The View from New Delhi: Trump vs. Biden

Introduction

In the run-up to the US elections, presumptive Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are four months to the election, however, and it is too early predict the outcome. Many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact. Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden is confidence with regard to handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. The current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations, and keeping the country united.

Commentators, strategic analysts, and policymakers the world over are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s mind is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct given the massive economic and geopolitical changes which have taken place globally. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton – whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir have stirred up controversy and come at the wrong time for Trump – a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.

It is true that Biden has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway.’ and would be preferred by US liberals and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’ who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well, given the fact that he may not be as isolationist as Trump, and is likely to be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.

In the changed economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues. We may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, as attitudes towards trade had already begun to change during the Obama presidency.

One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. (The Trump Administration has sought to build strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative.) Biden said that he would only join a ‘re-negotiated TPP’ (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken when elected to office was to pull the US out of the TPP).

On China, too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable and abrasive than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point that Trump, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang

Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei and ZTE Corporation were declared ‘national security’ threats), a number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, mostly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about the US working closely with its allies to take on China, and on the other hand Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken too kindly by countries like Germany and Canada, who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.

Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders

While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport, was involved in the killing of Khashoggi).

In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H1Bs (in recent years, Indians have received well over two-thirds of the total H1B visas which have been issued) until the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), and during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favour of a greater role for India in Asia, and the need for both countries to work closely towards this goal.

What has irked many in India, however, is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on Biden’s campaign website. It would be important to note that not just Democrats, but even many Republicans, have criticised the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, and a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism in India, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many right-thinking Indians, too, have been emphasizing on the point that India can not progress without social cohesion and warned against the perils of religious polarization and social divisions.

Conclusion

No US administration can afford to be soft on China any longer, and neither can India with its rising clout be ignored. The US under Biden is likely to cement ties with countries like India and Vietnam while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, and Australia are kept in good humor. What could change is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.

Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

Selective Moral Argumentation

There are two competing approaches to moral theory. Consequentialism posits that actions and policies should be judged by their consequences: an action (or policy) is good if its predictable consequences are good. Deontologist perspectives, on the other hand, claim that actions should be judged according to their own worth, irrespective of consequences.

Note that the differences between these approaches lies not in the specific policies advocated but in their modes of arguing. Consider the death penalty. Consequentialists are generally against killing people because it’s not a good idea, but will support the death penalty if it can be shown that it is a cost-effective way of reducing crime. The deontologist opposition against the death penalty is absolute, but a deontologist may also support the death penalty because criminals deserve it, even if that’s not an efficient way to reduce crime.

I used to believe that specific individuals are either consequentialists or deontologists, i.e. some people are very sensitive to consequentialist reasoning while others were immune to it, and vice versa. At the very least, I expected individuals to combine both approaches in a consistent way (for example, by being consequentialists only two-thirds of the time). But now I think this is putting the cart before the horses: what happens in practice is that an individual first decides which policy she wants to defend, and then employs the mode of argument that is more favorable to the policy in question.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing military dictatorships were pretty common in Latin America. These governments often committed heinous crimes. When, years or even decades after the fact, the issue of punishing those responsible came to the fore, right-wingers opposed the move from a consequentialist perspective –social peace is worth preserving, isn’t it?–, while left-wingers took the deontologist stance –surely those who committed crimes against humanity should be harshly punished. But when the discussion turned about pardoning left-wing guerrillas, as in the 2016 peace referendum in Colombia, the tables turned: now the right found intolerable that criminals would be pardoned for the sake of social peace. (It is worth noting that in Argentina, where several former military commanders, including some with atrocious human rights records, contested and won elections after the return to democracy, the right never raised deontologist objections against them.)

I see the same pattern in Mexico today. During the electoral campaign last year, then candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was harshly criticized for raising the possibility of an amnesty for members of drug cartels in order to pacify the country. To be sure, there are many ways in which such a strategy could go wrong; but the criticism focused on the moral horror of pardoning drug dealers. Predictably, now that the government of López Obrador cut fuel supplies in order to prevent gasoline theft –something against which his predecessors had done nothing–, his opponents have found the virtues of consequentialism: the policy is creating (serious) fuel shortages. As you may guess, the government highlights the importance of combating criminals, without paying much attention to the consequences.

All of this reinforces the point repeatedly made by Cowen and Hanson: politics is not about policy, but about the relative status of different social groups. That said, the fact that we (unconsciously?) pick our preferred policies/stances first and decide how to defend them afterwards only begs the question: what determines whether we end up positioning ourselves in one side of the political spectrum or another? And given that we sometimes (but rarely) switch sides, what are the motivations behind these changes?

Nightcap

  1. Is there a legal duty to report your co-workers if they’re off the clock? Eugene Volokh, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. There’s a reason Corbynism appeals to anti-Semites Andrew Lilico, CapX
  3. An American voice is needed in human rights discussions Joel Weickgenant, RealClearPolitics
  4. The Trump-Koch Alliance of Convenience Starts to Split Jim Geraghty, National Review

Nightcap

  1. How cotton unraveled the Chinese patriarchy Melanie Meng Xue, Aeon
  2. Trump, conservatives, and human rights Seth Kaplan, American Affairs
  3. On paper, federations generally seem like a good idea Emiliano Travieso, Decompressing History
  4. Switzerland’s mysterious fourth language Dena Roché, BBC

Nightcap

  1. Gaza is bad. We are about to make it worse Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists
  2. Jews, Human Rights, and the Last of the Tzaddiks David Shulman, NY Review of Books
  3. The Liberal Conception of Freedom Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. The 19th-century painter with a warning for America Julian Beecroft, 1843

Can Elizabeth Warren help turn the populist tide?

During her recent visit to China, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (perceived by many as a potential Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020), came down heavily on US President Donald Trump’s approach towards foreign policy, arguing that it lacks substance, is unpredictable, and does not pay much attention to liberal values and human rights, which according to her has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.

Trump’s unpredictability

Commenting on Trump’s unpredictable approach towards Asia, Warren stated:

This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in.

Critical of US approach towards China

Warren met with senior Chinese officials including Liu He, vice-premier for economic policy, Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat, and the minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, and discussed a number of important issues including trade and the North Korea issue.

Warren criticised China for being relatively closed, and stated that the US needed to have a more realistic approach towards Beijing. She also spoke of the need for the US to remain committed to raising Human Rights issues, and not skirt the issue, while dealing with China.

Said the Democratic Senator: Continue reading

Trump’s humor is not very funny to the world’s liberal democracies

The Chinese Communist Party, on February 25, 2018, made a significant announcement — that the two-term limit for Presidency will be abolished through an amendment to the constitution. This means that current President Xi Jinping will be President for life. This amendment was tabled on March 6, 2018 by the Communist Party during the two week National People’s Congress (which began on Monday, March 5, 2018).

According to a CNN recording, Donald Trump, while reacting to this development, stated:

He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.

The US President also called Xi a “gentleman,” and said that the latter had treated Trump very well during his China visit in November 2017. Trump’s reaction to Xi’s decision has been criticized by some politicians in the US, while other major Western democracies have not commented on the decision.

Trump’s inconsistency on China

Trump’s views with regard to China have not been consistent, as is the case on many other issues. Candidate Trump had used tough language for China; at one campaign rally, for example, candidate Trump stated:

We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.

During his visit to China in November 2017, the US President had, interestingly enough, criticized his predecessors, and said that he does not hold China responsible for the skewed trade relationship:

[…] I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its own citizens? I give China great credit […] I do blame past [US] administrations for allowing this out of control trade deficit to take place and to grow. We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work […] it is just not sustainable.

While the US President is unpredictable, the criticism of his predecessors on foreign soil came as a shock to everyone.

Trump’s myopic approach towards complex economic and strategic issues has helped China

Trump’s recent praise of the constitutional change which will enable Xi to be President for life may have embarrassed many Americans and Liberals in other parts of the world. They would have perhaps expected the US President to raise a red flag.

The fact is, however, that many of Trump’s foreign policy decisions – withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January 2017, or repeatedly criticizing NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and stating that members are not meeting their ‘financial obligations’ or, more recently, the imposition of tariffs on imports of aluminium and steel – are embarrassing steadfast allies in Asia and Western Europe. All these decisions have sent a message globally that Trump’s view of the outside world is driven by domestic politics and transactionalism – and not realism as some would have us believe. This is in contrast to his predecessors, who valued relationships but also understood the relevance of common democratic values as a binding thread. Trump on the other hand is quite comfortable with authoritarian leaders.

Trump has often expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, and Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, who is controversial for using extrajudicial methods to deal with a Filipino drug problem, has presided over a drug war that has cost the lives of more than 4,000 people. While praising Duterte, Trump said:

I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing.

During their meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila (November 2017), Trump did not sufficiently raise US human rights concerns, and was criticized by many American politicians, including Republican Senator John McCain. The US-Philippines Joint Statement, while speaking about the challenge of the drug problem, did refer to a human rights issue (issued after the meeting between Trump and Duterte):

The two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs to promote the welfare of all sectors, including the
most vulnerable groups.

It would be pertinent to point out that the previous administration had criticized Duterte for adopting such measures. In return, Duterte used offensive language aimed at President Obama.

While the US has been in bed with authoritarian regimes in the past and turned a blind eye on many occasions to human rights violations, no one can deny the fact that even transactionalist Presidents like Ronald Reagan paid lip service to democracy and human rights. In a speech at Westminster, Reagan stated:

Democracy is not a fragile flower […] Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.

Similarly, George W Bush, who was often thought of as being very simplistic, spoke about the importance of democratic values as a common binding factor with many of its allies.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while reasonable ties between Washington and Beijing are good news, Trump’s public appreciation of authoritarian leaders and their methods is worrying because at the global level there is a feeling that authoritarian leaders and systems deliver better results compared to chaotic democracies.

The US has always been the flagbearer of democracy, liberal values, and human rights. It is a matter of concern, then, when the leader of such a country pays little attention to these issues. In a way, Trump has played a pivotal role in wrecking the liberal order, and by doing so has created a situation where Beijing will not have to change its ways, but may well create a parallel order which many countries will be willing to join due to China’s economic prowess.

Immigration and States’ Rights

Bryan Caplan (arguing the affirmative) and Christopher Wellman recently debated whether immigration is a human right.

Wellman won the debate according to audience votes, but I think his argument was significantly weaker. He made confused arguments that, when given second thought lend credence to Caplan’s position. But through hand waving he transitioned to “and therefore states’ rights!” I am far from convinced that state’s rights are valid, but I do want to explore an interesting issue he raised: the moral weight of collective phenomena.

Markets generate economic information more intelligently than any individual participant. Competition and collaboration in cultural spaces generate more and better art than any individual on their own. Society is the outcome of individual choices, but the collective is something apart from those individuals.

We have various collectives (e.g. cultural regions, markets, local communities, families, national identities, sports fandom, science, etc.), many of which are special. They provide club goods (sometimes club bads), and require the support of their members. These networks exhibit emergent properties–the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

So surely those members should have some say in the management of the collective?

This is where Wellman went off track. Yes, these collectives are important. Yes, they require some form of governance. But that doesn’t unambiguously imply involvement of government.

Consider an excellent example Wellman gives: families. Families are an essential part of the structure of society and one we are each deeply familiar with. If there’s a collective entity with moral weight, surely it’s the family.

Wellman posed the hypothetical around the 32:45 mark: what if he returned home and found that his wife had unilaterally adopted a new child? Clearly this is freedom of association run amok! But the example doesn’t imply the need for state involvement; it implies the need for couples therapy! If he and his wife together decide to adopt, then the question remains, “why should the government have a say in this?” Currently it does, which means that whatever the median voter is cool with is acceptable, even if that means preventing this adoption that clearly doesn’t affect them. That seems untenable unless we have strong evidence that adoptions tend to create large negative spillovers.

The moral weight of a family doesn’t imply either state involvement or democratic decision making. Members can be added to a family through birth or marriage. The decision is made by the one or two individuals most directly involved (perhaps with some role for other family members). And those decisions are made non-coercively. Parents may intervene to prevent teenage Romeos and Juliettes from getting married, but adults are basically allowed to make their own decision.

I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that 90% of people would agree that the way we do freedom of association in families is basically the right way to do things.

Polycentrism!

The scope of a family does not fit neatly into the boxes drawn on a map, nor do most other collective phenomena. Red Sox Nation isn’t just Boston. Regional cultures overlap. Languages cross borders.

We want the collective decision making institutions to reflect the area of spill-overs. Decisions affecting a family should be made within the family. I shouldn’t be directly involved in decisions about how to provide local public services in San Diego. Global spillovers justify global decision making, but local spillovers don’t.

When it comes to immigration, we have to ask:

  1. What collectives will they affect? (certain labor markets, local communities)
  2. Are they likely to create large negative spillovers?
  3. What is the current form of institutions governing those collectives?

There are high stakes for many potential immigrants (especially those coming from places typical Americans are most afraid of), so we should probably go a step further: if there’s a solution to some potential spillover problem that isn’t significantly more costly than immigration restrictions, we should feel obliged to use that solution. For example, it should be easier to come here to live and work than it is to get welfare benefits (although getting that policy to work raises a host of other questions).

Rights imply action

Let’s agree on this: there are collective phenomena that are special. We want to take care of these phenomena which means figuring out the appropriate form of governance for each case.

Wellman gives another family example that blows his own argument out of the water: what if he was put in an arranged marriage? This would deny him important scope for self-determination. And therefore (he argues) states, being important collective phenomena, have a right to self-determination.

How did the audience not notice this?! Immigration restrictions deny me choice over who to voluntarily associate with and so deny me scope for self-determination.

Even if it feels weird from a rational-individualist perspective, there is something special about (e.g.) a country. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon methodological individualism. We know that only individuals make choices, even if they make those choices for the sake of collectives. A collective can have moral weight but still lack the ability to choose. To my mind, this kills the idea of states’ rights (as in “right to do x” or “right to self-determination”) in general.

What we’re left with is the original question: how do we manage the collective? What decisions do we make collectively, and what do we decide piecemeal?

For many (most?) collectives, including the most important ones, we allow freedom of (dis)association and leave the state out of it. Wellman did not answer the question of “why should immigration be different?” I suspect there are strong arguments to be made, but the closest I heard in this debate is that we can think of this as a question of governance, and that government sometimes provides governance.

As Wellman points out (around the 30:00 mark) there is (sometimes) a tension between rules favoring individual freedom and rules requiring collective decision making. There are plenty of examples of scenarios where we uncontroversially prefer to limit some individual rights–we do this automatically with negative rights by denying you the freedom to murder in support of your right to life.

It’s not clear to me that the expected effects of immigrants are widespread enough to justify as sweeping a policy as “only the following people are allowed in these particular thousands of square miles.” For immigration (but not access to the welfare state), the presumption of liberty seems the way to go.

tl;dr: We have various collective goods that are special (e.g. the “character” of a community). This calls for some form of governance to allow the individuals directly involved to manage collective goods. This frequently calls for constraints on individual freedoms for the benefit of the community, but that doesn’t mean that the special collective identity of a country justifies a presumption of closed borders.

The debate over whether the nation state is violating human rights by restricting immigration (with caveats made for “obviously” reasonable restrictions like keeping out known murderers) is not closed by pointing out that there is a collective good associated with the nation state. States can be special without having states’ rights.

Hayek on Human Rights Day

It turns out it’s Human Rights Day today! I came across a call on Twitter: “Don’t fight for your rights. Fight for equal rights.” This reminded me of an argument from Hayek: “If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear…. the importance of our being free to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the question of whether we or the majority are ever likely to make use of that particular possibility… The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.

This thought entered my brain when I was in a Constitution of Liberty reading group back in San Jose and has been percolating ever since. It has profound implications for how we think of freedom as a concept, and especially for how we should think about the sorts of liberties we want to support. I think the second part is obvious: even if I don’t need the freedom to own a business (for example), I’m far better off in a world where immigrants are allowed to start businesses like eBay. The same is true for more controversial liberties… we simply don’t know who ought to have the rights necessary to transform the world, and we don’t know what those rights are. So we should be prepared to err on the side of giving “too many” people “too many” liberties.

The first part (the implications for how we think of freedom as a concept) is a bit trickier. Hayek is arguing that the rights we all have aren’t terribly important. That is, it’s the marginal rights that matter. We all have the right to life. It’s important, but it’s not going anywhere anyways. If we want to improve the future, we need to keep an eye to things within our control; we could revoke the right to life (you know what I mean… that other thing is a whole different can of worms and you should write your own blog post about it…), but that’s not even on the table. What we need to be concerned with is those rights that we could conceivably lose because they don’t seem that important.

For example: women should be allowed to sign contracts, own property, and start businesses. We all know that to be the case based on our sense of fairness. But Hayek bolsters that argument: we should want that set of rights to be held by as many people as possible regardless of sex and possibly even regardless of species (District 9 and Planet of the Apes are two movies that would be very different if we attached rights to sentience rather than humanity). We don’t want rights to only go to people we care about, we want them to go to people who can use those rights to make the world better.

Around the Web

  1. Are you a liberal imperialist? Stephen Walt asks the question and lists ten signs that you may be one.
  2. Will Obama attack Syria in the face of so many domestic scandals?
  3. Libertarians care about more than just themselves. Bryan Caplan explains why.
  4. Big Country Blues.
  5. Great post on civil society and its work exposing police corruption. Don’t forget that police departments are now heavily unionized…
  6. Human Rights and Democracy Statistics. A short, informative video by a Swedish epidemiologist and statistician.
  7. Ha. Ha.