Campaign Finance Conference

Today I had the great opportunity to visit my hometown: Salem, OR! I went with three other political science majors and Professor Lochner to Willamette University to hear eight hours of lectures on one of the world’s most surprisingly interesting topics: campaign finance. We listened to first rate experts talk about Super PACs, the 2012 presidential election, “dark money”, judicial elections, and the general costs and benefits of campaign contributions. By the time the conference had ended, I found that I had taken roughly 25 pages of notes.

So, after all that, what can I tell you that I took away from the conference? It’s a serious question. What can you tell a person after you’ve spent an entire day absorbing information about a subject you know nearly nothing about? You leave with the feeling of your head spinning, drowsy from waking up in the fives (before 6:00am), jittering from the five+ cups of coffee drank (drunk?) throughout the day, mind aclouded from trying to attend to specialists talking rapidly about an interesting, but alien subject. The one thing that we four undergraduates who attended the conference had in common: we’re all taking a class at the law school on election law as our senior capstone for political science. The other one thing we all had in common: this subject was entirely new to us.

But allow me to indulge myself. Despite the minimal background knowledge I possess on the topic, and despite the fact that it’s still the same day (sort of), I would like to try to reconstruct some of the more interesting points that I can remember being made in the course of this full day of intellectual stimulation.

The opening lecture was given by chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Ellen Weintraub, trying to answer the following question: given that the US spends more money on elections than any other nation, is that influence deleterious, and if so, what should be done? Her answer to that question was ‘no’, and ‘nothing’. We want an informed electorate and spending on ads helps to give voters the information they need to make informed voting decisions. The fact that we spend so much money shows the world that we care a lot about democracy. And for those who say that we spend too much, they might be wrong. We spend more money on halloween decorations than we do on voting, which maybe indicates that even as we outspend every other nation on elections, we still do not care about the way our nation is governed as much as perhaps we should.

The problem of course with campaign contributions is that it leads to the appearance of corruption. Weintraub didn’t diminish this point; in fact she emphasized it. If contributions go to organizations devoted solely to electing a candidate, there seems to be something perverse about such influences. The FEC is supposed to regulate this process to prevent our politics from appearing corrupt, but because they’re always responding to the last thing that has happened, and because people are always trying to find new ways to influence politics in their favor, the committee cannot keep up. This is a problem for the legitimacy of US elections. On the one hand, spending is important for democracies because it’s the only way that average voters can learn about their candidates. On the other hand, such spending can be harmful because it leads to the appearance (and maybe even the actuality) of corruption. This is one of the major dilemmas of regulating campaign finance.

The next section of the conference featured a panel with such distinguished speakers as Michael Beckel, Rob Kelner, and Bradley Smith. They talked about the contemporary prevalence of Super PACs and the effect on politics that such politically active non-profits allow for. The first speaker (Beckel) emphasized that only .5% of American adults account for 2/3 of political campaign spending. This number should shock, because if true, it means that elections are a game played and won by America’s wealthiest elites. The next two speakers told a different story. Kelner claimed that Super PACs are in fact much ado about nothing. Super PACs are good, he argues, because they force corporations (who would be donating anyways) to disclose their donations leading to more transparent politics. He claimed that Super PAC controversy merely distracts from a more important and interesting change in politics, namely that get out the vote programs can no longer be adequately funded by political parties. For this reason, he claimed, Romney lost the election (the RNC couldn’t provide funding to GOTV). He argues that in future elections, Democrats will have the same problem, and parties will have less and less influence in politics, meaning that they will play less of a moderating role. And as a consequence, parties will radicalize ideologically. Time will tell if his prediction comes true. Lastly, Bradley Smith argued that campaign finance is regulated much more heavily than it should be: the reason we have limits, he argues, is to prevent quid pro quo arrangements between candidates and donors (corruption). But bribery laws won’t prevent this. They fail to achieve their intended purpose and have all kinds of unintended consequences.

I’ll do one more panel summary, just so you get the idea. In a panel titled “The Future of Public Financing,” we heard Richard Briffault, and Paul Diller pontificate on where the trends are pointing. Professor Briffault spoke quickly in an attempt to say as much as possible in the short amount of time he had allotted. If it weren’t for my quick typing skills, I would have lost most of what he said. His main idea was that public funding programs tend to reduce levels of private funding in elections. As a consequence, there are fewer deleterious influences in the political process, but candidates tend to be stuck with whatever funding limit they’ve been assigned, which may or may not be enough to win the election. Of course, just as this seems to resolve some problems it causes many more. And for this reason, Briffault concludes that we should rethink public funding, not as a solution, but as a system that is inevitably private while being supplemented/complemented by public funding.

Finally, Diller examined some reasons why “voter owned elections” failed in the one place they should have succeeded: ultra-liberal Portland, OR. While a publicly funded election scheme should have reduced the undue influence of wealthy donors and interest groups, broadened opportunities for citizen involvement, and decreased the disillusionment we have with local government, Oregon’s public financing program did none of these things. The main reason for this had to do with scandals involving the very publicly financed politicians that were supposed to bring new legitimacy to Oregon’s democratic process. Emily Boyles was revealed to have improperly amassed contributions, and Vladimir Golovan had apparently forged signatures and engaged in identity theft to try and help candidates like Boyles. Additionally, other publicly financed candidates had very poor showings (receiving 10% or less of the vote), and certain contingencies had not been well thought through in advance (like what to do when a commissioner who assigns public finances resigns in the middle of his term and you don’t know how much money should now apply). In short, when the system of public funding had been tried, it did not work out well, and while this may not have been an intrinsic failure of the new system, it does not lend support to people who believe that the old system needs to be reformed. Insofar as it can and should be reformed, reforms need to be much better thought through. And this seems to be the major problem with campaign finance. The issue appears wickedly complicated and good ideas ought to be well thought through before they are implemented if one hopes to avoid replacing one problem with several more.

In sum, that was just half of the campaign finance conference we attended. There is much more to reflect on (the panel on judicial elections, the panel on campaign finance in Oregon specifically, and the keynote address by Lawrence Norton). We learned a lot, had a blast, and spent a day in Salem. I could say more, but after a long day, much thought, and many beers, there’s only one thing left to say: all is fair in love and war, so why are we so concerned about elections?

The Trouble With Compromise

A fat month ago, I typed up a blog post about Mohamed Morsi’s power grab, and how the ‘temporary suspension’ of democracy could be enough of a wrench to lead to its permanent destruction. The circumstances were similar on my end as well. I had taken more than a week off blogging, assured myself that the problem was under control, and promised to return to a regular blog schedule post haste. And here we are. It’s been nearly two weeks since my last blog post, and the situation in Egypt has worsened dramatically. Thousands of protesters have been marching in the streets, violence has erupted between protesters and police, dozens have died in the conflict. What looked at first like a resolvable democratic compromise is appearing more and more to be leading up to an irreconcilable standoff between supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Islamic Brotherhood party and the secularist minority. It seems that this can only end in two ways: (1) Morsi transforming his presidential office into a theocratic dictatorship; or (2) The secularists ousting the leader and starting afresh, as they did two years ago under Hosni Mubarak.

There’s one awkward catch however: technically Morsi does seem to have a mandate from the people of Egypt. The current upset, arisen as a consequence of Constitutional changes to essentially make the Egyptian Constitution more in accordance with Sharia law, was not unilaterally imposed upon the people by the president. President Morsi fairly won election by the people of Egypt. And he fairly amended the Constitution through direct referendum by a majority of Egyptian voters. From what I understand, he has more or less operated within the confines of the democratic electoral institutions that brought him to power. The problem here is that the secular minority doesn’t like the outcome of natural democratic process.

So, who’s to blame here? Is Morsi a villain for changing the government to be more Islamic, when he’s from an Islamic party that explicitly has an Islamic partisan agenda? Or are the secularists to be blamed for causing instability through rioting, when really they ought to just wait their turn until the next election when they can have a chance to try to get the pendulum to swing back their way?

Let’s think of the problem another way. Suppose that the Democratic party managed to win a monopoly on the presidency, the judiciary and the legislature–as a consequence of more Democrats turning out to vote. Let’s say they use their majority support to call for a Constitutional amendment to ban guns, legalize marijuana everywhere, write in a constitutional right to have an abortion, another right to marry whoever one pleases, and a federal requirement that all public schools must now teach classes on Atheism. If a majority of Americans were in favor of these sweeping changes, would it be legitimate? I think that most democratic citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, should say no. For, constitutional democracy is not just about majority rule, it is also about protecting minority rights (from majority tyrannies). This is one reason why ‘separation of church and state’ and ‘freedom of religion’ are often seen as such a fundamental protection in the American system. But it seems that we may have an internal contradiction. For arguably, separation of church and state, and the tolerance that it fosters leads to a more secular democratic culture, like the one we see so pervasively in the United States. It seems that religions like Islam require a degree of intolerance in order to thrive. Therefore, religious freedom protections of the kind advocated for by the Egyptian secularists appear to be directly at odds with survival and propagation of Islamic culture. It seems that more of one may necessarily entail less of another. Does this mean that Islamist democracies are doomed to fail? Maybe not… but if they’re going to survive, it seems that they have to be more willing to make political compromises, even at the risk of watering down the culture that they value so strongly. It makes me wonder, can there be such thing as a non-pluralistic democracy?

China, Japan, and the Third World War: An American Problem

               Finding a single cause for either of humanity’s World Wars is impossible, as any slightly engaged high school social studies student can explain. Was the First World War fought over markets and colonies, or to suppress a rising Germany, or maybe to avenge the death of an Archduke? Was the Second World War fought to avenge German national pride, or to secure resources for the appetites of a growing Japan, or was it the inevitable consequence of the decline of the imperialist powers? This is a fascinating and exhaustive debate, though a debate this article is only indirectly concerned with. This article will instead try to engage whether the Third World War might have an even simpler cause: a scattering of uninhabited Pacific rocks.
               As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s not unimaginable. If the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne could have caused the Europeans to sentence millions of young men to death-by-meatgrinder, it is not difficult to imagine a future where mankind will shake its collective head over that senseless slaughter in the pacific which opened the 21st century. Japan and China have made a series of increasingly provocative and all too serious gestures which more than just allude to the possibility of a war over the chain of islands the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese claim as the Diaoyu. Japan has scrambled jet fighters, China sends naval patrols. The more one reads the news coming out of the west pacific, the more likely it looks that 2014 could be reminiscent of 1914.
               Why these rocks, and why these countries? The example of Germany helps explain this. A rising Germany before the First World War put the old powers – the French and British of the 19th century – on edge. A rising China today puts the old powers – the Americans and the Japanese of the 20th century – on edge.  Japan and China are two countries steeped in historical grievances, much of which comes from the Second World War when Japan killed literally countless millions of Chinese. Even today Tokyo apologizes only sparingly and when they do only partially.   Added to historical grievances, Japan has recently been overtaken by China as the world’s second largest economy; this compounded with increasing Chinese aggression and a foreign imposed constitution preventing any real Japanese military muscle suddenly makes Japan seem extremely insecure – and increasingly more like the Britain to China’s Germany.  The islands come in as a convenient place for each country to make a stand against the other. The rocks were seized from China in the late 19th century by Japan; America in turn administered them after World War Two until the 70’s, at which point they returned to Japanese sovereignty. For China the islands, which they claim were taken from them illegally by the Japanese, are a point of national pride and a place to begin staking claim to a sphere of influence commensurate with their new found power. For the Japanese it is also an issue of national pride, the place to finally begin standing up to years of Chinese economic, naval, and more recently physical bullying. Throw in the fact that the waters below these islands could hold valuable resources and the brew left stewing is extremely potent.
               If it boils over, the consequences will be enormous. China and Japan are, besides two of the most important pieces of a deeply globalized world economy,  crucial trading partners. Their combined population is roughly one and a half billion. Add to that the people living in the likely battlefield along the West Pacific, including at the very least the Koreas and Taiwan, and more likely including also Vietnam and the Philippines, and the total pushes close to a third of the world’s population that might be drawn into a possible conflagration. It is important to note that these additional players were also victims of brutal Japanese imperialism, though today find more to fear in the ambitions of China. Ultimately though the key player here is neither Japan nor China nor any other West Pacific country, but rather the United States.
               America, since obliterating, occupying, and shaping in its image the nation of Japan, has enjoyed deep strategic relations with that country; Japan was a cornerstone of America’s Cold War empire. Today that alliance still stands, and America has made it clear that its mutual defense treaty with Tokyo covers the disputed island chain. Further, the American security guarantee has been extended to nearly every country jittering nervously around China’s periphery. Because of the nature of its treaty with America, and its imperial legacy in the pacific, Japan will be forced to be in the defensive in any conflict with China. The terms of its security treaty with America, and the continued sympathy of its former victims, dictate this. So regardless of the statements or actions of Japan, the impetus is on China to restrain itself. With this established, it is crucial to divine the Chinese perspective in this conflict.
               If Japan is insecure, China must be downright paranoid. Consider the Chinese government for a moment, looking out at the world. They see a Taiwan which has remained defiantly independent of mainland China since the Communist’s 1949 takeover, a Taiwan with American security guarantees and weapons systems. They see countries like Vietnam and the Philippines eyeing them wearily, and receiving American assurances. They see Myanmar’s shift to the west, driven in part by fear of Beijing. They see Australia allowing over two thousand American marines to be deployed on their soil. They see Obama’s strategic pivot. They see aircraft carriers and other American hardware buzzing all over waters they claim to be a part of their core interest area. They see India moving cautiously from an established Cold War stance of non-alignment to one of cooperation with Washington. Among all of this their consolations are few: minor infighting between America’s champions South Korea and Japan, plus a North Korean ally which is really more of a nightmare than a reassurance.
               Their view at home is equally if not more bleak. In the Party’s long time and unspoken contract with the Chinese people since the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, where they provide ever higher standards of living in exchange for fealty to their authoritarianism, it appears that they are struggling to deliver. Their population is also graying because of a disastrous one child policy.Dangerous information trading between average Chinese is becoming increasingly difficult to control, despite the government’s “Great Firewall”. Citizens are speaking out, and even gathering together in protest – citizens who must remember bitterly the Tienanmen Square slaughter of 1989.  An enormous migrant population now chafes in the poisonously polluted mega cities. A system of labor camps across the country spawn resentment but have received only tepid reforms. There are even public bouts of infighting at the top (see Bo Xilai).
               Given all this it is actually not surprising that Beijing is resorting to an aggressive stance over something which seems comparatively so insignificant, despite their shaky geopolitical situation. Nationalism, saber rattling, and xenophobia abroad are the friends of a tyrant in trouble, a distraction from disappointment in government at home. But is the Chinese Communist Party serious about its threats? Do they really want a war with mighty America and her legions of well armed, high tech Asian allies?
               No, probably not. The Communist Party has a history of starting foreign conflicts for domestic gain. It was Mao Tse Tung’s dream to achieve during his lifetime a military machine on par with that of the Soviets or Americans; nearly every Taiwanese Strait crisis was really just an attempt by Mao to wring his Russian allies for more military secrets (the Soviets were terrified of a nuclear war with America over a Chinese problem, they more or less gave Mao The Bomb for his manipulations). But weighted against the example of the Taiwanese crises there is the counterexample of Korea. In starting the Korean War, Mao essentially offered up hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteer” lives to Stalin’s ambitions in Korea – which were to test both his new jet fighters and America’s post-war combat mettle. Mao was to do this many times around the world, including once with Nasser during his war against Israel. This callous view of the value of Chinese life is chilling.
                But Mao is long dead, and his memory is going the way of Stalin’s in Russia. What is left is a Party of autocratic bureaucrats who are Communist only in name and in symbolism – Communist symbolism always being particularly accessible and snappy. It seems to me like these island clashes are more indicative of domestic positioning than of the rumblings of a coming war. Yet even so, these sorts of things tend to get out of hand. No European country really wanted the blood bath they got in 1914-1918, the chain of events simply exploded faster than anyone could react. First the Archduke is shot and then suddenly northern France is swarming with Germans and lacerated with trenches. First the Chinese send patrol boats to the disputed island chain and then suddenly there are mushroom clouds over Shanghai and Tokyo. I’m being extreme, but the point is still valid: these things escalate, severely.
               This being said, it is important to examine a few of America’s most obvious options: One, we could clobber our rival. Two, we could let Japan fend for herself. Three, we could play mediator between the two rivals.
               I don’t know if any of those are good options though. Obviously the first is stupid and sadistic. The second would ruin the foundation of American security, which is the trust of allies across the globe in American commitment. I would argue that the third is also a bad choice. America must be firm with China. Appeasement is a historically proven bad idea. This does not mean that we should support the nationalism of Tokyo either. I argue that the best path for America is to be firmly in support of Japanese ownership of the islands in face of Chinese belligerence, while also clearly expressing a desire to avert armed conflict. This assures Beijing that America will not use the conflict to start the war which they see lurking in the shadows on the horizon, and it assures Japan that America chooses her over China –  and for that matter every other nation America has an alliance with over China. This is not Cold War style containment, but rather firm enforcement of an American led liberal international order. Both countries have legitimate claim to the islands. If China continues to push ownership over the island by force, America and her mighty arsenal will oppose that claim. If, however, proper negotiations are undertaken, there is no reason why China cannot have a stake in these islands. This is not the early twentieth century, there are rules, and countries can work together to achieve common goals. America should encourage the rules of her international system, while also treating her friends with the loyalty they deserve.

GPS and Technophobia

In this past week’s Economist, there was an article about using GPS to track the whereabouts of children. On the one hand such devices may make parents more comfortable in allowing their children the freedom to wander, on the other hand the prevalence of such technology might mean that tracking could become more commonplace for everyone.

This may not be a bad thing. Just as knowing the location of one’s child could at the very least help parents to worry less, and even potentially help to prevent kidnappings (and other crimes against children), so a greater degree of surveilance would make it easier for governments across the world to police their nations and thereby reduce crime. Studies have already been done showing that merely knowing that one is being watched reduces the likelihood that one will cheat on a test, even if one knows that they could get away with it.

And yet, while there is nothing particularly unsettling about using tracking devices to monitor children, people may feel more uneasy about using the same devices to monitor adults. What’s the difference? Aside from dystopian fears (that are perhaps irrational) about the government using surveillance technology to institute a totalitarian state in which people rigidly comply with the state’s commands (“big brother is watching you”), could it also be the case that to monitor an adult is in a fundamental sense to treat them as a child?

One is reminded of Bentham’s panopticon, a giant circular prison with an observation tower in the center, and privacy glass, so nobody can see inside or know when they are being watched. In such a system, one is not innocent until proven guilty. The presence of security cameras carries with it the presumption that without those cameras, the place would be less secure. What is lost when this privacy has been stripped away? One loses the ability to lie about one’s whereabouts. And one also loses the ability to choose not to lie. The watchers gain information about the watched, but without their consent. If the watchees knew that another set of eyes could see their every move, they might act differently, but is this not a subtle form of coercion? Maybe even… oppression? Imagine if every action you’ve ever been ashamed of was recorded and stored, never to be forgotten, and potentially accessible to the watchers on the other side of the panopticon. To the watchers, one becomes less like a person, more like an animal. But aren’t humans different from animals, such that they ought to be treated as having a higher status? Could our political institutions (in this case surveillance for security) cause us to view one another, and thereby treat one another less like people? Quite frankly, the knowledge that I’m being surveyed (when I am) no longer really bothers me. But it bothers me that it doesn’t bother me.

French Adventurism

For months reports have covered, in almost apocalyptic language, the Islamist takeover of a chunk of the Sahara much larger than Germany. They invoke images of fried desert wastelands and ruins of fabulous cities the likes of Timbuktu over run with God-crazy fanatics. From my understanding of the realities on the ground, this is not far from the truth. Reports of severed limbs and punishments of that sort have been confirmed and reconfirmed. The government of Mali is ineffectively tripping over itself trying to figure out where half its country went and how to get it back. Meanwhile the African Union dithers, and excusably so, seeing as its member countries lack the money or experience to keep most of their own houses in order. So a huge chunk of the Sahara is left to decay into a Taliban flavored hell, set to become the sort of training ground Afghanistan was to Bin Laden for his affiliates in North Africa.
And then the French came. When I first read about this intervention, I asked myself, “Why on Earth would France ever want to be part of this?” The answer though, is pretty simple: because of where on Earth this is. Once upon a time France owned this particular chunk of desert along with every other country bordering it. Post World War Two, France was particularly vicious in efforts to hold on to its crumbling empire – in stark contrast to Great Britain in India and in like form with the Dutch in Indonesia. The Vietnam War was spawned out of Indochina’s revolt against Paris, and the Algerian deserts north of Mali were soaked with blood in that country’s bid for independence. French efforts ultimately failed across the world, yet despite losing an empire, they maintained a large nuclear force independent of NATO, an impressive military budget, the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world after the United States, and a permanent UN Security Council veto.
I’m not French, I do not pretend to have a finger on the pulse of their national feelings. But I can still take a fairly informed guess as to why they carried out this intervention. In the past couple years France has intervened in both West Africa and North Africa, in Ivory Coast and in Libya, respectively. Both of these were success stories. Both were in a traditionally French sphere of influence. Both showed the world that France was still an important player. And here I think is the basic explanation for France’s current intervention – France still sees itself as a great power and still sees this part of the world as the natural place to project that power. Here’s the rub though: France isn’t a great power. Its population is significantly less than a third that of the United States, its economy is shuddering, and it could not even sustain its Libyan bombing campaign without heavy American assistance.

The Libyan intervention was under the umbrella of NATO and sanctioned by the United Nations. The Ivory Coast intervention against Gbagbo was also UN sanctioned. This Malian intervention wasn’t.  I can’t say for sure if the French intervention was entirely a benign defense of a helpless government against radical extremists. My guess is that it probably wasn’t  Other than driving back extremists, I think the French are demonstrating their power and maintaining a sphere of influence. This sets a bad standard and will ultimately hurt United States interests for two reasons. Firstly, the French are considered a core component of “The West”, and so when they inflame Islamic radicals with neo imperialistic actions, those same Islamic radicals are likely to also direct their anger at the titan of the West, America. Secondly, it is not good for an ally of the United States to set a standard of revisiting past spheres of influence. One need only think of Russia’s “near abroad” or China’s South Sea claims to understand why this is a problematic standard and a potential headache for our own country. But strategically America can’t condemn an ally for taking initiative in the global fight against terror. What it should instead do is push France to gain UN backing for its new war. This will at least legitimize what will inevitably be seen in the region as yet another western intervention, while also distancing America from neo imperialist French impulses.

Gay Marriage: Yay or Nay?

In their book, What Is Marriage?, three Princeton philosophers make an argument in defense of the traditional conception of marriage, between one man and one woman. They argue their position on secular grounds, drawing on empirical evidence, and without expressing any hate, bigotry, or general ignorance. They actually come across as quite reasonable, and for this reason, defenders of gay marriage (who also believe that it’s important to have reasons for their beliefs) ought to examine the argument being made in this book and ask themselves: “Are my reasons for supporting gay marriage actually better than their reasons for opposing it?”

My automatic gut-reaction to people voicing anti-gay-marriage sentiment has always been the impression that the probable motivation of their beliefs is narrow-minded homophobia. The authors question such reactions and ask skeptical readers to think twice before making those kinds of damning judgments:

“We agree, of course, that it is within the state’s due powers to restrict invidious discrimination—racist, sexist, or otherwise—and that society may marginalize noxious views by marginalizing their champions. But it had better be right that these views are false and harmful. If they are not noxious but suppressed anyway, then it is society that hurts the common good, by curbing freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience for nothing more than ideological uniformity.”

Of course, there are no laws barring people from making arguments against gay marriage, merely social taboos, and then only in more left-leaning environments. But if liberals are correct to believe that preventing homosexuals from getting married is bigoted and tyrannical, then perhaps a little social alienation is not uncalled for.

Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George argue that preventing the state from legally recognizing gay couples as “married” is important for reasons that have nothing at all to do with gay people. Their concern is much larger than the private lives of homosexuals. Rather, they worry about the unintended consequences that such policies could have on the state of society as a whole.

They articulate two rival conceptions of marriage: (1) The conjugal view. This is the traditional view that marriage is “a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences.” (2) The “revisionist” view. This is the view endorsed by most defenders of same-sex marriage that marriage is “in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires.”

The “revisionist” view may strike one as particularly loaded in its description (same-sex marriage supporters believe that fidelity isn’t important?), and the “conjugal” view might strike one as unnecessarily exclusive (why does procreation matter so much, and if it does, shouldn’t infertile couples be barred from marriage also?). The authors anticipate, and try to answer these objections (which are too extensive for this blog post).

In my opinion, their strongest argument is a cultural one, and they appeal to empirical studies to try to bolster their case. The argument essentially goes as follows: Pretty much every human society that has ever existed has come up with marriage as a basic social institution. Marriage has evolved naturally in all societies because it fulfills a basic social function. It provides society with citizens, children with parents and a stable environment to grow up in, and parents with sex, babies, and a special kind of relationship. This institution is the foundation for society, and any weakening of this institution will likewise harm society as a whole. “But if marriage is everywhere necessary, it is also everywhere costly and fragile. People therefore tend to require social pressures to get and stay married: a strong marriage culture.” Culture forms the beliefs and actions of ordinary people in society, so anything that affects that culture will in turn affect the way that ordinary people lead their lives. Because romantic love is transient, the authors worry that without a strong social institution pressuring people to stay together, the love will pass, the people will part, and the family will collapse—to the detriment of both the children and society. The authors claim that the state’s regulation of marriage helps form and keep families together by clearly and publicly defining what marriage is and thereby incentivizing people to lead their lives in a specific way. The state has an interest in encouraging marriage, and in specifying what that means:

“This in turn affects people’s beliefs, and therefore their expectations and choices, about their own prospective or actual marriages. The mutual influence of law and culture is confirmed by empirical evidence on the effects of no-fault divorce laws. But if easing the obstacles to divorce has had an effect, surely removing even the hassle and stigma of a legal divorce would. The state’s influence on marriage is extensive.”

So, because (1) laws shape beliefs, (2) beliefs shape behavior, and (3) beliefs and behavior affect human interests and human well-being, the state ought to tailor marriage laws in a very specific manner in order to foster the most socially productive beliefs and behaviors in its citizens. The authors argue that the traditional view is the most socially productive view because (and here they present their empirical studies) traditional marriages are (among other things) more likely to lead to children being raised in intact homes, and children raised in intact homes are more highly educated, emotionally healthy, more likely to themselves raise children in intact homes, and less likely to exhibit aggressive or criminal characteristics.

Furthermore, they argue that if the traditional concept of marriage were to be legally revised, this would ultimately change the culture for everyone, and they cite the claims of many same-sex marriage advocates to prove their point. This weakening of the concept of marriage would make traditional marriages (which serve more concrete state interests) more difficult to realize because people would become confused about what marriage really means—essentially, anything anyone wants it to mean, rather than what it ought to mean. As a consequence, people will think of marriage more and more as being fundamentally about emotions, and so the strength of marriage will gradually disappear to the societal detriment of couples and children:

“It might seem far-fetched to predict that two values as cherished as permanence and exclusivity would wane. But we all value them so strongly in part because our culture has embraced an ethic that supports them. As this ethic and related sentiments fade, so will support for these norms as objective standards rather than optional preferences.”

I don’t want to go too far into their other arguments, since this is after all, just a blog post. If you want more, I recommend you read the book. But the question should still be asked, “Could they be right?” I think that they could be, but I’m not persuaded that they are. One thing that concerns me about the authors’ argument is the moral certainty with which they make it. I am not a person who thinks that all moral beliefs are relative, but I do think that many moral beliefs are wrong, and allowing the state to use the law in order to shape people’s morality seems like it is only justified to the extent that it prevents people from acting violently to one another. The authors make a case that among other things, regulating the concept of marriage does prevent children in the long-run from becoming violent offenders, and would so be justified according to my last statement. But that’s not really what I mean. Insofar as their studies are true, that children raised in nontraditional families have more problems, I would tend to think that that is more a historical phenomenon that occurs in large part because non-traditional ways of life are still stigmatized in many areas (just as integrated schools initially gave students a worse education in the Brown-era). If and when new family structures become more integrated into the culture, I would hypothesize that the sexual-orientation of parents would have little to no impact on the children.  The idea of a government that claims it knows the best way of life for its citizens makes me nervous. Because if they’re wrong, then instead of statecraft as soulcraft, we get statecraft as straitjacket. But perhaps the fact that this “soulcraft” is in keeping with venerable institutions ought to make one more comfortable, not less, since those traditions have survived the test of time (until now, maybe).

However, I can see a counter-argument to my nervous sentiment that morality laws are oftentimes more tyrannical than benevolent. People’s beliefs and actions will be shaped by a culture no matter who makes the laws. And not all cultures are equal in terms of the quality of life they promote. For this reason, if one is justified in believing that one’s culture promotes a greater degree of flourishing than other alternatives, perhaps one might also be justified in trying to craft legislation to promote one kind of culture over another. Perhaps this is unavoidable.

Lastly, I didn’t find their argument about “organic bodily union” to be particularly persuasive (seems like gay people can achieve something markedly similar). But that may just be because I don’t totally understand how acts ordered to procreation are analogous to eating being ordered to digestion/bodily nourishment, or why that’s ethically important. Seems like a possible instance of the naturalistic fallacy. But I have a feeling that supporters of traditional marriage would feel like I’ve been fair to their argument up until right before this paragraph. Of course, it is the heterosexual conjugal-act that makes the relationship between husband and wife in traditional marriage distinctive compared to other relationships. And if one believes in the social consequences of the concept, then that element would have to be sanctified to a certain degree. But it seems false to imply that the act itself is somehow more meaningful than similar acts between same-sex couples.

At this point, I see the expansion of the concept of marriage to include same-sex couples as an inevitable, interesting, and just continuation of our democratic experiment. If the argument of the authors is not disingenuous, it sounds like they are most worried about the disintegration of norms that are promoted by traditional marriage such as “permanence and exclusivity” that lead to stable families. Despite their studies suggesting otherwise, I do not believe that long-lasting and exclusive relationships are impossible for homosexual couples to achieve (the authors would probably claim they’re just less likely)—so rather than refusing to leave a sinking ship, it seems that people who care about the norms that emerge from the traditional institution should try to promote those norms in the emerging institutions rather than fight a losing battle. The authors’ counterargument is that if they do so, then they will have no principled reasons to reject polyamorists from getting married in groups, and the conjugal view will eventually become dangerously diluted. Take away one brick, and the whole structure falls. The authors present a dichotomy between orthodox traditionalism and amoral hedonism. But isn’t there a middle ground?

Hello 2013

The other contributors to this blog seem to have petered off since the election ended. I have taken it upon myself as a duty to keep it up, at least until I graduate this coming Spring. Usually around New Year, people resolve to achieve goals that they believe will better them, and take the opportunity to reflect on the past year and share their hopes for the next. I will be no exception.

Many things happened in 2012, some good, some tragic. The Curiosity rover landed on Mars. London hosted the Olympic games. Facebook went public. The Encyclopedia Britannica ended its print edition. Genevan scientists discovered the Higgs Boson particle. Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier during a 24-mile free fall. This blog began. Obama was re-elected, as was Vladimir Putin (despite allegations of vote-fraud), socialist Francoise Hollande became president of France, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi became president of Egypt. The drug war raged on in Mexico. Thousands died in the Syrian civil war. Israel and Palestine resumed their conflict. People in the US suffered from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and the tragedy at Sandy Hook.

What do I hope for in the coming year? I’m hoping that the world economy improves, as does my own ability to understand it. I hope that the US and Europe figure out how to deal with their fiscal issues. I hope that democracy doesn’t collapse in Egypt, and that the civil war in Syria comes to a close and doesn’t spread into Lebanon. I hope that China poises itself to become a responsible hegemon as America’s global dominance begins to fade. Finally, I hope we make some groundbreaking scientific discovery in outer space. That would be exciting, wouldn’t it?