Bush is an Idiot: Not!

Matthew Yglesias makes two rude remarks about George W. Bush. Not only do I regard making such remarks as encroaching on my private turf, but in this instance both seem to me false-to-fact. And the wrongness of one helps make sense of the other.

The first has to do with the latest Andrew Sullivan flap. Apparently (I must have missed it) some Left Bloggers have been gay-baiting Sullivan. Glenn Reynolds has been (I think properly) tough about this. Yglesias responds, in effect, that’s it’s odd to hear so much concern about homophobia from backers of a President who believes (1) that no one should have sex outside of marriage and (2) that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

That isn’t really much of a defense of liberal gay-baiting, but it’s not a bad debating comeback: presumably being denied any sexual contact at all is worse than being made fun of for whatever sexual contact one does have. If Bush believes both of those things, Yglesias seems to be saying, then he must believe their logical entailment — that no gay person should ever have sex — and therefore must be a moral monster.

Hold that thought for a moment. Now consider another recent Yglesias comment, this one making fun of the coinage “idiotarian” and the attempt to construct a political philosophy consisting of being against it:

Incidentally, don’t you think “anti-idiotarianism” would be a good name for an ideology based on the proposition that a country shouldn’t be led into war by an idiot?

Now come on, guys, how many times is GWB going to eat our lunch before we figure out that he’s not an idiot? He’s radically unserious, both morally and intellectually, but that’s not the same as being stupid. Let’s not forget that dyslexia, which he almost certainly has and which explains some of his verbal stumbles, is defined as unusual difficulty in reading despite normal intelligence.

When Yglesias calls Bush an idiot, what he means, I think, is that Bush is in the deepest sense not a philosopher: not someone who cares about the difference between true and false, as opposed to what he can get people to believe, or who is concerned that the things he believes should be congruent with reality, or even consistent with each other.

I agree with Plato that it would be useful if our rulers were philosophers in that sense. (Plato can’t have meant that rulers should be deeply interested in, say, epistemology or ethical theory, unless he was an idiot, which seems unlikely.) But I also agree with Plato that, desirable as it might be, having a philosopher-king is not the usual state of affairs. And I strongly disagree with Yglesias’s apparent view that all non-philosophers are idiots.

Arianna Huffington has observed something else about Bush: his low tolerance for complexity. Again, not the most desirable trait in a ruler. But note that the capacity to believe contradictory propositions can substitute for a tolerance for complexity (or rather, tolerance for the cognitive dissonance that recognizing complexity usually entails). So Bush, for example, can believe that nonmarital sex is bad (not obviously false, in sociological terms), that gay marriage would disrupt the social order (again, not a silly belief, though not one I share) and not draw the conclusion — except, perhaps, as a “Sunday belief” — that all gays should be condemned to perpetual celibacy.

Holding the first two beliefs but not the third would be impossible for Yglesias, or me, or you, dear reader, or for anyone Yglesias would regard as not an idiot. But it’s quite easy for the majority of the population.

What Orwell called “doublethink” needs to be inculcated in intellectuals, but that is only because an intolerance for contradiction has been drilled into them. Normal people do it naturally. The average American believes in both physics and astrology. The average American considers himself a Bible Christian but does not believe in Hell. The average American thinks that we should be spending about ten times as much on foreign aid, as a percentage of the Federal budget, as we actually spend, but also wants the foreign aid budget cut, and will simply refuse to believe you if you tell him the actual numbers.

Again, this isn’t aberrant. This is normal and natural. Universities exist in part because people who really, really believe that 2 + 2 = 4 under all circumstances aren’t comfortable in business or government or the professions. Unless intellectuals learn (to use another Orwellism) to “bellyfeel” the fact that most people aren’t intellectuals and are nonetheless not stupid, they’re going to keep getting unwelcome political surprises.

How gay conservatives deal with the fact that the politicians they support hold, or at least express, a set of beliefs that imply that no gay person should ever have sex is a different question.

[Note that it’s possible to believe that without hating gays or thinking that they are bad people. The traditional Christian position is, as C.S. Lewis expressed it, that a homosexual orientation is “a burden to be borne, not a sin to be repented,” but that perpetual chastity is the only proper way to bear that burden. Just chalk it up to the Christian God’s rather quirky sense of humor.]

Granted the assumption — which I don’t hold, but which isn’t obviously self-contradictory — that gay sex is a bad thing, there’s nothing inconsistent thinking that gays ought to be celibate. It’s exactly my view about those unfortunates who are attracted sexually to children, and only to children: the desire isn’t their fault, but they must not act on it, even if the only alternative is celibacy.

“But,” you say, “gay sex isn’t at all like pedophilia. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Right. But that’s where you and I on the one hand, and George Bush and most of the electorate on the other, disagree.

The voters’ views are obviously changing, and we can trust GWB and his fellow conservatives to follow in due course, once they’ve milked gay-baiting for whatever votes it’s worth. (As Bush did against McCain in South Carolina two years ago, promising never to appoint a gay person to a job in his administration.) After all, today’s Republicans have learned to treat Jews and Catholics as damned near as good as white folks; why not gays? And changing his position won’t cost non-philosopher Bush a night’s sleep.

UPDATE: More thoughts here on Bushism and postmodernism.

BLOOD LIBEL: NOT! MORE ON

BLOOD LIBEL: NOT!

MORE ON BALLISTIC SIGNATURES

To review the bidding for those who came in late:

In answer to a question prompted by the DC-area sniper problem, Ari Fleischer rejected out of hand the proposal to insitute a national ballistic signature system, on technical and privacy grounds, and using the “Why would a killer obey a gun law?” argument.

When it comes to criminal behavior and people who use guns to commit murder, there is no amount of laws that will stop these people from committing these depraved crimes. The issue is their morality. The issue is their values. They have broken the law, they will break the law, new laws do not stop people like this. (See here.)

Congressman Jim Moran asked why the White House wanted to protect the privacy of people “who would be shooting other people.” See here and here. Glenn Reynolds called that a “blood libel.” Various pro-gun bloggers backed up Fleischer in various ways, claiming (1) such a system would cost too much; (2) it would produce too many false positives, leading to unwelcome police visits to buyers of guns with look-alike signatures; (3) a gun’s signature naturally changes with time, and can also be deliberately disguised; (4) getting signatures of new guns wouldn’t do much good due to the large stock of existing weapons, and there’s no feasible way to get signatures from weapons already in private hands; (5) the resulting database would amount to natinal firearms registration, with confiscation as a possible next step.

Flesicher later backed off somewhat, saying the technical issues ought to be studied.

OK. Deep breath. There are two issues here, one operational and one rhetorical. Operations first.

Here’s the proposal. Each firearm would be test-fired (as almost all now are), the peculiarities of the marks it leaves on the bullet and shell casing recorded in some electronic form, and the data stored in a national database along with the serial number of the gun. The serial number, in turn, allows a gun to be traced to the federally licensed firearms dealer [“FFL”] who sells it.

That “gun tracing” process is already (imperfectly) in place for guns found at crime scenes. Each FFL is required to make sure that each purchaser is not disqualified from buying (not a convicted felon, for example), and to retain a record of that check, including the name of the buyer. So, given the identify of the gun, it is possible to trace it to its first retail purchaser. A ballistic signature database would make it possible to start the tracing process with a bullet or shell casing, rather than the gun itself.

Because sales in the secondary market (when one non-dealer owner sells to another) do not have to be background-checked, the trail frequently runs cold at that point. The gun is traced to the retailer and then to the purchaser, but he sold it through an ad in the newspaper to someone whose name he doesn’t recall. Still, tracing statistics can be useful in identifying patterns of illegal gun trafficking.

[Note: Many of us think that it would be useful to eliminate the private-sale loophole and require all weapons transfers to be background-checked, thus making it possible to trace each gun to its last lawful purchaser (and incidentally making it marginally harder for ineligible buyers to acquire guns). Since many secondary-market sales go on at or near gun shows, there is a superstition among the gun controllers, which they have managed to communicate to the press, that there exists some sort of “gun show loophole.” False. Nothing is legal at a gun show that wouldn’t be legal anywhere; the loophole is for private sales generally. But the current trace system still has investigative benefits, despite the problem of the trail running cold.]

There is some dispute about how good current ballistic signature technology is; Eugene Volokh links to a post from Clayton Cramer citing a skeptical view from a California law enforcement working group, though that report is about hanguns rather than rifles. But Moore’s Law is still working hard, so anything that a computer can almost-sorta-kinda do today will probably work pretty well ten years from now. That suggests that whatever system we put in place now ought to record as much data as possible — perhaps a photograph — of the bullet and casing markings, in addition to whatever classification is now done, in order to allow upgrading the in the future.

A system with a high false-positive rate will be too expensive to use routinely; on the other hand, if the Maryland State Police had a list of 200 rifles, with one chance in three that the sniper’s gun is on that list, they’d be running down those leads.

Yes, markings change with use, and can be deliberately altered. But here again advances in image-processing techniques are likely to make such techniques decreasingly useful, as people who thought they had erased audio tapes or deleted files from computer storage media have discovered.

But the “What do we do about old guns?” argument actually destroys the “Technology isn’t ready yet” argument. Whatever its technical capacity, the system won’t be much use the day it starts, because it won’t have many signatures in it. Over time, the proportion of guns whose signatures are recorded will rise, and the usefulness of the system will rise with it. That means that the time to start taking signatures is before the comparison system is fully mature — now, for example — so that when the computers get smart enough to do high-accuracy automated comparisons they’ll have some data to do them on.

The “gun registration” argument is pure red herring, though Eugene takes it seriously as does the Right-Thinking Blogger. Given the serial number of a gun, it’s already possible to trace it to its first retail purchaser, though the records are decentralized in the FFL’s rather than kept in a national database. Taking ballistic signatures won’t change that in any way; such a system only means that, given a crime-scene bullet or shell casing, it might be possible to identify it with a gun — even if the gun isn’t available — and thus with a purchaser. Gun confiscation will be exactly as feasible technically the day after the system is in place as it was before. (Exactly as feasible politically, too, which is to say, not feasible at all.)

The “We have enough laws already” business is herring of an even deeper red. No one is asking killers to obey anything. We’re trying to make it easier to catch them: trying that is, to better enforce the laws already on the books, which is precisely the mantra of the NRA and its tame politicians.

None of this answers the question about whether compiling a database of ballistic signatures is currently worth doing; some experts (David Kennedy, among others) think so, as does the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, but they could be wrong. Still, the alacrity with which the White House press secretary (acting on instructions, of course) dismissed the idea on obviously fallacious grounds suggests that the politics of guns currently trumps even domestic-security concerns at 1600 Pennsylvania. If terrorist threats are now a semi-permanent feature of the American landscape, making investments now that pay anti-terror dividends in five years is only prudent. (Fleischer’s quick retreat suggests that, at least this close to election day, even the NRA isn’t all-powerful.)

Now back to Mr. Moran. If he really meant, or meant his hearers to understand, that Ari Fleischer and his bosses don’t want to do ballistic tracing because they want serial killers not be be caught, that would have been an obviously false and defamatory thing to say. But it seems implausible that he meant that, or that he meant to be misunderstood in that way. He was indulging a fairly standard rhetorical device: stating an unintended consequence of one’s opponent’s position and then demanding why anyone would desire it, eliding the fact that the position so attacked has advantages as well as disadvantages. [Moran seems to be saying that only criminals, rather than target shooters or hunters, will have their guns “matched” by the database, which would be true only if the technology were perfect; in the real world, a certain number of innocent people are going to find the police on their doorsteps asking questions, not necessarily politely.]

That’s not a rhetorical trick I approve of, because it tends to conceal, rather than revealing, what’s at stake in a dispute. But to call it a “blood libel” seems to me … well, libellous.

The original, or copyright, Blood Libel was the accusation that Jews made ritual use of the blood of Christian babies. (In the most common version, the blood was used in baking matzoh for Passover.) The first time I heard it used in political discourse to describe a false charge of non-ritual killing was by Ariel Sharon and his friends, who called it a “blood libel” that people held Sharon responsible for a mass killing undertaken by his Christian Lebanese allies against their Palestinian opponents, with Sharon’s troops nearby and not intervening. I thought it then, and think it now, a skilful attempt to portray Sharon as a victim of anti-Semitism rather than as someone who had provided a good reason to be ashamed of being a Jew. But the logic from Sharon’s side was clear: Jews had been falsely accused of murder in the past, and this accusation against a Jew was simply a reversion to that unsavory practice. (Who says the left has a copyright on victim-mongering?)

But all of that was a long way from Congressman Moran. When the President said, in reference to the Senate Democrats’ unwillingess to make the proposed Homeland Security Agency a patronage dump for Karl Rove (see how easy it is to make a difficult problem seem easy if you’re willing to be nasty enough?), that the Democrats preferred the interests of public-employee unions to the security of the nation, was that a blood libel? When Attorney General Ashcroft claimed that opposition to military tribunals was aiding and abetting terrorism, was that a blood libel?

The seeming willingness of this administration to sacrifice privacy in every other domain — not just in the domestic-security realm, but also with respect to things such as medical records — makes it hard to swallow the claim that its willingness to forgo possible investigative advantage in the case of guns is due to its solicitude for privacy rights. (This isn’t the first instance of preferring gun owners’ privacy to public safety; we’ve already had the Attorney General’s announcement that the FBI would be required to instantly destroy records from the National Instant Check System, thus making it harder to prosecute some violations of the felon-in-possession law.) The decision to oppose ballistic signatures without looking at their merits was a decision to please the gun-rights crowd rather than give (future) law enforcement an extra edge.

It’s not libel to say so. Truth is a defense.

[UPDATE: There turn out to be several technical errors in the above. The system under development works on shell casings, not bullets. It’s not just images that would be stored, but the actual casings themselves. And the point about false positives apparently isn’t right: comparing two casings can provide a definitive match. Thanks to Susan Ginsburg for the corrections.]

AT LAST! Finally, Mort

AT LAST!

Finally, Mort Halperin gives the anti-war side of the debate what it has obviously lacked: an alternative strategy for dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein. He calls it “containment-plus.” It depends on a Security Council resolution that I’m not sure would pass, but it sounds like it’s worth a try.

And just yesterday, my colleague Amy Zegart — in the course of wiping up the floor with Arianna Huffington in a debate about war here at UCLA — provided the best statement I’ve heard of what our objectives in a war should be and why waiting and counting on deterrence has poor prospects. She also convinced me that September 11 makes a real difference in thinking about how to approach Iraq, in a way that doesn’t depend on the idea that the fanatical Baath secularists who run Iraq and the fanatical Wahabbis in al-Qaeda are somehow in cahoots. If Amy writes it down, I’ll post it.

It’s a little late for the two sides in this debate to be finally getting their acts together, but better late than never.

VOTER REGISTRATION FRAUD IN MINNESOTA?

VOTER REGISTRATION FRAUD IN MINNESOTA?

Gentle reader, would you be kind enough to participate as a subject in a small unscientific study in social pschology?

Read the text below, and, before reading further, send me an email (kleiman@ucla.edu) with the answers to the two questions that immediately follow.

We are mobilizing to bring young people to Minnesota. Minnesota is one of the few states that allow same day voter registration. We will therefore focus our energy on registering young Minnesotans. Wellstone will need a high percentage of young people to register and vote for him if he is to stave off the campaign that Bush, the Republicans and the Greens are waging against him.

Question 1 What is the organization that sent that message trying to do? Does it intend:

A. To bring young people from outside Minnesota to Minnesota to falsely register and vote there; or

B. To bring young people from outside Minnesota to Minnesota to encourage young people who live in Minnesota to register and vote?

C. The text is ambiguous.

Question 2 Would you describe yourself as:

A. A strong Democratic partisan

B. A weak Democratic partisan

C. More or less neutral between the parties

D. A weak Republican partisan

E. A strong Republican partisan

F. Not placeable on this scale

PLEASE SEND YOUR EMAIL ANSWER BEFORE READING FUTHER.

What, you wonder, is the point of this study?

It starts with a puzzle. Eugene Volokh is a sensible and fair-minded person, and a somewhat less rabid partisan than I. (It’s hard to be a more rabid partisan than I, at least on an outpatient basis.) He is, as a law professor, a professional interpreter of texts. He would never willingly make a false charge, especially about as serious a matter as voter fraud. His blog reprinted the text above (which came from the Young Democratic Socialists, the youth arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is the Michael Harrington wing of the old Socialist Party), with the following comment:

I suppose this might be seen as saying that they want to bring young people to Minnesota to register other young people, who are legitimate Minnesotans. But this sure isn’t what leaps out at you when you first read this — the much more obvious interpretation is that they’re bringing young people from outside Minnesota to Minnesota so they can then register as young Minnesotans. Pretty iffy stuff; I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention.

Now when I first read the message from the DSA, interpretation (B) struck me as the only possible reading; “registering young Minnesotans” means, I would have thought unambiguously, registering young people who live in Minnesota. (The sheer cost-ineffectivenss of trying to steal votes by moving physical voters seems to me to strengthen this interpretation; if you’re going to commit voter fraud, why not use natives and save the travel expense? Or spend the transportation money on honest phone-banking, which surely produces more net votes per dollar spent?) But Eugene, even after a second reading, continues to believe that the text is, at best, ambiguous.

So that’s the point of my study. How closely will responses break down along party lines? If only strong Democratic partisans agree with me, I’ll have to concede that my biases have led me to an error of interpretation. Results (if any) to be posted soon. Anyone who would like to help with the study is encouraged to recruit additional subjects, by email, in blogspace, or face-to-face.

REVENGE OF THE KILLER WEED:

REVENGE OF THE KILLER WEED: FINALE

My response to the drug czar’s office on the cannabis-potency issue is now up at American Enterprise Online. For those of you who haven’t been following this tempest in a teapot, the response has all the relevant links. For those of you who have, there’s nothing new. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge Eli Lehrer’s generosity in allowing me to respond at length on his site.

UPDATE In case you were hoping that the “drug policy reformers” observed higher standards of intellectual integrity, read this and weep.

HIT ‘EM AGAIN, AGAIN,

HIT ‘EM AGAIN, AGAIN, AGAIN!

HARDER! HARDER!

Remind me not to annoy the folks at blah3.com. They make a mean (in both senses) TV spot, and they post their product on the web, so they don’t even have to spend the money to put it on TV.

BALLISTIC SIGNATURES AND THE CRAZY

BALLISTIC SIGNATURES

AND THE CRAZY POLITICS OF GUN CONTROL

Wouldn’t it be nice to know whose rifle is firing the shots killing all those folks in the DC area? It might even help catch the guy doing the shooting. The police have already been able to use the markings on the bullets and shell casings to figure out that the same rifle fired all the shots; each gun has its own peculiarities, and leaves its mark on the rounds it fires. But right now there’s no way of identifying the gun itself.

It has been proposed that each weapon be fired before it leaves the factory, and the resulting “signature” recorded along with the serial number of the gun. The serial number, in turn, can be linked to the name and location of the retail seller. Any crime-scene evidence could then be compared to the database of “signatures,” and the gun thereby traced to whoever sold it, and thus to whoever bought it. It would be as if each bullet came with the serial number of the gun that fired it. Note that the database of “signatures” would not include the names of the buyers; they would be kept as now required, by the retail dealers.

Of course, the system wouldn’ t be perfect; guns change their “signatures” over time, and can also be deliberately modified for that purpose. But so what? There would be some null results, and some bad leads. That’s in the nature of police work. Presumably the technology would get better over time. But something is better than nothing.

Not according to the Bush Administration. Ari Fleischer says that the President is still worried that the technology is imperfect. And he recites the NRA mantra about killing already being illegal, so how is another law going to deter a killer?

That, of course, is complete nonsense. The point isn’t deterring killers; the point is being able to catch them. The question for the President is simple: Why is an imperfect investigative tool worse than none at all? And why is this the only issue on which the exigencies of what you keep saying is wartime shouldn’t override what in this case are fairly trivial privacy concerns?

[No, I’m not in favor of banning private gun ownership; see here for my tentative position on the gun question.]

THE HOMELAND SECURITY AGENCY

THE HOMELAND SECURITY AGENCY AND FEDERAL WORKER PROTECTIONS

Does anyone out there understand what’s going on with Homeland Security? (Here’s the latest news story.) The Bush folks are saying they need authority to break unions in order to run the show effectively. But as anyone who’s managed in the Federal sector understands, union contracts are a minor problem compared to Civil Service protection. (Of course anyone who’s worked in a non-civil-service, patronage-driven environment knows that can be even worse.) Bush has already charge the Democrats with preferring union bosses to the victims of terrorism; Daschle fires back that the President prefers having an issue for November to having the agency he asked for. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to fight fire with fire by saying “We don’t intend to let Karl Rove turn the Homeland Defense Agency into a patronage dump.” And of course explaining that things like civil service protection are an obvious extension of the general theories of limited government and checks-and-balances that conservatives are supposed to be in favor of would be a waste of time.)

In any case, it’s not clear to me that moving the boxes around on the organization chart is going to make us more secure, but I’m open to instruction.

UPDATE

Jeffrey Rosen seems to think that the Democrats’ concern is that the Administration bill would “create a class of nonunionized Federal employees.” That has to be wrong. Most Federal employees aren’t unionized right now. Confucius say, “Tly again.”

But Rosen raises a good question: why are the people the liberals love to characterize as “wing nuts” more concerned about the civil-liberties threats in the bill than are mainstream Democrats? Still, I think Matthew Yglesias is right in calling the Rosen piece a good example of “self-hating liberalism.”

PRISON RAPE Eli Lehrer at

PRISON RAPE

Eli Lehrer at AEI reports on a bill inching its way through Congress — with support from both left and right, though not from the Bush Administration — to address the problem of prison rape. I haven’t read the text of the bill, but I hope it can be expanded to cover the broader problem of prisoner-on prisoner violence.

(And while I agree with Lehrer that litigation alone can’t handle the problem, reopening the federal courts to prisoners making serious claims about cruel and unusual conditions of imprisonment — reversing one of the more mean-spirited moves of the Gingrich Congress — has to be a good idea. The notion of requiring a prisoner who gets raped with the complicity of corrections officers, or beaten up by a corrections officer, to complain through the prison bureaucracy before taking his case to court is absurd on its face; there must be a way to weed out frivolous claims about peanut butter without slamming the courthouse door entirely.)

Lawless prisons are bad for prisoners, which ought to be enough reason to do something about them. But they are also bad for the rest of us. Prison gangs are partly a response to the need prisoners have for someone to watch their backs. The existence of those gangs is self-reinforcing; any prisoner not in a gang picks himself out as a victim. The gangs are largely along racial — and racist — lines. The Aryan Nations, the only significant neo-Nazi terrorist group in America, is in effect the outside-the-walls version of the Aryan Brotherhood, the biggest white prison gang. And that’s not the only prison gang with an outside-the-walls presence. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam fits the same model.

Any terrorist group looking to recruit U.S. citizens could do a lot worse than starting in our prisons. The proposed Prison Rape Reduction Act won’t change that fundamentally. But it could be a start.

[For some further thoughts on accountability in prison management, see here.]

Liberals, conservatives, and free expression

Eugene Volokh responds to my earlier claim that liberals are better than conservatives about standing up for the free expression of those with whom they disagree.

Some of his points are valid. Liberals aren’t perfectly, or even adequately, consistent. But I still think there’s a basic difference.

A liberal who stands up for the rights of people on the right will be regarded by mainstream liberals as expressing liberal values, even if some of them think he’s going too far in some particular case. A conservative who stands up for the rights of people on the left will be regarded by other conservatives as not really a conservative: a libertarian, perhaps, or even (shudder) a moderate.

Note that the standard rhetoric reflects this division. When some group on the left deviates from free-expression orthodoxy (over “hate speech,” for example), the standard charge from the right is that of hypocrisy, because someone on the left ought to be liberal. No one charges a conservative who wants to suppress free expression with hypocrisy; the charge wouldn’t make any sense.

The reverse is true of free-market principles; when a liberal Democratic Senate passes a disgustingly, obscenely extravagant farm bill, that’s just business as usual; when a conservative Republican House of Representatives passes the same bill (well, the same bill with a little more for agribusiness, a little less environmental protection, and a little less for non-millionaire farmers) and a conservative Republican President signs the resulting compromise, that’s hypocrisy, because the Republicans are supposed to be for free markets and against wasteful government spending.

UPDATE

John Rosenberg at Discriminations has a long, interesting post reflecting on a somewhat parallel question: racial profiling and affirmative action, which he sees as posing a difficult problem for conservatives, such as himself, who dislike the second but need to justify the first in the current security context.

In an aside, though, he says:

I’ve been struck by the inconsistency of liberals who oppose racial profiling when done by police but applaud it when done by admissions officers or employers. This is not so surprising for a movement whose intellectuals tend to reject principles on principle…

This seems to me a fundamental mistake, confusing political liberalism with intellectual post-modernism. Liberal politicans are just as moralistic in their way as conservatives, and I think we would do better politically if we were prepared to defend that moralism where it is appropriate rather than concealing it as benefit/cost analysis. The claim, for example, that every child deserves something like an equal start in life is a moral claim, and its policy implications are profound, since the relative disadvantage of the children of poor parents grows both with the extent of income inequality and the extent to which markets, rather than public choices, are allowed to allocate resources.

On the other hand, I would assert that modern political liberals tend to make too many things matters of principle that ought instead to be discussed in terms of outcomes. Nuclear power, toxic waste cleanup, “tracking” in schools, and the corporate income tax are all issues on which the standard “liberal” position can, I think, be convincingly criticized as serving neither liberal values, nor the interests of the dispossessed groups with whose interests liberals identify, nor the broader public interest. Fetishizing positions into principles is almost always a bad move. And refusing to do so isn’t the same as having no principles at all.

UPDATE

John Rosenberg responds.