Friday, November 22, 2013

Unintended Consequences: Ending Filibuster Creates Tyranny of the Minority

United States Senate Seal
United States Senate Seal (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)
"Senator Kaine espousing the radical, radical notion of majority rule. That is now on tape, sir," Chris Hayes said Thursday night (21 Nov 2013).

And he couldn't be more wrong.

In theory, the GOP could control the Senate with members elected from states representing less than 25 percent of the nation. The math is simple: win lots of small, rural states, and you have a majority in the Senate, while needing only a minority of American voters. 

Can Chris Hayes and numerous other pundits (and politicians) be so dense as to not recognize that a minority of voters nationally, but representing majorities in small aging states, could elect a GOP majority in the Senate? And no, this isn't some gerrymandering trick, since Senators are elected state-wide. It's simply a fact that the rural states could dictate policy for the majority… within two or three election cycles.

[See the MSNBC clip at: A Historic Day: Nuclear Option in the Senate]

Progressive politicians, activists, and commentators are revealing their political biases, not some inherent commitment to the (bad) idea of majority rule. "Majority rule" would change the Senate, or even abolish it. And for a group supposedly dedicated to "minority rights," I've never understood their passion for direct democracy that an old fable attributed to many sources (including Ben Franklin, without much evidence, and H. L. Mencken among others), described as two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. Direct democracy is not what our system embraces, and for good reasons.

Regardless of your views on direct democracy, the "majority rule" nonsense overlooks a basic, statistical truth: Republicans are likely to control the Senate within the next three election cycles, and could control the White House. This presents a quandary for those progressives claiming "majority rule" is good for the Senate and good for the United States. Do you mean a majority of Americans, or a majority in the Senate? Right now, those might be the same, but that's not likely to hold true — just as it isn't true in the House.

Republicans are unlikely, for many reasons we can debate, to hold or win Senate seats in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and several other states. But, they are likely to hold or gain seats throughout the sparsely populated middle-regions of the nation. There will be a GOP majority in the Senate, representing a minority of voters. Caring more about President Obama getting his way, progressives have set the table for the GOP to do whatever it wants in the near future.

I don't like either party having a lot of power. I like stalemates and gridlock.

Thanks to the Democrats ending the filibuster on judicial and cabinet nominations, the GOP will likely kill it off entirely. And, with reconciliation and other parliamentary maneuvers, it isn't as if the filibuster was strong on legislative issues anyway.

A president could, therefore, appoint justices, ratify treaties, and approve agency regulators without California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, or other populous states having any voice in the choices.

Rural America could (and likely will) dominate the policy choices affecting urban centers that are political mirror images to their rural brethren.

Welcome to "tyranny of the minority" brought to you in the name of "majority rule" in the Senate.

As Richard Arenberg wrote in August:
Should the Democrats choose to trigger the nuclear option, a majority of senators might represent as few as 17 percent of the population using their own counting methodology. Stretching the hypothetical a little farther, a quorum requires only 51 senators. Therefore, 26 senators from 13 states representing a mere 4 percent of the population could provide the simple majority to change the rules!
— from "Save the Filibuster"

Sen. Tom Harkin has led the charge to "reform" the Senate. His argument is that the current situation is undemocratic because Republicans in the House and Senate represent a minority of voters. That is true, as the GOP representatives actually won 1.4 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority in the House. But, Harkin's call to end the filibuster is based on a flawed premise. Again, he overlooks that the Senate grants Wyoming and Idaho the same power as California and New York.

Sen. Harkin once stated:
"We simply cannot govern a 21st Century superpower when a minority of just 41 senators, representing potentially as little as 11 percent of the population, can dictate action — or inaction — not just to the majority of senators but to a majority of the American people."
Okay, Sen. Harkin, but will you at least admit you're not promoting "democracy" so much as your political ideology and the current president? You have not created a more democratic Senate — and you might have done quite the opposite. Will Sen. Harkin protest when the GOP has 51 senators, mostly from small states? What if 40 percent of American's elect a majority to the Senate? Is that democratic?

As Arenberg argues, advocacy groups are making similarly mistaken arguments:
The advocacy group Common Cause, arguing that the filibuster is unconstitutional, told the federal court that the Senate's cloture rule requiring 60 votes to cut off debate gives, "senators elected from 21 states that may contain as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population an absolute veto power over bills, resolutions and presidential appointments supported by senators who represent 83 percent of the people of the United States."
I do not support direct democracy, for many reasons. The Founders gave us an Electoral College, a bicameral legislature, indirect appointment of senators (something lost to the 17th Amendment), three branches of government, and many other impediments to sudden "mob rule" in this nation. Majorities tend to trample minority rights, with the best of intentions.

As a libertarian, classical liberal, I prefer to limit the power of government. Changing the filibuster will make it easier for government to pursue bad (but trendy) ideas. The new rules give more power the executive branch, which is always a bad idea. The new rules also give more power and influence to the extremists in both parties, since those voices are the new "filibuster" within each party.

Consider a president with 52 or 53 senators from his or her party. The loud radicals will demand ideologically pure appointments to cabinet posts, regulatory agencies, and the judicial benches. The radicals, representing the most loyal and active party voters, are likely to become all-powerful. So, you end up with tyranny of the majority even when the party in power does represent a majority of voters. Most voters are centrists, not party loyalists… and those centrists have lost the power to be heard as of this week.

Thanks Democrats for supporting a non-democratic, non-republican, non sequitur of a reform.
Tangent: The quote about sheep and wolves, like so many "quotes" has at least six "sources" according to books and websites. Maybe we can vote on which is the "correct" source — democracy in action, determining "truth" even if it is wrong.  In the end… we just don't know the source for certain, only those retelling the fable. With reasonable certainty, we can conclude it was not first said by Ben Franklin.
—  See: Fake Quote: Lunches with Wolves  
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Thinkers in Disagreement: Admitting Flaws (and Worse)

English: Murray Rothbard in the 90's
English: Murray Rothbard in the 90's (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the questions I've been asked is how I can reconcile drawing bits and pieces of my personal views on economics and politics from individuals with disagreements. The answer is simple: we each create a personal philosophy drawing from experiences and those thoughts to which we are exposed. We embrace some ideas and reject others, even the ideas of someone we admire.

Some of the ideas and views expressed by thinkers I admire deserve to be rejected — that's true in economics, philosophy, and other disciplines.

I lean towards Austrian economic theories, but not without skepticism.

A name that comes up when I mention Austrian economics is Murray Rothbard. He's dismissed in the same way some dismiss Ayn Rand. (Rothbard quickly rejected Rand as a "cult" leader.)

"Rothbard was a fascist, racist, conservative." I'm paraphrasing, but that's the charge against him. I suppose I could mention the flaws of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt in response. Humans are imperfect, and some of those imperfections are repugnant looking backwards.

The shame is that Rothbard was a serious, thoughtful economist. And he could be wrong on many things.

I admire some of the works of Murray Rothbard, but I don't agree with his radical libertarianism and rejection of popular democracy. Not that I endorse direct democracy, either: I like the republican form of the U.S. Constitution and its protection of minority opinions. The Ludwig von Mises Institute and Cato Institute both produce interesting scholarship, reflecting Rothbard's co-founding of each, but they also tend to assume investors and producers are always "good" for society. There are some serious problems with the von Mises Institute — and to deny those would be wrong.

I am not a social conservative, and the von Mises Institute was shaped by a conservatism I reject. There's little doubt that some of the institutes supporters are racists or at least "racialists" of some sort. If you can stand anywhere near David Duke, I don't understand you. ("Scholars" associated with the institute praised Duke — feel free to "Google" the topic of "racism von mises institute" or read about Lew Rockwell, former head of the institute.)

It is not my personal classical liberalism. But, I do not reject all that the institute publishes. I read critically.

My friends know that I read everything I can, from anarchists to socialists, and all thinkers between. Politics and economics are intertwined, in unpredictable ways. Libertarians occupy the entire political spectrum, as I've mentioned before in this space. I can learn from all, if I'm skeptical.

Ludwig von Mises wrote against racism, but many of the people associated with the Institute that bears his name at least tolerate the worst in our society. Rothbard did not actively reject racists or racist ideas. Sadly, neither did von Mises. Both men took "libertarianism" to allow and even empower racism through the notion of free association. If a private business can exclude clients, that does permit and encourage racism.

Rothbard defended Malcom X, while criticizing Martin Luther King, Jr. He supported the idea that free association should allow races to voluntarily segregate. I firmly believe the opposite, that integration and variety leads to a more creative and adaptable society.

Do I support free association? Sure, but I don't like groups based on race, religion, or gender. I do believe business operate in a "public space" and are subject to some restrictions. I'm not a believer in "anarcho-capitalism."

I can appreciate Rothbard in the same way I might appreciate Nietzsche, Sartre, or Heidegger: by taking bits and pieces to form my own philosophy. On racism, Ludwig von Mises did write the following during WWII:
Omnipotent Government
by Ludwig von Mises

The present war would never have originated but for anti-­Semitism. Only anti-Semitism made it possible for the Nazis to restore the German people's faith in the invincibility of its armed forces, and thus to drive Germany again into the policy of aggression and the struggle for hegemony. Only the anti-Semitic entanglement of a good deal of French public opinion prevented France from stopping Hitler when he could still be stopped without war. And it was anti-Semitism that helped the German armies find in every European country men ready to open the doors to them.

Mankind has paid a high price indeed for anti-Semitism.

How Rothbard and von Mises could later tolerate racism in the name of freedom escapes me. At the very least, even in a "free market of ideas" you need to speak out against racism and other forms of hate.
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