Archives: 01/2010

Federal Subsidy Programs Top 2,000!

January 22, 2010 is a day that should live in infamy, at least among believers in limited government. On that day, the federal government added its 2,000th subsidy program for individuals, businesses, or state and local governments.

The number of federal subsidy programs soared 21 percent during the 1990s and 40 percent during the 2000s. The entire nation is jumping aboard Washington’s gravy train. My assistant, Amy Mandler, noticed the recent addition of two new Department of Justice programs, and that pushed us over the threshold to reach 2,001.

There is a federal subsidy program for every year that has passed since Emperor Augustus held sway in Rome. We’ve gone from bread and circuses to food stamps, the National Endowment for the Arts, and 1,999 other hand-out programs from the imperial city on the Potomac.

Figure 1 shows that the number of federal subsidy programs has almost doubled since the mid-1980s after some modest cutbacks under President Ronald Reagan.

Most people are aware that federal spending is soaring, but the federal government is also increasing the scope of its activities, intervening in many areas that used to be left to state governments, businesses, charities, and individuals. To measure the widening scope, Figure 1 uses the program count from current and past editions of the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. The CFDA is an official compilation of all federal aid programs, including grants, loans, insurance, scholarships, and other types of benefits.

Figure 2 shows the number of subsidy programs listed in the CFDA by federal department. It is a rough guide to the areas in society in which the government is most in violation of federalism—the constitutional principle that the federal government ought not to encroach on activities that are properly state, local, and private.

As the federal octopus extends its tentacles ever further, state governments are becoming no more than regional subdivisions of the national government, businesses and nonprofit groups are becoming tools of the state, and individualism is giving way to a more European desire for cradle-to-grave dependency.

Yet recent election results indicate that Americans may be starting to wake up and fight back. Whether we are more successful than Cicero and Cato the Younger in battling to retain our limited-government republic remains to be seen.

Citizen United’s Concept of the U.S. Constitution

The Citizens United decision and the talk that has followed imply two different and incompatible ideas of the Constitution.

The majority in Citizens United believe that the U.S. Constitution establishes a government of limited and defined powers. They asked: “Does the Constitution give government the power to prohibit speech by corporations (and others)?” The First Amendment indicated the government did not have that power.

The critics of the Citizens United decision assume the Constitution created a government of  plenary powers with limited exceptions. They recognize that free speech for individuals is one such exception. But that exception is limited to natural people, not legal constructs. If there is no exception to the plenary power of government, the critics conclude, then there is no right to speak. Congress may prohibit speech by corporations (and others).

The Citizens United decision depends on an idea of the Constitution that forces  government to justify its powers to citizens. The critics of the decision assume an idea of the Constitution that forces citizens to justify their rights to the government. Absent such justifications, the government has plenary power over speech and much else.

Which concept of the Constitution do you find most appealing?

Populism: Good and Bad

Today, Politico Arena asks:

What is it about the word “populist”? (these days)

My response:

“Populist” (or “populism”), in its American usage, invokes the “common man,” yet the idea’s origins – in ”the people” or “the polis” – can be traced to ancient Greek democracy and, in particular, to political demagoguery.  Both Plato and Aristotle had reservations about democracy as a system of government precisely because it was susceptible to corruption by populist appeals to superstition and error.  In America, populism has had a long and varied history, but it is most often associated with the Populist Party that was formed in 1891 and, in particular, with the fiery speeches of the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1896 and 1900, William Jennings Bryan, and his famous ”cross of gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Thus, in a fundamental way, populism stands opposed to elitism, yet it’s more complicated than that.  On one hand, the populism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries contrasted with the Progressivism of the era, which held that society should be organized and run by “professionals” trained at the best schools.  (Thus, the emergence of political “science,” as distinct from the older tradition of political philosophy.)  But on the other hand, Progressives themselves purported to speak for “the people,” even if in practice they were often contemptuous of the people’s capacity to govern themselves, susceptible as the people were to the appeals of demagogues.

At the end of the day, therefore, populism is a double-edged sword.  Used pejoratively, it stands for the idea that politicians, to obtain or preserve political power, will appeal to base popular sentiments or mistaken (often economic or legal) ideas.  A good example is Obama’s reaction last week to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, rooted in the First Amendment’s guarantee of political speech:  He called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”  There is an element of truth to that sentiment, of course, because the system of government that has evolved in America under the influence of Progressive “professionals” has endowed those professionals (read: the governing class, in all its reaches) with unprecedented power over “the people,” who often feel powerless as a result.  But demagogic appeals like that or like others we’ve heard lately from Obama will only exacerbate that problem.  By contrast, a “populist” appeal that seeks to return power to people (N.B.: I did not say, as in the ’60s, “power to the people”) – power to run their own lives, free from unwarranted government regulation or dependency – is a side of the idea we hear too seldom.  Yet it’s what our founding documents are about.  They established not simply popular government but limited popular government – ensuring the right of the people to govern themselves, not mainly through government but individually or in voluntary association with others.  It is that liberty that Progressive elitists who “knew better” – the folks in Cambridge who voted 84 to 15 against Scott Brown – have gradually extinguished.

Making Government Bigger Is Not Stimulus - and It Won’t Create Jobs

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how last year’s so-called stimulus was a flop - and also reveals why politicians are pushing for another big-government spending bill.

Interestingly, since last year’s stimulus was such a disaster, the redistributionists in Washington are calling their new proposal a “jobs bill.” But as I say in the video, this is akin to putting perfume on a hog.

For further background, here is a video explaining why Keynesian economics is wrong and another predicting (in advance!) that last year’s stimulus would be a mistake. And just in case anyone actually wants the economy to grow faster, here’s one about policies that actually increase prosperity.

How Many Senators Are More Liberal than the Socialist One?

In a profile of the poetry-reading chief of staff to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Washington Post calls Sanders not only “the only socialist in the U.S. Congress,” but also “surely [the Senate’s] most liberal [member].” Surely. I mean, he’s a socialist, right? (And by the way, that isn’t a label that Sanders rejects.)

Well, maybe not. According to the National Taxpayers Union, 42 senators in 2008 voted to spend more tax dollars than socialist Bernie Sanders. They include his neighbor Pat Leahy; Californians Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who just can’t understand why their home state is in fiscal trouble; and the Eastern Seaboard anti-taxpayer Murderers’ Row of Kerry, Dodd, Lieberman, Clinton, Schumer, Lautenberg, Menendez, Carper, Biden, Cardin, and Mikulski. Don’t carry cash on Amtrak! Not to mention Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who apparently think Arkansans don’t pay taxes so federal spending is free. Sen. Barack Obama didn’t vote often enough to get a rating in 2008, but in 2007 he managed to be one of the 11 senators who voted for more spending than the socialist senator.

Meanwhile, the American Conservative Union rated 11 senators more liberal than Sanders in 2008, including Biden, Boxer, Feinstein, and again the georgraphically confused Mark Pryor. The Republican Liberty Caucus declared 14 senators, including Sanders, to have voted 100 percent anti-economic freedom in 2008, though Sanders voted better than 31 colleagues in support of personal liberties.  The liberal Americans for Democratic Action provides more support for the Post’s claim, rating Sanders 100 percent liberal. Most raters, though, don’t see it that way. In this compilation of ratings from left-leaning interest groups, 17 senators get higher scores than Sanders.

It almost seems that an avowed socialist is middle-of-the-road among Senate Democrats.

If You Prick a Corporation, Does It Not Bleed?

Well, no, because as my liberal friends all seem to be indignantly announcing in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling, corporations aren’t really people! They’re creatures of statute, and “corporate personhood” is just a convenient legal fiction.  Which is fair enough, but also seems to miss the point rather spectacularly. As a practical matter, it is hard to imagine any constitutional liberty that could not be reduced to a hollow joke if we refused to count as an infringement any regulation that nominally targeted only the corporate mechanism for coordinating its exercise.

Having dispensed with the repellent doctrine of corporate personhood, we can happily declare that journalists enjoy full freedom of the press … as long as they don’t plan on using the resources of the New York Times Company or Random House or Comcast, which as mere legal fictions can be barred from using their property to circulate unpatriotic ideas. You’re free to practice your religion without interference — but if it’s an unpopular one, well, let’s hope you don’t expect to send your kids to a religious school or build a church or something, because those tend to involve incorporating. A woman’s right to choose is sacrosanct, but since  clinics and hospitals are mere corporations with no such protection, she’d better hope she knows a doctor who makes house calls. Fill in your own scenarios, it’s easy.

The irony here is that it’s libertarians who are often accused of a myopic obsession with formal liberties rather than their real-world value to people — “the law in its majestic equality” and all that. But this, surely, would be the height of empty formalism — a right to swing your fist that stops at the air.

I think people are obsessing over this because we often think of rights as flowing, at least in part, from respect for our intrinsic human dignity, and it seems equal parts farcical and offensive to suggest that institutions like Exxon and Nike are in the same moral category. As a purely ethical matter, of course corporations as such don’t have rights. As a practical matter, though, rights that wither at the corporate touch won’t do you a whole lot of good in the 21st century.

Speech For Me, But Not for Thee

Politico Arena asked a second question today:

Will Citizens United alter American campaigns and if so, how?

My response:

Will Citizens United alter American campaigns?  Probably – and for the good.  Corporations, unions, and their officers will no longer fear criminal prosecution if they run afoul of inscrutable prohibitions on independent political campaign expenditures that not even FEC commissioners understand.  There will be more political speech as a result, and more perspectives on the issues of the day.  That speech will come from all sides – after all, George Soros and Rupert Murdoch are not likely to be saying the same things, and with restraints prior to elections now lifted, differences like those will doubtless be reflected in great variety in the speech that comes from the rest of corporate and union America.  And most important, the core function of the First Amendment, the protection of political speech, has been restored in important, if not in all, respects.
 
But other, more sinister, results may also flow from yesterday’s decision.  President Obama’s new populism surfaced immediately:  He called the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies,” and other “special interests.”  And The New York Times, in an all but unhinged editorial, pronounced that “with a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.”  Claiming that the decision “strikes at the heart of democracy,” the Times tells us that ”Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision.”  How?  By enacting “a law requiring publicly traded corporations to get the approval of their shareholders before spending on political campaigns.”  So much for corporate internal-governance rights.  And get this:  “Congress should repair the presidential public finance system and create another one for Congressional elections to help ordinary Americans contribute to campaigns.”  As if ordinary Americans could not contribute to campaigns without such congressional assistance.  Concerning the “presidential public finance system,” it’s been in place for years – you can check off a contribution when you pay your taxes.  That fewer and fewer Americans are choosing to contribute through this “public” financing system speaks volumes, of course.  And it tells us too why Citizens United has brought forth such rage among the decision’s opponents:  It’s a major setback to their larger agenda.  You see, the complex federal campaign finance system that has grown steadily – until yesterday – was never meant to be the final word.  It was only a way station to public campaign financing.  Once there, at that ultimate end, political speech in the form of campaign contributions would rest safely in incorruptible public hands – save, of course, for those contributions that take the form of editorials coming from such corporate giants as The New York Times, which the First Amendment would continue to protect.  Now there is a vision that warms the soul of the Great Gray Lady.