Archives: February, 2012

This Week at Libertarianism.org

It’s been a busy week over at Libertarianism.org. We began with a new Excursions essay from George H. Smith. Provocatively titled “Fingering the King on the Road to Independence,” Smith’s piece examines how the pre-Revolution Coercive Acts led Americans to blame the king for the conspiracy to strip them of their rights and liberties.

We posted two new videos featuring the philosopher Douglas Rasmussen, one to our Libertarian View series and the other of a lecture he gave in 1991 on morality and capitalism. Here are embeds of those videos:

We also added a speech by Ted Galen Carpenter dealing with the impact of a country’s foreign policy on its domestic policies.

Libertarianism.org’s magazine section grew with the addition of Literature of Liberty, published from 1978 through 1982, first by the Cato Institute and then by the Institute for Humane Studies. Each issue begins with a long essay exploring and analyzing the literature and thought in a particular field, such as Eric Foner discussing “Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War” or John Hospers writing about “The Literature of Ethics in the Twentieth Century.” The second half of each Literature of Liberty contains a wealth of summaries of academic articles and books of interest to libertarians.

Finally, the Exploring Liberty series of introductory lectures on libertarian theory and history is now available in podcast form, so you can listen on the go. It’s on iTunes as well as direct from the Exploring Liberty podcast feed.

As always, you can keep up to date with Libertarianism.org on Facebook, Twitter, via RSS, or by visiting the site.

The Real Tragedy of the Komen/Planned Parenthood Flapdoodle

…is that it overshadowed news that the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to repeal one of two new entitlement programs created by Obamacare—the ironically named CLASS Act—with a bipartisan three-fifths majority. (With numbers like that, Congress could even repeal Obamacare’s death panel!)

But really, one private organization pulling funding for another private organization is way more important than Congress voting to repeal an entitlement program … isn’t it?

Two Thoughts on Susan G. Komen & Planned Parenthood

I’m sure that many of you are following the controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s decision to suspend its partnership with and funding of Planned Parenthood. Two thoughts on this:

First, this controversy provides a delightful contrast to the Obama administration’s decision to force all Americans to purchase contraceptives and subsidize abortions.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation chose to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood. Lots of people didn’t like (and/or don’t believe) Komen’s reasons. Some declared they would stop giving to Komen. Others approved of Komen’s decision and started giving to Komen. Many declared they would start donating to Planned Parenthood to show their disapproval of Komen’s decision.

Notice what didn’t happen. Nobody forced anybody to do anything that violated their conscience. People who don’t like Planned Parenthood’s mission can now support Komen without any misgivings. People who like Planned Parenthood’s mission can still support it, and can support other organizations that fight breast cancer. The whole episode may end up being a boon for both sides, if total contributions to the two organizations are any measure. Such are the blessings of liberty.

Contrast that to Obamacare, which forces people who don’t like Planned Parenthood’s mission to support it.

Second, there seems to be a bottomless well of delusion from which supporters of Planned Parenthood draw the idea that this decision shows Komen has injected politics into its grant-making.

Assume for the sake of argument that the Susan G. Komen Foundation has been hijacked by radical abortion opponents who forced the decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Even if that is true, that decision did not inject politics into a process previously devoid of politics.

Millions of Americans believe that Planned Parenthood routinely kills small, helpless human beings. Believe it or not, they have a problem with that. When Komen gives money to Planned Parenthood, it no doubt angers those Americans (and makes them less likely to contribute). When Komen decided that the good it would accomplish by funding Planned Parenthood’s provision of breast exams outweighed the concerns (and reaction) of those millions of Americans, Komen was making a political judgment.

Perhaps Planned Parenthood’s supporters didn’t notice the politics that was always there, since Komen had been making the same political judgment they themselves make. But if Planned Parenthood’s supporters are angry now, it’s not because Komen injected politics into its grant-making. It’s because Komen made a different political judgment and Planned Parenthood lost, for now anyway. (Then again, if donations to Planned Parenthood are the measure, the group may be winning by losing.)

I must confess to a little bit of Schadenfreude here, as those who are complaining about Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood are largely the same folks who applaud President Obama’s decision to force everyone to fund it (and, without a trace of irony, describe themselves as “pro-choice”). I predict that when a future president reverses Obama’s decision, supporters of Obama’s policy will likewise delude themselves that the future president has “injected” politics into the dispute.

UPDATE: The Susan G. Komen Foundation has again adjusted its grant-making policies, and Planned Parenthood will once again be eligible for funding. A reporter asks me: “So what does it mean now that Komen’s reversed itself?” My reply:

It does not mean that politics has been banished from Komen’s decisions. It just means that Komen has again made a political decision that more closely reflects the values of Planned Parenthood’s supporters than its detractors. But that is how we should settle the question of who funds Planned Parenthood: with vigorous debate and by allowing individuals to follow their conscience. When Obamacare ‘settles’ the question by forcing taxpayers to fund Planned Parenthood, it violates everyone’s freedom and dignity.

Transportation Agreement Seems Remote

House Republicans and Senate Democrats remain at loggerheads over the future of federal highway and transit funding. Although House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica introduced a compromise transportation bill this week, few are pleased with his proposal. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, for example, calls it “the worst transportation bill” he has ever seen.

Congress passes legislation defining how federal gasoline taxes and other highway user fees will be spent every six years, and the most recent bill lapsed in 2009. Although the revenues all come from highway users, public transit agencies and other interests have captured increasing shares of the funds in successive bills passed since 1982. To please the wide range of interest groups who benefitted from this spending, the 2005 bill (which itself was two years late) made spending mandatory, meaning annual appropriations bills could not refuse to spend the money even if gas taxes failed to cover the costs—which they did after 2008, forcing Congress to transfer general funds to the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, Congress added more and more earmarks to the bills, increasing from 10 earmarks in 1982 to more than 6,000 in the 2005 bill.

The struggle today is between the Democrats (and others) who want to keep spending like there is no tomorrow and the Tea Party Republicans who want to reduce spending to be no more than actual revenues and eliminate earmarks and other pork.

One major source of pork is so-called competitive grants, which are mainly for transit. Although most highway funds have been distributed to the states using formulas based on such things as population, land area, and road miles, competitive transit grants are handed out on a project-by-project basis. Though the money was supposed to be used for the best projects, in fact most of it was distributed based on political power.

Mica’s compromise would keep spending at current levels—which are as much as $10 billion a year more than revenues—but include no earmarks and replace all competitive grants with formula funds. Instead of pleasing everyone, the compromise has simply ticked everyone off.

LaHood and various transit advocates are upset because they lose their funds dedicated to light-rail, streetcar, and other rail transit construction. Conservative groups hate the bill because it almost certainly will require deficit spending.

Mica could have compromised in the other direction: reducing spending to be no more than revenues, but maintaining competitive grants, earmarks, and other pork-barrel programs. This might have been more successful, as fiscal conservatives couldn’t complain about deficit spending while pork-barrelers could point with pride to the earmarks they were funding.

The negative response to Mica’s proposal makes it unlikely that Congress will pass a bill this year. Instead, it will have to once more extend the 2005 bill (which it has already done eight times), as the current extension expires on March 31, 2012. But the extensions maintain spending at current levels, which means the Highway Trust Fund is quickly running out of money.

Advocates of increased spending claim funds are needed to repair crumbling infrastructure. But America’s highways and bridges are actually in pretty good shape, partly because they are largely paid for out of user fees. The infrastructure that is crumbling is mainly those things paid for out of taxes, such as urban transit systems, which have at least a $78 billion maintenance backlog. Even President Obama’s head of the Federal Transit Administration complains that transit agencies are too eager to get federal funds to build new rail lines when they can’t afford to maintain the ones they have.

The real question is why the federal government should be involved at all in highways, urban transit, bike paths, and other surface transportation projects. State and local governments, not to mention private transportation companies, are more likely to make wise transportation investments and less likely to be swayed by pork barrel. Congress should simply eliminate the federal gas tax or, as some have proposed, allow states to opt out of federal programs by raising their gas taxes by the amount of the federal 18.3-cent-per-gallon tax.

Such alternatives will be taken more seriously if Tea Party candidates win more Senate and House seats in the 2012 election. If they lose seats, however, Congress is more likely to raise gas taxes so the transit industry and other interests can continue to get their largely undeserved shares of highway user fees.

France: Google’s Free Map Service Unfair To Commercial Map Sellers

We at Cato enjoy citing Frederic Bastiat’s 1845 classic of free-trade pamphleteering, the “Petition of the Candlemakers,” which addresses the French Parliament as follows:

…We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival… is none other than the sun…

The satire goes on to demand that the government banish the unfair competition and restore proper encouragement to domestic industry by requiring that owners exclude sunlight from all building windows.

Once again real life is making it hard to tell satire from reality – appropriately, in Bastiat’s France. According to an Agence France-Presse account, a French commercial court has ordered Google to pay 500,000 Euros to a local map company for unfair practices that constitute an abuse of the “dominant position of its Google Maps application.” In particular, Google provides its maps for free, unlike complainant Bottin Cartographes, which charges good money and has apparently run into trouble holding onto its customers on that basis. Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing:

Bottin Cartographes argued that Google was only planning to give away the service for free until all the competitors had been driven out of business and then they would start charging. This seems implausible to me, and contrary to Google’s business model (give away services, make money from mining the use of those services). Google says it will appeal.

The problem with being a libertarian satirist is that government’s real-world doings keep matching and outrunning the satire.

P.S. Note that the French case arose not from Google’s furnishing of its free map service to individual end customers, but from its furnishing of its map API to businesses that typically adapt it for use in their own sites; as commenters at BoingBoing note, Google has indeed introduced fees for its largest business users of this type (which has caused some of them to adapt by switching from Google’s API to OpenStreetMap, a free wiki-based map service). In short, the complaints about free pricing of too excellent a product draw on the antitrust theory of predatory pricing, which American courts have held in general disfavor since the Chicago antitrust revolution but which continues to hold sway in some other parts of the world. For more on the predatory pricing theory, see these Cato publications.

Egypt’s Arab Spring, One Year Later

As many expected, Islamist parties will form a dominant majority in Egypt’s first freely elected parliament. The Islamists are here to stay and fear-mongering over their rise is unproductive, since Egyptians will judge for themselves whether Islamists are delivering on their promises. Moreover, understanding the dynamics that brought religious parties to power should be the real goal, and will ultimately prove more useful to those engaging this nascent democracy.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of Egypt’s underground religious fraternity, the Muslim Brotherhood, won almost half the seats in parliament. The al-Nour Party and the Islamist Alliance, a coalition of puritanical Salafist parties more conservative than the Brotherhood, came in second with 25 percent of the vote. Combined, Islamists have taken about two-thirds of the seats in the new assembly. If placed on a generic right-left political spectrum, Salafis and other arch-conservatives would be on the far right, socialists and non-Islamists would be on the far left, and the liberal and moderate nationalist parties like al-Wafd would fall somewhere in the middle alongside the right-of-center Muslim Brotherhood. The movement advocates the system of a ceremonial president overseeing foreign policy and a prime minister in control of domestic affairs. It decided not to field a candidate for the presidency.

Egyptians in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular prefer stability and economic growth to waging jihad. On the one hand the Brotherhood vows to never recognize Israel, on the other its deputy chairman recently claimed, “We have announced clearly that we as Egyptians will abide by the commitments made by the Egyptian government…They are all linked to institutions and not individuals.” On war, renowned French social scientist Olivier Roy explains that Egypt’s religious parties are constrained by democratic mechanisms that hold the people’s legitimacy:

The “Islamic” electorate in Egypt today is not revolutionary; it is conservative. It wants order. It wants leaders who will kick-start the economy and affirm conventional religious values, but it is not ready for the great adventure of a caliphate or an Islamic republic. And the Muslim Brotherhood knows this.

Elements of the 1978 Camp David Accords are in dispute, but such changes will not lead ineluctably to war. The more interesting questions about the rise of Egypt’s Islamists lie in the domestic arena: Will the Brotherhood make good pluralists? Will religious liberty be deemed apostasy or an individual human right? Will a body of Islamic scholars be established to arbitrate Sharia law? Part of the problem is that the Brotherhood members talk a good game about the principles of “liberty and equalityand economic freedom, but they are also smooth political operators. They have repeatedly down-played their popularity to avoid frightening Egypt’s liberals and foreign observers. In fact, knowing that Turkey—not Iran—is the republican system that many in Egypt want to emulate, the Brotherhood ran a campaign claiming that their party was the Turkish model. It’s not. Al-Wasat, a Turkish-style Brotherhood-offshoot, is “the most moderate on the Islamist spectrum,” observes my friend and former colleague Omar Hossino, who studies Egypt and hails from Syria.  Al-Wasat got 2% (9 seats) of the vote.

So, what’s next?

Despite the gathering clouds of conservatism, shifting alliances within Egypt will broaden the culture of political debate. In this respect, contrary to received opinion, the Brotherhood loathes what it considers the destructive excesses of individualism and the oppressive forces of secularism. Post-modern political correctness should not inhibit us from addressing that thorny issue. It matters tremendously. Alongside the military the winners in Egypt’s parliament will help write the country’s new constitution. To pass it needs a two-thirds vote in parliament, which the FJP could have if it formed a coalition with al-Nour. Recently, however, the ultra-conservative Salafis who vilify secularism have reached out to liberal parties to form a minority coalition against what they see as the Brotherhood’s near monopoly on power. As academics Philpott, Shah, and Toft argue here:

The choice facing Arab Spring nations at this point isn’t one between religion and secular government. It’s a choice between democracy that includes all parties — religious and secular—and a regime that imposes a rigid and exclusive secularism.

That distinction is important. In his in-depth historical survey, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, the late academic Richard P. Mitchell writes that although early adherents to the Brotherhood believed their ruler must be “knowledgeable in Muslim jurisprudence, just, pious, and virtuous,” they also believed that “‘The nation,’ ‘the people’, in fact, are the source of all the ruler’s authority: ‘The nation alone is the source of power; bowing to its will is a religious obligation.”

If, in fact, Egypt’s Islamists believe in the “social contract,” in which rulers are the chosen agents of the people, the concern among many in the West that Egypt’s Islamists are inherently incompatible with democracy misses the point. Democracy in an Egyptian context will undoubtedly produce something different; for religious movements like the Brotherhood their primary political focus is the maintenance of Islam. After generations of being oppressed under secular tyrannies, the Brotherhood’s strong defense of Islam through civic activism has resonated with the majority of Egyptians.

Egypt’s revolution is still a work in progress, and thus far, it has not been pretty. A Muslim reformation could be the wave of the future. But while austere interpretations of Islamist doctrine are at odds with Western liberal democratic principles, such contradictions are precisely what Egyptians must sort out. Breathing down their collective neck and attempting to shape their political destiny harms their ability to resolve such incompatibilities on their own terms.

As I wrote a while back, admittedly on a slightly different topic:

Western policymakers, in their attempt to export liberal democracy, also run the risk of establishing a frame of social and political expectation and thereby making the dynamics most necessary for social change inflexible and ethnocentric. Because foreign-led efforts implicitly deprive local people of their ability to deal with social conflicts on their own, there is an argument to be made that societies grow more attached to that which they have sacrificed through arduous struggle.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

On Afghanistan, Panetta Leaves Questions Unanswered

Secretary Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will end as early as mid-2013 is a positive development. But it is long overdue and still leaves too many questions unanswered. After more than ten years of war in Afghanistan, the administration should follow through on its commitment to end combat operations and withdraw all troops by 2014. Continuing to narrow our objectives will make this war winnable.

Politically, this makes perfect sense for the Obama administration. It is a shot across the bow of his political opponents and those wishing for an indefinite combat mission in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta’s announcement allows the administration to get on the side of voters who want to draw-down in Afghanistan. By opposing any draw-down, his critics side with the much smaller segment of the American people who still support the nation-building mission.

President Obama is in a position similar to the debate over Iraq in his 2008 presidential campaign. He argued in 2008 that he would end a grinding war he inherited. The president can claim victory (and vindication) in Iraq and argue that if you liked the first act, you’ll love the second. He will end another grinding war he inherited—and conveniently gloss over the fact that he sent more troops to Afghanistan than President Bush ever did.

Of course, these developments are neither new nor are they a sure thing. Despite the media attention given to this announcement, it was somewhat predictable. Panetta acknowledged that this was always part of the plan behind the scenes. Buried in the coverage of Panetta’s statement are multiple qualifiers. He admitted that no decision has been made on the number of troops that will leave in 2013. The secretary offered no details on what this transition from combat operations would look like. Indeed, the line between an “advise and assist” mission and combat operations is a sketchy one. A spokesman clarified that U.S. forces could still be involved in combat operations in 2014. In the end, our policy has not changed. It is still unclear how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of 2013.

But to the extent that Panetta’s recent statement reaffirms the administration will adhere to the timeline of withdrawal, it is an encouraging sign. It signals to the Afghans that they must take responsibility for their own security, and it provides an incentive for them to continue to put themselves in harms way and take the initiative.

Let’s hope that this is indeed a confirmation of the administration’s commitment to a withdrawal. The United States should have scaled-down to a limited, targeted counterterrorism mission many years ago. A large-scale, nation-building mission has never been necessary to protect the vital interests of the United States and hunt down the few remaining terrorists in Afghanistan that aim to strike the homeland.

The strategic misconceptions that guide our current mission in the country are overwrought, lack evidence, and are based on worst-case scenarios. We should continue to transition to a counterterrorism mission that utilizes intelligence, special operations forces, and our considerable technological advantages, such as UAVs. And we must continue to encourage the Afghan people to take responsibility for their security and their nation.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.