Great, If Imperfect

My first thought was to write about a shocking paragraph written by an old friend who at one time was a stalwart libertarian, and who (like the ACLU) continues to cruise on a legacy that’s largely dead.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Trump v. United States is its worst decision of my lifetime. John Roberts’s sloppy, arrogant, contradictory majority opinion provides license for any future president to lie, cheat, steal, suppress dissent, and — if they have the stomach for it — assassinate. It obliterates a guardrail for executive power that’s fundamental to a functioning democracy. So fundamental, in fact, that until the country elected an aspiring autocrat brazen enough to engage in open-air corruption, it was a guardrail few thought necessary to actually define. Of course the president can be prosecuted for actual crimes.

Was this the libertarian perspective? Are libertarians in favor of criminal prosecution as the cure for corrupt presidents? Having already explained why the decision has significant flaws, it similarly does something unfortunately made necessary by the current prosecutions of Donald Trump: Define the parameters of presidential criminal prosecution going forward.

We can argue about the parameters, but Trump’s malfeasance forced the genie out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back in. Now it has to be addressed. That so many who hate Trump refuse to think any harder than “lock him up” does not change what needs to be done. The harder question is what’s the best way to do it, not call it “the worst decision in my lifetime.”

But then Eugene Volokh pointed at a post by Jesse Singal, and it gave me pause. Jesse has been put through the wringer for not toeing the party line on transgender transitioning, not because he has anything against people who are transgender but because he found the fashionable extremes to present a danger that was being thwarted by outraged woke activists, for whom there was no limit and any question raised was transphobic that needed to be destroyed by any means necessary.

But Jesse’s post wasn’t about that at all. Like many of us, Jesse was a liberal, someone who would have been called a fuzzy-headed liberal a generation ago, who stayed in place as the left ran headlong toward the edge of the cliff. But rather than shriek about how horrible everything is, how doomed we are, how the Supreme Court’s decision is the “worst in my lifetime,” Jesse sees a nation that remains a work in progress, still working toward fixing our problems, but still pretty damn good, all things considered.

Despite the fact that I spend a lot more of my time criticizing the left than I used to, I haven’t undergone any bona fide ideological transformation over the years, except at the edges. I’ve always thought the United States’ social safety net should be more expansive and fairer than it is. In many ways our country screws over poor people, or people thrust into sudden financial emergencies, in ways that seem brutally unfair and unnecessary, given the prevailing policies in other wealthy, industrialized nations, and given the sheer wealth we have at our disposal. I also have extremely strong liberal/libertarian views about freedom, and came of age politically at a time when anti-sodomy laws had only recently been deemed unconstitutional, conservatives (and some liberals) were endorsing the insane idea of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and youth culture was even more of a scapegoat for the world’s ills than it usually is.

I’m a couple generations ahead of Jesse, and remember when much of the liberty we take for granted today was not merely illegal, but widely viewed as disgusting. Most of us learned and changed, Remember that Barack Obama, running for his first term as president, found it politically unacceptable to come out for gay marriage? Yet, here we are. Mind you, it took the Supreme Court to do it, even though it was a political question that should have been decided by Congress. But Congress has been paralyzed by in-fighting and the need to placate the extremes on either end to maintain a majority.

Yet here we are.

On the other hand, if you zoom out, what the United States has going on is remarkable and historically unusual. Three hundred and thirty million people are living in an almost 4 million-square-mile territory in which they can go where they want, worship who or what they want (or nothing at all), and say almost whatever they want. In addition, whatever our economic woes, clearly our economy is dynamic enough to attract immigrants from all over the world, many of whom, when asked, report that they believe the United States is a great place. (Though we do need to be careful about survivorship bias here, since if someone comes to the U.S., fails to establish a foothold, and then goes back to where they came from, or to Canada, of course they won’t be captured in a survey of immigrants.)

For the most part, Americans are in agreement about most controversial issues. But we are captive to the extremes in reaction to the other side’s extremes, which we are certain will destroy society. But society, despite the shriekers, is doing pretty damn well, even if it still has much room to improve. Society deserves to be protected and defended from the crazies on both sides.

It’s important to acknowledge this to fend off certain naysayers and would-be revolutionaries who, if they got their way, would choose destruction over reform. It’s also important not to get too starry-eyed, to slide into weird forms of hyper-nationalism or jingoism deaf to the many ways life here still is unfair, and to the ways we could do much better.

But given the choices currently on the table for next November, will society finally hit the wall? I’ll close with Jesse’s words.

But let’s take a break from that. Let’s just bask in the afterglow for a minute and reflect on how lucky we are to live in a glorious anomaly that might not be perfect, but which is orders of magnitude better than the vast majority of alternatives humans have cobbled together in the darker days of the past.

5 thoughts on “Great, If Imperfect

  1. David

    It’s almost impossible to believe that’s the same Radley Balko, mindlessly spewing the woke hysteria. It’s good to see some hold firm to their convictions, even as others free-ride on their past.

    1. cthulhu

      At some point, pundits have to decide what’s more important: maintaining core principles, or getting invited to the good cocktail parties? Balko seems to have chosen…poorly.

  2. Mike V

    “ Let’s just bask in the afterglow for a minute and reflect on how lucky we are to live in a glorious anomaly that might not be perfect, but which is orders of magnitude better than the vast majority of alternatives humans have cobbled together in the darker days of the past.”

    Or the present for that matter. I sometimes wonder why it takes a disaster to remind us what a great country we live in and that more unites us than divides us. I’ve always thought Reagan was right when he described America as “that shining city on the hill.”

    1. orthodoc

      Maybe not everything on the hill is shining. On July 4th, my wife and I took a walking tour to Morningside and Hamilton Heights to visit Columbia University and City College. We went up the northern part of Central Park, climbed the Tessa Majors steps in Morningside Park, and then tackled the incline of Amsterdam Avenue north of 125th Street. Along the way, we passed many Independence Day celebrations, largely Black and Latino, receiving smiles at all and being offered food by strangers on at least two occasions. From that experience, I would agree, society was doing pretty damn well. But it was hard to bask in the afterglow too long, for then we hit the campuses. Columbia is nominally open, but you have to pass through a security chute. Wire fencing now surrounds South Lawn West (site of the intifada encampment last spring). It was lifeless. City College was officially locked down, the guard explained, “because of the thing.” The campus was completely devoid of people except workers and security personnel. Granted, it was a national holiday, but beyond the buildings being spared, everything else seemed wiped out. It felt like the extreme shriekers had won. So yes, Reagan is right, but Franklin’s “…if you can keep it” line has to be in our face at all times too.


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