Tag: collectivism

Obama’s Stark Vision of the World

Charles Krauthammer zeroes in on the stark worldview expressed in President Obama’s inaugural address:

Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state. His speech was an ode to the collectivity. But by that he means only government, not the myriad of voluntary associations — religious, cultural, charitable, artistic, advocacy, ad infinitum — that are the glory of the American system.

For Obama, nothing lies between citizen and state. It is a desert, within which the isolated citizen finds protection only in the shadow of Leviathan. Put another way, this speech is the perfect homily for the marriage of Julia — the Obama campaign’s atomized citizen, coddled from cradle to grave — and the state.

“Nothing lies between citizen and state.” Exactly. That’s why Obama can say things like

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

Well, of course not. No one thinks a single person could. It takes many people, working together. But even Krauthammer misses the point that it takes businesses, coordinated by prices and markets. Krauthammer correctly chides Obama for thinking that collective action means only the state and not voluntary associations. But most of our needs are met, most of our progress is generated, by neither the state nor charities.

We are fed, clothed, sheltered, informed, and entertained by individuals, working together with other individuals, mostly in corporations, with their activities coordinated by the market process. As I’ve said before, libertarians “consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.”

What kind of a bleak worldview is it that can look at the bounty provided by business enterprises and charitable associations and see a barren wasteland enlightened only by the activities of the federal government? President Obama’s worldview, apparently. And Hillary Clinton’s.

My further thoughts on Obama’s collectivist speech in this 10-minute audio podcast.

Muslim Humor

It is with delight this week that I see social media pouring derision on mainstream media’s depiction of the world. Specifically, the withering mockery given to Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover.

Gawker helped catalyze things by publishing some early Twitter send-ups of the Muslim rage concept—“Wrestling is fake? #MuslimRage”—and its own spoof: “13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage.”

My personal favorite came from hijab-wearing ‏@LibyaLiberty, who Tweeted:

I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage

It is not automatic to recognize the personality of souls in other cultures and countries. In a Tweet posted September 12th (now apparently taken down) outgoing Village Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega said, “Islam needs to get a [expletive] sense of humor.” I don’t know what one means by anthropomorphizing a religion, but many individual Muslims demonstrably already have one.

AP Photo

On the Wall Street Journal Professional site, Bret Stephens writes about the derision U.S. culture can pour on minority religions other than Islam without eliciting much stir at all, official or otherwise. The unfairness is notable, and it’s worth talking about whether government-issued statements about the bizarre “Innocence of Muslims” video were called for and whether they struck the right notes.

But Stephens says something that has a quality similar to Ortega’s Tweet and Newsweek’s cover, dismissing the individuality of the one billion-plus Muslims around the world who are not rioting, attacking embassies, or doing anything of the sort.

“[T]o watch the images coming out of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a,” Stephens writes, “is to witness some significant portion of a civilization being transformed into Travis Bickle.” (Travis Bickle was the misfit anti-hero in Martin Scorcese’s movie Taxi Driver, who delivered a young prostitute from New York City back to her mid-western family. Political people remember him as the inspiration for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.)

“Significant portion”? How many Muslims constitute a “significant portion” of the overall number? What infinitesimal percentage of a group so large is “significant”? Stephens might have said “tiny minority” and been more accurate. His implication—hopefully unintended—is that an entire culture is massing at the border of ours, preparing—oh, who knows what—our undoing.

I believe it’s received wisdom in libertarian circles to reject the collectivist mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Any believer in individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities should suffer sharp pangs of cognitive dissonance to think of group conflict along the lines I’m reading into Stephens.

So I’m enjoying seeing Muslims express themselves as individuals, putting the lie to their caricature in the mainstream media as a raging undifferentiated mass with spittle on their beards. Especially the women.

The Strategic Dimension of the Mosque Debate

There are many facets to the debate about the Muslim community center and mosque proposed for the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory near Ground Zero in southern Manhattan. My colleague David Boaz’s observation on the United States pluralist founding tradition was a delight. Important as they are, I’m put off by the domestic political ramifications (1, 2, 3, 4), if only because of the crassness and opportunism that inhabit all politics.

There is a strategic dimension to the story. This episode is signaling to audiences around the world the current relationship between the United States and Islam. These audiences might support or oppose the United States and act accordingly to undermine or support terrorist groups. For these people, knowledge of a Muslim community, active in New York and proximate to Ground Zero, would help put the lie to the “clash of civilizations” narrative sought by al-Qaeda and its franchises, undercutting their support.

The debate itself sends signals: If the United States were predominantly anti-Muslim, this debate wouldn’t be happening. If our political leaders had the power to decide matters of religious observance, this debate wouldn’t be happening. The debate is helping to show Muslim populations around the world—who might not know otherwise—that we think and debate about these things, that we are a functioning democratic republic, and that our country is undecided about the position of Muslims in the United States or, at worst, weakly anti-Muslim. 

In the video clip after the jump, conservative icon Ted Olson expresses well, I think, how standing by our constitutional values is good counterterrorist signaling.

These strategic considerations may not be dispositive, but my preference is for this project to go forward and communicate to worldwide audiences that we are still the pluralistic, welcoming, confident society we have been in the past.

Islam did not attack the United States on 9/11. It is simple collectivism—the denial of individual agency that libertarians reject—to believe that the tiny band of thugs who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks speak for an entire religion, culture, or creed. Our sympathy to families of 9/11 victims and our vestigial fears should not allow us to indulge gross and wrong generalizations about individuals of any faith.

A recent Cato Capitol Hill briefing is relevant to all this. You can review “Strategic Counterterrorism: The Signals We Send” on the Cato web site. Cato’s recent publication, “Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It,” addresses many dimensions of the terrorism and homeland security problems, including the strategic logic of terrorism, to which we respond (whether we mean to or not) during debates about Muslims in America.

Krugman and Libertarianism and Political Power

Paul Krugman has a post today titled “Why Libertarianism Doesn’t Work, Part N.” Maybe parts A-M were compelling, but it seems like there’s a big flaw in his logic today. Here’s the entire item:

Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.

Interviewer: So tort law takes care of a lot of this ..

Friedman: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meanwhile, in the real world:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. The Republican lawmaker said the bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would have unfairly hurt smaller oil companies by raising the costs of oil production. The legislation is “not where we need to be right now” she said.

And don’t say that we just need better politicians. If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

Well, he’s got a point. Politicians do interfere in the tort system — by placing caps on liability, by stripping defendants of traditional legal defenses, and in other ways. As my colleague Aaron Powell notes, the problem here is that politicians have power that libertarians wouldn’t grant them. And:

Second, and more troubling for Krugman, is his admission that all politicians are corruptible. If that’s true (and it almost certainly is), then what does it say about Krugman’s constant calls for granting those same corruptible folks more power over our lives? Surely if Murkowski is corrupt enough to protect BP from tort damages, she’s corrupt enough to rig safety regulations in BP’s favor.

The libertarian system of markets and property rights is impeded when politicians interfere in it. But Krugman’s ideal system is that politicians should decide all questions — monetary policy, health care policy, product safety, environmental tradeoffs, you name it. Whose system is more likely to produce corrupt politicians, and more likely to fail because of them?

Statism Update from Brussels

America may have dodged the bullet of Obamacare thanks to voters in Massachusetts, but even if the left ultimately succeeds in expanding government’s control of health care, the United States will still have more freedom than Europe. It seems that the European Union’s governing entities, the European Commission and the semi-ceremonial European Parliament, combine the worst features of statism and collectivism from the entire continent. The Euro-crats make lots of noises about subsidiarity and other policies to leave decision making in the hands of national and local governments, but virtually every policy coming from Brussels is a new power grab for unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. The latest example is possible EU-wide driving laws for the purposes of imposing absurdly low speed limits and to requiring foolish rules against more comfortable and safer large cars. Here’s what the UK-based Express wrote about the topic:

Brussels bureaucrats want to slap draconian European Union driving laws on Britain’s roads in a new “green” campaign on motorists, it emerged last night. Measures being considered include a barrage of new maximum speed limits in town and city areas. British motorists could also be forced to undertake exams in “environmentally-friendly” road skills as part of an EU-wide overhaul of driving tests. And many large cars and other so-called gas-guzzling vehicles face being banned from newly-declared “green zones” in urban centres. The latest threat of meddling from Brussels comes in an Action Plan on Urban Mobility drawn up by European Commission transport chiefs. …Mats Persson, of the Euro-sceptic think tank Open Europe, commented: “This illustrates that the EU simply can’t stop interfering in every aspect of people’s lives.”

Meanwhile, a different tentacle of the European octopus is proposing that the European Union be given the power to audit budget numbers from member nations. Given the fiscal fiasco in Greece, this seems like it might be a reasonable step - until one remembers that the EU’s auditors every year give a failing grade to the EU’s own budget practices. The EU Observer reports on the issue, but the phrase “blind leading the blind” somehow did not get included:

…the European Commission has indicated it will seek audit powers for the EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, in order to verify elements of national government accounts. …Speaking to journalists after a meeting of EU finance ministers on Tuesday (19 January), outgoing EU economy commissioner Joaquin Almunia said greater Eurostat auditing powers could have avoided the mistakes that led to the Greek revision. He said the commission will propose “a new regulation in order to obtain powers, which we’ve already requested, to give Eurostat the possibility of carrying out audits.”

Last but not least, that same EU Observer story has a tiny bit of good news, or at least a dark cloud with a silver lining. Some of Europe’s governments want to impose an EU-wide tax on banks. This certainly fits the theme of ever-growing levels of bureaucracy and interference from Brussels, but the good news is that there is still (even under the statist Lisbon Treaty) a national veto on tax matters. So even though some of the big nations in Europe want to demagogue against the financial sector, the EU’s taxation commissioner (and former communist apparatchik from Hungary) indicated with sadness that such a tax probably would not make it through the process:

While discussion on Greece took up considerable time, EU finance ministers did have an opportunity to discuss a Swedish proposal for an EU-wide bank levy to mitigate the effects of future financial crises. …British, Belgian and German ministers were amongst those who showed moderate support for the idea. However, outgoing EU taxation commissioner Laszlo Kovacs said it was unlikely to fly because of EU unanimity voting in the area of taxation.

Obama and Reagan’s Speeches about Freedom

President Obama spoke to Chinese college students on Monday, as President Ronald Reagan spoke to Moscow State University students in 1988. There were a lot of similarities – both men are great communicators, convinced of the rightness of their views and of their persuasive ability, and confident that their values are not just American but universal. But there were some clear differences in the philosophies they presented.

President Obama was eloquent in his defense of freedom in the heart of an authoritarian country:

The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship – of access to information and political participation – we believe are universal rights.

Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles – that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice….

Those are important American values, and I agree with the president that they are universal, as classical liberals have long argued. But I’m disappointed that President Obama didn’t cite freedom of enterprise,  property rights, and limited government as American values. Those are not only the necessary conditions for growth and prosperity, they are the necessary foundation for civil liberties.

He did glancingly mention in the paragraph above that “commerce should be open, information freely accessible,” so that’s half a clause about commerce, I guess. But that’s it for the freedoms that allow people to work and save, create, build, invest, and prosper. He noted that “China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – an accomplishment unparalleled in human history” but didn’t examine how that happened. (Hint: economic reforms that moved toward free markets and (quasi) property rights.)

His only subsequent mention of freedom touched on economics in the context of citizen participation and the Internet:

Now, that’s not just true in – for government and politics. It’s also true for business.  You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was – less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you.  It was a science project.  And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world.  So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn’t exist.

So I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter.

Yes, “the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows” were important to the development of Google. But more fundamental was the freedom of enterprise in America. There’s a reason that so many technological advances and consumer benefits are developed in the world’s freest economies. Property rights, freedom of exchange, low taxes, and limited restrictions on entreneurship allow people to invest and create.

Contrast the speech that President Reagan gave to the students who were still behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. Start with the way he addressed a very similar point to the one Obama made about Google:

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home.

Reagan praised democracy and justice and openness:

At the same time, the growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age….Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured.We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every 4 years the American people choose a new President, and 1988 is one of those years. At one point there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates – all trying to get my job. About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government – report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next President.But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections.

Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs – in many places, synagogues and mosques – and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that no government can justly deny; the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women – common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused. Go to any university campus, and there you’ll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you’ll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them; the people’s right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police. Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law….

But freedom is more even than this. Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.

And he came back to the basic purpose of democracy in the American context, not a plebiscitary system but a way to ensure that the governors don’t exceed the consent of the governed: “Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.”

He tied all of these freedoms to the American commitment to economic freedom as well. Throughout the speech he tried to enlighten students who had grown up under communism about the meaning of free enterprise:

Some people, even in my own country, look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste. What of all the entrepreneurs that fail? Well, many do, particularly the successful ones; often several times. And if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; yes, it’s what they learned from failing. Like an athlete in competition or a scholar in pursuit of the truth, experience is the greatest teacher….

And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world.

He even explained why China would one day, as President Obama said, lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty:

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world — places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. Low-tax agricultural policies in the sub-continent mean that in some years India is now a net exporter of food. Perhaps most exciting are the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China, where one-quarter of the world’s population is now getting its first taste of economic freedom.

President Obama said some important things to the Chinese students. But his continuing failure to mention the virtues of productive enterprise in a commencement address or to note the centrality of economic freedom in the American experiment could easily lead listeners to conclude that he really doesn’t care much for business and economic liberty.