Archives: February, 2010

In Praise of Libertarian Fickleness

A few follow-ups on the post by David Boaz, below.

Libertarians are basically a sect of conservatives, say John Zogby & Zeljka Buturovic in the National Review Online. That’s because libertarians care more about economics than about foreign policy, cultural, or other issues:

Let us for a moment [assume] that a person’s ideology is solely determined by his policy views. And let us also assume that social and economic liberties can largely be disentangled and that libertarians are as close to liberals on social issues as they are to conservatives on economic ones – a view implicit in the argument for liberaltarianism. Still, our data show that different aspects of ideology are not equally important for a person’s ideological identity, and, somewhat ironically, that this is especially true of libertarians. For all their insistence that liberty has multiple facets, libertarians appear to cherish one of them much more than others.

Supporting data shows that 60% of self-described libertarians find “economics” more important than the “social/cultural,” “foreign policy,” “energy/environment” or “other/not sure” issue areas.

I’m not convinced. A common libertarian approach to any issue is to begin with the economics of that issue. Certainly it’s true of energy and the environment. It’s also very likely true of foreign policy, because wars aren’t cheap, and it’s at least plausibly true of social and cultural issues. Libertarians see economics everywhere, not just in “economic” policies. It’s a common belief in our tribe that we are among the very few to grasp sound economic principles at all.

We can (and should) debate whether this is true, of course, but such is libertarian belief. And when conservatives abandon what we see as sound economics – as with the George W. Bush administration – well, we start looking for the exits.

Lately, though, it’s been easy for libertarians to return to conservatism. To no one’s great surprise, the Obama administration has continued the profligate spending. We may have hoped that the new administration would compensate in other areas, but this just hasn’t happened. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp should have been closed by now. On military tribunals, search and seizure issues, indefinite detention, and our expensive, never-ending foreign wars, there’s little difference between this administration and the last.

I don’t want to say that liberaltarianism is dead. But is it endangered? Sure. It deserves to be.

If libertarians seem more conservative lately, it’s not only that we’ve been pushed away by the left. Attendees at this year’s CPAC ranked “reducing size of federal government” and “reducing government spending” as by far their highest policy priorities. They also chose Ron Paul as their preferred presidential candidate. Those same attendees even booed speaker Ryan Sorba for condemning gay Republicans:

(Though many seem to share it, I wouldn’t personally trust Sorba’s understanding of Aquinas.)

Today’s young conservatives appear embarrassed by the culture wars, which must seem to them like a relic from someone else’s past. Many young conservatives have known a literal state of war for their entire adult lives. They may not even remember the last balanced federal budget. And they know that putting a Democrat in the White House hasn’t helped. Personally, I’m no conservative. But there is strength in fickleness, and if conservatives can do better, then good for them.

Net Neutrality Regulation: A Solution in Search of a Problem

This Reason.tv video illustrates the weak case for network neutrality regulation of Internet service providers.

In the AT&T case, which the video touches on, an AT&T web site blocked some (barely) controversial statements by Eddie Vedder—the Pearl Jam lead singer who stopped mattering a really long time ago. This was an error, and it was contrary to AT&T policy, according to this August 2007 story. Yet the example is one of a few used to argue for net neutrality regulations.

Do we really want the government treading any of this ground?

Most people would probably agree that web site operators should be free to publish or not publish whatever they want. Regulations barring web sites from editing out controversial political statements, or requiring them to broadcast them, would be facially unconstitutional. Strangely, proponents of net neutrality regulation tout this kind of regulation as a virtue at the Internet’s transport layer.

The Red Team’s Spin on The Christmas Bomber

In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber.  It’s a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.

As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights.  In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do.  The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you’d need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).

Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.

After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there’s little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.

We’re told that the Christmas Bomber’s treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But  virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.

Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the

premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.

For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team “has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president’s commander-in-chief powers are triggered.” Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,’” et al.

The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama’s dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee.  But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts – including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he’s acquitted, it’s pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney – much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.

James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times

“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”

Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: “I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often.”

The essence of King’s complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn’t stoking fear enough, isn’t talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of “the strong father who protects the home from invaders.” Forgive me if I’m unmoved.  Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.

If you’re sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

Are Libertarians a Political Force?

Some lively debate this week on our papers on the libertarian vote and on the broader questions of how many libertarians there are, whether they’re a voting bloc, and whether they might be targets for both parties. Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, wrote in the New Republic that any possible alliance between liberals and libertarians is shown to have gone by the wayside in Cato’s new paper, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” even though, he says, “ modern liberals and libertarians share common ideological roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglo-American liberalism, … these groups have a sociocultural affinity,” and “New Democrats” are more sympathetic to libertarian arguments on technological progress and free trade. But they just can’t work together in the age of Obama.

In National Review John Zogby and Zeljka Buturovic present some interesting data and conclude, “For the most part, libertarians are a fraction within the conservative coalition — not a stand-alone movement.” They find that only 2 percent of poll respondents claim the label “libertarian,” and those people rate themselves firmly to the center-right on a 9-point scale. At the Corner I respond:

“Libertarian” is an unfamiliar word to most people, even people who actually hold broadly libertarian views. Rasmussen found that 4 percent identified themselves that way, and a Center for American Progress poll found 6 percent — but 13 percent of young people.

But there are other ways to measure libertarian sentiment….we found that 14 percent gave libertarian answers to all three questions. Gallup asks two questions — one on the size of government, one on “promoting traditional values” — every year and finds about 20 percent of respondents give libertarian answers to both questions (23 percent in 2009)….

On the second point, yes, we’ve found that the 14-15 percent of libertarian voters we identify usually vote about 70 percent Republican. But not always. … In 2004 George W. Bush got only 59 percent of the libertarian vote, and in 2006 libertarians gave only about 54 percent of their votes to Republican congressional candidates. … 

From the perspective of politicians and their advisers, I think it’s fair to say that these libertarians are a not-entirely-reliable part of the broad Republican constituency. After the 2006 election … the underreported story was a 24-point swing of libertarians away from Republican congressional candidates between 2002 and 2006. That’s a point Republican strategists — and Democrats — ought to ponder.

And there’s a footnote that might become main text in the next few years: In 2008, even as libertarians generally returned to the 70 percent Republican fold, young libertarians (18 to 29) gave a majority of their votes to Obama. Maybe these younger voters will come to their senses. Or maybe the Republican brand just isn’t very appealing to young voters (who are, for instance, strongly supportive of gay marriage and overwhelmingly supportive of gays in the military).

Find more data on the libertarian vote in the paper David Kirby and I did in 2006, “The Libertarian Vote,” or in our just-published paper, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” or in this possibly corroborating data from the Tarrance Group, which found that 23 percent of respondents described themselves as fiscally conservative but liberal or moderate on social issues.

The President’s Unhealthy Proposal

The President’s health care reform proposal is introduced by five bullet points, all of which are misleading at best.

The bullet points supposedly show that the proposal “puts American families and small business owners in control of their own health care.”

In reality, the proposal would put the federal government in control of health insurance (which is not at all the same as health care). It would make it a federal crime for people to not buy insurance, or for insurers to offer plans that did not meet expensive federal mandates (such as insuring “children” up to the age of 26).  The only families who would remain in control are those exempted from compulsory insurance because they can’t afford it (which was supposedly the reason why people are not insured today). And the only small businesses that would remain in control are those who take care to not hire more than 50 people (one of many unexpected consequences).

Here are the five White House selling points, followed by my doubts:

  1. “It makes insurance more affordable by providing the largest middle class tax cut for health care in history, reducing premium costs for tens of millions of families and small business owners who are priced out of coverage today. This helps over 31 million Americans afford health care who do not get it today – and makes coverage more affordable for many more.”

    Not true.  It would make insurance more affordable for those who receive subsidies and more expensive for taxpayers who finance those subsidies. It would make insurance more affordable for those who wait until they have preexisting conditions to buy a “Cadillac plan,” and more expensive for those who have been paying for a high-quality plan for years.  It would make insurance more affordable for those with adult children living at home, and more expensive for singles and childless couples.  If would make insurance more affordable for obese alcoholic smokers and more expensive for people with a healthy diet and exercise.   It is all about redistributing health.

    The estimate that those lured into subsidized plans and Medicaid would otherwise be uninsured is largely false, as is the related illusion that the number of uninsured would drop by 31 million.  Economists know from past expansions of taxpayer-financed benefits that such giveaways mainly substitute for or “crowd out” benefits otherwise purchased by employers or individuals.

  2. “It sets up a new competitive health insurance market giving tens of millions of Americans the exact same insurance choices that members of Congress will have.”

    Not true. Very few of the insurance companies who choose to participate in the large group plan for federal employees (75% financed by taxpayers) would also offer individual policies for relatively few people on the proposed exchanges.  If the federal government made good on the President’s recent threats to slap price controls on premiums, no sensible insurers would participate.  If the federal government attempted to impose Medicare-like reimbursement rates on doctors and hospitals, only second-rate doctors and hospitals would accept the insurance.   Even the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix  recently stopped accepting Medicare because Medicare payments  (which “reform” would cut even more) don’t come close to covering expenses.

  3. “It brings greater accountability to health care by laying out commonsense rules of the road to keep premiums down and prevent insurance industry abuses and denial of care.”

    Not true.  The thinly-veiled threat of Nixonian price controls on health insurers would drive capital out of the industry, and likely end in “cost-plus” regulations that are simply encourage higher costs.  The next point deals with some of those “commonsense rules.”

  4. “It will end discrimination against Americans with pre-existing conditions.”

    Not true. Basing premiums on known health risks is not discrimination but sound actuarial practice.  Compelling insurers to charge similar rates to healthy and sick applicants makes no more sense than compelling them to charge the same rates to smokers and non-smokers.  Compelling insurers to keep people on the plan even if they lie about their health or lifestyle must result in higher premiums for honest and/or healthy people.

  5. “It puts our budget and economy on a more stable path by reducing the deficit by $100 billion over the next ten years – and about $1 trillion over the second decade – by cutting government overspending and reining in waste, fraud and abuse.”

    Not true. The costly new subsidies and extra Medicaid spending could reduce future deficits only if taxes were increased even more than spending.  By that logic, the President could propose $99 trillion of new spending and $100 trillion of new taxes and claim the result would put the government’s budget (as opposed to taxpayers’ budget) “on a more stable plan.”

Obama: CEO of America, Inc.

Today Politico Arena asks:

Will President Obama’s proposal to block excessive rate increases by insurers help get a health care package through Congress?

My response:

Just where does President Obama think Congress finds the power to authorize the HHS secretary “to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators”?  My colleague David Boaz addresses the politics of this unseemly proposal just below.  And elsewhere our colleague Michael Cannon offers a devastating economic critique of the proposal, citing White House economic advisor Larry Summers, no less, on the folly of it all.  But the constitutional question is what concerns me.

No doubt Obama, a former lecturer in constitutional law, believes that the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce suffices to allow it to set private heath insurance premiums.  After all, once delegated to him, that same power allowed him, he believes, to take over auto companies, to fire corporate executives, to set their salaries, and to do, well, pretty much what he wanted in so many other areas.  That’s the modern executive state – the president as CEO of America, Inc.  The irony, however, is that the commerce power was given to Congress for precisely the opposite reason – to ensure economic liberty, not to restrict it. 

Facing state impediments to free interstate commerce, which had arisen under the Articles of Confederation, the Framers empowered Congress to check such restraints and to do the few other things needed to ensure a free national market.  In fact, early in our history a Hamiltonian proposal that Congress undertake a national industrial policy – ObamaCare is a stark example of such a policy – was rejected outright by the Congress as beyond its authority.  Obama’s proposal speaks directly to how thoroughly we’ve turned the Constitution on its head.  And as recent elections give evidence, the American people are coming increasingly to understand that.  This proposal, I predict, will go nowhere.