The Long View 2005-10-07: Unintended Consequences

Worrying about the next pandemic is probably at least as important as worrying about rogue AI. It happens that I do both.

Unintended Consequences

Ann Coulter used Harriet Miers most cruelly in her column of October 6. Of all her high language, Coulter's characterization of the nominee to the Supreme Court as "punctual" was the most blistering. Whatever you may think of the justice of her remarks, however, the first sentence of the column made what I believe to be the the only point worth worrying about now:

I eagerly await the announcement of President Bush's real nominee to the Supreme Court.

It seems likely to me that the nomination will be withdrawn. Miers herself would insist on it, if she saw her candidacy was only embarrassing the president.

Charles Krauthammer has already suggested that the nomination should be withdrawn, for the now familiar reason that conservatives have spent a quarter-century building up a jurisprudential counter-establishment that the president simply ignored when he made the appointment (and the Roberts appointment too, I might add):

It is particularly dismaying that this act should have been perpetrated by the conservative party. For half a century, liberals have corrupted the courts by turning them into an instrument of radical social change on questions — school prayer, abortion, busing, the death penalty — that properly belong to the elected branches of government. Conservatives have opposed this arrogation of the legislative role and called for restoration of the purely interpretive role of the court. To nominate someone whose adult life reveals no record of even participation in debates about constitutional interpretation is an insult to the institution and to that vision of the institution.

It's a plausible objection, but I see now that it misses the point. The transformation of the Supreme Court into a super-legislature made scholarship irrelevant. If only the votes of the members of the Court count, then the professional qualifications of the justices are irrelevant. This is not perhaps a consequence that the proponents of the Living Constitution foresaw, but there you have it.

Does this mean that the creation of the counter-establishment was an anachronistic waste of time? No, there is much more to the legal system than constitutional law.

* * *

Speaking of unintended consequences, Harvey Mansfield identifies an important one in his review in The Weekly Standard of October 3 of Donald Alexander Downs’s new book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus:

Mention of progress brings up the second problem for free-speech liberals, the problem of truth. Liberals stand for progress and, for self – protection, sometimes call themselves progressives. They also stand for diversity and speak of it constantly. Yet progress is hostile to diversity, especially to the diversity that conservatives represent. Progress is progress in truth, in the overcoming of prejudice…[w]hat then is to be done about conservatives who hold these prejudices? They justify a society balanced between liberals and conservatives, the party of progress and the party of order, as John Stuart Mill called them. But this seems to be a society of truth and untruth, permanently divided, which prevents the triumph of truth, of liberalism.

There is an anachronism here, too. Interest in truth has become rare, at least among the politically engaged. So has the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it conservatism of Burke and Mansfield. As with the Supreme Court, one or the other side will win in the universities, but at the cost of loss of prestige to the institutions at issue. It's an old paradox. Those who fight for principle will gain the influence that attaches to any enterprise that is seen to be disinterested. Those who fight for power, in contrast, will lose what little they have.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the World War, President Bush gave an important address yesterday at the National Endowment for Democracy that sought to crystallize his strategy in the War on Terror by more precisely defining the enemy. I summarize:

As a matter of personnel, we learn, some of the enemy belong to international organizations like al-Qaeda; some are local militias; some are cells of ideologically motivated fanatics. It is an ideological movement. The enemy is led by vanguards who regard civilian populations as objects to be manipulated; Muslims are their principal victims. The vanguards do not represent authentic Islam. On the other hand, neither are they insane. Their goal is to create a totalitarian empire from Spain to Indonesia. (The term "caliphate" does not appear in the president's address.) To this end, they seek to end American involvement in the Middle East. They have chosen Iraq as their theater. They reason that, if they can force the United States into a conspicuous retreat, as from Beirut in the 1980s and Mogadishu in the 1990s, then states and individuals in the region will flock to their cause.

Though the goals of the movement are ambitious and the strategy is daring, they are not irrational. It cannot be ignored. Neither can the networks who promote it be placated. They are motivated by ambition; have no set of grievances that a policy of appeasement might address. The attempt to follow such a policy would have grave consequences, since they target precisely those countries whose behavior they believe might be changed through violence.

The movement is doomed by its internal contradictions; it has declared war on progress itself, a war the movement will lose. Before its internal collapse, though, it can do a great deal of damage. The civilized world must strengthen internal security. Externally, the US will make no distinction between terror networks and the countries that aid them. The president mentioned Syria and Iran repeatedly in this regard.

Word for word, this is almost exactly what Tony Blankley says in his new book, The West's Last Chance, that the Bush Administration should be saying. Blankley's chief complain about Bush's conduct of the war is that, having won the last election chiefly on national security issues, the president has since squandered his time on a domestic agenda that has proven neither successful nor popular.

I fully agree; the president should have been making this speech every week since last Christmas. As it is, he looks now as if he is trying to change the subject from his manifold domestic problems. Unless he is a fool, he is trying to do that, too. In any case, nothing in the address was new. As Walter Russell Read noted in Power, Terror, Peace and War, much of the opposition to the Bush Administration's foreign policy is a result of the fact the White House scarcely troubles to explain it.

* * *

First Things has answered the New Oxford Review's accusation that First Things survives only because of funding from neoconservative foundations. On October 6, Father Richard John Neuhaus said on the journal's website:

The generosity of FIRST THINGS subscribers is legendary, and I suppose it is not surprising that some other editors are envious to the point of being nasty about it.

High renewal rates are the best revenge.

* * *

Regarding the impending pandemic, a reader emailed me to ask what I thought about the government's response to the danger. Here is what the government is doing now:

10/06/2005 : Officials Stockpile Vaccine, Drugs Against Avian Flu WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2005 – Health officials estimate the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide -- more than died in World War I. Now President Bush is concerned that a strain of avian flu that has killed millions of birds in Asia could mutate and cross over to humans.

This seems reasonable enough, but consider what happened 29 years ago when the government had concerns, perfectly justified ones, about pretty much the same issue:The Sky is Falling: An Analysis of the Swine Flu Affair of 1976.

This time, of course, it could be for real.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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