Political Animal


PRIVACY….Kenneth Adelman is a millionaire environmental activist who takes pictures of the California coast from a helicopter. His pictures are frequently used to document illegal activity, and a few years ago he embarked on a mission to photograph the entire coast in order to have a permanent record of what the shoreline looks like today in case it’s needed in a court case later.

Of the 12,000 pictures he has taken, one is of Barbra Streisand’s house, which is on the coast in Malibu. So she’s suing him for invasion of privacy.

Result: the picture of her house is printed in the LA Times and seen by about a million people. I’m sure it will be on the local news tonight as well. And it’s making life more difficult for a guy dedicated to environmental goodness.

Smart strategy, Barbra, smart….


LIBERTARIANISM….A couple of days ago Eugene Volokh wrote a long post about the “Harm Principle.” This is the principle that’s roughly summed up by the famous libertarian aphorism, “Your right to swing your fist stops where my face begins.”

This is fine, as long as you can define “swing,” “fist,” “stops,” “face,” and “begins.” But that’s a lot of definitions, isn’t it? Eugene uses his post to argue that libertarian principles don’t necessarily mandate sexual liberty because, after all, sex can sometimes cause harm to other third parties.

This is a good example of why I’ve never been able to take libertarianism seriously: it simply doesn’t provide any meaningful real-world guidance for what governments should and shouldn’t do. Once you agree that “harm” also means “potential harm” or “harm done to third parties down the road” or “unintentional harm” or ? well, or anything, really, then you no longer have a principle at all. Virtually every human action there is can plausibly be supposed to cause harm of some kind, which in turn means that we are left to judge policies by balancing their effects on personal liberty with the protections they provide us against harmful behavior by others. Which is exactly what Eugene proposes.

But that’s just what everyone does, liberals and conservatives alike. So exactly how does libertarianism help us make these decisions?

Political Lying

POLITICAL LYING….When is it OK for a president to tell a lie? A big lie?

Let’s take the canonical case in recent history: FDR and World War II. Did Roosevelt know that the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor? This is still a matter of intense speculation, but let’s suppose he did. Was he right to let it happen anyway?

In hindsight, most of us would say yes. The dual threats of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were so great that he was justified in getting America into the war regardless of whether he gave honest reasons. History has proven that his judgment was wise, and if it took a lie to convince America to go to war, then that lie was warranted.

This brings us to the great divide between left and right regarding the Iraq war. It’s becoming clearer and clearer, as this Guardian article summarizes, that the Bush administration flatly lied about the reasons for going to war. There was no WMD in significant quantities, there was no link to al-Qaeda, and there was no threat to the United States.

So were those lies OK? The evidence of the polls is that no one really cares. If you trust George Bush’s judgment and believe that Gulf War II was the domino that will eventually bring peace and stability to the Middle East, then the lie was justified and it causes you no lost sleep.

In a broader sense, though, it’s just another sign that nobody on either side of the aisle even pretends to care about political lying anymore. Or worse: the current mood of the country is so partisan, and the country so evenly divided, that I think a lot of people feel that loud and public lying is the only way to get anything done. The other side won’t listen to reason, so there’s really no choice, is there?

It’s not just that we don’t care about political lying anymore, it’s that we actively approve of it. From our own guys, anyway.

This strikes me as a devil’s bargain that eventually does no one any good. Maybe once in a century a big lie turns out to be a last resort that history eventually endorses, but used routinely they provide no lasting victory. Policies built on lies can’t last, and those who use them may win their battles but will eventually lose their wars.

Or so I would like to believe. Am I just an incurable optimist?

UPDATE: Paul Krugman is puzzled too. Maybe war supporters are just trying to avoid cognitive dissonance over Iraq, he says.

Maybe. I think I’m closer to the truth.