Coverups, Corruption, and inCapacity

China has some impressive institutions. One can decry the immorality of the CCP’s concentration-camp-building surveillance state and obfuscation of a burgeoning global pandemic while also acknowledging, for example, that China’s disease tracing program bore impressive results. (Query whether the U.S. or any Western state would or should (!) tolerate the involuntary commitment of babies and the publishing of an infected person’s entire post-infection whereabouts on a municipal WeChat account.)

Repeatedly, intellectuals in Western democracies embarrass themselves salivating over the perception of uber-competence in authoritarian competitor states. Nonetheless, it can be true, for example, that the Soviets both built Potemkin props to seduce Western useful idiots and also built a genuinely impressive roster of mathematicians (though query whether the Soviets or a deeper Russian civilization did the latter).

While there is something to admire in the speed with which China can stand up a new rail station or construct an airstrip on an artificial island, there is also reason to believe the edifice of CCP state capacity has cracks in its foundation. Literally.

Interesting analysis by Ian Storey in The Diplomat argues that the runways on China’s ostensibly fearsome forward operating bases in the Spratly islands may be too poorly built (hastily laid and at risk of subsidence) to sustain a viable jet fighter presence to establish local dominance.

In addition to inherent engineering challenges with artificial islands, corruption may have hurt the strategic project. Storey writes:

Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.

Ian Storey, “Why Doesn’t China Deploy Fighter Jets to the Spratly Islands?,” The Diplomat (Aug. 14, 2020).

While there is much to admire (and perhaps fear) in the glittering hardware markets of Shenzen, do not underestimate the extent to which corrupt institutions will bring down even the most technically competent civilizations. Even the most positive interpretations of China’s failure to warn the world about the COVID-19 outbreak pin the blame on the perverse incentives within the CCP regime. As the New York Times reports, “Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.” This is a manifestly unhealthy and unsustainable information conveying mechanism. Much is made of the Chinese surveillance state’s panoptic omniscience — and yet at best the story of COVID-19’s escape is one of Beijing’s inability to discern that middling bureaucrats from the provinces were hiding the onset of one of the greatest human crises in a century.

There will always be dark truths within a society. In many (if not most, if not all) cases, acknowledging and handling that reality is the best path forward. A civilization with institutions too corrupt to detect, surface, and mitigate internal and global threats in a timely fashion is not one that anyone desiring a healthy future should wish to emulate.

Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

Continue reading “Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia”

All Three Federalist Papers Authors on Presidential Corruption and Foreign Influence

In Federalist No. 64, John Jay addressed fears that corrupt leaders would make treaties at the expense of the wider nation’s interests. He argued that requiring approval by a super-majority of Senators in addition to the President before a treaty could be formed rendered the possibility that the nation as a whole would be bound by the corrupt dealings of a compromised leader highly unlikely.[1] So long as the treaty did not pass the smell test for either the President, or, more likely in Jay’s scenario, one third of the Senate plus one vote, a nefarious instrument would be dead on arrival.

The fear of presidential corruption tainting treaties was also expounded by Jay’s Federalist Papers co-author Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 75. Hamilton’s words, in turn, were craftily echoed by James Madison in his Helvidius writings during the Pacificus-Helvidius debate over the interpretation of America’s treaty obligations to France.[2] Hamilton had forcefully explained the danger of leaving “to the sole disposal” of the President the power to commit the nation in foreign affairs; human nature being less than perfectly virtuous, a lone President’s self-interest might lead him to betray the country:

“[A] man raised from the station of a private citizen to the rank of chief magistrate, possessed of a moderate or slender fortune, and looking forward to a period not very remote when he may probably be obliged to return to the station from which he was taken, might sometimes be under temptations to sacrifice his duty to his interest, which it would require superlative virtue to withstand. An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of his treachery to his constituents.”[3]

Therefore, avoiding national betrayal by a venal chief executive willing to sacrifice national interest for personal gain required a Senatorial check on the power to make treaties.

The features of the Constitution’s treatymaking process as put forward collectively by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison: requiring the approval of two-thirds of the Senate would ensure expertise, constituent representation, stability, and integrity in treaty formation and thus foreign affairs. Today, however, formal treatymaking with two-thirds of the Senate assenting under Article II, is not a necessary feature of the great majority of America’s international agreement making.[4] The framers’ arguments for the constitution’s treatymaking process notwithstanding, the United States as the leading global power does not continue to adhere orthodoxly to that procedure.


[1] The Federalist No. 64 (John Jay).

[2] James Madison, Letters of Helvidius, Nos. 1-4, No. IV. at 27 (1793).

[3] The Federalist No. 75 (Alexander Hamilton); See also David Golove, Constitutional Government in the Limiting Case: So-Called Non-Binding International Agreements, Remarks at the Yale-Duke Foreign Relations Law Roundtable (Oct. 15, 2016), at 2, 4.

[4] See John Yoo, Rational Treaties: Article II, Congressional-Executive Agreements, and International Bargaining, 97 Cornell L. Rev. 1, 2 (2011) (citing Oona A. Hathaway, Treaties’ End: The Past, Present, and Future of International Lawmaking in the United States, 117 Yale L.J. 1236, 1258-60 (2008) (documenting that 1939 to 1989, the U.S. made 11,698 nontreaty international agreements and 702 formal treaties, and 1980 to 2000, the U.S. made 2,744 congressional-executive agreements and 375 treaties)).