Saturday, September 14, 2002

More on Mark Steyn beatup

Don (I assume Don Arthur) has kindly posted some useful links in my comment facility that add to our knowledge of London Daily Telegraph pundit Mark Steyn's story about alleged American Muslim foreknowledge of September 11. The links certainly demonstrate that the allegation, about a Brooklyn high school student making a comment about the Twin Towers no longer being there in a week's time, has some substance (though only in the sense that some such statement appears to have been made). But in all other respects, Don's information creates even more problems for Steyn.

Don provides a link to a 10 September published story by sacked journalist Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, from which Steyn clearly lifted his entire op-ed piece. The only thing Steyn added was a 'spin' which argued that the allegations outlined by Shapiro somehow demonstrated that the mainstream media were refusing to cover such stories out of a misplaced sense of political correctness. Now, I don't know about the attenuated ethics of journalism, but in any other arena stealing someone else's published story without attribution is plagiarism (not just verging on it). Mentioning Shapiro as the source of just one of the allegations Steyn reproduces isn't enough. Steyn should have made clear that his entire story was just a repackaging of Shapiro's one published just 4 days earlier.

Secondly, perusal of Shapiro's story lends no support at all to Steyn's 'spin' that mainstream media were refusing to cover the story out of misplaced political correctness. In fact, Shapiro points out that several other media outlets picked up his story in the days following its first publication in October 2001 (viz Daily News, New York Post, NBC Today Show, MSNBC). Other media outlets also wanted to follow up on the story.However, as Shapiro explains "Unfortunately, no one from the school or police department was authorized to grant them an on-camera interview, which made it difficult for them to go forward". So the lack of further follow-up coverage had nothing to do with 'political correctness', as Steyn well knew. It arose from the simple fact that there was nothing new to report.

Nevertheless, it appears (according to Shapiro himself) that Insight magazine retained Shapiro to keep investigating the story, and his 10 September story is the result. Did Insight get its money's worth? Does his story add anything to the earlier one? I suggest not. Shapiro adds a completely unsubstantiated story about a middle eastern boy at a Bronx school who, after the Twin Towers fell, big-noted himself to school-mates by 'warning' them not to travel on buses in Manhattan. Clearly that doesn't show any foreknowledge of anything at all. Shapiro claims that the boy had said his 'warning' was based on a general warning circulating at his mosque the week before. He also reports a NYPD officer confirming that the claim was investigated, but fails to report what (if anything) came of the investigation. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that no-one besides Shapiro (and now his faithful copyist Steyn) regarded this as sufficiently substantial to merit coverage. There were literally thousands of unsubstantiated urban rumours of this sort floating around in the wake of 9/11.

The second additional allegation added by Shapiro in his Insight article concerned a 6th grade student in Jersey City who supposedly warned his teacher (on the day before 9/11) to "to stay away from lower Manhattan because something bad was going to happen". This story was reported in the mainstream media at the time (viz New York Times, Daily News, Jersey Journal), and labelled "unsubstantiated" (as it clearly was). Again, so much for Steyn's assertion of politically correct censorship by the mainstream media. The only thing Shapiro's Insight article adds to the picture is a confirmation that the story was 'investigated' by police and FBI. However, again, Shapiro reports nothing about the result (if any) of investigations. I would imagine that all such reports were investigated in the wake of 9/11: it would be very surprising if that were not the case. So, does the fact that an already-reported allegation was investigated provide any substantiation of that allegation, or even a basis for recycling the story a year later? Not by any responsible journalist, I would have thought.

The only other new 'fact' reported in Shapiro's Insight story was a suggestion that "according to students, many of their Arab-American peers were seen taking photographs of the crumbling twin towers from New Utrecht on Sept. 11." But how many students? And how unusual is it for students to have cameras at school? In these days of cheap digital cameras, and teenagers swapping images across the Internet, I suggest it isn't very unusual at all. My 14 year old daughter does it. If a dramatic event happened at school when she had her camera with her, I imagine she would take shots of it. It hardly of itself suggests foreknowledge. Moreover, Shapiro's very next sentence suggests that the 'students' who are the source of this allegation may in fact be just one student. His next sentence reads ""Don't you think it's strange so many of them happened to take their cameras to school that particular day?" one student asked me. "

In the hands of Steyn, this allegation (insubstantial as it is) turns into an unsourced assertion that "teachers at schools within sight of the World Trade Centre report that, as the towers burned, a lot of Muslim pupils were taking pictures: it seemed odd that so many of them happened to have brought their cameras to school on that particular day." Thus, Shapiro's claim of students (and possibly only one student) at a single school becomes teachers at schools (plural). Has Steyn done his own research and found more widespread sources for the suggestion, or is he just taking poetic licence with Shapiro's story? I won't be holding my breath waiting for him to tell us.

It seems that MSNBC has now (again) picked up the story in the wake of Steyn's op-ed piece. In contrast to Shapiro's shabby piece (and Steyn's even shabbier rip-off of it), the MSNBC article deals only with the Brooklyn teenager story. Clearly MSNBC concluded (as I demonstrated above) that the other allegations in the Shapiro/Steyn story were too insubstantial to be worthy of coverage. Moreover, MSNBC reported a police officer as saying that “this is the only case we know of where someone said the World Trade Center was coming down prior to it happening". Contrast that with the much more sinister but totally unsubstantiated impression both Shapiro and Steyn have sought to create.

MSNBC suggest (not ureasonably) that the Brooklyn schoolboy's statement may be explained by (1) clairvoyance; (2) coincidence; or (3) real foreknowledge via rumours. Let's eliminate (1). We certainly can't eliminate (3) as a possibility, but without more this certainly couldn't be regarded as providing substantiation of the proposition that New York's Muslim community had foreknowledge of 9/11. However, surely (2) is a rather more likely explanation. It isn't exactly uncommon for teenagers, especially troubled and insecure kids in a new environment (the family were said to be relatively new arrivals either from Palestine or Pakistan - the reports conflict in this regard) to big-note themselves and make bellicose statements to bolster their egoes. Moreover, if the Twin Towers were so visible from the boy's school (as it seems they were), and given their status as previous targets of Islamic terrorism, it would be a natural subject for an idle teenage boast. That is exactly the explanation his brother gave, according to Shapiro: "From the angle we were looking at, you could only see one of the trade towers because one was hidden behind the other," the older brother told [Shapiro]. "My brother likes attention, and so he called me over and pointed out the window toward the tower. He smiled at me and said, 'Do you know why you can only see one building? Because I blew the other one up.'"

The fact is that we don't know what (if anything) lay behind the boy's comment, which was well-reported at the time. Nor do we know anything about what any FBI investigation may have found. What we do know is that it provides no reasonable basis for Mark Steyn's op-ed rip-off. Shabby journalism is far too kind a description for Mark Steyn's effort.

Update - I see Bernard Slattery has found some material on Mr. Shapiro's journalistic background, which goes a long way to explain the manifestly dodgy nature of his Insight article, on which Mark Steyn's rip-off was cloesly based. I wonder wheher it will stop right-wing ozbloggers (including Slatts himself) from regarding Steyn as a credible source. Somehow I doubt it. I reckon scepticism about everything is a good place to start. I'm not saying I always achieve it, because it's impossible to check everything. But I have always found that a good signal to switch on the bullshit meter is that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Friday, September 13, 2002

Extreme right fantasies

London Daily Telegraph op-ed pundit Mark Steyn seems to be a favourite son of some right-leaning ozbloggers (e.g. Stanley Gudgeon alias Professor Bunyip). Steyn's latest piece, however, exceeds even his usual standards of creative journalism. The article uncritically recounts urban legends to the effect that Muslim inhabitants of New York were warned (by unnamed informants) to stay home on September 11, and that many Muslim children at schools within sight of the World Trade Center had cameras with them on the day, and were enthusiastically taking photos of the events.

Steyn conveniently ignores the fact that the anti-Jewish faction of the lunar right was retailing essentially identical myths about Jewish inhabitants of the Big Apple not so long ago. All were comprehensively debunked (see any decent urban legends site). I can't find anything at all about Steyn's latest offerings on any of the urban legends sites, which probably simply means they are of too recent invention to have been examined yet. Commonsense suggests that the probability of Al Qaeda having selectively warned Muslims in advance about September 11 is very low, but that apparently doesn't stop people like Mark Steyn (or Professor Bunyip) from choosing to believe such legends.

Professor Bunyip credulously links Steyn's piece of garbage in a piece whose main purpose seems to be to label Phillip Adams as a 'piggy-eyed, pot-bellied pus bag'. This seems to arise from Adams having dared to suggest (along with most of the western world) that Dubbya's "star wars" missile defence proposal is both stupid and dangerous. Bunyip's easily aroused ire seems also to have been attracted by an oblique reference in Adams' article to Henry Kissinger, which seems to assume (wrongly) that Dr K opposes an invasion of Iraq. What really puzzles me about this is why anyone on either side of the debate gives a rat's arse what Kissinger thinks about anything. As far as Bunyip goes, why castigate Adams for a minor, and very oblique error, while credulously accepting Steyn's reportage of poisonous fantasies about Muslim American complicity in September 11? Surely the bullshit detector should be applied to those who reinforce our prejudices, just as much as those with whom we disagree.
Fricaseed Ruddock on toast

Here's an extract from this morning's SMH 'Sauce' column that deserves to be extracted and highlighted (because I can't link to it specifically):

"Those lucky enough to find themselves in the late Friday arvo queue at the Qantas Club at Sydney airport recently had their wait enlivened by some top-rate urban theatrics.

Award-winning journo David Leser, perhaps drained after completing a magnum opus for the Women's Weekly on children behind the razor wire, was about to check his bags through when he informed the attendant he thought he'd left his keys back in the hotel.

The attendant suggested he step to one side while he double-checked his bag. Having done this, Leser rejoined the queue to request a later flight owing to the missing keys.

At this stage the man behind began to complain loudly about having to stand in line for so long and what kind of pathetic system was Qantas running here? Leser turned to find the complainant was none other than Philip Ruddock.

"Excuse me a minute," the Cons Press journo said politely to the Qantas attendant, before turning to face the Minister for Immigration. "You, sir, are a f---ing national disgrace. Now stay in line and stop being a queue jumper!" said Leser somewhat loudly.

Furious, Ruddock stepped out of the line and, with his face inches from the diminutive journo, said: "What did you say?" Leser repeated his comment, then, after collecting his replacement ticket, disappeared into the distance."

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Hayek ad nauseum

Both John Quiggin and Tim Dunlop have posted good, thoughtful pieces on Hayek. John points to Hayek's links with and support of the Pinochet regime in Chile, late in his life, as evidence that perhaps Hayek's thought/belief systems were not as strongly conducive to liberal democratic constitutionalism as Jason Soon argues.

Tim Dunlop predictably agrees with John, whereas Jason Soon expresses outraged indignation at this slur on his intellectual hero Hayek. I, equally predictably, intend having an each way bet. I think it is reasonable to suggest that a person who allies himself to an obnoxious dictator like Pinochet should be treated with suspicion at the least, before one attributes to them a philosophical position which belies their practical allegiances. On the other hand, whatever personal misjudgments or shortcomings an author may have, they are entitled to have their work judged on what it actually says. Marx, for example, didn't consort with dictators to the best of my knowledge, although his belief systems led inexorably to their existence (which he foresaw) and perpetuation (which he didn't). Foucault, on the other hand, led a life every bit as mad as his philosophy, as did Nietzsche. Ultimately, pointing to personal misdeeds doesn't tell us very much that is useful about the merits or otherwise of philosophical ideas. The most it suggests is that we should be on guard against intellectual inconsistency. But we should always read sceptically and analytically anyway. If we only apply our scepticism to those whose thought systems we find personally uncongenial, we are likely to be led to false conclusions.

I am a little disadvantaged in this discussion, because it is a few years since I read any of Hayek's work, and I have never read Gray's critique from which Tim Dunlop quotes extensively. I intend re-acquainting myself in the near future, but in the meantime I think there are some general points that can usefully be made (and that extend the discussion beyond a somewhat sterile debate purely about Hayek).

Hayek, like Marx, was an economic materialist. Materialist values thus infuse his work to an extent that many (like me) find uncongenial. Like most economic theorists, his reasoning may be described as deductive or "top down"; that is, it seeks to define a general theory and then test it against reality. It is, like Freudian psychology, an attempt to apply the scientific method to a human environment. Of course, Hayek is not really a mathematical economic theorist (in contrast to Keynes, for instance), but all that means is that his "top down" theories are more difficult to subject to real world scientific testing. In that sense, they are closer to Freud than to Keynes. One might even suggest that Hayek is ideology diguised as science. Paradoxically, however, although Hayek's thought can be characterised as "top down", it is not a theory which seeks to impose order and coherence, at least not directly. Instead, Hayek holds, like Adam Smith, that order arises out of the selfishly-directed chaos of the marketplace.

One of the problems I have with Hayek (apart from the fact that he assumes a moral order which his prescribed system proceeds to destroy) is that his attempt to define human behaviour by application (or purported application) of scientific method is essentially Newtonian, or rather pre-Einsteinian. Since Einstein we have learned that even physical phenomena are strange, relativistic, difficult to predict, and subject to change depending on the presence of an observer. Chaos theory underlines still further the probably chimerical nature of the quest for a grand unifying theory of everything (although membrane theory seems to have promise). Chaos theory holds that even relatively simply-formulated systems with few variables can display highly complex behavior that is unpredictable and unforeseeable. Complex systems are radically indeterminate. That is, even if you know the value of all or nearly all of the variables, you won't be able to predict the result of changing one or more of them.

That is even more true of non-physical systems like human behaviour as an economic animal. Even if we knew every aspect of the psychological make-up of every individual in the world at a given moment, and every fact and circumstance operating on them, we still wouldn't be able to construct a model that would reliably predict actual behaviour or outcomes on a large scale across time. That isn't to say that economic modelling is useless. It can be highly accurate and very useful in modelling and predicting outcomes, but in a limited way and mostly over short time-spans. Hayek, instead, purported to infer general (rather than mathematical) economic propositions from observation and analysis of human behaviour, learning, cognition and psychology. In that sense, he is even closer to Freud than to the more mathematical schools of economics.

Thomas Szasz described Freud's theories as more metaphor than science, and psychotherapy as rhetoric rather than medical treatment. Szasz argued that "mental illness" is a metaphor for disapproved thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and that we are compelled to recognize as well that the primary function of psychiatry is to control thought, mood, and behavior. I suggest that you can make the same point about Hayek. His ideas are metaphor and rhetoric packaged as science to enhance their credibility. That is not to deny that they contain valuable insights and descriptions that may help us make sense of chaotic human reality. But they remain a species of political rhetoric, not a scientific theory. As such, they are contestable like any other political theory. We are entitled to judge their efficacy in the real world.

I think (subject to refreshing my memory) that Hayek implies more than just an "impossibility theorem" about command economy prescriptions. I think Jason Soon is correct that Hayek points at least to some degree to the liberal-democratic-constitutional state as the preferred paradigm (in terms of maximising both civil and economic freedoms). However, like classical liberal thinkers, Hayek had reservations about possible majoritarian tyranny, and therefore about elective popular democracy. Even JS Mill said:

"The 'people' who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the 'self-government' spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; … and in political speculations 'the tyranny of the majority' is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard."

It is hardly surprising that Hayek, as a product of the early twentieth century, shared similar concerns. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that Hayek is a political rheorician pushing a particular propaganda line, not a dispassionate 'scientific' observer. As Lawrence Tribe has put it (not specifically about Hayek):

"[M[any of the tools and concepts of economics, and its underlying assumptions, are already engineered, whether intentionally or not, to serve a specific agenda. The intellectual and social heritage of these ideas, as well as their natural tendency, lies in the classical eighteenth and nineteenth century economics of unfettered contract, consumer sovereignty, social Darwinism, and perfect markets ... This brings those ideas within a paradigm of actions guided by a pre-existing set of personal preferences - a paradigm inclined towards the exaltation of possessive individualism, 'efficient' resource allocation, and maximum productivity, as against respect for distributive justice, procedural fairness, and the irreducible and sometimes inalienable values associated with personal rights and public goods".

Human behaviour being so complex, chaotic and indeterminate, I suspect that an inductive or "bottom up" methodology (which legal reasoning generally applies) is likely to yield more reliable results in most situations than a pseudo-scientific deductive approach. To the extent that, like Freud, Hayek purports to derive general principles from observations of behaviour, I suppose his approach might be called inductive in a very loose sense. But to the extent that Hayek can fairly be described, as Szasz labels Freud, as rhetoric and metaphor, then it isn't logic at all. It's descriptive story-telling, albeit a powerful story that has been extraordinarily influential. It may even, like Freud, be a useful story as long as we remember that it is no more than that, and that there are many other stories as well.

Jason Soon argues that Hayek was not entirely opposed to redistributive taxation, and that his thought doesn't necessarily exclude the social democratic state. But presumptively it trends in the opposite direction, and in the hands of its more extreme advocates (which seems to be most of them) the presumption becomes almost irrebuttable. I think a genuinely inductive observational approach to recent history yields the following propositions:

(a) Market capitalism has proven more successful than any other system yet tried at maximising wealth.
(b) Market capitalism is consistent with democratic constitutionalism, but doesn't necessarily require or imply it.
(c) Unregulated market capitalism engenders significant inequality and unfairness. That is, it may do the greatest good, but not for the greatest number.
(d) The only obvious way to minimise that inequality and unfairness is through government redistributive and regulatory intervention in the economy.

Most Hayekians would have little trouble accepting points (a), (b) and (c), nor would most social democrats. But few Hayekians would agree with (d) as a broad proposition. Even Jason Soon goes no further than to concede that Hayek's thought is sufficiently open-ended as not to positively exclude (d). But if Hayek really is that open-ended, how helpful is his work? It is (d) that is the really contestable question.
In defence of the UN

Scott Wickstein has posted a typically libertarian rant against the UN. "Multilateral institutions," Scott says, "(like) the UN and the EU do nothing but employ the otherwise unemployable. Like, um, Kofi Annan."

I posted a response on Scott's comment facility, but I thought it was worth reproducing it here (with a couple of additions):

It's true that the UN hasn't been all that effective as a peacekeeping or peacemaking body, although it does have its successes, Bosnia being a belated one, and East Timor a very recent and local example. But bodies like the WTO, WIPO (intellectual property regulation), UNHCR (coping with the huge worldwide refugee flow), IMF and World Bank (both of which undeniably have an impact, although one can debate whether it's positive or negative), have all clearly been extraordinarily powerful in reshaping and governing the areas with which they deal.

You can make a similar point about the EU. Its bureaucracy, like that of the UN, has its problems, but the Europeans have managed to forge the world's first functional super-federation, with an internal free trade zone that has been extraordinarily successful over a long period of time.

International organisations will probably always involve limitations and unresolved contradictions, because there is an inherent tension between national sovereignty and the ceding of some powers and functions to a supra-national body. At the same time, globalised capitalism necessarily requires some such structure, because many human activities would otherwise be fundamentally ungovernable. Unless you are an anarchist, that doesn't seem like a good idea. Libertarians sometimes frighten themselves by creating a shibboleth of world government which might grow to dominate and subjugate us unless we are careful (although Scott's point seems to be rather to the opposite effect), but the fear is grossly exaggerated. Certainly the UN (and EU) bureaucracies have to some extent developed as self-serving, impenetrable bureaucracies, not really subject to effective day-to-day democratic control (because there is no elected international executive government able to achieve a working consensus which can then be imposed on the bureaucrats, just a collection of national representatives creating continually shifting alliances). But the very fact that national governments jealously guard their national sovereignty (and will continue to do so) places an inherent limit on the ability of the UN bureaucracy to achieve overbearing power in any broad sense.

If you simply see the UN as a body aimed at achieving some measure of co-operation and co-ordination between disparate national governments in areas where only common endeavour can be effective, then the need for some such body becomes apparent, as does the fact that it cannot (and should not) reach a point where it can overbear the individual wills of the national governments that comprise its membership. Like all human institutions the UN is imperfect, but it generally muddles through and achieves an okay result, and we really can't do without some such structure, unless we want to abandon our future to the machinations of global corporations and international criminal gangs.
Bulletin sentencing commonsense

This week's Bulletin magazine has an excellent feature on criminal sentencing and the apparently counter-productive effects of longer prison sentences, especially in New South Wales.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Incest - the missing factor?

Steve Sailer (via Jason Soon) has a fascinating piece on race and inbreeding. It doesn't focus solely on the Middle East, but does cite figures purporting to show a much higher rate of marriage between cousins than in western countries. Sailer suggests tentatively that there may be some link between inbreeding and levels of tension and violence. If he's right, I wonder why Tasmania isn't a hotbed of violence and terrorism?
I missed the biggest public law blogger of all

In a couple of recent pieces I have noted two American public law academics who are part of the blogging community, namely Jeff Cooper and David Wagner. But I inadvertently overlooked the most prominent of all, Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University. Lessig is generally regarded as the father of cyberspace law, having written books including the seminal work Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which stylishly critiques Foucault while simultaneously applying post-modernist techniques to deconstructing legal aspects of the Internet (especially copyright). Lessig was also involved at one stage in the ongoing anti-trust case against Microsoft.

What I had overlooked was that Lessig was an eminent constitutional law academic long before he became the guru of cyberlaw. Lessig's current involvements include chairing the Creative Commons project, and being lead counsel (on a pro bono basis) in a major case soon to come before the US Supreme Court, Eldred v Ashcroft. What both involvements have in common is that they pursue an often-forgotten fundamental principle of copyright law. That is, copyright is not based on establishing monopoly rights in creators of artistic, literary or musical works. Instead, it is supposed to achieve a balance between the public interest in providing creators with a sufficient financial incentive to keep creating, and the equally important public interest in fostering freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas, so that the sum total of human knowledge keeps expanding. Blogging is the most recent manifestation of the second of those 2 principles, and potentially one of the most powerful.

Eldred v Ashcroft is a challenge to the constitutionality of US legislation which extended copyright protection from 50 years (which it is everywhere else) to 70 years from the death of the creator. The primary moving force behind the legislation was the Disney Corporation, which faced the imminent prospect of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons (like Steamboat Willie) coming out of copyright into the public domain. This is vital public interest litigation, which affects the entire world, given the universal popularity of American films and music. The Eldred case is discussed in a detailed profile of Lawrence Lessig in this month's Wired magazine.

This saga even has an Australian dimension. Because of the 70 year copyright extension, the huge Project Gutenberg database, which contains full text electronic versions of thousands of classic literary works, cannot include any works written after 1923. As a result, Project Gutenberg Australia has now become the principal repository of electronic versions of literature published since that time, because the Australian copyright period remains at 50 years. PG Australia contains most of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, GK Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, F Scott Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence, TE Lawrence, Lennie Lower, George Orwell, Henry Handel Richardson and Virginia Woolf. So if you get sick of reading blogs, you could always go and sample Project Gutenberg.
Trouserless on the road to Baghdad

Why wasn't I surprised to see Malcolm Fraser simultaneously advocating the Kyoto Protocol and opposing an American attack on Iraq in an article titled "No end justifies selling our souls" in this morning's SMH? Since his twilight years Pauline conversion to left-wing causes (shortly after he discovered that ex-Prime Ministers don't normally get much publicity), Malcolm has never come across a trendy leftie issue that he didn't support.

The sheer hypocrisy of opposing a "unilateral" American attack on Iraq aimed at regime change (if that's what ends up occurring) doesn't seem to bother Malcolm in the slightest. Fraser spent the greater part of his political career adamantly supporting an American attack in Vietnam that had precisely the same attributes. And for much of that time he was either Minister for the Army (1966-68) or Minister for Defence (1969-71). Malcolm has, it seems, prepared the ground for his anti-American position on Iraq. An article by Paul Kelly in The Australian on 12 March 2001 records that "Fraser, who served as defence minister during the Vietnam War, has recanted on Australia's commitment to the conflict 35 years later." Fraser attempted to explain his graceless somersault in the following terms:

""How I see it now is second-guessing how I saw it then. I thought it was necessary. I thought what we did was defensible. It ended up not being successful. Judging it all by today and judging some of the things that I now know about the US conduct of the war, I guess I wish we weren't part of it."

I can only presume Malcolm was referring (in the bolded text above) to events like the My Lai massacre, where American troops slaughtered more than 300 women, children and old people. Such conduct, he is arguing, only became known to him later, and explains his belated change of heart about America and Vietnam. But My Lai became public knowledge in November 1969, when Malcolm was Defence Minister. It would be very surprising if he had not received full intelligence briefings on it at the time. It didn't stop either him or the government of which he was a prominent part continuing to support the Vietnam War enthusiastically, nor opposing Labor's policy of abolishing the conscription of young Australian men to fight and die there. If that wasn't enough, Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983, and his government continued a policy of uncritical support for the US throughout that time, even though pretty well all currently known examples of Vietnam war atrocities had by then come to light.

The Fraser government, for instance, endorsed American opposition to the Soviet-backed Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, even though it was aimed in part at liberating Cambodia from the murderous Pol Pot regime, which was known by then to have killed over 1 million Cambodian citizens during its infamous "Year Zero" purges. Was this a case of the end justifying the means, or a principled position, I wonder? Maybe Malcolm can explain it to us.

Fraser's 2001 utterances about America were actually even more extreme than the above material suggests. He also said at that time, in a more general statement that we should keep in mind when evaluating his comments in today's SMH: "I wouldn't want to be part of any military operation with the US and would not be unless I had an Australian, a very senior Australian, right in the innermost war councils of the US . . ." Solidarity, Comrade Malcolm!

Fraser's themes in today's SMH article echo this new-found attachment to fashionable left-wing anti-Americanism. "Since the end of the Cold War," Malcolm opines, "the US has become more confident and assertive. Unilateralism has dominated American attitudes." Now, you might forgive such a simplistic exaggeration from a wet-behind-the-ears Socialist Alliance uni student demonstrator. But a slightly more analytical and thoughtful approach is expected from an elder statesman and long-serving prime minister. Is it really true that "unilateralism" has dominated American attitudes since the end of the Cold War? The US-led liberation of Kuwait in 1991 certainly wasn't unilateralist. It took place only after the widely praised building of a broad international coalition by Dubbya's dad (something Dubbya now belatedly seems to be trying to emulate). Nor was the ill-fated US intervention in Somalia a "unilateralist" initiative (it occurred under UN auspices). US involvement in Bosnian peacekeeping is also under UN auspices, and the Kosovo liberation action was in partnership with the European Union (which arguably was the prime moving force). The only action I can think of that might even arguably be regarded as having even a tinge of unilateralism was the recent action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But even that was preceded by extensive consultations with allies, and had their broad support and (in the case of Australia, Britain and a couple of others) active participation. Moreover, to the extent it was "unilateralist", does Malcolm seriously argue that the US shouldn't have pursued the terrorists who so recently murdered 3,240 innocent Americans? Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if he does.

Here's another prize-winning effort from Malcolm in the SMH: "Relying on America alone is no protection of legality or of democracy. This is made evident by America's choice of allies. In Pakistan a regime has destroyed democracy and yet enjoys America's strong support - shades of the Cold War where tyrannical dictators were given succour and support because they were anti-Communist."

A perfectly reasonable statement, you might think, until you remember that Malcolm spent his entire political career wholeheartedly endorsing precisely those US anti-communist strategies. Not only that, all the governments of which he was part survived largely by exploiting and inflaming anti-communist sentiment, because they needed the support of the staunchly anti-communist Democratic Labor Party to retain control of the Senate. I guess it's easier to abandon realpolitik and adopt a morally pure stance when you bear no formal responsibility for the consequences of your words or actions. But Malcolm might have fulfilled a more constructive role had he, for instance, attempted to analyse whether fundamentalist Islamism presents as great a threat to liberal democratic society as did expansionist communism in Malcolm's day. Maybe it doesn't, and maybe expedient realpolitik alliances with dictators end up being counter-productive anyway. But you need to make that case, not just tacitly assume its self-evident truth.

I'm sure someone will point out that Saddam's Baath Party is a secular organisation opposed to Islamist fundamentalism, and they'd be quite right. But Malcolm doesn't argue his case on that basis. In fact he doesn't argue a case at all, he just strikes a fashionably anti-American pose without deigning to descend to the level of mundane facts or concrete arguments.

Finally, there's the following priceless statement: "If we are to establish a world governed by law and by reason, by the application of justice, we cannot divert from principle on the grounds of present-day convenience." Well, yes. But which principles, and whose convenience? Malcolm would be well advised to keep his lip buttoned, along with his trousers. But I suspect he won't. The Viagra of publicity is too great a temptation.

Postscript - Michael Costello (who was Kim Beazley's chief-of-staff from 1998 to 2001 and secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1993 to 1996) gives the lie to Malcolm's knee-jerk assertion of American "unilateralism" in an opinion piece in today's Australian.
Silence on September 11

The most powerful statement I saw during the whole of the voluminous TV coverage of September 11 (apart from the horrifyingly interminable listing of names of the dead) was the reaction of one grieving young woman on September 12 2001, when confronted with a left-wing type blathering on at a street corner about how the cause of S11 was America's failure to force Israel out of the West Bank ... blah! blah! blah! Her reaction, straight from the soul, was "SHUUUTTT UUUPPP!!!!!!!"

That's what I intend doing as September 11 draws to a close in the United States. Not argue, analyse or compare; just maintain a respectful silence.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Et tu Media Watch?

Readers might recall that I published a short piece yesterday praising ABC Media Watch's exposure of apparent plagiarism by Australian newspaper pundit Janet Albrechtsen. I hadn't realised until I read Don Arthur's blog that in fact Media Watch had in turn lifted virtually the whole of its expose of Albrechtsen from blogger Amir Butler. I don't intend linking to Mr Butler, because much of the rest of his material is even more obnoxious than Albrechtsen. I even have reservations about giving him any publicity, but the issue is sufficiently important to justify it.

I should stress that Media Watch did acknowledge its source (Butler) in a short note on its website, so they haven't been guilty of plagiarism as such. But there was certainly no mention on the TV program itself (which is all 99.9% of viewers will ever know about). I watched the segment myself, and I just rechecked the transcript on the Media Watch site. David Marr suggested that Albrechtsen "plays fast and loose with her sources". I think it is fair comment to suggest that Mr. Marr has played it pretty fast and loose himself on this occasion. I'll be watching next Monday's Media Watch with interest to see whether Mr Marr belatedly applies to himself the journalistic ethics he piously condemns others for breaching.
Update on economic philosophers

Jason Soon has somehow managed to post 3 comments on my piece of last evening about Hayek and Adam Smith. I don't know how he did it, because I can't get the commenting function to work at all. I suspect others are having the same experience, because of the obvious lack of comments compared with the short period when the system was actually working smoothly. I have decided to bite the bullet and spend the next couple of days moving my blog over to a Moveable Type system (among other things because it has a stable, integrated commenting function). It will mean shifting the blog to a new address (on a NTU server, subject to clearing it with appropriate authorities), but hopefully that won't prove too disruptive. I think I can insert some code in the Blogger template that will automatically redirect people to the new site. BTW, if it proves successful, I will be happy to act as a free consultant to other bloggers contemplating a similar move. All you need is FTP access to a web server, and a reasonable amount of disk space entitlement. Most ISPs offer 5-10MB free as part of their standard package, which should be enough for a fairly large blog.

If anyone wants to post a comment to any of my blog pieces in the next couple of days, feel free to email it to me and I will simply add it via Blogger as an update at the end of the relevant piece.

Finally, here are my comments on Jason's comments on economic philosophers (which I couldn't manage to load via the comment box):

My position does not involve engineering any form of move back to 'traditional family values' or any such caricature. It simply involves governments intervening in the economy to restrain the coercive activities of corporations that are inimcal to family and community however they are constituted. If governments create the spaces where family and community can flourish, then people will choose their own family and community structures. We are self-organising social creatures, we don't need governments to tell us how to do it. But we also don't need corporations placing such coercive demands on us that all social and family structures atrophy to meet its relentless demands for profit at all cost. My position is pro-freedom, not pro-traditional values. I think Gray's comparison between Marx and Hayek is a telling one: - both were perversely fixated on materialism.
Mediawatch deconstructs Albrechtson

Robert Corr has an excellent piece summarising David Marr's brilliant forensic demolition of assorted right wing journalistic heroes on Monday night's ABC TV Mediawatch program. Alan Jones, Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman all got a guernsey, but the principal (and richly deserved) victim was the lovely and talented Janet Albrechtson. I had intended blogging on Marr's sterling efforts myself, but Robert has saved me the effort. Well done!

By the way, I should also acknowledge that Robert's instincts were also spot on about the damages award against the publican who bashed a sixteen year old intruder with an iron bar. I still stand by my initial observation, though, that we didn't know enough of the facts at first to reach a definitive opinion.
War of the economic philosophers (part 2)

Jason Soon has responded to Tim Dunlop's long soliloquy on Hayek with a rather shorter one of his own. Surprisingly, Jason agrees with Tim except for a small but important qualification. This tends to confirm Tim Blair's deep suspicions about Jason's neo-liberal credentials.

Jason takes issue with John Gray's conclusion (which Tim endorses) that Hayek's reasoning provides a convincing argument against the socialist command economy, but does not militate clearly in favour of any of Hayek's wider assertions i.e. it "does not provide a foundation for liberalism, or justify the enormous claims Hayek makes for free markets. It has little, if any normative content, and contains nothing to assist the choice between diverse regimes, liberal and non-liberal, that are found in the world in the wake of socialism." Jason disputes this, and argues that Hayek's reasoning does indeed "narrow down the choices of 'best' systems to live under to liberal-constitutionalist-democratic ones".

I agree with Jason. Jason, however, has previously conceded (at least via my commenting facility) that social democratic systems may fall within the universe of "liberal-constitutionalist-democratic" solutions. I agree with that too. However, he is now apparently having second thoughts and trying to retract that concession. I suggest Jason's first instincts were correct. Social democracy provides the only convincing answer to a fundamental problem with Hayek's thought (and by extension a fundamental problem with neo-liberalism itself) highlighted in the following quote from Gray:

"The innermost contradiction in Hayek's system of ideas is between a conservative attachment to inherited social forms and a liberal committment to unending progress. Hayek's distance from anything resembling traditional conservatism emerges most starkly when he commends progress, while acknowledging that 'Progress is movement for movement's sake'...Moreover, there is a large lacuna in Hayek's thought concerning the effects of market capitalism on the stability of society and the integrity of traditional ways of life. This lack of consideration of the ways in which market capitalism can be socially destructive is not inadvertent. It testifies to the fact that, like Marx, Hayek values capitalism finally as an engine of historical progress, understood in terms of increasing productivity and control over nature, more than as a means of satisfying human needs."

Hayek, like his great predecessor Adam Smith, assumed that man as a moral agent was a socially constructed being, and therefore that it was a being already imprinted with clear socially constructed values who would enter the marketplace. However, both Hayek and Smith ignored, or at least under-estimated, the extent to which the relentlessly market-based economy they both advocated would in the long run tend to undermine the very social institutions (family, church, community etc) that shaped man as a moral being. The result is what we see today in neo-liberal global capitalism: enormous material wealth created within an increasingly amoral, grasping, self-centred, excessively materialistic, spiritually bankrupt and profoundly unsatisfying society.

This lacuna in Hayek's thought is in some ways analogous to the fatal flaw in Marxism-Leninism: the failure to conceptualise any means whereby the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' would wither away in favour of socialist paradise. The fatal flaw in neo-liberalism is its lack of any convincing conceptual framework to combat its own inherent tendency to destroy norm-creating social institutions and thus civil society itself. That framework is provided only by the social democratic variant of "liberal-constitutionalist-democratic" solutions.

I should define 'social democracy'. I mean a system which embraces global free market capitalism, eschews command economy mechanisms including "picking winners" (except perhaps in targetting public infrastructure and research & development). However, it mandates a larger social safety net than neo-liberalism would permit, and therefore somewhat higher taxes (although not as high as some of the Scandinavian countries). It also mandates government regulatory intervention to restrain tendencies of the market to impose measures inimical to family and community. An obvious example is Rob Schaap's recent point about excessive hours worked by many Australians. Far too many Australians are effectively forced (not by the cost of housing but by the implicit threat of downsizing and outsourcing) to work hours which would be unlawful in the European Union. They should be unlawful in Australia too, because they are destructive of family and community (not to mention health). Another example is the progressive abolition of weekend and night-time penalty rates, to create the American dream of the "24/7" economy. Weekends and evenings with family are critically important to its survival as a viable social institution. Weekends are critical to the existence of community, becase they provide the civic space for community social, sporting and cultural events. A social democratic government would not hesitate to intervene to restrain abolition of penalty rates in the interest of preserving civil society.

Finally, here is a link to an essay I wrote a few months ago on Adam Smith and morality. It raises and explores in greater depth many of the issues discussed above.

Monday, September 09, 2002

Vacillating on Iraq

For reasons best known to himself, Scott Wickstein wants me to weigh into the interminable peaceblogger v/s warblogger debate, possibly because Geoffrey Robertson QC did in The Age (and took a stance Scott disagrees with). Geoffrey, however, is a much more highfalutin' (and better paid) legal eagle than I am. Moreover, I have carefully avoided any temptation to talk about Iraq until now, because I am in the familiar position (for me) of straddling the barbed wire fence, and it's even more painful than usual. On the one hand, Saddam is obviously a very nasty piece of work who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, maintains a murderous totalitarian dictatorship, invaded a neighbouring country, and is still trying to develop even greater WOMD capability.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that he's measurably worse than several other dictators with whom America has been very cosy over the years. General Pinochet, for instance, or Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, or Indonesia's General Suharto, are names that spring immediately to mind. Nor is it obvious that Saddam would be any more likely to use nuclear weapons, if he acquired them, than the current nuclear club members (who include Musharaff). Saddam is a homicidal butcher, sure, but he doesn't seem to be utterly insane in a self-destructive sense. It can't have escaped his attention that Israel is right next door with a nuclear arsenal bigger than he could ever hope to possess. The Mutually Assured Destruction scenario is much more compelling in the Middle East today than it ever was during the Cold War.

While any sane person would want to see a butcher like Saddam permanently deprived of nuclear weapons capability (and preferably of government as well), I can't see how that can be achieved without taking risks that are too horrendous to contemplate. I doubt that it would be another Afghanistan cake-walk, or another Gulf War. I fear there would be an appallingly large civilian death toll, and a last ditch "death or glory" biological weapons strike against Israel if it became clear to Saddam that his demise was imminent. I don't see how armchair "warbloggers" (including Scott) can sit back and prognosticate on the war prospects as if we were talking about next week's AFL finals, especially when none of us has any real idea about the true military and strategic situation.

On the other hand, and contrary to Salman Rushdie's opinion, I doubt that a clean, quick and successful regime-changing invasion of Iraq (if such a thing is possible) would "unleash a generation-long plague of anti-Americanism that may make the present epidemic look like a time of rude good health". It would be more like the after-effect of lancing a boil.

That said, I don't follow Geoffrey Robertson's logic. Who cares what happens to Saddam once he is dethroned? If he's not killed outright, he can go and live in Argentina or somewhere for all I care. Debating whether he could be tried for war crimes might be intriguing from Geoffrey's viewpoint, but it's hardly the pressing question of the moment. Moreover, international law has not yet achieved a sufficiently universal status to enable anyone to assert with confidence that a war can only be 'just', let alone lawful, if prosecuted under the imprimatur of a UN Security Council resolution. Given that the major powers each have a right of veto, the Security Council's authority in any contentious situation is severely constrained for reasons having everything to do with politics and little to do with justice. To the best of my knowledge, the Kosovo operation was not carried out under any formal UN auspices, and few would argue that it was unjust. No nation has ceded to the UN the sovereign power to declare war and peace, and it is unlikely that any every will. Then again, although it can't be said that obtaining a UN imprimatur is a prerequisite to war under international law, there are clear and powerful practical reasons why the US should do all within its power to build an international consensus before acting. The current situation is much more about realpolitik than international law.

Comment from Scott Wickstein - I wanted your views on Robertson's article mostly on the international law angle- I have been pondering the whole international law argy bargy and will post my ruminations later in the week.
If you want a look at the military balance likely in Gulf War 2 then there's plenty of websites going around willing to give a reasonable view. My favorite militaria commentator is Steven Den Beste's USS Clueless, but there's plenty of others going around.
I wrote a while ago that I am actually opposed to this war, for a very specific reason. It's pointless for the Americans to go in, destroy Saddam, and then basically leave. The net result is that they will have to do it all again twenty years later. I'd support the war if the "endgame" produced real change in the region- however, it seems likely that the US is going to impose another weak leader who will fall in a coup a few years later and we are back to square one. If the US was willing to put in the effort that they did in Germany or Japan, well I'd support that.
The trouble is that the Americans will not like what they find, I'd wager, if they gave the Iraqi or any other middle eastern people a genuine say in their own affairs- but it's only through democracy, however painful, that the region can come to some sort of stability that is worth preserving (this "war will destabilize the region" arguement is no argument at all- Den Beste said "that's a feature, not a bug" )
Unfortunately the US is unable to look at Iran thru realpolitik glasses- the regime there is unquestionably hostile and unpleasant, however it is a democracy of sorts, and it is a menace to no one- that's the lovely thing about democracy, it tends to dissuade the government from military adventures.
Anyway, it's all mere words, the Americans will do what they feel they need to do, and there's nothing any of our blogging can do about it.
War of the economic philosophers

Tim Dunlop has replied to Jason Soon's piece on Hayek with an even longer (but fascinating) soliloquy on the same chap. Tim includes extensive quotes from John Gray's work on Hayek. I feel an irresistable urge to recycle a similar piece I wrote about Adam Smith a few months ago. Blogwatchers who think economic philosophy is about as interesting as watching clothes in a tumble dryer probably should give it a miss. Finally, given this philosophical battle royal, I thought it might be an opportune time to reproduce for your edification one of my favourite Monty Python sketches, the Philosophers' Song:

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.
There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya
'Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away--
Half a crate of whisky every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he's pissed.


I propose a contest (with an unspecified but very cheap prize) for the blogwatcher who submits the best Philosophers' Song verse incoroporating Teddy Hayek and Adam Smith.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Another blogging public law teacher

When welcoming David Wagner to my list of American lawbloggers, I said that he was the only other public law teacher as far as I knew. However, I overlooked the fact that Jeff Cooper, who I already had on my lawblogger link list, is also a law academic. He doesn't seem to teach any public law subjects at present, but he clearly has a sound knowledge of the area. Jeff has an interesting angle on the Judge Priscilla Owen saga (on which I wrote earlier today).

It looks like public lawyers are still outnumbered by economists in blogging ranks, but we're putting in an honest showing.
Gittins gets it right again

Here's a typically accurate opinion piece from SMH economics editor Ross Gittins on the Kyoto Protocol and the recent Johannesburg gabfest. You'd almost think Gittins has been reading The Parish Pump.
The compassion of lawyers

A very revealing story in today's SMH reports that the lawyers for the accuser of the lovely Archbishop George Pell have agreed to represent him without charge, after the Catholic Church itself, in a spectacular demonstration of its boundless commitment to social justice, had refused to pay for him to be legally represented. The SMH reported that "his lawyer Peter Ward said his firm, Galbally and O'Bryan, would represent the man pro bono and had secured the services of Michael Tovey, QC, and Howard Mason, who also would waive their fees."

The Church's spin on this unflattering story seems to be that it's all perfectly fair, because they're not paying Pell's fees either: "Dr Pell's lawyers, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, have said the Catholic Church was not (not) paying Dr Pell's legal costs."

I wonder how a life-long cleric, bound by a vow of poverty, can afford to pay the fees of one of Australia's most expensive mega-law firms. We might find a slight clue in the fact that Corrs do all the legal work for Catholic Church Insurance, a legal entity distinct from the Catholic Church itself, although wholly owned by it. If my suspicions are correct, then it's not quite an outright lie to say the Church isn't paying Pell's fees (unlike the 'dead nun' scam), but it's hardly an example of the highest Christian moral standards either. We ex-catholics are an awfully suspicious lot.
Hayek the social democrat

Jason Soon has a great piece on Hayek and liberalism. Well worth reading. Actually, Hayek wasn't a social democrat as far as I know, but maybe Jason is (at least by my fairly minimalist definition). Jason says:

"For the record I do regard Swedish welfare-state capitalism as a variant of constitutionalist liberal democracy. Hayek's most important arguments which revolve around the importance of rules and custom in addressing limited knowledge in societies, are genuinely open-ended in conclusion."

I can see why Tim Blair regards Jason as profoundly suspect.
Judges coming and going

I seem to be having a Tim Dunlop session. Tim published a piece yesterday that responded to my earlier blog dealing with President Dubbya's nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. I can't give you a direct link to Tim's piece, because his archiving function seems to be doing strange things (the permalink points to the wrong article). However, Tim's piece is called "There Goes the Judge". I responded to it in Tim's comment area, as follows:

"I don't think there can be any such thing as an apolitical appointment process, or for that matter an apolitical judge. All you can do is design a system with sufficient checks and balances to restrain the worst excesses of political partisanship. Conventions to keep the partisanship within manageable bounds are part of that. But the main part is that, as long as judges at the most senior level are appointed for life (or at least age 70), the turnover will be sufficiently slow that it is next-to-impossible for an administration to stack the court decisively with its own appointees, unless a single party has been in government for a very long time.

Moreover, judges appointed for life sometimes have an uncomfortable (for politicians) tendency to exhibit stubborn independence from the views of the party that appointed them. Sir Anthony Mason and Sir William Deane were probably the most radical of the liberal majority that emerged on Australia's High Court in the late 80s and early 90s. Both were Coalition appointees.

Thus, complying with conventions concerning qualified appointees is a not unreasonable minimal expectation to keep the system from going into gridlock.

Finally, the article I linked from the Washington Post deals with the Democrat "judicial activism" accusations you mention, but puts them in a rather more balanced context than the 'Lean Left' article from which you quote. In this case at the very least, their left lean is rather pronounced
."

Tim then responded:

"I don't think his point is particularly partisan at all, though clearly someone who calls their blog lean left isn't trying to hide anything. He's going further than saying "you can't get rid of politics" but we should try and minimise: he's saying, the political aspect is desirable in itself. I think it's an interesting argument. Very Hitchensesque. If, as you say, you can't get rid of politics, why not acknowledge it rather than try and hide it in the process, if that's not putting it too strongly? I don't really know what the answer is, but I'm inclined to think that "the political" is so intrinsic to how we do things that we shouldn't shy away from it. This is one of the problems I have with the Hayekian system that prides itself so much on "realism" or "pragmatism" but wishes to take "politics" (understood broadly) out of the equation.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear your answer to the question posed in the post: shouldn't the same standard of "apoliticality" be applied to nominations if you are going to apply it to the appointments process? If it was, should Owen even have been nominated? And I guess the implicit question is, if that is so, then isn't it a little unfair to call the quashing of Owen inappropriate
?"

I don't have all that much to add to what I said in the above comments, but some clarification is needed. First, the 'Lean Left' author (Kevin Raybould) wrongly assumes that Justice Owen is being nominated for a position on the US Supreme Court, and therefore emphasises the importance of her views on the meaning of the Constitution etc. In fact, she is being nominated for a position on the Court of Appeals, where constitutional interpretation plays a much lesser role.

That misconception doesn't, however, negate his basic point, which is that judging is unavoidably political, although that point shouldn't be overstated. The existence and need for judicial integrity, impartiality and distancing from partisan politics is nonetheless a real and critically important one, even in the face of a 'legal realist' acceptance that the selection process is unavoidably political. I agree to an extent with Raybould's arguments, and in fact I go further and say that any conceivable selection process would be inherently political. Even removing the task from elected representatives, and giving it to a judicial appointments commission comprising representatives of the legal profession and other relevant interest groups, would still be political. Any such groupings will necessarily have their own political agendas, which won't always coincide with the public interest. Vesting the task in our elected representatives is far less elitist and more consistent with liberal democratic values.

However, conceding that the process is necessarily political does not mean that any conduct at all, however nakedly and single-mindedly partisan, is fair game. There need to be boundaries of acceptable political behaviour, otherwise a "checks and balances"-based system like the US one would simply grind to a halt in politically-inspired gridlock. Partisan political behaviour cannot be absent, but it needs to be constrained for the system to work. Thus, the President should not nominate a judicial candidate who is so extremely partisan as to exceed the bounds of political propriety, and the Senate should not reject a candidate merely because a majority think her views on some issues are of a different political flavour from theirs. I don't know enough about the facts to be certain whether Judge Owen's nomination is a proper one by those standards, but none of the news stories I have read so far suggest that her record would justify Senate rejection on any principled standard. They merely report that she is (according to the Democrats) "a judicial 'activist' whose opinions were colored by strong anti-abortion and pro-business views" and "opposed permitting teenagers to have abortions without notifying their parents".

Another important point is that it seems the Senate would not in fact reject Judge Owen's nomination if the Democrat factional heavies ever let it come to a vote. At least one Democrat Senator (and that's all it would take) has indicated that he would vote in favour of approving her nomination. For that reason, the Democrats are holding up the nomination in the Judiciary Committee, where her opponents have the numbers. Again, this sort of behaviour is arguably not consistent with the Constitution's fundamental liberal democratic values.

One of the main reasons why America's "Founding Fathers" vested approval of judicial and other appointments to public offices in the Senate was that they understood the potentially corrupting effect of short-term populist politics. The Senate was deliberately structured as a body which would develop a slightly more reflective, detached, "statesmanlike" ethos than either the House of Representatives or the Presidency. That is why it was given the function of ratifying key appointments by the executive government, as well as the equally important task of presiding over removal via impeachment proceedings. It was meant to be a bit more "judicial" in temperament than the other overtly political institutions. Despite some strains, the failure of the Clinton impeachment, along with the failure 130 years previously of the impeachment of President Andrew Jackson, indicates that the Founding Fathers' constitutional design theory was correct. Similarly, the fact that some Democrat Senators are not prepared to accede to the blatantly political rejection of Judge Owen suggests that the system continues to work as intended. In those circumstances, the refusal of Democrat members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow the nomination to be brought to a full Senate vote lacks democratic legitimacy. It is inappropriate, however 'left leaners' may seek to characterise it in some other way.
The US health care system is crony socialism

Tim Dunlop has a fascinating piece this morning summarising new research which shows that the US government actually spends more proportionally on health care than any country on earth except Switzerland, despite their system's propensity to bankrupt large numbers of Americans and completely exclude the poor from any health care at all.

It just confirms my opinion that Australia's health care system is the best in the world, combining a universal medicare system providing basic health care to averyone irrespective of wealth, a high level of choice through private health insurance for those who can afford it, and effective measures (like the co-payment) to minimise waste and over-servicing.

It also reminds me of a broader point. I think that, without succumbing to the American triumphalist "we are the greatest" mentality, Australians should stop apologising for our economy and get over the economic equivalent of the great aussie cultural cringe. That was one of the reasons why I reacted adversely to Rob Schaap's inaccurate characterisation of Australian incomes and housing prices. We have one of the most successful and fastest-growing economies in the world. At the same time we have avoided the worst excesses of feral neo-liberalism, in that we still have a fundamentally fair and reasonably comprehensive social security system; the best health care system in the world providing universal basic health care to everyone; a public education system which, while under strain, remains free (at least up front) and accessible to all; a public housing system which, while currently under threat, ensures that no-one need be homeless; and an industrial relations system which retains its central feature of avoiding gross inequality through complete deregulation leading to a desperate underclass of working poor (as in the US).

Somehow we need to develop a mentality which accepts that there is still much room for improvement, and an important role for constructive criticism, but still take pride in what Australians have achieved: a peaceful, prosperous and still reasonably egalitarian nation with a rich culture and a long tradition of liberal democracy and respect for human rights. It's not perfect by a long shot, but I still can't think of any other country that you could label as clearly superior in an overall sense. Of course, there will be an entirely proper ongoing debate about the optimal balance between social justice and individual freedoms. But, whatever you might have thought of Howard's "black armband view of history" remarks, I think we certainly should try to avoid a kneejerk black armband view of Australia's economy and society.