺

Andy with Rand Paul_net

A renaissance for Uncle Joe?

July 9, 2012

The United States has never done anything so ghastly as the “Great Purge” in the Soviet Union, in which hundreds of thousands of politically undesirable people were killed in the 1930s. However, you begin to understand why Stalin tired of trials and went straight to executions when you hear a former Congressman favor targeted killings because they avoid courtroom costs.

Another voice for Iraq payback

October 21, 2011

First Dana Rohrabacher, and now you too, Michele? I do not understand the logic of making Iraq reimburse the United States. Why is the United States not responsible for the destruction during and subsequent to the invasion? Why is the US not paying reparations?

Nazi comparisons

March 6, 2011

If there is one thing we have too much of in this world, it’s Nazi posters. Go to any rally in the past few years, whether it be a tea party rally or the recent union protests in Wisconsin, and you are bound to see a reference to Hitler.

It would be bad enough if such rhetoric were limited to a couple of nutjobs, but unfortunately it can be heard on the floor of the House of Representatives. A number of Republicans have characterized the 2010 Affordable Care Act as a “government take-over” of health care. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said the Republicans’ lies were reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels’s lies, which were repeated so often that eventually the Germans believed them. He went on to say that Goebbels lied about the Jews, which led to the Holocaust. Whether he was insinuating that the Republicans’ lies would lead to genocide here is anyone’s guess.

Jon Stewart raked Cohen over the coals in a humorous segment on his show, which can be seen here. (For Stewart fans, here is his segment on Bill O’Reilly’s incessant and absurd Nazi comparisons)

As Stewart explains, sharing one attribute with the Nazis does not make you a Nazi. “Lying isn’t even what made the Nazis Nazis,” he says.

We would do well to drop all Nazi references, because no one in American politics (or any other country’s politics) is even close to being as bad as the Nazis. That said, it is a perfectly legitimate tactic to force your opponent to explain how his ideas differ from the Nazis. Allow me to elaborate:

The Nazis did lots of things that have no moral significance, such as wearing brown shirts, goose-stepping, saluting, etc. This is not what made them bad. A person can do all of these things without committing any wrongdoing. What did make the Nazis bad, then? What did they do that was immoral? Well, this seems pretty obvious. Killing innocent people is wrong, and they killed a lot of innocent people. Invading another country is wrong, and they did a lot of that, too.

This seems obvious, until you remember that many governments have killed innocent people, and many governments throughout history have waged aggressive wars. This does not mean that those governments are on a moral plane with the Nazis. However, if someone supports the mass murder of civilians in one case, say the bombing of Tokyo, then he must show how his case is different from the Holocaust, or admit that the Holocaust was acceptable, too.

Likewise, someone who supports an aggressive war must explain how his war differs from the German invasion of Poland, or admit that the German invasion of Poland was just (or at least that it was not unjust).

I think it is crazy to compare Bush to Hitler, in the sense of equating the two men. However, if we can agree that both men waged aggressive wars, and what made Hitler bad was that he waged an aggressive war, then we must conclude that Bush is bad, since he performed the act that made Hitler bad. Therefore, it would be perfectly fine to ask Bush how he differs from Hitler, not to imply that he is Hitler, but simply to hear his explanation of 1) why Hitler’s war was bad, and 2) how his war differs from Hitler’s in a morally significant way. We can do the same with Obama and his occupation of Afghanistan.

Intentions don’t matter II: war & terrorism edition

February 1, 2011

What is the moral difference between killing someone intentionally and killing him accidentally? This question comes up when we talk about war and terrorism, and the difference between the two. In the public consciousness, there seems to be something morally distinct about accidentally bombing a school that’s near a military target and planting a bomb in that school with the aim of blowing it up.

We have a couple questions to answer. First of all: Are these two acts morally distinct? And second of all: How are they different?

I think that intentionally murdering someone is usually worse than accidentally killing someone. My reason for thinking this may be different from the reason other people would give, which in turn explains why I also have a different view of collateral damage than most people.

One possible reason we might have for judging the acts differently is that in one case the perpetrator wants the victim to die whereas in the other case he does not. In the case of the US, I think it’s fair to say that in many of its wars since WWII, its collateral damage has been unwanted, meaning that it would have preferred that the victims not die (it is harder to make this statement about its bombing campaigns in Japan and Germany). Al Qaeda, on the other hand, bombs buildings with the expressed purpose of killing the people inside.

Many people seem to think this is a key reason the US and al Qaeda are not on a moral plane, even if the US actually kills more people in its counter-terrorism operations.

I think it’s a mistake to focus on what a person wants to happen. Why? Because wanting something doesn’t mean very much. Actually, I think it’s meaningless. If we encounter a drowning child in a shallow pond, we might hope and pray the child swims to safety. But wanting it won’t make it happen. The fact is that the child will drown if we don’t save him, but that would entail getting wet. Someone who turns away a drowning child just to stay dry is guilty of a deeply immoral act, regardless of that person’s desires. I don’t think that is a controversial statement.

Another reason “wants” don’t count for much is that even most murderers think of their killings as regrettable necessities. If they got to design their own perfect world, they probably wouldn’t be a murderer. White settlers in North America just wanted to make a living. They didn’t want to dispossess and make war against the American Indians. I’m sure that if the whites had their druthers, the natives would live like royalty (just as long as they lived somewhere else). Al Qaeda wants the US to leave the Middle East. If the group could accomplish that without terrorism, if they had a magic wand that could whisk American troops back home, they’d use it. But they don’t, so they look for other options.

“All right, smarty pants,” you say, “if desires don’t count for anything, then what does?” If you think about the examples I’ve used, you may be able to see it already. In the drowning child example, we think that a child is clearly more valuable than an article of clothing. The right thing to do is to sacrifice the clothing for the child. In the second example, you can’t kill someone just to make a better life for yourself. Their right to life is more important than a few more acres of farmground.

Have you figured it out? We don’t care about what a person wants, we care about what they’re willing to trade. We recognize certain moral facts that pertain to value judgments, such as the value of a life, of a piece of land, and of a piece of clothing. We may not have exact values like you’d see in a grocery store, but we’re able to put them in some kind of order. We all recognize that a life is worth more than a pair of pants. We don’t condemn someone for wanting to protect their clean underwear. We condemn them for wanting to preserve it more than someone else’s life.

I think this explains pretty well why we condemn murder most of the time but make exceptions in instances such as self-defense. Killing someone to take their money is wrong because the victim’s life is clearly more valuable than the money is to you. But killing someone in self-defense means that you value your own life more than the life of the attacker, and that doesn’t seem wrong at all.

It also explains why we condemn even an accidental killing if the death were foreseeable and caused by your recklessness, but not as much if the death were unforeseeable. If I’m on the highway, re-enacting a scene from Speed Racer, and I run a stop sign and kill someone, people will rightly say that I’ve done something immoral, even though I didn’t intend to kill anyone. I valued the pleasure of my joy-ride more than the high probability of killing someone, and that is wrong. I have my values in the wrong order. But if I’m driving sensibly and kill someone else who’s run a stop sign, we think of that as a genuine accident. In that instance, the mere fact I caused an unfortunate death does not indicate I have distorted values, so we may not condemn me at all.

How do we apply this insight to war and terrorism? Let’s think about 9/11. The purpose of the attack was to force the US to withdraw from the Middle East. How important is that? I think many Arabs feel their religion, culture and way of life are under siege, that they’re being pushed around by a big bully. If the US left, they wouldn’t feel this way, which would be good. But how good? So good that it’s worth killing 3,000 people? Should you trade 3,000 lives for a small chance that the US will withdraw? Even if the chance of success were 100 percent, the idea is preposterous. (Not raising any eyebrows here)

What about US collateral damage in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, etc.? Again, remember that the fact the US doesn’t want the deaths doesn’t mean anything. We know air strikes produce collateral damage, whether the US wants it to or not. War produces large-scale death and destruction, whether the US wants it to or not. The question is, what is the US doing that is so important that it could justify one hundred thousand civilian deaths? I already acknowledged that murder in self-defense, when your life is in imminent danger, is just. Is the US on the brink of annihilation? No, in fact if you read Robert Pape’s excellent book “Dying to Win,” you’ll learn that the insurgents who fight the US want to control their own countries, not the US. They are not about to wage a genocidal war against Americans. The fact of the matter is that the US is willing to trade 100,000 deaths for a little political leverage in a foreign country. It is that valuation, that trade-off, that should serve as the basis for our moral judgment of its actions. And on that basis it is clear that the US is deeply wrong.

Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)

January 6, 2011

[Editor’s Note: After discussing this post in public and in private with my friends, I’m willing concede that I’m wrong. I agree with my critics that the facts probably do not support terrorism in the cases I’ve cited.]

Michael Neumann is one of my favorite ethical philosophers. However, I suspect that a great many people will read his essays and think he is despicable, perverse, depraved. Why? Because Neumann justifies acts that most people think are beyond the pale, namely the deliberate murder of children.

In this essay, entitled Israelis and Indians, Neumann compares the struggle of modern-day Palestinians to that of the American Indians in the 19th century. He argues that the American Indians faced annihilation at the hands of the white settlers. Clearly unable to defeat the whites in conventional warfare, the Indians resorted to hitting “soft targets” such as the whites’ children.

Instead of joining the rest of the “civilized world” in condemning child-murder, Neumann defends it. He defends it not on some obscure moral theory but rather on one that is universally accepted: the right of self preservation.

Let’s read how Neumann tells it:

Michael Neumann: The Indians sometimes murdered innocent civilians, including children. These acts were right, wrong, or morally indifferent. Which were they?

I can’t see that they were morally indifferent, can you? Were they wrong? If so, they must have been awfully wrong, because they involved murdering children. Is that what we want to say?

I suggest not. I suggest the acts were terrible, cruel, and ultimately justified. My reasons are familiar to everyone. The Indians’ very existence as a people was threatened. More than threatened; their society was doomed without resistance. They had no alternative. Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.

The Indians had no chance of defeating the whites by conventional military means. So their only resort was to hit soft targets and do the maximum damage. That wasn’t just the right thing to do from their point of view. It was the right thing to do, period, because the whites had no business whatever coming thousands of miles to destroy the Indian people.

Neumann makes the connection to the Palestinians’ struggle:

Michael Neumann: Of course the two situations aren’t quite analogous. Things are clearer in the case of Israel, where virtually every able-bodied adult civilian is at least an army reservist, and every Jewish child will grow up to be one. And the American settlers never spent years proclaiming how happy they would be with the land they had before embarking on a campaign to take the rest of it. One might add that the current situation of the Palestinians is more like that of the Indians in 1880-1890 than earlier, because the Palestinians have lost much more than half of their original land.

The Palestinians don’t set out to massacre children, that is, they don’t target daycare centers. (Nor do they scalp children, but according to the BBC, that’s what Israel’s clients did in Sabra and Shatila.) They merely hit soft targets, and this sometimes involves the death of children. But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society. If peoples have any right of self-preservation, this is justified. Just as Americans love to do, the Palestinians are “sending a message”: you really don’t want to keep screwing with us. We will do anything to stop you. And if the only effective way of stopping their mortal enemies involved targeting daycare centers, that would be justified too. No people would do anything less to see they did not vanish from the face of the earth.

In the same essay, Neumann makes a great point about how both the white settlers and the Israeli settlers are “peace-loving” people.

Michael Neumann: Both groups of settlers somehow contrived, despite these goals, to believe that they wanted nothing but to live in peace with their ‘neighbors’- neighbors, of course, because they had already taken some of their land. And sure, they did want peace, just as Hitler wanted peace: on his terms.

Retracting praise for Alan Dershowitz

December 21, 2010

Earlier this year, I posted a video of a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein. The debate was about Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel.

After watching the debate, I concluded that Finkelstein made mostly ad hominem attacks against Dershowitz, who made much more of an effort to stay on point.

Now, after investigating the matter further, I have come to the opposite conclusion: that Dershowitz has not a single persuasive reply to any of the charges leveled against him and his scholarship in Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah. Further, as revealed in his in-depth analysis of the feud, Frank Menetrez demonstrates that Dershowitz consistently misquotes Finkelstein. In my view, Dershowitz misrepresents Finkelstein so badly that it is hard to say he is arguing in good faith.

Mr. Dershowitz, you can consider my earlier compliment withdrawn.

Michael Neumann on self-determination

December 11, 2010

Lately on this blog I’ve written about secession and the creation of new states from existing ones. My opinion is that states do not have a “right” to put down such rebellions, and that in many cases the national government should let the group secede. At the same time, I’m queasy about the idea of “national self-determination” – the idea that groups have a right to their own state.

The other day I came across an interview of Michael Neumann, who is most famous for his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and author of the book The Case Against Israel. In the interview, Neumann talks about self-determination, and his views on the subject so closely mirror my own that I can do no better than to quote him directly:

Michael Neumann: As for why I’m critical of “the principle of national self-determination”, that’s because ‘nation’ or ‘people’ is constantly used to mean ‘ethnic group’. So interpreted, the ‘principle of national self-determination’ is one of the most destructive ideals ever advanced.

We might suppose there is an ethnically homogeneous population on some planet, and members of that population want the same thing. Their interests never clash with the interests of other populations on the planet – maybe there isn’t any other population on the planet. Should they be able to determine ‘their destiny’? Sure, why not – as long as they do this for good, not evil.

On this planet of ours, whenever the clamor for ethnic self-determination arises, it’s shamefully, blatantly bogus. The ethnic groups in question are almost never well-defined and never monolithic: not every member of the group has the same interests. What really happens is that you have some fake ‘community leaders’ spouting all sorts of self-induced lies about how important their ‘identity’ is to them. These posers claim their vitally important identity needs someone to ‘preserve’ it. Oddly enough for such spiritually attuned people, preserving it usually requires something quite material, like a bunch of land, or a wad of government cash.

Worst of all, it always turns out that, wherever this ‘people’ allegedly needs to determine itself, there are other folks living there as well. What about them? Their ‘destiny’ may not mesh with the ‘destiny’ of the self-determining ‘people’. We know all too well how this usually plays out. How did we ever get to believe that ethnic rule is acceptable? Self-determination wouldn’t even make a strong case for Palestinian statehood. Are the Palestinians a ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense? Well, what happened to them being Arabs, and to Arab nationalism? What happened to the whole region, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, once being called just ‘Syria’? Nothing could be more of a reality than the Palestinians who inhabit Palestine. But when we abstract them into a ‘nation’, their case for statehood becomes weaker, not stronger – perhaps not as bogus as the Zionist case, but hardly compelling.

On states’ rights and wars of independence

December 2, 2010

I take the standard libertarian view that coercing another person is (almost) always wrong. Many people extend that view of the wrongness of interpersonal violence to world affairs, where they think it wrong for one state to conquer another.

Perhaps where I differ from most people is that I think state on non-state violence is just as wrong as any other kind of violence. I do not believe states have “rights” to the territory that they control. Think about it. Why is it wrong to acquire power through force (i.e. invasion), but not to maintain it through force?

Take Russia’s actions in Chechnya. In an effort to put down a separatist rebellion, Russia shelled market places, shot up buses full of civilian refugees and basically destroyed the city of Grozny.

Does Russia have a right to do this? No!
Does it have any right to rule Chechnya at all? No!
Am I saying governments should let anyone leave who wants to? Maybe!

If the Chechens were to carve out their own state from Russia, I would still say that they don’t have a right to rule it. But neither did the Russians before them. And it may even turn out the Chechens are worse off in some respects after independence.

But ask yourself this key question: under what circumstances is Chechen independence so terrible that the Russians are justified in using large-scale state terrorism to prevent it?

This is my view of wars of independence in general.