Archives: May, 2010

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.

The Anti-Defamation League and Private School Choice

In another of many recent signs that liberal and Democratic attitudes toward private school choice are changing, the Philadelphia branch of the ADL voted 13-4 this year to reject the national organization’s longstanding opposition to choice

core principle undergirding the ADL’s (and ACLU’s) longstanding opposition to school vouchers is that:

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.”

Though the evidence has led me to strongly support private school choice, I am very sympathetic to this concern. Fortunately, there is a way to ensure universal access to a free educational marketplace without compelling citizens to pay for instruction that violates their convictions: education tax credits. Since the late 1990s, several states have enacted scholarship donation tax credit programs. Under these programs, businesses or individuals make donations to non-profit organizations that then subsidize tuition for the poor. The donor receives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit offsetting the value of the donation. 

When properly designed, as in Pennsylvania for example, these programs lead to the creation of many different kinds of tuition-granting organizations: secular, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, etc. If they wish, taxpayers can choose to donate to none of them. But if they do make a donation, they can choose the organization most consistent with their values. Similarly, parents seeking tuition assistance can approach whichever tuition-granting organization most closely matches their own beliefs and preferences. In this way, private school tuition assistance is made available through an entirely voluntary process. (Of course, those who do not donate to scholarship-granting organizations must still pay their taxes. Those are not voluntary).

This system is not simply better than vouchers at avoiding “sinful and tyrannical” ideological compulsion, it is better in this regard than our conventional public school system. Liberals in Dallas and conservatives in San Francisco must pay for public school systems whose content is often at odds with their own convictions. Conflicts over the content of public schooling have been the inevitable result – dating back to the very origins of state control over schooling in the mid 1800s. Education tax credits expand parental choice while avoiding the compulsion that breeds these conflicts. No one protests today over what is taught in Catholic schools or yeshiva ketanas.

On top of this powerful civic advantage, tax credit programs have grown much faster than voucher programs. And building on existing programs such as Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit is generally much easier than introducing new programs of any kind.

Perhaps the national ADL organization will take these facts to heart. Either way, the tide is clearly turning.

Why Not Try Term Limits?

Bob Bennett has been in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, not quite as long as the 24 years his father spent in the Senate. Arlen Specter has been in the Senate for 30 years. Rep. Alan Mollohan has been in the House since 1982, when he took over the seat his father had held since 1968. Sen. Blanche Lincoln told NPR this morning that she’s been trying to change Washington ever since she got here in 1992.

Do all of these folks really believe there’s no one else in Utah, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or Arkansas capable of serving in Congress? Quite aside from the wars, bailouts, health care takeovers, and earmarks that have angered these officials’ constituents, there’s a good case for rotation in office. Cato analysts have been making the case for term limits for some two decades. The argument doesn’t seem to have gotten any weaker in the interim.

One of America’s Founders, George Mason, made the case for rotation in office:

Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as a periodical rotation. Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents, as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people, from whence he was taken, where he must participate in their burdens.

It looks like the voters intend to rotate a lot of politicians out of office this year. But why should it take trillions of dollars of debt and millions of dollars of campaign spending to get some new thinking in Congress? Why not make rotation in office the law?

A Friday Afternoon Detour

I don’t know how many readers will find this of interest, but here goes:

There is an interesting interview with James C. Scott at the terrific (but probably of less general interest) Theory Talks website.  I imagine that there are few scholars who describe themselves as “a crude Marxist, with the emphasis on ‘crude’” who have piqued libertarian interests as much as Scott has.  His book Seeing Like a State (which Reason’s Jesse Walker reviewed here) has an awful lot to say about how and why efforts at centralization frequently fail.  His new book is titled The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

The interview at Theory Talks is wide-ranging, so I’ll just pick a few snippets that I hope will encourage you to give it a read:

On political science:

…I haven’t thought deeply about how political science ought to be reformed; but I do believe that in political science, the people who do have pretensions to ‘scientificity’ are actually very busy learning more and more about less and less. There is an experimental turn in political science, consisting of people conducting what they call ‘natural experiments’ and that are carefully organized the way a psychology experiment would be organized, with control groups and so on. But the questions they ask are so extraordinarily narrow! They imagine that you answer as many of these questions as possible and you are slowly constructing a kind of indestructible edifice of social science, while I think all you have then is a pile of bricks that doesn’t add up to anything…

[…]

[H]ow important is it to publish articles? A colleague of mine reported how many people actually read academic articles—and the number on average was less than three. So the majority of article publishing is essentially a vast anti-politics machinery put together to help people get tenure, and that holds even for peer-reviewed articles. Professional advancement depends increasingly on a kind of audit system for number of peer-reviewed articles et cetera, a kind of mechanical system that is an anti-politics machine, an effort to avoid making qualitative judgments about how good something is. It is something particularly common to democracies, where you have to convince people you are objective, you’re not playing favors, there are no qualitative judgments, and it’s just comparing the numbers. So, if you are producing an article, and it’s going to be read by three people, then why are you doing this in the first place?

On uniformity, architecture, and Nazism:

…I remember that I was in Berlin at the Wissenschaftskolleg, and there was a woman, Barbara Lane, there who was an architectural historian. We went to a housing area, where two types of Seidlungen or housing were to be found together: Bauhaus housings and a competing housing project by National Socialist architects. It was interesting to me, that the Bauhaus architects had figured out exactly how many square meters people needed, how much water they needed, how much sunlight, playground space… They had planned for an abstract human being; and the architecture could have been executed anywhere in the world. Whereas the Nazi architects had build genuine homes, with little chimneys, small front steps in brick—all these references to vernacular architecture that was part of the German cultural tradition. I realized that in a sense, the international aspiration of the Bauhaus school was to be placeless and universal, as IKEA does now. I found myself a little embarrassed that I would rather have lived in a dwelling designed by the Nazis than a Bauhaus home, but it does illustrate my point of governing: how is it executed? With what level of ambition in mind?

On the “state of nature”:

The state, or centralized political organization, has been with us for the last 4000 years. Even when this state was not all-pervasive or all-powerful everywhere, it was always there. So even if certain spaces or people were ‘outside’ the state—in the so-called state of nature—they always coexisted with the state and interacted with it dialectically. So saying that there are people living inside and with the state, and others outside and without it, and that supposedly they will behave completely different, is a difficult hypothetical. I have, for instance, the idea that life was not ‘brutish, nasty and short’ outside of the state as Hobbes argued, partly because the population levels were so low that the way of dealing with conflict was simply moving out of the way. A lot of the things people struggled and died over, were essentially commodities. So if by the state of nature we mean people living outside the state in a world in which states already exist so they are at the periphery of states, then this is a completely different thing…

The whole interview is worth a read.

LEARNing about Something Good in Washington

A few days ago I itemized several bad things that are happening in Washington when it comes to education. Happily, I can now report one good development, and it’s something that could help put an end to all that bad stuff.

The good news is the introduction of the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN) from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ). What the LEARN Act would do, essentially, is let states declare that they’ll run their own education systems, thank you, and enable state taxpayers to get their education bucks back through a federal tax credit. In other words, LEARN would take away the mighty tool that Washington uses to make states do its unconstitutional bidding — taking tax dollars from state citizens whether they like it or not, and forcing states to follow federal rules to “voluntarily” get some of the money back — and it would make state taxpayers themselves the beneficiaries of independence.

LEARN offers exactly the kind of defensive weapon that states and their taxpayers have needed against Washington for decades. But with the Obama administration pushing federal intervention to unprecedented levels, and even many conservatives using the deceitful “voluntarism” charade to give the feds huge new education powers, it is needed now more than ever.

A Neocon’s ‘Catastrophe’

Mexican President Felipe Calderon comes to the United States and registers his objection to the recently enacted law in Arizona during a press conference and in a few sentences in an address to Congress.

Bill Bennett calls Calderon’s actions a “catastrophe.”

Neoconservatives like Bennett do not see the drug war and the Iraq war policies as catastrophes.

Enough said.

‘Anti-Government’ Libertarians

Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, “[Rand] Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government.”

I can’t speak for Rand Paul, but for the libertarians I know, this is just wrong. Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

As I wrote in these columns last month (and in 1998):

A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed… What we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions… Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government — limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

What does “anti-government” mean? We’re hearing about “anti-government” protests in Greece. But as George Will says, “Athens’ ‘anti-government mobs’ have been composed mostly of government employees going berserk about threats to their entitlements.” The anti-government protesters in Bangkok appear to be opposed to the current prime minister, protesting to bring back the former prime minister. And then there are the “anarchists” who protest government budget cuts. But none of those have anything to do with American libertarians.

Michael Gerson should withdraw his false charge and debate the role of government honestly with libertarians who believe in limited government and oppose the vast expansions of government that he provided the arguments for.