in Political Philosophy

Words Have Meanings

So, I’ve been accused of writing a lot. But the truth is that I actually spend most of my days reading, rather than writing. Besides the (usually boring) stuff I read for work (texts of bills, transcripts of speeches, reports from think tanks, that sort of thing), there’s also the fiction I read for pleasure, the nonfiction I read as background for work (lately a lot of econ), and the philosophy that I still try to keep up with. And then there are the blogs. Lots of blogs. I have about 50 of them in my RSS feed and nearly that many more that I look at when I have time.

One of those blogs is Cato@Liberty, the blog of the Cato Institute. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with C@L. I actually agree with a lot of their conclusions on domestic policy. Hell, if they didn’t make you wear a tie every day, I might send ’em a resume. But some of the scholars there have a distressing tendency to run with absurd talking points. And sometimes otherwise sensible posts end up with these absurd claims thrown in. Case in point: Malou Innocent’s post today on illiteracy in the Afghan army.

Now I don’t actually agree with Innocent (or, for that matter, with most of Cato’s foreign policy folks) all that often. They are mostly of the realist school of IR, with a pretty strong predisposition toward isolationism. But I read their posts regularly because I find it a useful check on my own liberal interventionist tendencies. And Innocent generally produces pretty thoughtful work. But then she throws in stuff like this:

It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning–which is socialism.

Now rag on conservative hypocrisy all you want. Lord knows there’s plenty of it to criticize. (And, yes, there’s plenty on the left side of the aisle, too.) But this is…what’s the word?…oh, yeah, crazy.

I mean, look. It’s true that government planning is a feature — arguably even a necessary feature — of any sort of socialist society. But c’mon. “All socialist states require faith in government planning” simply doesn’t entail “all faith in government planning is socialism.” I feel really confident that just about any government in the world could successfully plan to rob its citizens blind. Does that make me a socialist? This is like Hayek on steroids. Forget the road to serfdom. It’s anarchy or bust.

That, of course, is a view that one can hold. But it’s a very strange one for a Cato scholar to hold. They’re more limited-government than no-government types. Indeed, it’s a particularly odd view for someone who works in international relations to hold. And I think it’s pretty doubtful that Innocent actually holds such a view. This seems more like an instance of joining the movement to label any sort of government activity we don’t like as “socialism.” It’s not true, obviously. But “socialism” polls well (or poorly, depending on what you’re looking to accomplish). So we’ll just throw it out there.

That’s fine for the Sarah Palins and the Joe the Plumbers of the world. It’s maybe even fine for the FreedomWorks activist types. Obviously I’d prefer intellectual honesty in politics. But I’m realist enough to know that intellectual honesty doesn’t win elections. Though intellectual honesty and several hundred million dollars might. Still, I’m reasonably tolerant of crap being flung around by political types. Hey, it keeps me in a job!

But I really expect better of Cato scholars. If you want to play the Serious Public Intellectual, then you have to check the demagoguery at the door.

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