All posts by aaronhaspel

Perfect Justice; or, Why Political Arguments Never Convince Anybody

Shit Aaron SaysPut a libertarian and non-libertarian in a room and you get an argument, always the same argument. It might be over whether people who got cancer from industrial emissions would be able to collect fifty years hence. Or whether houses would collapse in earthquakes without building codes. Or whether without animal cruelty laws the evil neighbors would buy up puppies and kittens and torture them without fear of reprisal. Only the details vary.

Thomas Sowell wrote a book on this subject, A Conflict of Visions, in which he claimed that the fundamental divide is between those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature and those who do not. In fact it is less momentous: it’s between those who believe in the perfectibility of the state and those who do not. Some people think that the state can mete out perfect justice, some don’t. Libertarianism fails, in the eyes of the first group, if any evil goes unpunished. Now no one believes that the state can mete out justice in every case. But a lot of people, indeed a substantial majority, believe that, for every case, a theoretical mechanism for redress or punishment ought to exist. They readily concede that in practice eggs must be broken to make omelets. Mistakes are made. But if the mechanism exists, conscience is assuaged, and that is enough.

Good law sometimes produces unjust outcomes; a famous maxim expresses this, conversely, as “hard cases make bad law.” In Waube v. Warrington, a classic torts case from 1935, a woman watched a negligent driver strike and kill her daughter. The woman died a month later, allegedly of shock, and her husband sued. Maybe it was shock, maybe it wasn’t, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court never reached the question. It dismissed the suit on the grounds that damages for mental distress require physical contact, and there was none in this case. If the woman really did die of shock, then the outcome was unjust. Yet the law was sound, based on a bright-line, predictable, common-sense standard. Like any such standard, it does not fit every case. Too bad. Law is collective, justice individual. You can swallow this or you can’t.

Buildings collapse sometimes in earthquakes and kill a lot of people. This happens more often in poor countries than rich ones because taking precautions against a rare catastrophe is a luxury, and rich people can afford more luxuries than poor people. It will continue to happen more often in poor countries, no matter how stringent their building codes, because builders will circumvent regulations that they cannot afford. If the codes are rigidly enforced then fewer houses will be built, and people who formerly lived in shoddy houses will do without instead. You can swallow this or you can’t.

The trouble with animal cruelty laws is that animals are property, and such laws infringe property rights. You can tack on riders like “needless” all you like, but infringement is infringement, and when the only question is how much, the laws become a way to harass people in the animal business. (So far the animal rightists have mostly trained their fire on unpopular targets like foie-gras producers and circus trainers; scientists, assuredly, are next.) Of course without the laws Cruella de Vil can sew herself a nice coat out of Dalmatian puppy hides and there isn’t a damn thing the cops can do about it. You can swallow this or you can’t.

Team Perfect and Team Good Enough can argue to eternity and never get anywhere. And apparently they shall.

—Aaron Haspel

Clown Prince?

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Among my friends, who include many pundits, “clown prince” is a comparatively mild epithet. “Fucking idiot” is more popular. Yet this supposed clown, this alleged idiot, has succeeded enormously at just about everything he’s tried. Trump has made a lot of money in real estate. (It is objected that Trump doesn’t really build buildings, or manage them; he mostly collects fees for putting his name on stuff. True enough, but nice work if you can get it, and who but Trump can?) Trump is the most popular reality TV star of all time. Trump is a best-selling author whose books people not only buy, but actually read. Trump has married a string of beautiful women and raised what appear to be competent and well-adjusted children. And Trump will shortly become the first political novice since Eisenhower to be nominated by a major party for President of the United States.

The linchpin, then, of my theory of Trump is that Trump knows what he’s doing. So what is he doing? Fortunately Trump is transparent. He tells you exactly what he will do — indeed, writes books on the subject — before he does it. Trump is running for President because he thinks he will be a good President, and because he has nothing left to prove in business. Trump has considered running several times before; he chose this year because he saw a weak field. So far, like most of what Trump does, this has panned out.

Whether Trump will be a good President is not my concern here. I am interested in his considerable merits as a candidate. Trump understands persuasion better than any other candidate in the race, and far better than Hillary Clinton. Let’s look at how he has dominated the Republican race.

Trump recognizes that people don’t vote for policies. They vote for identities. (This is also true of pundits, though they like to kid themselves.) Trump has almost nothing in the way of traditional political positions. What does he stand for? Build a wall, sock it to China, keep out the Muslims. These scarcely add up to a coherent platform. What they do add up to is a coherent identity. They convey to the voters that Trump, more than any other candidate, will defend the interests of American citizens. That’s a pretty good identity to have in an election. Hillary has nothing to touch it.

This is just one of many of Trump’s supposed fatal weaknesses — no policies! — that are actually great strengths. Perhaps you have noticed that every news cycle in this election centers on Trump, who gets more press coverage than the rest of the candidates combined. Trump has long been expert at exploiting the press this way; for years in New York he collateralized real estate loans with newspaper headlines. His great secret is the “gaffe”. Trump will say something outrageous. The media will jump all over it, sure that this time they have found the remark that will sink him. Trump will in turn accuse the media of political correctness and bias against him — not without reason — and double down. Meanwhile, for the other candidates, the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Each “gaffe” makes him more popular than ever.

Trump’s few inchoate ideas are alleged to be unworkable. Mexico will pay for a wall? Absurd! Here again Trump understands persuasion better than his detractors. Trump views the President as, essentially, Negotiator-in-Chief, and “Mexico will pay” is simply his opening gambit — his “first ask”, in the argot. Is the President really Negotiator-in-Chief? Not entirely, but it is among the most visible things he does, and Trump, by positioning himself this way, reinforces his identity as the candidate who will protect the interests of American citizens.

I could go on at length about Hillary’s weaknesses, and about the way social media has shifted national politics in America in favor of Trump and Sanders, and against establishment candidates like Clinton. But these considerations do not strictly belong to a Theory of Trump, and this has got too long already. And this Theory of Trump does not strictly belong to me — it belongs to Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, who predicted the rise of Trump last August, when no one else did, including me. Adams has what he calls the Master Persuader series on his blog, all of his Trump-related posts from then until now, and I recommend it to all.

—Aaron Haspel, author of Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)