Friday, August 19, 2011

Take Me to the Riot: Crown Heights, New York Press, Bachmann, O’Donnell, More

The New York Press – for which I wrote in the late 90s (along with friends such as Scott Nybakken, J.R. Taylor, Dawn Eden, and Daniel Radosh), answering to editor Sam Sifton – is effectively no more, enduring only as a website for multiple publications and a section within the print version of one of those publications.  The Village Voice, by then a leftist rag completely devoid of self-awareness or irony akin to The Nation, ran an article calling NYPress a bunch of “P.J. O’Rourke wannabes,” and I hope I had at least some influence on them picking that epithet.

Accurate yet judgmental epithets were exactly what the Voice tended to lack and the Press deployed in abundance.  I often told people back then that I liked the Press because, unlike the Voice with its reverent mentions of “the homeless,” the Press was willing to use phrases more like “stinking wino” as necessary.  New York City needed that sort of truth-through-gonzo callousness as a substitute for the conservatism it sorely lacked. 

For instance, it was twenty years ago today that a car driven by a Jewish man accidentally struck and killed a black child in Crown Heights, sparking three days of rioting.  Police under Mayor Dinkins, notoriously, did little but watch – though, astonishingly, he not only still has his defenders, there are even some liberals who are now eager to credit him – Dinkins! – with the precipitous drop in crime since then, since he technically hired future Police Chief William Bratton (doing precious little with him). 

By the time I moved to New York City, the place was ready for Giuliani to unleash Bratton and get tough on crime – the reason Giuliani’s even now being talked about as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate – and the U.S. was ready to hear a liberal, Bill Clinton, denounce criminals and praise cops, talk which had literally been considered mere code for racism for the preceding two decades of New Left-dominated thinking. 

Ultimately, the reason some Gen Xers like me (but also some future Clinton fans) had conservative instincts probably had less to do with the Cold War than with the Dirty Harry-like awareness that if our houses were robbed back when we were children, there were people on the left who would sympathize more with the burglars than with us, and, diabolically, who would even work to disarm our parents, making things that much easier for the burglars (this mission failed in the case of my gun-owning older relatives, but they don’t live in heavily-regulated NYC).

I have to look with sorrow, then, upon the UK riots and the Philadelphia flashmobs (and I even feel a bit vindicated in my worried Luddite reaction when I first heard of flashmobs a few years ago, recognizing the danger in – well, mobs).  I note that Bratton has now become an advisor to the UK government after being denied a more official post due to his U.S. citizenship mere weeks ago.  That’s a start.  More important, I think – as always – is rooting solutions in individualism, not communal thinking, despite everything experts tell you to the contrary.

The main reason civilization runs on individualism is that only individuals can be held accountable in any meaningful sense for wrongdoing.  Everything else is mere unending tribal warfare.  Punish a whole village with curfews, weapons bans, pop-psychology lectures, and police cordons and you create aggrieved innocents (even if you do it in a left-leaning fashion).  Taking the even sloppier route of blaming whole ethnic groups (in the worst right-wing fashion) and you justify people thinking that law never had anything to do with justice in the first place and can rightly be ignored. 

Nietzsche (who was right about some things) even
hypothesized that the very origin of individual consciousness, as opposed to either vigorous but unthinking predatory instinct or passive herd mentality, lay in the careful accounting of wrongs against or by individuals.  Ghouls love it when everyone gets blamed indiscriminately for something, just as the class bully would rather see the whole class kept for detention than have his own culpability exposed.  The more thoughtful and articulate adult ghouls, similarly, love ideals such as “solidarity” that fend off individual accountability.

A few related items:

•Even my quasi-Marxist friend Josie Appleton sees the failure of her UK home to propose solutions that will truly distinguish between the innocent and the bad actors (read her article “Policing the Innocent, Ignoring the Riotous,” even though I think that brief dig at mercenaries is inappropriate – a libertarian would recognize that mercenaries are usually paid to get results, not just shore up bureaucratic programs).  Governments would rather come up with new ways to regulate everyone than do the hard work of spotting the wrongdoers.  Left-wing talk of broad social causes plays right into this laziness – but right-wingers who can’t differentiate among a billion Muslims display the same sort of intellectual irresponsibility. 

•Economist Don Boudreaux yesterday wrote a letter to Michele Bachmann, chastising her for comments that I’d say are ultimately rooted in the right-wing impulse to keep out all Mexicans instead of, once again, doing the harder work of differentiating between law-abiding and criminal individuals:

Dear Ms. Bachmann:

I was disheartened to learn from the Associated Press of your vigorous call yesterday to build an anti-immigration wall along America's southern border ("Michele Bachmann plays up immigration, hits Warren Buffett," August 17).

Surely your commitment to freedom, to free markets, and to an open and vibrant society isn't so tepid that it is dissolved by some perceived need to appease xenophobes and economic ignoramuses whose votes might help you win the GOP's 2012 Presidential nomination.

I must assume, instead, that you really believe that the United States is threatened by Latin Americans seeking to live and work here (for those are precisely the people who would be kept out of the U.S. by the wall you wish to build).

Several weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported that while vacationing you read the works of the late Ludwig von Mises.  That's encouraging.  But you should read Mises's works more carefully.  In what I believe to be his greatest book -- Liberalism -- Mises writes, "There cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor."

And in his book Omnipotent Government, Mises notes an even more menacing consequence of tightened immigration restrictions: "The closed-door policy is one of the root causes of our wars."

By obstructing the building of economic and cultural ties that would ever-more-closely bind the United States with Latin America, your wall would not only keep Americans' (and Latin Americans') prosperity from growing over time as much as possible, it would -- both as an awful symbol and as an actual structure -- divide the Americas in ways that dramatically increase the risk of future bloodshed.

I plead with you to reconsider your support for such a wall.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

Tear down this wall, Rep. Bachmann.

•Being too quick to lump people into big aggregates is the root cause (if you will) of both socialism and racism, from the kind that produces damaging policies to the kind that just leads to embarrassingly goofy TV commercials like this one.

•Better people should think in terms of economics, which is in an important sense color-blind (as is the scientific method, the other bulwark of my own thinking).  But as Stephen Moore writes, with admirable efficiency and brevity, getting people to think in economic terms has been made very difficult by the statist turn in the economics profession itself

•Even failed senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell is clearly striving to shed her religious-conservative baggage and rebrand herself as a fiscal conservative (you can tell from the transcript that’s why she freaks out and walks out on her interview by Piers Morgan), which I will take as a good sign for the direction of politics in general.  Even completely crazy chicks can be useful cultural weather vanes.

Life presents occasional economic educational opportunities.  So, tomorrow: a look at the decidedly civil upheaval known as Lemonade Freedom Day.  


Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm being naive, but I think the libertarian effort to de-emphasize borders could eventually appeal to conservatives like Bachmann - with their keen awareness of the fundamental difference between pre-New Deal immigration and immigration today - if people like Boudreaux (and Gary Johnson, for that matter) took the time to explain the logical steps that should be followed to achieve it. Namely, dismantling the welfare state first, then calling for the world's poor and huddled masses sometime after.

It seems dangerous to insert a single component of a comprehensive economic philosophy into an array of entrenched, contradictory programs indiscriminately. Most libertarians understand that complete freedom is a beautiful, cooperative, intricate system of positive feedback loops, but others obviously do not. Vehemently advancing an idea out of turn without explaining how it fits into a larger system (much of which is already an easy sell to conservatives) only undermines libertarian efforts to more closely ally with the right (which I agree with Jonah Goldberg is where libertarians stand the best chance of fighting statism) and thus establish a coalition big enough to significantly slash government and taxes.

In the short term, talking about open borders as a final step might at least convey the lack of necessity for a permanent, King Kong-like wall on our southern border and turn GOP attention to what matters most.

Caren said...

Regarding NY Press - It was a great place for personal essays when I first came to NYC in 1994. I loved reading Jonathan Ames, Amy Sohn, and Ned Vizzini (then a nerdy teenager). Even the letters were pretty interesting. After the 1990s its heyday was over.