“The weight of the words,” and some talks

I have a new essay up at Niskanen: “The weight of the words.

A few talks and workshops on the west coast:

Today, Stanford, Political Theory Workshop: “Justice in Babylon”
Monday 2/12, UCSD, “Irregular Liberty”
Tuesday University of San Diego (through the good graces of BHL team captain Matt Zwolinski), “Justice in Babylon”
Wednesday 2/28, Mont Hamilton/ Bastiat Society of San Jose, 11:30 am, TBA (the announcement has borrowed the same title as my evening lecture but as I understand it that’s not the actual plan).
Wednesday 2/28 5:15 pm, San Jose State University, Black Liberty Matters

Published on:
Author: Jacob T. Levy
  • Sean II

    For anyone who doesn’t make the jump, this piece is just what you’d expect. If an honest men wrote it, it’d sound like this:

    “It’s been a year since Trump took office, and all the prophecies of doom have been falsified. The worst things that were predicted to happen, haven’t. In fact not much has happened at all. We got the same stupid tax cut any Republican administration would have given us, and we are close to getting an equally standard “amnesty now for enforcement later” immigration bill.

    Weak-willed people would, in a moment like this, update on the evidence and admit they were wrong. But that’s a mistake. Instead let’s simply move our goalposts so that the past twelve months can be redefined into the catastrophe we originally promised. All we have to do is agree that bad language is just as bad as actual tyranny. That granted, who can deny we are living through the darkest of times?”

    Ultimate Lowlight – The part where someone writing for the William A. Niskanen Center worries that Trump’s coarse language has been inducing top federal bureaucrats to quit their jobs.

    Because if there’s one thing a public choice libertarian cannot tolerate, it’s the slightly premature retirement of senior civil servants.

    • Brooklyn Boricua

      You’re just mad because you originally read it as “The Weight of the 14 Words,” and the link let you down.

      Oh! Oh! I’ll be playing the BHL Lounge all week, ladies and gentleman. Be sure to tip your waitress; she relies on your voluntary altruism.

      • Sean II

        Eh, not bad. Slightly undercooked but you get points for speed. You had that joke out before I finished editing my typos.

    • King Goat

      “All we have to do is agree that bad language is just as bad as actual tyranny.”

      That’s of course not his argument which is essentially Presidents, as national spokespersons (with what used to be called the ‘bully pulpit’), can through their words alone influence people and effect the culture which later effects policy, and Trump’s words being terrible we can expect terrible influences and effects and the later effects.

      It’s always interesting when people dismiss words as ‘just words.’ Because it’s not like language and symbolic thought isn’t, y’know, central to the uniqueness of human beings….

      • Sean II

        Nice try, but it’s bullshit.

        People predicted bad things. One year later, we’re talking about bad words.

        The minimum condition for honesty here is: people on the alarmist side of those predictions should admit they were wrong.

        Plenty to talk about after that, but the admission should come first.

        Nothing too difficult is being asked here, just a nice clean disclaimer you have to put in before any further pontification on this subject.

        “Hi, I’m about to write an anti-Trump piece. One thing you should know up front is that in November of 2016 I formed an idea of the disasters his election would bring on the republic. Thus far none of them has happened. So feel free to take with salt whatever I say next. People are well within their rights to notice that I am raising the same alarm for a second time, and with dramatically shifted standards of concern. Last year we were worried about tanks-in-the-street, now we’re worried about a crank-who-tweets. I have my work cut out for me, if I am to convince you one should produce similarly strong emotions to the other.”

        • King Goat

          Did Levy predict bad things would happen one year after his election?

          • Sean II

            Oh, Levy writes like an eel who gets paid per word, so I’m sure he left himself plenty of outs.

            But that’s a bug, not a feature. Those who live by the weasel word die by the fork: their writing either means nothing, or means what it seems to mean.

            I guess, if one were hell bent on begrudging the obvious, we could try to pretend Jake wasn’t part of the crowd that pulled the “break in case of 1933” alarm last year.

            But you wouldn’t be doing him any favors that way. The other option is even worse.

            Be like defending a doctor against malpractice on the grounds that he faked his medical license.

      • Peter from Oz

        Obama talked rot for 8 years and did so in a smarmy fashion. But the left lauded him because he was ”different” to other politicians. All that hopey-changey stuff was supposedly so wonderful and was going to lead to a new nirvana where everyone would be singing Cumbaya and plaiting rainbows together.
        The reality of course was that airy fairy bourgoise bohemianism of Obama, led the way to total corruption and evil.
        It seems that our friends on the left are all for unconventional politicians as long as they are really just the same old pseudo-trendy sods the left always throws up.
        But if the right throws up a genuine larrikin, then the left will all clutch their pearls and pine for the conventions of old.
        BTW, I don’t know if there is an American equivalent to the Australian term ”larrikin”. It is a rather apposite term for Trump.

    • Rob Gressis

      I don’t remember Levy’s predictions of disasters, but let’s say you’re right. I take it you’re NOT saying, “he should have said, ‘I was wrong, but I’m still worried about this.'” Rather, you’re saying, “the fact that he keeps his dander up, no matter the facts on the ground, shows that he’ll believe whatever it takes to remain in a constant state of alarm.” Do I have you right?

      Assuming I have you right: even if this shows Levy is operating from bad faith, the point he makes in this article is still worth considering. Personally, I think what is happening to the discourse is the worst thing that is happening under Trump’s presidency. I’m not sure how much of it is Trump’s fault, and how much of it is the fault of newspapers going to a subscriber-based model rather than an advertiser-based model, or how much of it is due to shrill leftists, but it does seem to me that politics has become more nakedly partisan, in such a way that I worry that things will get violent. In other words: the veneer is off. Sure, it was always a veneer, but perhaps that veneer had salutary consequences.

      I do wonder whether Trump is helping or hurting. I suspect he’s hurting, a lot, but I can see this case for the idea that he’s helping: unlike most conservatives, Trump thinks he has the moral high ground, and talks like he does. This animates his base to push back against their leftist counterparts, which acts as a for-the-first-time effective check on their rhetoric, and is actually doing something to dial them back.

      That said, it seems to me that that case isn’t the case. People see Trump as manifestation of their worst fears, proof that they’ve been right all along, and it’s causing them to dial things up.

      • Sean II

        1) First let me lay out my logic:

        a. Levy always insinuates more than he states directly. It’s his style.

        b. Last year he wrote a piece that said “the guides for this moment are Orwell, Arendt, and Havel”. I’m sure it had a million slippery pseudo-disclaimers, because that’s Levy. But in context, anyone could see it was his contribution to the post-Trump shake fest.

        c. Orwell, Arendt, and Havel are writers associated specifically with totalitarianism. So that’s the level of fret he was trying to raise.

        d. In my book, the fact that someone invokes Godwin’s Law in a chicken-shit, passive aggressive manner is worse than if he just said the H word straight out.

        e. Now that same guy is back talking about how, when you get right down to it, rudeness and crudeness are really just as much a menace…

        2) “Rather, you’re saying, “the fact that he keeps his dander up, no matter the facts on the ground, shows that he’ll believe whatever it takes to remain in a constant state of alarm.” Do I have you right?”

        Yes. I think it’s textbook intellectual malpractice to keep pushing the same conclusion, with the same energy, after the collapse of your original premise, especially without acknowledging the revision.

        Look, no one likes being wrong. No one likes going to the dentist. But you gotta do it sometimes.

        And Levy was massively fucking wrong here. The age of Trump does not recall Orwell, Arendt, and Havel. It bears a closer resemblance to Yes, Minister and Veep.

        That’s a big miss, when you can’t spot the difference between a dawning dystopia and the first act of a minor farce. So he should pay the fool’s price, and shut up for awhile.

        3) “…Levy is operating from bad faith, the point he makes in this article is still worth considering”

        a. Why? Why would I take seriously an argument no one would ever have made, except to ret-con a previously failed argument? Hack TV writers are fond of summoning amnesia to plot themselves out of tight corners. But that doesn’t mean I have to take it seriously as a leading cause of missing spouses.

        b. Maybe, maybe if Levy was saying anything fresh and interesting, you’d have a point. But he isn’t. “The tone, the tone!” is a favorite refuge of falsified scoundrels. “I don’t disagree with what you said, Rob, but the way you said it…” is the very thing people fall back on when they wish to go on quarreling after their evidence has run out.

        4) “Personally, I think what is happening to the discourse is the worst thing that is happening under Trump’s presidency. I’m not sure how much of it is Trump’s fault, and how much of it is the fault of newspapers going to a subscriber-based model rather than an advertiser-based model, or how much of it is due to shrill leftists, but it does seem to me that politics has become more nakedly partisan, in such a way that I worry that things will get violent. In other words: the veneer is off…”

        Okay, but two things:

        a. That’s not Levy’s argument at all. He shows zero concern for the rhetorical excesses (and actual violence) of BLM. In fact he goes out of his way to praise it. So he’s ineligible for your save.
        b. As I think you and I have discussed before, the tenor of our politics has evidently been changing since around 2012. Certainly by the time we get to 2014 the shift is noticeable. By 2015, looking at college campuses in particular, it’s undeniable.
        c. So parsimony suggests, Trump is a product of and opportunist upon this trend toward nastiness, but he could not have been its creator. He wasn’t on scene yet.

        Now, that trend is well worth studying. But Levy is no Haidt. He walked right past a chance to write something much more interesting,

        5) “I do wonder whether Trump is helping or hurting. I suspect he’s hurting.”

        Well, of course he’s hurting. This isn’t the sort of thing that happens in a healthy society. It’s symptomatic of a shift from high to low social trust.

        But ask me a better question: at what point did the anti-Trump movement become more fanatical and dangerous than Trump himself.

        Answer: November 9th, 2016.

        This guy was always going to be a temporary spasm. He’s not Hitler. He’s not Mussolini. If he resembles anyone at all, it’s General Kornilov – a buffoon who in his clumsy effort to aid a cause, will end up by thoroughly sabotaging it and creating a golden opportunity for its opponents.

        And here again, I fault Levy as much for the good stories he misses, as for the bad excuses he sells.

        6) “People see Trump as manifestation of their worst fears, proof that they’ve been right all along, and it’s causing them to dial things up.”

        Sure, that’s true. But as per above, let me edit to “it causes them to continue dialing things up”. Only because I think it’s very important to recognize the dialing process started before last year.

        • King Goat

          “Orwell, Arendt, and Havel are writers associated specifically with totalitarianism. So that’s the level of fret he was trying to raise.”

          And everyone familiar with their work knows they didn’t think of totalitarianism as the end result of a process or something

          • Sean II

            Process = “I wasn’t wrong, I just need more time to be right”

            Except that won’t work here. The mid-terms loom. If Trump was gonna re-militarize the Rhineland, he would have had to start last year.

        • Peter from Oz

          But the left’s only gambit is to turn the outrage meter up to a constant 11. They do this to try and move the overton window to their side and ensure that no sensible right winger can get elected without bowing to the shiboleths of diversity and man-made climate change.
          The problem is that far too many right-wing politicians are prepared to let them get away with it.
          ”The Thick of It” (the original of Veep) is also great at showing politics as it is. It gave us the great expression ”Omnishambles” which describes so well the real state of most political plans.

          • Sean II

            It’s crazy, but I actually feel a little guilty here.

            Niskanen is a left outreach program, chasing a moving target: the outrage competition you refer to is hard to keep up with.

            Obviously, anyone involved in such a pursuit will end up saying silly things. Either that, or abandon the project.

            But it spoils my sense of fair chase.

            Because a man who makes it his mission to reach these hysterics has no choice but to strand himself into impossible positions.

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            I have some sympathy for Niskanen’s ostensible goal. They’re just not very good at it.

            This is how I see it: Far from having its “moment” and transcending the American left-right spectrum (a constant presence in one form or another throughout our history), libertarianism is more ideologically ghettoized within it than ever. The label is utter poison to the left two-thirds of mainstream politics. The fact that “fiscal conservatism” is the sole surviving ideological language of the Right (with Trump filling in the gaps in coverage with nothing more than sheer bravado) does not help matters; to today’s “moderates and progressives,” libertarianism is nothing but extreme, ideologically inflexible Rightism.

            Thus e.g. Cato, funded by now-famous supervillains with ever-more-mythical levels of power, are not even in a good position to influence the technocratic Center (where my money still is for the power demographic of the future). Various pro-market tanks that eschew the libertarian label are best for that. Niskanen is aiming squarely for the demographic to the left of them–at the unreformed dream of a “progtarian” alliance.

            Now, this demographic’s problem is that, however they may like to think of themselves, they are the firmest believers in the current, actual benevolence of the government of anyone on the entire political spectrum. They are not about to pick up Kolko, realize the whole thing has never been anything but a cruel sham, and turn viciously against it to tear it apart. Those are the people to their left; and that is what C4SS is for. Niskanen, on the other hand, is trying to weaken the social-democrat Left’s attachment to the (entirely elite-serving) regulatory and bureaucratic-welfare state and win them as much as possible over to the far more efficient (and, consequently, preferred by libertarian economists–though probably not by you) practice of direct wealth transfers to achieve any perceived “justice” desiderata.

            In order to not alienate their targets, they figure, they must not only perform over-the-top, rather embarrassing-sounding protestations about how not at all hostile in principle they are to that very same regulatory and bureaucratic-welfare apparatus; they must also perform over-the-top, rather embarrassing-sounding ritual condemnations of Trump and the various other “Nazis” who are taking over our country, and over-the-top, rather embarrassing-sounding ritual demonstrations of “wokeness” and general support of the good guys and hatred of the barbarians. And, of course, since the targets are also operating from the presupposition that “libertarianism” is just a polite term for the anti-Strasserite faction of the Far Right, the Niskanen evangelists must concoct fictitious “evil libertarians” for themselves to fight in order to prove their distance.

            Despite “immigrating” from a social-democratic background myself, I can’t say with any confidence that this really is a bad strategy for appealing to the mainstream Left as it exists today. In fact, in their own way Niskanen is probably less delusional than, say, Reason. The latter was not conceived in a specific role of appealing to the Left; it pursues a general policy of trying to advance libertarian ideas. And, say what you want about Niskanen’s hope that they can reach the progs at all, at least they realize that the traditional “libertarian moment,” political-quiz, plague-on-both-your-houses strategy is pure fantasy in today’s world. If you are to reach today’s progs, you must try something different; and different, they believe, means you must not be seen as holding out even a shadow of a hand to the Right. If you do that, you might as well simply go with them, who are after all by far the more promising allies at the moment. Niskanen is not aware enough to agree with this last point, of course, but they deserve points for getting the rest right.

            The real problem is that Niskanen simply isn’t very good at what they do. They don’t really seem to have any focus. Cato churns out policy papers. Other outfits inspire young, passionate people. BHL is–or at least used to be–for philosophers to muse over their philosophy in an atmosphere free of any ideological-purity baggage. What the fuck is Niskanen? They’re philosophers explicitly playing a pragmatic, political-influence game–something philosophers have no particular skill at, with consistently little to show to the contrary. So what you get is garbage like the rant linked here–more like one of those cringeworthy “op-ed on current events from a famous philosopher” pieces you see in the paper than anything else.

          • King Goat

            “the left’s only gambit is to turn the outrage meter up to a constant 11.”

            “The reality of course was that airy fairy bourgoise bohemianism of Obama, led the way to total corruption and evil. “

          • Peter from Oz

            You’ve been caught in the offside trap. In this case tu quoque was your downfall, or perhaps not knowing the difference between outrage and the joy of emphatic expression.
            The fact is that there is no guarantee that honeyed words from a politician will lead to policies or actions that are beneficial to society. There is also no guarantee that blunt words from a politician will lead to the implementation of bad policies.
            The rhetoric and the polices are clean different things, as Charles I might have said.

          • King Goat

            Yeah, your comment that Obama led the way to ‘total evil’ evince indicate any outrage at all…

          • Peter from Oz

            Not at all. If you think that government departments being used for partisan political purposes is not evil, then you might think of such a comment as expressing outrage.
            Whether I was using the rhetoric of outrage or not is irrelevant to the fact that the left does in fact live in a constant state of outrage. Ths is evidenced by their constant need to shut people up. So, as I said, the offside trap was sprung and you committed the tu quoque. 🙂

          • King Goat

            If all a person wants to point out is apparent hypocrisy then labeling it a tu quoque does no work.

        • Sean, I don’t mean to be a sycophant, but this is you at your best. It’s a complete and utter takedown. I don’t see how Levy has a leg to stand on after this.

          • Sean II

            Thank you very much. Means all the more since, far from being a sycophant, you never hesitate to disagree when you think I’ve failed to make my case.

          • King Goat

            Ryan, I’ve read you here for a while, and it seems to me you’re particularly opposed to projects of libertarians trying to ‘pitch’ to (seek alliance with) the left to advance areas where there might be common cause.

            Do you think libertarians would do better, in terms of advancing libertarian policy goals, by not aligning with either left or right but rather offering a third way (perhaps a more ideologically consistent and honest one)? Or do you think that aligning with the right will serve libertarians better?

          • Neither. I believe in outreach. What I don’t believe in is “outreach.” I’ll give you two examples.

            First, an example of positive outreach: The open borders movement as it exists today was probably started by libertarians such as Bryan Caplan. But if you spend any time interacting with that movement, you’ll soon encounter libertarian anarchists, anarcho-communists, Silicon Valley democrats, Bernie Bros, Clinton democrats, and even some moderate Republicans. What’s great about this crowd is that they don’t spend any time arguing over politics. They’re together based on the notion that open borders is a worthy enough cause that they can mostly set aside their differences and advocate for more immigration. It works. It’s pleasant. It’s transparent. Everyone knows what it’s about.

            Not only do I like this particular coalition, I’m also a contributor! This is good outreach.

            Next I’ll give you an example of bad outreach: The Niskanen Center. Niskanen Center staff spend much of their online time literally trolling libertarians on social media. It’s not just blogs, it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, and so on. They seem to revel in the fact that they’re “against” a certain kind of libertarian. Jerry Taylor told me on Facebook that he refuses to “work with” right-leaning libertarians. It’s weird. To me, it seems more like trying to fit in with the cool kids on the left than it is about advancing any particular agenda. And Levy’s article above showcases exactly that: He’s not advancing any particular cause, he’s just criticizing language. Horwitz does this, too.

            At their best, Levy, Horwitz, Taylor, hell even Wilkinson, are really good at making good cases for libertarian policy. But for some reason they’ve stopped doing that and they’ve undertaken this project to make themselves more appealing to leftists, and they seem to be sacrificing actual libertarian policy to achieve this.

            At best, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, but at worst it’s a fetishistic version of what “outreach” is. Outreach doesn’t mean everyone decides to listen to you all the time because you’ve butchered a few libertarian sacred cows. Outreach means you gain support on all sides for the same goal.

            So I’m in favor of building support for policy. I’m against vapid criticism of language and sniggering at “propertarians” or “cartoon libertarians” or “internet Austrians,” or whatever they’re calling the uncool kids these days. It’s mean, it’s disingenuous, and it only serves to make bad blood between people who should mostly be agreeing with each other. It’s totally senseless.

          • Let me further add that it’s not only these folks who engage in this kind of bad behavior. I’ve seen people at the Mises Institute do the same thing in the opposite direction. The more people tend to do this, the more I lose interest in their project. We ought to be building toward a better world, not trying to win a culture war.

          • King Goat

            Fair enough, thanks for the explanation.

  • Brooklyn Boricua

    Limiting ourselves to this topic: Donald Trump has been launching a showy attack on bureaucratic careerists that is selective, superficial, and self-serving. The Niskanen type libertarians go beyond criticism of those aspects. They are intensely concerned about incompetence and “authoritarianism” in the federal bureaucratic structure, going so far as to value careerism for its potential to impede these dangers. Their opponents consider this to be an insanely misprioritized schedule of concerns. Trump’s activities have brought into relief a rather profound split in species of libertarian thought in this country. It’s not the only distinction to be had, but it’s certainly one of the most important.

  • This article is so weird when you read it from the perspective of a guy who doesn’t watch TV or follow Trump’s twitter account. Let’s think about the actual evidence. Levy cites Trump’s words with respect to North Korea as being totally dangerous. But what’s happening with North Korea right now? The NK government is actually reaching out to South Korea to court more diplomacy. If Trump’s words were as dangerous as Levy says, this would not be happening.

    I’m not an idiot. I won’t give Trump credit for producing this outcome, but I’m also attentive enough to note that after you un-follow Trump on social media and stop living with your mind glued to the TV news, this apoplectic panic is utterly ludicrous.

    My rule of thumb is that government is always a lagging indicator of social trends. If I’m right, that means that Trump’s election represents the high water mark for Trumpist politics. Of course, Levy and his ilk have decided to brand themselves “stewards of democracy.” They have to sell us on the idea that democracy is broken, and they’re the only ones who can fix it. Don’t fall for the marketing bait, folks.

    • Sean II

      Good point.

      It’s pretty embarrassing that the Western intelligentsia is now more paranoid & histrionic than the Juche regime.

      Let’s face: even the DPRK seems to understand that actions speak louder than tweets. They went nuke because they saw what happened to Saddam.

      Now it seems they’ve figured out Trump’s a loudmouth without the political capital to threaten them anywhere but Twitter.

      Catch up, Jake and Co.

    • King Goat

      Re: North Korea, don’t you think you should control for the Olympics when thinking about their current behavior?

      • Sure, we can do that. I admit I don’t usually follow the winter Olympics, but when was the last time the Olympics caused NK to engage in diplomacy?

        • Sean II

          It’s often the other way around. Because the Olympics are so very public, feuding states sometimes use them to signal a tougher posture than they actually maintain.

          Witness the US-Soviet boycott duel of the early 80s.

          Or the DPRK boycott in Seoul ’88.

          Boycotts are good, cheap political theater. Everyone gets to see how much you disapprove of the other guy, but you don’t lose any expensive military hardware in the bargain.

          Your first instinct is right: the Northern regime and the Kim clan specifically have taken a huge risk here.

          And just this morning they upped the ante with the offer of reciprocal state visit.

          Think about that. In the context of North Korean domestic propaganda, inviting the Southern head of state for a visit is a big reversal.

          • The more I think about this, the stranger it is. When we use the TV’s “mute” function, President Trump is giving us everything we would have expected from a President Romney. If any conclusion is to be drawn from this, it’s that words matter far less than anyone like Levy ever imagined. Levy is actually drawing the opposite conclusion than the evidence suggests he should!

          • King Goat

            Do you think Charlottesville goes down how it did under a President Romney?

            Do you think we get the ‘Muslim’ travel ban (it’s in effect, albeit partially right now)?

            Do you think the number of refugees admitted to the US would have been at it’s lowest since 2002 under Romney?

          • My answers, in order: Yes, Yes, Maybe.

            I think that last statistic is an odd one, and I don’t know a lot about how it was generated. There are probably fewer total refugees seeking admittance this year than there were two years ago, and I think this influences how many get admitted.

          • King Goat

            I got the figure here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/01/03/refugee-admissions-u-s-plummet-2017/999903001/

            I’ll have to say I disagree on all three, though this is another area where I guess neither side could definitively ‘test’ it to see who is right. For example, I think Neo-Nazis are plainly emboldened by Trump and his success; there’s more activity there, they’re not shy about telling people this is why and it’s completely plausible.

          • Thanks for the link. I don’t think Romney would have done those particular things, but I’m not affected by that number much because even the all-time high under Reagan is a mere 200K. Compared to the actual number of refugees in need of placement, the number is a rounding error.

            Anyway, I wonder why you say what you say about neo-nazis. Do you know any? I keep hearing from people about what’s happening with neo-nazis, but truthfully I’ve never met one. I saw one in a gas station once, but I didn’t talk to him. That was back in 2001 or so. So it’s always surprising to me when I hear people talk about what’s going on with nazis. I’m very out of that particular loop.

        • King Goat

          In the past the South, when hosting, has flat out bribed the North to play nice. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s going on now. But maybe more relevant the North seems to be working the idea that this Olympics is a great PR opportunity, it’s literally in their backyard and if they appear nice, diplomatic and playing along they counter the ‘mad tyranny’ image problem. To a large degree, it’s worked, there’s been a fair amount of almost fawning coverage of how nice the North is playing along.

          • That’s entirely possible. Of course, it’s a far cry from the kind of Trump-induced panic we would be observing if Levy’s hypothesis were correct.

          • King Goat

            I guess I think you have to ‘control for’ something like the Olympics being in Korea when drawing any conclusions about what Trump’s diplomacy (or lack thereof) regarding the North has or will produce. When they’re over we’ll have better evidence of that.

          • Okay, but isn’t this position susceptible to Sean II’s criticism above? “I wasn’t wrong, I just need more time to be right?”

            Shall we formulate some sort of bet? The Olympics don’t last a long time. What conditions would you expect to observe in US-NK diplomatic relations to validate Levy’s point here and contradict my criticism? And how soon afterward would we expect to see it? If we can agree on acceptable terms, I’m willing to place a bet.

          • King Goat

            I don’t think so, I think it’s just ‘the Olympics is a pretty rare and major event in North Korea’s backyard and so it has to be controlled for.’ That North Korea isn’t acting expressly hell bent on war during that time period just tells us what’s in the first sentence.

            As I read that paragraph from Levy I don’t get much more than ‘Trump’s personalization of the situation and his undiplomatic language bring us closer to a war.’ I’ll grant ‘closer to war’ would be a hard state to pin down on someone who didn’t (or did) want to see it. But it’s got a common sense appeal. I mean, reportedly even Trump’s own people seem to see it as unproductive at least and dangerous at worst, spending a lot of time to publicly walk it back.

          • This is the whole problem with Levy’s mushy language. I like, good, clean, precise language that constrains an issue to things we can talk about.

            Here’s an example: I disagree with Levy when he says that Trump’s diplomacy takes us closer to war with North Korea because the North Korean government is currently courting diplomatic opportunities — the opposite of what we’d expect.

            You could say something specific, such as, “When the Olympics are over, North Korea will stop behaving this way and go back to banging war drums.” That’s a testable hypothesis, and we will see. But so far, according to the evidence we have, my conclusion is a sound one. You didn’t say how we’re supposed to “control for” the Olympics, so I’m stuck with my original position.

            If Levy used this kind of language, we’d all be better off. He could say something like, “I disagree with President Trump when he takes Position XYZ, because _____________.” Then we’d have something to discuss. Instead, he merely insinuates that Trump’s words have a magic power that will invisibly tip the balance to authoritarianism. Do remember, the context is the BHL blog, where previous posts have claimed that liberalism itself is “in the balance” thanks to Trump. But we never here concretely how or why, and no new evidence seems to change the hypothesis or the urgency with which it is presented.

            It reminds me a lot of how certain Austrian economics fans are always trumpeting about how we’re on the cusp of the next recession. And we’re always on the cusp, it’s always just around the corner.

            But, come on. Trump is a buffoon. He’s a troglodyte. And even despite all that, we haven’t seen the doom that the BHLers have foretold. They ought to come clean about this, or risk losing their credibility.

          • King Goat

            My thought about how to control for the Olympics is just that, we can’t draw any conclusions from the North’s behavior during them, they’re by themselves an obvious reason for why North Korea might be playing nice, perhaps in spite of any Trump effect.

            It’s like you have an abusive, harassing neighbor, and you decide to take a different tack with him by getting shitty with him and he actually responds more mildly than he usually did before you took that tack. But then you find out his elderly mother was visiting from far away at the time.

            As to the ‘liberalism in the balance’ rhetoric, I think the problem is that even those that are known for their observations on how liberalism loses out, people like Arendt or Orwell, they tend to see it being lost over a process, over a period of time, with mileposts along the way that, from the vantage of them, especially the early posts, it doesn’t look ‘that bad.’ It’s only after you get to the later mileposts, or more usually even the end of the road, that you can see an unbroken path from whence you came. And I think that’s what Levy et al., can claim they are saying.

            For what it’s worth, when Trump was first elected I posted here that I think he’s less Mussolini and more Berlusconi. Now, I think Berlusconi was terrible for Italy and Italians, but he was pretty far below Mussolini.


    Just have time to note a couple of howlers in the Levy piece:
    “With his words threatening to subordinate the collective self-defense commitment of NATO to his desire to get a better deal on shared defense spending, Trump undermined the most longstanding pillar of American foreign policy.” Wait, what…do all libertarians desire to go to war with Russia to save (say) Estonia? Also, is there something sacred about the existing spending allocations. I guess my copy of the “Libertarian Bible” is missing those pages.

    “Trump’s theory of North Korea is, roughly, “an angry crazy man has nuclear weapons, so let’s go out of our way to make him angrier and crazier,” and it remains a live possibility that this will get us to the obvious, awful conclusion.” Maybe Trump’s idea is to scare that crazy f*cker as much as he scares Levy.

    “I don’t just mean that career civil servants leave because they disagree with the stated policy preferences of the administration, though in some agencies (the EPA, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice) that might be the more important effect. They leave because they hear and understand that they’re not wanted. And of course, those most able to leave are those who are either most experienced (and able to retire) or most skilled (and able to move into the private sector).” Well, when we no longer love and honor our civil servants like we do our favorite Aunt, we as a society are doomed.

    “The absurd drumbeat to “release the [Nunes] memo,” by its very absurdity, reveals Trump’s current power over Congressional Republicans. A year ago, more of them would have objected to delegitimizing the FBI. But Trump has successfully communicated to his voters that being on their team means not being on the FBI’s team. He’s changed what being a Republican means.” And nobody, and I mean nobody, protects our liberty like the FBI. I mean old J. Edgar was a regular Patrick Henry. The very last thing libertarians should want is to cause the great unwashed masses to question the intentions and good faith of our federal law enforcement officials.