Archives: 04/2012

Richard Wagner on Remembering Bill Niskanen

Perhaps it is fitting, at least to me, that George Mason University Economics Professor Richard Wagner has written a useful overview and remembrance of Cato’s William Niskanen for the journal Public Choice.  Fitting in that I was first exposed to Niskanen’s work, long before I came to Cato, in Wagner’s graduate public choice class.  Niskanen’s classic book Bureaucracy and Representative Government is, as Wagner notes, “a major contribution in the earliest days of public choice.”  It was certainly one of the bigger influences on my own economic thinking.

The survey (free and on-line) begins with Niskanen’s time at Chicago before moving to a discussion of the connection and significance of Liberty and economic science.  As someone who partly came to libertarianism via the study of economics, I found this section relevant to my own experiences, as I am sure many other economists will also be able to relate to.

Wagner’s essay also helps remind us that Bill was not just a great champion of Liberty, which he was, but also a significant contributor to the development of public choice economics.

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions, and nationalism. By helping to remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and stunted economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you, or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes, and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely-reported claim that Libya lost 20,000 MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Gaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Dignity in Retirement

In his 2005 open letter to Karl Rove, Ed Crane defended Cato’s proposal for private retirement accounts thus: “You want to get people excited about personal accounts? Tell them about the 1960 Supreme Court case, Flemming v. Nestor, which explicitly says Americans have no ownership rights to the money they pay into Social Security. It is, the Court ruled, a social program of Congress with absolutely no contractual obligations. What you get back at retirement indeed, when you can retire and receive benefits is entirely up to the 535 members of Congress. Where is the dignity in such a system?”

President Bush’s reform of the Social Security went nowhere, but Ed Crane’s warning is no exaggeration. Yesterday, Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist killed himself in front of the Greek Parliament. “A suicide note found in his coat pocket blamed politicians and the country’s acute financial crisis for driving him to take his life, police said. The government had ‘annihilated any hope for my survival and I could not get any justice. I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from rubbish bins,’ the note said.”

According to The Telegraph, “One in five Greeks are unemployed, depression is on the rise and there is a growing feeling of despair across the country. The [Greek] government said last year that suicides had increased 40 per cent over the previous two years. The high-profile suicide [of Dimitris Christoulas] came a day after a 78-year-old Italian woman threw herself from the balcony of her third-floor apartment in protest against a cut in her monthly pension from 800 euros to 600 euros.”

Those Americans, who rely on Social Security for their retirement, should remember that what the government gives, it can take away. The Social Security system is on an unsustainable path to bankruptcy. The only question is whether Social Security is reformed before it brings about national bankruptcy as well. Every day that our masters in Washington, D.C. dither and refuse to act, the Greek option [i.e.: national bankruptcy] becomes more realistic. The only way to ensure dignified retirement for millions of America’s pensioners is by reforming social security and cutting the size of the government’s future financial obligations.

Socialism and Social Darwinism

The arbiters of appropriate expression in America get very exercised when conservatives call Barack Obama a “socialist.” They treat the claim in the same way as calling Obama a Muslim, Kenyan, or “the anti-Christ.”

But headlines this week report that President Obama accused the Republicans of “social Darwinism,” and I don’t see anyone exercised about that. A New York Times editorial endorses the attack.

Is “social Darwinist” within some bound of propriety that “socialist” violates? I don’t think so. After all, plenty of people call themselves socialists – not President Obama, to be sure, but estimable figures such as Tony Blair and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Members of the British Labour Party have been known to sing the socialist anthem “The Red Flag” on the floor of Parliament.

But no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one’s opponents. In that sense it’s clearly a more abusive term than “socialist,” a term that millions of people have proudly claimed.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that social Darwinism is

the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak….The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.

Not a pleasant idea. And a pretty nasty thing to accuse someone of. It’s always used as a smear of conservatives and libertarians – by the historian Richard Hofstadter, by the fabulist Robert Reich, and now even by the president of the United States. (Damon Root noted that the real eugenicists were not the laissez-faire advocates that Hofstadter accused but the “Progressive reformers” that he admired.)

As Dan Mitchell pointed out, Paul Ryan’s budget proposes to make the federal government substantially larger than it was under Bill Clinton. Does that make Clinton a social Darwinist?

Those who deploy the charge are, first, falsely implying that Republicans support radically smaller government, which neither Ryan’s budget nor any other Republican plan actually proposes. And second, they are accusing both Republicans and actual supporters of free markets of believing in “the survival of the fittest” and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ideas of eugenicsscientific racismimperialismfascismNazism and struggle between national or racial groups.”  “Social Darwinism” is nothing more than a nasty smear.

The president should be embarrassed, and those who call for civility in public discourse should admonish him.

‘A Confident Person with Shiny Teeth’

“Sometimes people just want to hear a confident person with shiny teeth tell them appealing stories about the secrets to success.”

So writes Jay Greene in his debunking of Marc Tucker’s education reform book Surpassing Shanghai. Jay’s whole review is worth reading, but the basic point is simple: you can’t learn much about the systemic causes of success if you only look at a single success story or even at a small handful of them. You need to cast a wide net to detect meaningful patterns. Having spent a lot of time casting wide nets, into both the historical and modern evidence, I couldn’t agree more. But maybe Jay would just tell me that’s confirmation bias ;-)

[HT: Bill Evers]

General Services Administration: Let the Taxpayers Eat Cake

The head of the General Services Administration, which is the federal government’s procurement and property manager, has resigned in the wake of a report from the agency’s inspector general that uncovered extravagant spending at a GSA “training conference” in Las Vegas.

Here’s the Washington Post’s summary of festivities:

Among the “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible” spending the inspector general documented: $5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties and $44 per person daily breakfasts; $75,000 for a “team-building” exercise — the goal was to build a bicycle; $146,000 on catered food and drinks; and $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects. The $31,208 “networking” reception featured a $19-per-person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi. At the conference’s closing-night dinner, employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle have been quick to express their outrage. In particular, Republicans are anxious to paint the affair as emblematic of the Obama administration’s fiscal profligacy. Perhaps it is. However, the scandalous abuse of taxpayer money by the GSA isn’t a partisan issue. First, Martha Johnson is the second GSA chief to resign in the last four years. George W. Bush’s GSA chief Lurita Doan resigned in 2008 after a “tumultuous tenure in which she was accused of trying to award work to a friend and misusing her authority for political ends.” Second, bureaucrats have been wasting taxpayer money on conferences for years under the watch of both parties. For example, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report in 2008 that found that federal agencies had spent over $2 billion on conferences from 2000-2006.

As the politicians trip over one another to make empty promises to end such abuses, keep in mind that Bureaucrats Gone Wild is what you’re going to get when you give human beings the ability to spend gobs of other people’s money. The only sure way to stop government employees from wasting money is to stop giving them money in the first place, which means getting rid of the agencies that employ them. For the GSA, that means downsizing the federal government and thus reducing the need for its procurement and property services.

Update on the Brian Aitken Case

A New Jersey appellate court has just reversed Brian Aitken’s criminal convictions on two of three counts. Brian Aitken got caught up in New Jersey’s gun regulations as he was moving from Colorado to NJ. His firearms were lawfully purchased in Colorado but ran afoul of certain NJ rules. The jury pleaded with the trial judge three times for additional guidance as to its options in the event they were persuaded that Aitkin was indeed moving. Each time the jury was rebuffed. The judge said not to worry as he had already determined that Aitken did not qualify for the special moving exemption in NJ law. The appeals court has now ruled that the trial judge erred (pdf).

Some may recall that Governor Chris Christie took action in this matter—he commuted Aitken’s seven year sentence. Brian’s legal battle continues nonetheless. A criminal conviction makes his life difficult—among other things, it affects child custody, credit, and his ability to keep a gun in his home for self-defense.

One happy twist to his ordeal with the state has been that Brian now works for liberty with our friends at the Foundation for Economic Education.