The Internet: Bureaucracy or Fiefdom?

From the Bayeux Tapestry

Bruce Schneier declares:

It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

The whole piece is worth reading.  For my part, I’ve often wondered if the Internet doesn’t fit Max Weber’s conception of a bureaucracy.  Weber described six major characteristics of bureaucracy (here‘s a handy summary of his views.)  First and most familiar in the popular use of the word, a bureaucracy has a formal hierarchical structure.  While there is no group of people who are the president and board of directors of the Internet, the machines that make up the Internet do in fact relate to each other according

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

to set routines.  Weber described bureaucracies staffed by human officials, but parts of his description still apply where, as in the functioning of the Internet, the officials are replaced by machines.

The second characteristic of bureaucracy in Weber’s description is a set of rules that consistently transform particular decisions made in one part of the structure into particular actions taken in other parts of the structure.  In this regard every bureaucracy aspires to the condition of a machine; as a bureaucracy composed of machines, the Internet would in a sense represent the ultimate bureaucracy. Along with these rules comes a heavy emphasis on written documents and permanent records, to ensure that decisions are communicated from one part of the structure to another accurately and that they are converted into action appropriately.  Here again, the Internet’s tendency to preserve data makes it the ideal form of bureaucracy.

Third, Weber says that bureaucracies are organized by functional specialty.   Here we see two levels of organization taking place independently of each other.  Of course, the machines are sorted together by their functions.  At the same time, the people who use the Internet develop specializations in their ways of relating to it.  Those who resist specialization remain on the fringes of the Internet.  So, a general-interest blog like this one toddles along for years with a handful of readers; start a tumblr site devoted entirely to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes, and you might  draw a thousand followers in a week.  Through them, you can learn more about your topic than you had imagined possible.  Because of the efficiency that results from the Internet’s specialization and consistency, users have strong incentives to specialize their own use of the system and to respect its rules.  Thus, the Internet’s human users behave as they would if they were clients of a bureaucracy staffed by human officials.

Fourth, Weber’s bureaucracies have missions.  These missions are not simply tasks for which groups might be established ad hoc, but are the overarching goals that justify the organization’s continued existence.  Because so many people have stakes in the continued existence of large bureaucracies, their missions tend to become rather broad and ill-focused over time; the last thing anyone wants is for the bureaucracy that provides his or her livelihood to have completed its mission.  A phrase like “the distribution of information,” precisely because it is so vague, is therefore a perfectly apt mission statement for a major bureaucracy.

Fifth, bureaucracies are impersonal structures, in which the relationship of one person to another is restricted to the roles that those people are playing.  So, if Alice is a sales agent for her company and Bob is a purchasing agent for his, their business discussions are between vendor and client, not between Alice and Bob.  When Internet cafes first appeared, nearly twenty years ago, a huge percentage of them had Peter Steiner’s cartoon from 5 July 1993 The New Yorker taped to the wall:

https://i1.wp.com/www.ricklatona.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/picresized_1229584137_youreadog1.gif

Now we’re living in the age of Facebook, and on the Internet everyone knows that you’re a dog, what you had for breakfast, where you like to do your business, etc.  Still, there is an element of impersonality built into online interactions.  So online political discussions, even on Facebook itself, quickly become interactions between supporter of Party X and supporter of Party Y, even when those supporters are close friends in other settings.  Obviously people can turn each other into symbols of opinions they dislike in any social environment, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that online discussions are particularly prone to this sort of reduction.  Moreover, the most pleasant online relationships tend to be the simplest, those in which participants change their personas least often.  If Alice and Bob meet at a site devoted to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes and interact simply as devotees of those recipes, I suspect they are likelier to look forward to hearing from each other than they will be if they start talking about other topics and expecting other kinds of emotional and intellectual support from each other.  Offline, I would think it would be the opposite, that people who discuss only one topic and present themselves to each other in only one way are unlikely to become close.  I’d be interested to see studies on this hypotheses, a quick Google Scholar search hasn’t shown me any but if you know of such, please enlighten me.

Sixth, employment in a bureaucracy is based on technical qualifications.  Civil service exams, educational requirements, efficiency ratings, and other devices for measuring competence are not necessary if the best person for the job is the person who has inherited it as a matter of right.  They are necessary if the best person is the ablest.  Of course, every human bureaucracy exists within a society where there are laws, institutions, and ethical ideas that predate the rise of bureaucracy and survive independently of it.  So one does not expect a certifying authority to require the person who owns a business to prove that s/he is the ablest person to oversee its operations.  Nor does one expect anyone to require potential parents to demonstrate any particular abilities in order to earn a license authorizing them to produce children, or to raise the children they have produced.  If all social life were subject to the demands of a single bureaucracy, we would expect to see such requirements.  Indeed, as bureaucratization proceeds apace, we see ever more footprints of bureaucracy in areas which were once matters of right.  In many parts of the USA, for example, voters are routinely required to produce identification before they are allowed to take ballots, even though there is no evidence that anyone has ever impersonated a voter, and absolutely no way to affect the outcome of an election by impersonating voters.  These laws are accepted, not because they serve any legitimate purpose, but simply because it seems natural to the residents of a social world dominated by bureaucracy to be called on to produce one’s papers.

As for the Internet, there are technical specifications devices must meet in order to be connected.  This automated bureaucracy rarely sorts its human users by technical qualifications, though they do sort themselves in much the way that the clients of bureaucracies staffed by humans sort themselves.  And, as they do when interacting with bureaucracies staffed by humans, Internet users do tend to see themselves as clients receiving services rather than as citizens asserting their rights.  Zach Weiner expressed that point very effectively in February, with his now-classic cartoon about the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” that was then before the US Congress:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

So you can see why I have thought it made sense to look at the Internet as a bureaucracy in Max Weber’s sense.  Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to follow Mr Schneier and look at it as a feudal realm.  While every element of a bureaucracy is, at least in theory, accountable to some overall authority that regulates that bureaucracy, the elements to which we trust our online security are accountable to no one.  As Mr Schneier writes:

In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.

Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.

Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.

For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve wondered if the USA is undergoing a revival of feudalism.  Mr Schneier makes a strong case that it is, at least in this area.

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No representation without taxation?

Years and years ago, I read this essay by British Libertarian J. C. Lester someplace online.  The credit here says 2001; either my memory is deceiving me or that date is in error, as I distinctly recall reading it on a computer I last used in 1997.  Anyway, it’s old.  Lester argues that people who receive more money from the state than they pay in taxes should not be allowed to vote:

Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him.

This would exclude state employees, people living on public benefit, and the destitute from voting.  And not only them:

So who does not pay taxes and so ought not to have an electoral vote? Judges, state-school teachers, all in local government, state policemen, all in the armed forces, all in prison, all in the NHS, all in the civil service, all employees of the BBC, all the unemployed, all in academia (except, perhaps, in the private University of Buckingham), some farmers, some solicitors, maybe some barristers, any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments, and MPs with insufficient taxed market-incomes to cover their salaries. I cannot list them all, but you see the size of the problem.

Indeed, the problem grows still further:

There are some who are on the periphery of net tax-receiving and whom it will not be possible to distinguish with certainty. These people receive most of their income from purchases by state institutions or state employees. The latter is especially hard to be sure of. For instance, those working for The Guardian and New Statesman & Society might just fit this category. But if it is too hard to prove then they might have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Though if the state sector shrinks, due to a new Taxpayer Democracy, then enterprises will decline to the extent that they necessarily depend on indirect state patronage.

I would say that this periphery is much larger even than Lester grants.  What is a tax?  Not only revenue that finds its way into government coffers, but any expenditure that we make solely because of government policy must be regarded as tax.  So, if the tax code says that we may either write a check for <i>x</i> amount to the state or give <i>y</i> amount to a particular charity, and we choose to give <i>y</i> because it is a smaller amount than <i>x</i>, we have not simply avoided tax- we have simply paid an alternative tax.  Those who receive more income from such an alternative tax would be as much disqualified from voting under Lester’s proposal as would those whom Lester identifies as state employees.

This group might be very large indeed.  Consider the USA.  Income American corporations receive is subject to a federal tax that averages a rate of 27%.  Yet the Internal Revenue Service collects very few dollars from the largest American corporations.  This is because the tax code provides many alternative ways of paying that tax.  Among the expenditures that count toward paying federal tax are payroll expenses, including not only hourly wages, but also salaries and various other forms of compensation, including health insurance premiums.  This fact goes a long way towards explaining why executives at American firms are paid so much more generously than are their counterparts in other countries.  Companies compete to hire high-powered executives, they don’t compete to see who can send the biggest check to Uncle Sam.  It also helps to explain why US health insurance costs spiral upward so much more rapidly than inflation.  The employers pay the insurance bills, but they don’t pay with their own money.

Under Lester’s system, then, if your income comes from the health insurance business, your right to vote might be challenged.  Likewise if you are a top corporate executive.  If your pay is higher than the norm for people like you in other countries with different tax regimes, and the difference between your pay and theirs is greater than the total amount you pay in taxes, then you are a net recipient of tax and would therefore expect to be disenfranchised under the Lester plan.

Lester bases his argument on the idea that people should act for the sake of their own interests.  If tax recipients no longer have the power to impose obligations on taxpayers, the resulting “Taxpayers’ Republic” will create the minimal state that he wishes to see.   Here Lester shows  that his goal is freedom from state bureaucracy.  Some time ago, I posted an idea here that, because the main characteristic of modern society is a high level of bureaucratization, to us moderns “freedom” must mean either freedom from bureaucracy, freedom as a product of bureaucracy, or freedom as a way of operating within a bureaucracy.  I call this little model “the three freedoms.”  Lester’s proposal might very well curb state bureaucracy, but it’s hard to see how it would contain the power of corporate bureaucracies generated and raised to a high level of efficiency by the market.

A very different argument, reaching a similar conclusion, recently gained a flurry of attention.  Pat Sajak, who for decades has hosted the US version of the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune, suggested on his blog that public sector employees should not vote on matters that affect their departments.  While Sajak’s conclusion is reminiscent of Lester’s, he proceeds from almost exactly the opposite premise.  Sajak writes:

None of my family and friends is allowed to appear on Wheel of Fortune. Same goes for my kids’ teachers or the guys who rotate my tires. If there’s not a real conflict of interest, there is, at least, the appearance of one. On another level, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from nearly half the cases this session due to her time as solicitor general. In nearly all private and public endeavors, there are occasions in which it’s only fair and correct that a person or group be barred from participating because that party could directly and unevenly benefit from decisions made and policies adopted. So should state workers be able to vote in state elections on matters that would benefit them directly? The same question goes for federal workers in federal elections.

Sajak goes on to grant that other voters seek their own self-interest as well, but claims that the intensity of a public sector employee’s concern for his or her continued employment is likely to make his or her voting behavior qualitatively different than the behavior of a taxpayer who wants to reduce state spending.  That taxpayer will have other interests that s/he might balance, while the state employee will not be likely to take anything else into consideration if his or her livelihood is immediately at stake.

While Lester wants to create a space free from state bureaucracy in which people will be at liberty to pursue their own interests, Sajak wants to ensure that state bureaucracy functions as an impersonal, disinterested mechanism that produces freedom for the people outside it by guaranteeing that the people inside it merely follow the rules of the mechanism.  In terms of “the three freedoms,” Sajak wants the freedom that is a product of bureaucracy.

I would suggest that the “three freedoms” model might be useful in structuring a reply to both Lester and Sajak.  Perhaps an agenda to support freedom in a modern society requires us to address all three of these freedoms at once.  Sajak’s reform might enable the state to create greater freedom for its clients, thus promoting the freedom that bureaucracy produces.  Let us suppose that Lester’s reform would reduce bureaucratization of both the public and private sectors, thus promoting the freedom that can exist where bureaucracy is held at bay.  Clearly, however, either reform would label members of the state bureaucracy and of the other bureaucracies aligned with it as a servile class.  That labeling would surely make those bureaucracies less likely to be places where people could work in freedom, which in turn would make society at large a more servile place.

Designed to fail

Jeffrey Reiman

The June 2010 issue of the ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine contains this paragraph, in a column by Philip Jenkins:

The concept of “designed to fail” was formulated back in 1979 in an influential study by leftist scholar Jeffrey Reiman entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.  Following Marxist theory, Reiman argued that the goal of the criminal-justice system was not to suppress crime but to promote and sustain acceptable levels of social misbehavior, with the aim of enhancing the power and resources of official agencies.  Crime, in short, is useful, even essential, for the preservation of state power.  Reiman was not postulating a conspiracy theory but exploring the dynamics of agencies charged with tasks that were literally impossible.  Yet rather than being discredited or disheartened by their failures, agencies stood to benefit mightily from them and actively sought out still more absurdly quioxotic challenges.  They were in a no-lose situation. 

This description reminds me of an idea I’ve sometimes tried to express.  In a representative democracy, political power is in the hands of the electorate, yet the electorate consists almost entirely of people who are in no position to know what the state is doing.  If the government undertakes a program meant to discourage certain crimes, the most the majority will now about this program is that it represents a campaign to fight crime.  Even if this program is an absolute success in rational terms, and entirely eliminates the crimes it was aimed at discouraging, the public will observe that other crimes still go unchecked.  The electorate, therefore, will count the program as a failure.  

Because of these disparate perceptions, advocates of increased state power find themselves in a position to appeal simultaneously to political insiders and to the public at large.  Insiders may respond to the fact that the program succeeded in its actual goals, and support future programs to pursue other goals.  The public at large will focus on the program’s imagined failures, and demand a more aggressive program to make good on promises that they suppose the first program to have made.  As a result, the degree of police authority and other sorts of bureaucratic domination tends to ratchet ever upward as a representative democracy develops.  When this idea first popped into my head a while back, I thought of labeling it “the authoritarian spiral.”  I was disappointed to find that political scientist Ian Loader had already coined the phrase “authoritarian spiral,” with another meaning, a few years before.  So I started calling it “the authoritarian ratchet effect,” which is admit not at all catchy.   

To prevent this ratchet effect from transforming a representative democracy into a despotism, I call for a revival of direct democracy.  People who are actively involved in drafting, approving, and carrying out particular laws are likelier to have an idea what can reasonably be expected of those laws than are people whose only involvement in that process is the right to cast one vote out of 100,000,000.

Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

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A great artificial man

In the introduction to Leviathan, English thinker Thomas Hobbes famously compared the state to a “great artificial man, or monster, composed of other men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under the pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions.”  The nerves and sinews of this artificial man, as he is constituted in modern society, are the laws and regulations of a rationalized bureaucracy.  He can function because he acts in accord with these laws and regulations as predictably as automata made of metal follow the algorithms of their programming.  As a being made of rules, the state interacts most smoothly with other beings made of rules.  Whenever possible, the state will tend to reduce everything it touches to a body like itself, a body defined by rules.  

Where the modern state has been established longest, bureaucratization respects the fewest boundaries.   The March 2010 issue of Chronicles carries a piece by a man from Hobbes’ own homeland, Thomas McMahon.  McMahon writes of the policies which the New Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have adopted in the name of protecting children from sex offenders.  After the 2002 killing of 10 year old girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the government introduced plans to require everyone in the United Kingdom who comes “into regular contact with children in any semioffical capacity to register with a national database.”  As McMahon points out, “‘Regular’ could mean mean as little as a few times per year, and ‘semiofficial’ covers everyone from cleaners at sports facilities to a parent who gives lifts to a group of kids in the morning.  Anyone wishing to help out with after-school activities would be required to register.”  How is this registry to be compiled?  McMahon explains:

Upon application for membership on the list, opinions would be sought on the suitability of the candidate.  Acquaintances and workmates may be asked for their comments, internet forums and networking sites may be trawled, “lifestyles” would be examined.  Even the most baseless accusation would be recorded in perpetuity on a central state database.  There would be no investigation to determine whether the accusation was malicious.  There would be no requirement that the accusations be proven in court. 

How closely were these provisions designed to address the case of Misses Chapman and Wells?  Not at all, as it turns out; the man convicted of their murder was not an employee of their school, nor did he fill any other “semiofficial capacity” that might have brought him into contact with them.  He was, rather, the boyfriend of one of their teachers.  He happened to be alone at her house when the girls dropped in to see her.  The law does not require teachers to date only people from the approved list, and so would have done nothing to protect Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells had it been in effect in 2002. 

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Can the USA become a normal country again?

 

He wanted to to return to normalcy

I posted a “Periodicals Note” about The American Conservative‘s March issue a few weeks ago, then realized I’d never put one up for the February issue.  That’s a shame, because there was a lot of great stuff in it. 

I loved this line, a quote from Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute: “Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.”

Ted Galen Carpenter sums up The American Conservative‘s whole worldview with the opening paragraphs of his piece titled “New War Order.”   So I’ll quote them in extenso:

For a fleeting moment 20 years ago, the United States had the chance to become a normal nation again. From World War II through the collapse of European communism in 1989, America had been in a state of perpetual war, hot or cold. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of that could have changed. There were no more monsters to destroy, no Nazi war machine or global communist conspiracy. For the first time in half a century, the industrialized world was at peace.

Then in December 1989, America went to war again—this time not against Hitler or Moscow’s proxies but with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Tensions between George H.W. Bush’s administration and Noriega’s government had been mounting for some time and climaxed when a scuffle with Panamanian troops left an American military officer dead. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces moved to oust and arrest Noriega. Operation Just Cause, as the invasion was called, came less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell, and it set America on a renewed path of intervention. The prospect of reducing American military involvement in other nations’ affairs slipped away, thanks to the precedent set in Panama.

How real was the opportunity to change American foreign policy at that point? Real enough to worry the political class. Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop lamented in 1989 that there was growing pressure to cut the military budget and that Congress was being overwhelmed by a “1935-style isolationism.” But the invasion of Panama signaled that Washington was not going to pursue even a slightly more restrained foreign policy.

That the U.S. would topple the government of a neighbor to the south was hardly unprecedented, of course. The United States had invaded small Caribbean and Central American countries on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. Indeed, before the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, Washington routinely overthrew regimes it disliked.

During the Cold War, however, such operations always had a connection to the struggle to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the military occupations of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 all matched that description. Whatever other motives may have been involved, the Cold War provided the indispensable justification for intervention. And for all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that U.S. presidents employed during the struggle against communism, there was no indication that Washington would later revert to the practice of coercing Latin American countries merely, in Woodrow Wilson’s infamous words, to teach those societies “to elect good men.” Thus the invasion of Panama seemed a noticeable departure. Odious though he may have been, Noriega was never a Soviet stooge.

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Bioethics as a profession

ALDaily named its link to this article about the profession of bioethics “How are these people experts?”  A quote:

Is it politically desirable for society to credit a designated group called “bioethicists” with expertise in resolving the most difficult moral questions? If so, what is it that gives ethicists a more legitimate claim to wisdom about right and wrong than the rest of us? The matter of ethical expertise — what it looks like, who can claim it — is a profound one. The place of bioethics in the academy, in the clinical realm, and in society turns on it. For most of us, the very idea of the “right” answer to a complex moral dilemma seems absurd on its face. After all, its derivation depends upon which moral theory one favors: deontological, consequentialist, natural law, situational, and so on.

By no means does this negate the possibility, let alone the importance, of serious moral reflection, but such analyses may be too lost in the foundational questions to be of much everyday use. And, of course, many bioethicists rely on their own philosophical biases. So, for example, when bioethicists condemn organ donor solicitation with the argument that it gives unfair advantage to some or violates human dignity, we must ask what makes them sufficiently sure of their view to impose it on others? Finding the “right” moral answer — assuming for a moment one exists — is not the business of applied ethics. So what can bioethics offer? What is its technical expertise?

[Hoover Policy Review]

Liberty and Bureaucracy

The Rebecca Solnit piece linked below, together with some recent conversations I’ve had with LeFalcon and VThunderlad, have got me thinking about what we twenty-first century types mean when we use words like “freedom” and “liberty.”  I’m wondering if we can’t update Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” a bit.  Perhaps when we moderns talk about freedom, we are talking about how individuals relate to bureaucracies.  This sets us apart from the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Bureaucracy in the modern sense scarcely existed in ancient times; nor was the individual the  basic unit of society.  It was the household which was the locus of rights and responsibilities.  Challenges which a single household could not meet were met by groupings of households, either traditional groupings based on kinship relations or more-or-less temporary, informal relations based on physical propinquity.  In the absence of bureaucracies that could define their clients and members as parts of a community, it was the ability to form cooperative groupings that made a community.  The ancients, therefore, tended to see freedom as a property, not of individuals in isolation, but of independent households, of men acting as representatives of those households, and of concerted efforts made by collections of households.

If on the other hand we define freedom as the individual’s relationship to bureaucracy, what do we mean when we say that we want to be free? Sometimes we mean that we want to rebel against bureaucracy, to escape from the infantilizing effects of dependence on bureaucracy.  This can lead to absurd extremes; if we do not have a concept of community apart from the bureaucratic organizations that bear the community’s name, this anti-bureaucratic idea of freedom could keep us from calling anyone free but a solitary creature like the Cyclops.  And many among us do not seem to have such a concept of community; the attempt to build a communitarian movement that got so much publicity back in the early 1990s seems to have foundered on the difficulty of talking to modern people about community and eliciting a response that is about anything other than bureaucracies.  Many libertarians seem to be numbered among those who lack a concept of community as something other than bureaucracy.  Libertarians often make penetrating remarks about the dangers of state bureaucracy, but then go on to talk as if corporate bureaucracies were not fraught with the same dangers.  Indeed, if the forces of the market  make the bureaucracies that are subject to them more efficient at meeting the needs of their clients than are bureaucracis that don’t compete for clients, then we would expect market-generated bureaucracies to reduce their clients to dependence, and thus to infantilize them, more rapidly and more thoroughly than do state monopolies. 

Other times we say that we want freedom, and we mean that we want some benefit that a bureaucracy can give us.  So in the 1940s when Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the “Four Freedoms“- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want- he clearly thought of these as the products of bureaucratic efficiency.  An effective anti-poverty bureaucracy would ensure freedom from want; an effective national-security bureaucracy would ensure freedom from fear; an effective judicial bureaucracy would ensure freedom of religion and of speech, freedoms which in turn would allow people to express themselves by creating denominational bureaucracies for their religious groups and partisan bureaucracies for those who shared their political views.  When Americans today call for a public-sector guarantee of health care for all, they are asking for this kind of freedom.  When other Americans oppose such a guarantee, some are motivated by a concept of freedom as rebellion against bureaucracy, but others are motivated by a belief that the private sector bureaucracies of insurance companies offer a more efficient way of providing freedom from the fear of illness and freedom from the want that often follows illness. 

Still other times when we say that we want freedom, we mean that we want to play a particular role within a bureaucratic organization.  Academic freedom is an obvious example of this concept of liberty.  Professors are free to use their own judgment in teaching their courses and in delivering opinions about topics within their fields of expertise.  Which courses they will teach, what field of expertise is theirs, and what topics lie within each field of expertise are all questions that are answered by continuous bureaucratic activity.  The idea that freedom is a category of roles within bureaucracies can be found also at the heart of the labor movement.  What rules a union sets for the workforce of its shop is a less vital concern than the fact that there are rules in the shop which came from the union.  What deal emerges from collective bargaining is less important than the fact that management is obligated to sit down with the representatives of labor and come to consensus with them. 

Perhaps the concept of liberty as a way of operating within a bureaucracy has been very influential in making the modern world.  When there was a live controversy about whether women should go out of the household to work in bureaucratic organizations, the women’s movement put a great deal of emphasis on the freedom women would gain by participating in the workforce.  This would have been unintelligible in the ancient world, where work in the household was appropriate to free people, while work for wages was proper only to slaves.  In the modern world, by contrast, going out of the household and into wage labor is a sign of freedom, if that wage labor means an opportunity to have an impact on the operations of a bureaucracy.  

The antislavery movement may be another case of liberty conceived as something found within bureaucracy.  Abolitionism was at once a movement against slavery and a movement in support of wage labor.  While the ancient Greeks and Romans might have seen that as a contradiction, it did not seem so by that time.  The ancients would have understood the slogan “forty acres and a mule.”   A grant of land and the means to support a household by farming it would open the way to the creation of a self-sufficient agricultural household.   That would have chartered the kind of freedom they could appreciate.  The freedom merely to leave the master’s household, to venture out as an isolated individual and to enter the world of bureaucracy, whether as a job-seeker or as a client needing services, would not have seemed to them to be freedom at all.   We moderns, on the other hand, find the purest promise of freedom in the African American elected officials and government employees of the Reconstruction era, and the most natural support of freedom in the operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau.