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The National Interest, C'est Moi

This inability to agree on the nature of the national interest is endemic not just to the new nationalism, but to all of politics.

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"I want to be elected. I think I am a great president. I think I am the greatest president there ever was, and if I am not elected, the national interest will suffer greatly." These are the words of a hypothetical president, as imagined by Alan Dershowitz in his role as one of Donald Trump's lawyers during the final days of the Senate impeachment trial.

That hypothetical president, said Dershowitz, would not have committed an impeachable offense if he offered an otherwise-legal quid pro quo partially motivated by a desire to improve his own electoral chances. After all, "every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest."

Despite Dershowitz's Harvard credentials and long standing as a liberal stalwart, this thought experiment was greeted with a storm of disdain on the Hill and within the legal community.

"His argument was beyond absurd. I thought he made absolutely no sense—because he essentially said that if President Trump believes his election is for the good of the American people that he could do whatever he wants," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) told The Washington Post. "He is wrong, and I think he's made a laughable argument that undermines the president's case."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) echoed the sentiment: "The Dershowitz argument frankly would unleash a monster, more aptly it would unleash a monarch."

"Our country was founded on this idea that we were an independent democracy, that we didn't want to be ruled by a king," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) chorused. "And if you say things like that—like you can do anything you want and it doesn't matter—just to further your election, you basically have a dictator. You have a king. You have no democracy."

Yet the same Democrats who descended into dread at Dershowitz's thought experiment about the relationship between executive power and national interest seem disconcertingly lacking in self-awareness about how such a critique would apply to their own plans for the day their party once again holds the reins.

Klobuchar herself has promised to use executive action in her first 100 days to enact new policies on gun control, financial regulation, immigration, union protections, cybersecurity, and much more. She has made these promises, one assumes, out of mixed motivations: She believes such actions would be in the national interest, but she also thinks that promising to do these things will increase her chances of being elected and that doing them will increase her chances of being re-elected.

Staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) have already begun drafting the dozens of executive orders that would be required to fulfill the promises he has been making for the debut of his presidency, from directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana to declaring a climate change emergency to banning the export of crude oil to canceling all federal contracts that pay workers less than $15 per hour.

Indeed, every one of the would-be contenders for the presidency has promised to use his early days in office to single-handedly promulgate major policy changes using powers reserved to the executive.

Topping them all is Michael Bloomberg, who has enjoyed a surprisingly fast ascent in the polls after a late entrance into the Democratic primaries. The billionaire mayor rammed through a change in New York City's term limits to clear the way for his third term in Gracie Mansion, citing the necessity of strong leadership during the financial crisis. "We may well be on the verge of a meltdown, and it's up to us to rise to the occasion," he said at a 2008 news conference. New Yorkers, finally given the chance to vote on the matter, restored term limits shortly after his re-election. Bloomberg, too, has dozens of executive orders up his sleeve for the day he assumes office.

Presidents will naturally have a complicated and expansive understanding of the national interest. And because presidents are human, that understanding will—as a general matter—dovetail neatly with their own partisan and personal political interests.

Running for high office (at least in the 21st century, but perhaps everywhere and always) requires a set of unusual traits, one of which is a reduced or nonexistent sense of humility. Most neurotypical human beings faced with the demands of a presidential campaign would quickly conclude either that it's more trouble than it's worth or that someone else could do the job better. But a successful contender for the presidency must believe, deep in his secret heart, that he alone can best serve the national interest.

Upon attaining office, a president does indeed assume tremendous power in the domestic sphere and the right to exercise massive amounts of discretion in foreign policy. He also immediately becomes a scapegoat and sin eater.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on economic questions. Political soothsayers have compellingly made the case that a strong economy is one of the best predictors for the re-election of a sitting president. And as Veronique de Rugy explains in "Just How Good Is Trump's Economy, Anyway?" (page 29), a president does have influence over some aspects of the market. But he is hardly the kind of god-king that most Americans imagine him to be, empowered to make the NASDAQ and the S&P 500 rise and fall with a wave of his hand. Presidents do their best and then hang on for the ride, taking credit in the good times and passing blame in the bad times. Still, when the economy is doing well, one can easily imagine a president convincing himself (and the electorate) that it's in everyone's interest to keep him in power if they want the good times to keep rolling. Of course, if the economy is floundering, the same president is likely to make the case that only a steady hand on the tiller can right the ship and so he must retain power if there is to be any hope of recovery. Motivated reasoning can be awfully flexible.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, as historian Amity Shlaes explains in her interview with Nick Gillespie (page 48). The Great Society was both an idealistic vision of a new way to conceive of the national interest and a brutal electoral calculation by President Lyndon Johnson about how to establish his legacy at a highly unstable political moment. "When Johnson became president, he wanted to do something that would make him look great—greater than President [John F.] Kennedy, who preceded him and died tragically," she explains.

It's been manifesto season on the right, as conservatism's big brains struggle to come to terms with what Donald Trump hath wrought and figure out a way forward. The result has been the movement described by Stephanie Slade in "Against the New Nationalism" (page 22). This new breed of nationalists complains that libertarians have too much influence, fetishizing individual autonomy and global economic growth to the point that our polity is on the brink of ruin. They insist that Americans must put our economic, cultural, and political interests above those of the rest of the world in order to preserve something vitally important and unique. In many ways, the nationalist resurgence is an attempt by conservative intellectuals to retcon the Trump presidency as part of a larger evolution of the national interest.

But right now the ratio of nationalist manifestos to nationalists is approximately 1:1—tough conditions to get a new movement off the ground. Some of the new nationalists see an aggressive foreign policy stance as central to the national interest, while others favor a systematic withdrawal to a stronger defensive position. Some are untroubled by relatively free trade, while most see that as the root of many evils. Some want harsher immigration restrictionism; others prefer to incentivize native births. And on and on.

This inability to agree on the nature of the national interest is endemic not just to the new nationalism, but to all of politics. Occasionally entire nations do manage a kind of convergence on this question. But that typically happens when they're physically under attack by a foreign invader. (The same theory might work globally if an enormous and deadly alien squid fell from the sky, as Alan Moore imagines in Watchmen and as Paul Krugman has considered in his columns.)

But the U.S. faces no such threat, no matter how many real and metaphorical wars we are currently engaged in. As the spectacle of the impeachment demonstrated, far from rejoicing in a single conception of who we are and where we should be heading, the political classes and the electorate are bitterly divided about the nature of the national interest and the best person to wield the powers of the presidency to pursue it.

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  1. Welcome to politics, dumbass. Read the first and last paragraphs and skimmed the rest. TBH, if she wanted to describe this as a change then the bulk of her ire should be against the left for fully abandoning the Constitution. That is supposed to be and was the central consensus but has been intentionally eroded by those who want to abandon all personal responsibility to the state (or alternatively to control everything)

    1. unreason either attacks Trump with hyperbole or tries to equate him to the Democrat hacks to bring Trump down to their level.

      Nobody is buying what unreason is selling.

    2. “the bulk of her ire should be against the left for fully abandoning the Constitution”

      Thanks for posting that directly after the Cuccinelli decision was issued, you half-educated, disaffected, bigoted culture war casualty.

  2. According to Koch / Reason libertarianism, the national interest is served if and only if billionaires — like our benefactor Charles Koch — are rapidly accumulating additional wealth. And that has not been happening during this #DrumpfRecession. Now it’s even worse because of the global viral plague which is also Drumpf’s fault.

    #HowLongMustCharlesKochSuffer?

    1. DRINK! It’s the OpenBordersLiberal-tarian drinking game! Take a shot every time OpenBordersLiberal-tarian exposes his obsession with Koch.

  3. Trump ***IS*** the Nation AND the National Interest! Get with the latest personality cult!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/president-trump-absolute-rights/607168/
    Donald Trump’s Strange and Dangerous ‘Absolute Rights’ Idea
    This is a profound misunderstanding of the American constitutional system.

    End titles imports

    As America Embodied in the Flesh, The Donald has the ‘Absolute Rights’ that come along with Him Being the Being that He IS!

    Separations of Powers? Per the USA Constitution? SOOOO yesterday!

    I see now, where JesseSPAZ and other “Absolute” Devotees of the Trumptatorship get these things!

    1. There are still three branches, Trump can be checked by either. The dude talks a lot, it doesn’t mean the constitution simply ceases to exist.

    2. Every president almost without exception has increased executive power. Trump has an absolutely cowed senate and cowed Republican congress critters. He’s filling his whole executive branch with unqualified loyalists. This trend will only continue unless we elect a congress with more balls.

      1. You know, I was going to respond, but then I kept reading this:

        “Trump has an absolutely cowed senate and cowed Republican congress critters.”

        And realized it was pointless.

  4. Anything the other side does is now an “existential” threat. Might as well get used to it.

    1. Yep. And that threat is getting “exponentially worse.”

  5. President Donald Trump is the trend that America wants.

    A uncorruptable President who is so willing to work for Americans and America that the corrupt Lefty bureaucrats try to coup him by any means available, including Impeachment.

    Thank you President Trump. Thank you!

    1. A uncorruptable President

      Trump is corruptible like any other human being. Feel free to get up off your knees any time you like.

      1. And yet, the Ds an intel agencies still have nothing him on him, despite using all of their resources to dig up and even fabricate dirt

  6. After all, “every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest.”

    Despite Dershowitz’s Harvard credentials and long standing as a liberal stalwart, this thought experiment was greeted with a storm of disdain on the Hill and within the legal community.

    Yeah, well, Machiavelli could have told you what happens to people who dare to tell the truth. They all think they’re the most highly-qualified person in the world to lead the nation but they all hide their ego-maniacal self-regard by presenting this false modesty of a burning desire to serve.* Mother Teresa had a burning desire to serve and nobody had to elect her to her position, she just went out and did it. Has there ever been a politician in history who emulated Mother Teresa?

    *With the notable exception of Donald Trump, of course. Which is why Trump pisses off so many people, he’s impolitic enough to say what they’re all thinking and that’s just not the way the game is supposed to be played. You have to be able to pretend to laugh at this joke.

    1. You can read it in Macchiavelli, you can read it in the Federalist Papers. The US Constitution was argued for largely on the ground that it would align the sum of the personal interests of politicians with the national interest, recognizing that ambition would always exist and so, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” to mitigate its adverse effects.

  7. Reminder: We are now in day #3 of the Reason blackout of Trump making a deal to end the war in Afghanistan after 18 years.

    1. The Taliban has been demanding US withdrawal for years. What concessions has the US managed to extract from them? I hope there’s at least a promise to go easy on their persecution and pogroms against women.

    2. You mean they didn’t call everyone into the office over the weekend to write articles about Friday’s news?

      Oh!

      My!

      God!

    3. Add “end the war in Afghanistan” to

      “lock her up”

      “coal is coming back”

      “manufacturing is coming back”

      “Mexico will pay for the wall”

      “I will build the wall”

      “unskilled, uneducated white males from can’t-keep-up backwaters will prosper — not only prosper, but do so at the expense of the fancy ‘elites’ residing in big cities”

      “Obamacare will be repealed”

      “I will eliminate federal debt in eight years”

      “I will balance the federal budget fairly quickly”

      “I will sue the women I sexually assaulted”

      “You’ll see the tax returns when audit is completed”

      1. Haha. Yeah. White people are terrible.

        Don’t change a thing, rev. You’re doing great!

  8. it is like Reason writers just emerged out of gray matter instantly and are completely unaware of the last 2000 years of western history

  9. KMW nails, this. Because the national interest is so hard to agree on, it should only be used as a standard in those areas in which government itself is necessary. When the interests of individuals are different or even conflicting, the national interest shouldn’t interfere with free individuals pursuing their own best interests as they see them. It should not matter whether Scientology or viewing pornography is in our best interests as a nation, and if starting a new business wins consumers away from and destroys other established businesses, the freedom to do so should not be constrained by the interests the nation.

    There are areas, however, where the national interest should be an important consideration–and they coincide with the areas in which government intervention is entirely appropriate. I maintain that if government has any legitimate purpose at all, it is to protect our rights. We have police to protect our rights from criminals. We have courts to protect our rights from the police. We have a military to protect our rights from foreign threats.

    Running with the military as just one example, a society cannot be free if its people can be subjected to wars over their objections and against their will, so it is necessary for a free society to subject the declaration of war to the consent of elected officials who fear the voters. This is one of the areas where government action is perfectly legitimate–and therefore it also legitimate for our government and our voters to consider the national interest when we declare our wars.

    Regardless of whether we can agree on whether it is in the best interests of the United States to invade and maintain an occupation of Iraq, whether invading or maintaining the occupation of Iraq was in the best interests of the United States should have been the primary consideration. Instead, we were fed distracting falsehoods about how Saddam Hussein was complicit in the attacks on 9/11. Instead, we were sold stories about why folding the occupation was in the best interests of the Iraqis.

    Considering the national interest should not apply to areas in which the government doesn’t have a legitimate role, but in areas in which the government does have a legitimate role, considering our national interest should only be secondary to considering the implications of policy on our rights and liberties.

    The Vietnam War was not in our national interest, and the reason it took us so long to withdraw was because it took people so long to come to terms with the sunk costs fallacy, which is to say–because they were considering other things rather than our national interest.

    Invading Lebanon in 1983 was not in the best interests of the United States, and thank goodness President Reagan didn’t care more about the interests of Israel or Lebanon than he did the interests of the United States.

    Going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was not in the best interests of the United States in 1991, and thank goodness President George H. W. Bush didn’t launch a war to do so in 1991.

    Invading Rwanda was not in the best interests of the United States, and thank goodness President Clinton didn’t invade Rwanda.

    Going to war with Turkey and Syria in 2019 may have been in the best interests of the Kurds and anti-Assad forces in Syria, but going to war in Syria was not in the best interests of the United States. Thank goodness President Trump pulled U.S. troops out of harm’s way.

    The nuclear agreement Obama entered into with Iran was not in the best interests of the United States. The Paris climate accord was not in the best interests of the United States. Thank goodness President Trump pulled us out of both of them for that reason, I say. If you say differently, that both of those agreements were in the best interests of the United States, I’ll be willing to listen to you. There is no reason why we should all agree on what the best interests of the United States are in foreign policy; however, one thing we should all agree on is that the question of whether we enter into a nuclear treaty with Iran or a climate treaty with the rest of the world, should be decided on the basis of whether they’re in the best interests of the United States. If you can’t sell your preferred policy in terms of the interests of the United States, then you must not have much of anything legitimate to sell.

    1. Going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was not in the best interests of the United States in 1991, and thank goodness President George H. W. Bush didn’t launch a war to do so in 1991.

      Did you forget what his son did?

    2. If government had any legitimate purpose It’s “services” wouldn’t be provided on a compulsory basis.
      The government “services” are shit.
      When all participants of a “system” are feeding from the same nose-bag, free from competition — and are allowed (by your neighbors and friends — hopefully not you) to
      • Make the laws,
      • Enforce the laws,
      • Prosecute the laws,
      • Hire the prosecutors,
      • License the “defense” attorneys,
      • Pay the “judges”,
      • Build the jails,
      • Contract jails out to private entities,
      • Employ and pay the wardens,
      • Employ and pay the guards,
      • Employ and pay the parole officers,
      One can’t honestly call it a “justice” system. It’s a system of abject tyranny.

  10. “This thought experiment was greeted with a storm of disdain on the Hill and within the legal community.”

    Surprisingly, demagogues demagogued all over it. But in a society that thinks motive increases the heinousness of a crime, what do you expect?

    “New Yorkers, finally given the chance to vote on the matter, restored term limits shortly after his re-election.”

    Because voting the scumbag out was too hard.

    So many straw men…

    The lesson coming out of World War II that nationalism is the evil that caused the Nazis is so disingenuous to have no merit. The concept that you can’t have a national identify because that causes wars ignores human nature. People fight for tribalism and eliminating one form of tribalism has just created a new one in the left/right dichotomy, just as entrenched. Only now instead of having borders to separate us and delineate, we live mixed in amongst one another.

    The fundamental view that all nationalism is bad by definition requires re-evaluation. The only thing that has restrained the drive of communism/leftism is national borders, of drawing lines and saying you’re not welcome here. Globalism is creating a very scary totalitarianism in that we have one set of rules for everyone and the only thing we don’t tolerate is intolerance, however we decide to define it.

    If you expect nationalists to review their views of their belief systems, maybe you should take an honest look at your own precepts. Try considering why your views are failing to stop the leftists, because we’re heading like a freight train for socialist totalitarianism in America and all the libertarians with their lofty ideas can scream about is Orange Man Bad!

    1. “The lesson coming out of World War II that nationalism is the evil that caused the Nazis is so disingenuous to have no merit.”

      OK then, in your opinion, what is it that led to the NAZIs, and why?

      1. Collectivism? Greed? Avarice? A demoralized populace? Envy?

        Good thing we don’t see any of those things in our pure, non-nationalistic democratic socialist movements in the U.S. Our saviors!

      2. There are two words that make up ‘Nazi’–and national is just one of them.

        There’s another ideology that is big on mass murder and wholsale slaughter–and look! that other word in ‘nazi’ is part of their name, too!

        The National Socialists and the International Socialists seem to use the same methods.

        Maybe the murderous commonality isn’t a sense of nationalism.

    2. ” But in a society that thinks motive increases the heinousness of a crime, what do you expect?”

      Motive always has a bearing on the seriousness of a crime. Killing someone to take their money will be punished more harshly than killing someone by accident.

      “because we’re heading like a freight train for socialist totalitarianism in America”

      Nationalistic appeals aren’t going to stop socialism. Communists and leftists from Vietnam to Algeria to Quebec to Palestine to Israel have long exploited nationalistic sentiments to further their agendas. You should be more discerning.

      1. It is not libertarian to argue that motive makes a crime more heinous. A crime is a crime regardless of who it is perpetrated against or why.

        I didn’t say nationalistic appeals are going to stop socialism. I said nationalism historically gave the populace a reason to stop socialism’s march and slowed it down at the border.

        I also said that it is maybe, just maybe possible that the problem isn’t nationalism. Which I’m pretty sure you just agreed with.

        1. Ok, I’ll make an acknowledgement of the exception that if something is done accidentally versus deliberately, we recognize that and should which speaks to motive.

        2. ” I said nationalism historically gave the populace a reason to stop socialism’s march and slowed it down at the border.”

          Historically people have turned to nationalism to promote a Leftist agenda. The African National Congress (ANC), the National Liberation Front, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Zionism, Sinn Fein etc. Sometimes it’s used to promote a Rightist agenda, as in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or in today’s anti-immigration Europe. Either way, the promises don’t justify the results. Nationalism is a dead end.

          1. “Either way, the promises don’t justify the results.”

            The same could be said of any form or promise of government. Or anarchy. The implication that nationalism is always bad and only globalism will save us racist rubes from ourselves is false and the entire argument is built on false premise.

            1. Saving racist rubes from themselves is not my concern. I’m an internationalist and I’m not sure what you think is a success of nationalism. You keep telling me that it’s not Nazism, and that seems to be as far as you go.

              1. I believe you when you say you aren’t sure what I think is a success of nationalism, particularly as you appear to define nationalism as “all the bad stuff that happened in history.” It’s kinda a self-fulfilling prophecy.

                But given that I was challenging the author to re-assess some of her base assumptions about the cause of all these conflicts instead of taking it as settled that “all nationalism is bad”, maybe you could get in on that. You know, as a personal development, thought exercise thing.

      2. But in this case the question wasn’t about the seriousness of a crime, it was whether it was a crime or not. One bit of evidence that it was a crime was that it was motivated solely by personal ambition, rather than the man’s doing his job; what was being proferred against that was the commonplace that some motivation by personal ambition is mixed in with every political act. Indeed, something would be wrong with the system of government if the incentive were the other way around, i.e. that doing the right thing for the country would usually be bad for the elected official.

        1. Whether it is wrong for a government to take personal action is a decision of the voters. Pretending motive makes an action criminal that is otherwise legal is silly.

          1. Or to put it another way, policing motive is a lost cause and seeds corruption and abuse where it pretends to fight them. Or are you going to pretend that Schiff harassing Trump for three years was purely out of a sense of righteous input and not entirely political?

            1. Zeal, not input. Stupid brain.

  11. Isn’t ‘national interest’ something that is used by pundits and pols to promote their most dubious projects? When they know they are on firmer ground they appeal to slightly less vague, more concrete concepts like the economy, the stock market, energy independence, a nuclear free Middle East, containing China, the scientific consensus, human rights and dignity etc.

    It seems if a pol has to resort to appeals to national interest, and can’t fall back on the tried and true songs and dances that have moved Americans for decades, we can easily dismiss these emotional appeals.

  12. “His argument was beyond absurd. I thought he made absolutely no sense—because he essentially said that if President Trump believes his election is for the good of the American people that he could do whatever he wants,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) told The Washington Post.

    Sure, Gillibrand, characterize it as “whatever he wants”, rather than what it is in the present case: a single factor weighing against an arguable allegation that what he did was purely self-serving.

    1. Leftists always project.

    2. Your right, people like Gillibrand have completely mischaracterized Dershowitz’s argument. The idea that asking about Biden’s quid quo pro and Hunter’s job were completely political and had no legal basis is absurd. Personally I believe Trump did it for purely personal reasons. Not to hit at a political opponent or to investigate corruption, just go after someone from the opposing political party, previous administration or both because of the whole Russia collusion bs.

  13. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) echoed the sentiment: “The Dershowitz argument frankly would unleash a monster, more aptly it would unleash a monarch.”

    He sure did not have this tune when Clinton was impeached.

    I wonder why.

  14. “because he essentially said that if President Trump believes his election is for the good of the American people that he could do whatever he wants,”

    For the nth time, no, this is NOT what Dershowitz said. The whole point of the national interest example is that all politicians pursue policy objectives that they believe improve their chances of re-election. To impeach someone on the basis that they did it for their personal interest sets a dangerous precedent because ALL actions taken by politicians are in their personal interest. Dershowitz was simply offering a counterargument that personal interest can also be national interest. He very explicitly said that Presidents can’t just do whatever they want. He can’t possibly be more clear than he has been.

  15. ” a counterargument that personal interest can also be national interest.”

    Presidents, before assuming office, must swear an oath to defend the constitution. Maybe the oath should be expanded to include enriching oneself, promoting the careers of family members, suborning criminal activities, and various ass-covering clauses.

    1. You cannot be president and not act in your personal interest. You get quite a nice salary. The people you know will assist you. They’ll all have advantaged status later in life with future speaking engagements, job applications, board positions, etc. You don’t even have to specifically be corrupt for all these things to occur. It’s the nature of the job and how other people treat you once you have those positions of power.

      No president has ever been expected to kill himself or become a hermit after completing their term.

      1. “You cannot be president and not act in your personal interest. ”

        You certainly can. Nixon carried out grudges against enemies that long outlasted their usefulness. He drank to excess which clouded his judgement. He compulsively engaged in criminal conspiracies which got him driven from office. Presidents have all the weakness that the rest of us have, just the power of their office makes their weaknesses all the more glaring. I don’t understand why you are bending over backwards to defend egregiously self-serving behavior for in those sworn to serve the public. Usually here at reason we are quite harsh on politicians.

        1. I was clearly referring to fulfilling the duties of the Presidency, not shit that you do that anyone is capable of.

          I don’t understand why you think investigating political corruption is self-serving just because the corrupt party is an opponent. It’s become quite boring and redundant at this point, but there’s no way for Trump to investigate Biden without it helping him. There was no way for Obama to investigate Trump without it helping him either. So what do you permit Presidents to do, sit on their hands all day and say their hands are tied the moment a literal traitor or terrorist seeks public office?

  16. Hayek discussed this inevitable disagreement among interest groups in The Road to Serfdom. We just keep shuffling down that thoroughfare.

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