The danger of our left-right political divide

For years a consistent refrain in American politics has bewailed an increasingly polarized political atmosphere.

As the Pew Research Center observes, for the first time in almost 25 years, “majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but veryunfavorable views of the other party.” Americans, the Pew study shows, now look across the aisle with fear, anger, and contempt, committed more strongly than ever to their respective teams. On college campuses, disagreements that might have been thoughtful, even friendly debates have erupted into violent melees, ending in injury and damaged property. Attacks and intimidation, it seems, have become a part of American political life.

But the conspicuousness of America’s political polarization belies a counterintuitive insight: the belligerents of the nation’s social and political war are actually very much alike. Culturally and aesthetically, the groups appear quite different, yet their political philosophies share a common heritage, rooted in the anti-Enlightenment ideas of the first half of the twentieth century.

Gripped by reductionist groupthink, a toxin generated by the United States’ acrid culture-war politics, left and right are moving — regressing, in fact — toward their most crudely authoritarian incarnations. Their declension recalls the totalitarian communist and fascist ideologies of the early twentieth century.

Read the rest at the Hill.

Dismantling America’s Destructive ‘Fourth Branch’ of Government

Every American learns in grade school of the three-part structure of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In The Federalist Papers, No. 47, James Madison, called by many the “father of the Constitution,” remarked the accumulation of these powers in the hands of one party “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

The Constitution — at least, in theory — forbids any one of the three branches from delegating its powers or duties to another branch. But the Constitution has effectively been amended, albeit quite outside of the prescribed process. Today, a fourth branch of government, nowhere authorized in the Constitution, has, as legal scholar Philip Hamburger observes, “transformed American government and society” and “become the government’s primary mode of controlling Americans.”

How did such an abysmal change to the constitutional edifice come to pass so quietly? The story begins more than a century ago, when new assumptions about the role and configuration of government gradually superseded the classical liberal ideas of the founding generation. A look at the political thought of Woodrow Wilson provides a useful illustration of this new way of thinking about the state, now known as progressivism. Wilson believed the “science of administration,” which he saw as still in its nonage, must be adapted to accommodate widening “new conceptions of state duty.” To Wilson, “the weightier debates of constitutional principle” were passé, increasingly irrelevant to the more-pressing questions of running a large and complex government apparatus. The idea of limited government itself belonged to a simpler time.

Wilson’s answer to the admittedly “poisonous atmosphere” of corruption and confusion in government at all levels was an appeal to the “impartial scientific method.” Here, he was a product of his time. Successive breakthroughs in the natural sciences had convinced Wilson’s generation virtually everything, government included, could be understood and restructured in terms of fixed scientific laws; government and human nature were believed to be perfectible through science.

Wilson and the progressives accordingly believed bureaucrats were, through an august commitment to the common good, lifted above ordinary greed and self-interest. The federal bureaucracy would be their temple, a thing apart from partisan melees and their raucous debates. It was to be the cloistered, rarified world of trained subject-matter experts, objective and scientific, unmoved by selfish interests and unsoiled by politics. In principle, the modern administrative state, this new fourth branch of government, represents a forthright repudiation of the liberal Enlightenment principles upon which the constitutional order was premised. And the administrative state’s early exponents readily acknowledged as much. Government, they argued, should not be limited; it should be empowered, maximizing resources and latitude for credentialed experts. Progressivism, once it had subdued the liberalism of old, quietly adopted its name, leading to a lexicographical confusion that still confounds.

A consideration of the broad discretionary power of the modern administrative state would not be complete without discussing the Supreme Court’s decision inChevron v. NRDC and the destructive legal doctrine to which it gave birth. TheChevron doctrine has its origin in a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s chosen means of enforcing the Clean Air Act. The petitioners argued a new regulation enacted in the first year of the Reagan administration was inconsistent with the statute as enacted by Congress. The plaintiffs named as defendant in the suit Anne Gorsuch, then head of the EPA and mother of current Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch (who has been critical of Chevron).

Specifically, the lawsuit set forth a challenge to the agency’s implementation of the so-called “bubble concept,” whereby several distinct sources of pollution at a single plant could be grouped together — treated as under a single “bubble — for the purposes of compliance. The laxity permitted by this bubble rule, the petitioners argued, was at odds with the Clean Air Act, an abuse of the agency’s discretion.

The D.C. Circuit, in an opinion authored by Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, held the EPA’s new rule was impermissible. As an energy company, Chevron had standing to appeal, and the Supreme Court heard arguments in February of 1984. Reversing the D.C. Circuit, the Supreme Court concocted a new test for determining whether a federal agency’s rulemaking ought to stand. Confronted with a statute that is “silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific question,” the proper inquiry is whether the resolution provided by the agency regulation represents a “permissible construction” of the law’s language. Courts must defer to anyinterpretation that is reasonable — which is to say, that is not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary” to the law — an incredibly low bar for the government. Calling up the Wilsonian ideal of a bureaucratic state run by qualified, disinterested professionals, the Court noted, “Judges are not experts in the field.”

As a matter of practice, the Chevron doctrine completely precludes judicial review of an administrative agency rule. The rule thus perverts the constitutional order by allowing the federal government to interpret the meaning of the law for itself, without any material check on its interpretations and, therefore, its power. Such total deference fundamentally undermines the vision of the federal government reflected in the Constitution.

Even if one agrees with an agency’s interpretation in a given case, this repositioning of authority is a dangerous subversion of the rule of law (the irony, of course, is that in Chevron, deference to the fourth branch happened to result in less bureaucratic meddling). Left free to police itself, the federal bureaucracy has naturally arrogated to itself more power and discretion, its regulatory reach stretching into almost every area of life. It has acted in accordance with its nature. The administrative state is at base the embodiment of ruling-class condescension, contemptuous of its benighted wards and their efforts at self-organization.

Ultimately, the Chevron case is much more than a mere curiosity of administrative law; it points to a deeper question about what kind of society and political culture we want to cultivate. In one direction is a country in which a thriving civil society means problems are solved at local levels, through the efforts of free individuals and their voluntary associations. In the other direction, that of the sprawling, nearly omnipotent, administrative state—an undemocratic, illiberal society, suffocated under the rules of faraway bureaucrats accountable to no one.

Republished from the American Thinker.

Laurance Labadie, Gloomy Keeper of the Flame

Laurance Labadie was the last true exponent of nineteenth-century Tuckerite anarchism.

Laurance Labadie was born in Detroit, in the summer of 1898, the son of the famously affable anarchist Joseph A. Labadie. Jo, as he was called, neither pressed anarchism on his children nor seems to have done very much pressing or parenting at all, preferring to allow the Labadie brood space to learn and grow on their own terms. That they, to his disappointment, never found much happiness or success suggests, perhaps, that the anarchist’s aversion to hierarchical relationships is ill-suited to the business of raising children into content and independent adults. Though certainly independent of thought and action, Joseph’s son Laurance was anything but content. Even to those who loved him and considered him family, the younger Labadie did not inherit his father’s easy, obliging way. In her book All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement, Laurance’s niece, Carlotta Anderson, writes that he “bitterly disappointed both parents,” never marrying or achieving career or financial success.

Laurance was, by all accounts, a classic curmudgeon, quick to find fault and disinclined to suffer fools gladly. Marked by a deep and pronounced contempt for his fellow man, Labadie’s political writings reflect his apparently lifelong feelings of depression and detachment. Aspects of Arthur Schopenhauer’s thought seem to have penetrated Labadie’s psyche rather deeply. Schopenhauer’s work emphasizes the human will, its arbitrariness and irrationality, from which came Labadie’s conclusion that individual lives and the projects attached thereto are pointless. Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation brought to Labadie’s attention the rather “precarious position,” in Schopenhauer’s words, of being stranded “on one of those numberless spheres freely floating in boundless space.” Labadie wondered how human beings, products of a “moldy film” budding on one of these many planets, could have any significance at all, any cosmic importance. Labadie regularly returned to this, the nagging feeling that nothing matters or could matter.

When historian Paul Avrich interviewed him just months prior to his death, holed up in a disheveled stone house with only a stove for heat, Labadie referred to himself as a recluse and reiterated his lack of faith in the prospects for liberty and humanity. Despondent to the last, Labadie told Avrich that “anarchism is a pipe-dream,” unattainable for a human animal that is, in Labadie’s estimation, merely “an animated alimentary canal,” different “from the worm only by the appendages which have developed on him.”

Read the rest at


Property Rights: The Root of Freedom

Summarizing The Commonwealth of Oceana, James Harrington’s controversial mid-17th century work of political theory, Daniel Webster wrote that “power naturally and necessarily follows property.” A free society, Harrington argued, requires that property may be owned and alienated by all citizens, and accordingly, that property ownership be not confined either to one “sole landlord” or a few. His ability to own property free from the old fetters of feudal society is the common man’s bulwark against the determined encroachments of the total state; that is, private property provides the individual with a sphere of autonomy into which tyrannical state power cannot reach.

A man’s home, as the saying goes, is his castle. For socialists and even many progressives, however, private property is an obstacle to be overcome, the source of the capitalist’s power to exploit, a privilege that must yield to broader social justice concerns. Because their philosophy treats private property as inherently anti-social, their conception of the good polity requires proactive state limitation of individual property rights. The question naturally arises whether we should accept the premise that strong protections for individual property must divide us from one another and promote economic injustice. Classical liberals and libertarians submit that just the opposite is true: Genuine social cooperation and community are fundamentally impossible without private property.

If the left’s criticism of private-property libertarianism is that, today, property is unjustly concentrated in the circles of the rich and politically connected, then this is in principle no failing of private property itself. Widespread ownership of property was and is the ideal of classical liberalism and libertarianism, a result to be attained not through planning and redistribution — which will, in practice, always favor incumbents and insiders — but through the operation of voluntary market exchange and proper homesteading.

As John Médaille points out, socialism gathers wealth and property — and thus economic decision-making power — in the hands of the state’s small topmost bureaucratic class, analogous to the Inner Party in Orwell’s 1984. In his book Toward a Truly Free Market, he wrote, “When people hear ‘distribution of property,’ many automatically think, ‘Socialism!’ But nothing could be further from the truth. In a capitalist system, there are few owners of the means of production, but in a socialist system, there is only one, the state.”

Médaille’s book draws a distinction between capitalism as it currently exists — what many free-market conservatives and libertarians would distinguish as crony capitalism — and the ideal of a truly free market, in which property is more widely and evenly distributed.

Read the rest at here.

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