Tag: growth

Trade Can Help the Poor Escape Poverty

Professor William Easterly, the economic development expert from New York University, has written an excellent comment for the Financial Times online. He writes, “The Millennium Development Goals [summit that wraps up in NY today] tragically misused the world’s goodwill to support failed official aid approaches to global poverty and gave virtually no support to proven approaches. … But current experience and history both speak loudly that the only real engine of growth out of poverty is private business, and there is no evidence that aid fuels such growth.”

At the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, we have continuously emphasized the power of trade to help the poor escape poverty. Unfortunately, politicians in rich countries find it easier to waste billions of taxpayers’ dollars in the form of foreign aid than to take on special interests that thrive on trade protectionism; hence European and American agricultural tariffs and subsidies.

However, the impact of rich countries’ protectionism should not be exaggerated. African countries are typically more protectionist than rich countries. In fact, they are more protectionist against one another than against rich countries. The sad truth is that poor countries are perfectly able to shoot themselves in the foot by following growth-killing economic policies – irrespective of what the rich countries do.

Foreign aid, incidentally, has been ineffective at promoting liberalization.

New York State Should Cut Property Taxes

The New York Times editorialists are at it again.  June 12th’s lead editorial, “The Latest Work Dodge: A Shutdown,” frets over the specter of the New York state government being shut down because Albany’s legislators can’t agree on a budget.  Well, the Times must have breathed a collective sigh of relief late Monday (June 14th).  That’s when the State Senate passed Governor Paterson’s 11th temporary budget extender, which allowed state offices to hang out “open for business” signs on Tuesday.

But, the Times wants a final state budget and claims that more taxing and borrowing and maybe some cuts in school aid will do the trick.  One item that the Times wants off the table in Albany is property taxes.  According to the Times, Democratic state senators outside New York City should stop pushing for restrictions on the rate of growth of property taxes.  I agree.  Instead, the legislators should start pushing for sharp cuts in New York’s oppressive property taxes.  When every U.S. county is ranked according to its average property-tax bill, as a percent of home values, 14 of the highest 15 are in New York state.

As Prof. Steve Walters and I concluded in “A Property Tax Cut Could Help Save Buffalo” (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2008),  New York should follow California and Massachusetts and cut property taxes.  Voters capped property taxes in California at 1% of market value with Proposition 13 in 1978. That forced San Francisco to cut its rate by 57% overnight and brought forth a tidal wave of investment, even amidst a recession. By 1982, inflation-adjusted city revenues were two-thirds higher than they had been before Prop. 13. Massachusetts voters passed Prop 2 ½ in 1980, forcing Boston’s property tax rate down by an estimated 75% within two years. Massive reinvestment, repopulation and urban renewal followed.

Prof. Krugman Is Wrong, Again

Prof. Paul Krugman asserts in his New York Times column of May 31st that “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea – not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”

While Prof. Krugman and most other fiscalists believe this to be self-evident, it is not.  Indeed, this fiscalist dogma fails to withstand the indignity of empirical verification.  Prof. Paul Krugman’s formulation fails to mention the state of confidence.  This is an important oversight.  As Keynes himself put it: “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

By ignoring the confidence factor, economic theory can lead to wildly incorrect conclusions and misguided policies.  Just consider naive Keynesian fiscal theory – the type presented (as Prof. Krugman notes) in textbooks and embraced by most policymakers and the general public.  According to Keynesian theory, an expansionary fiscal policy (an increase in government spending and/or a decrease in taxes) stimulates the economy, at least for a year or two after the fiscal stimulus.  To put the brakes on the economy, Keynesians counsel a fiscal contraction.

A positive fiscal multiplier is the keystone for Keynesian fiscal theory because it is through the multiplier that changes in the budget balance are transmitted to the economy.  With a positive multiplier, there is a positive relationship between changes in the fiscal deficit and economic growth: larger deficits stimulate growth and smaller ones slow things down.

So much for theory.  What about the real world?  Suppose a country has a very large budget deficit.  As a result, market participants might be worried that a further loosening of fiscal conditions would result in more inflation, higher risk premiums and much higher interest rates.  In such a situation, the fiscal multipliers may be negative.  Fiscal expansion would then dampen economic activity and a fiscal contraction would increase economic activity.  These results would be just the opposite of those predicted by naive Keynesian fiscal theory.

The possibility of a negative fiscal multiplier rests on the central role played by confidence and expectations about the course of future policy.  If, for example, a country with a very large budget deficit and high level of debt (estimated U.S. deficit and debt levels as a percentage of GDP for 2010 are 10.3% and 63.2%, respectively) makes a credible commitment to significantly reduce the deficit, a confidence shock will ensue and the economy will boom, as inflation expectations, risk premiums and long-term interest rates decline.

There have been many cases in which negative fiscal multipliers have been observed.  The Danish fiscal squeeze of 1983-86 and the Irish stabilization of 1987-89 are notable.  The fiscal deficits that preceded the Danish and Irish fiscal squeezes were clearly unsustainable, and risk premiums and interest rates were extremely high.  Confidence shocks accompanied the fiscal squeezes, and with negative multipliers in play, the Danish and Irish economies took off.  (Evidence from the U.S. is presented in an article by Professors Jason E. Taylor and Richard K. Vedder which appears in the current May/June 2010 issue of the Cato Policy Report.)

Margaret Thatcher also made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze.  To restart the economy in 1981, Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy.  Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists.  In a letter to the Times of London, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian (Prof. Krugman-type) response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”  Thatcher was quickly vindicated.  No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy boomed.  People had confidence in Britain again, and Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep free-market reforms.

While Prof. Krugman’s authority is weighty, his arguments and evidence are slender.

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

Was There a Libertarian Golden Age?

Recently I wrote an article arguing that there never was a golden age of liberty and that in particular libertarians should not hail 19th-century America as a small-government paradise, at least not without grappling with the massive problem of slavery. Jacob Hornberger, author of an article that I criticized, responded in Reason, and I then responded here. Meanwhile, an interesting discussion took place on a email list of libertarian scholars, and I’m pleased to have gotten the permission of several participants to include some of that discussion here:

Aeon J. Skoble: The ideals of freedom which led to the tangible improvements [Boaz] mentions – I’m concerned that those ideals are eroding/have eroded.  Example: say you have a robust theory of rights, but your society denies rights to women.  That’s a contradiction, and the strength of your rights theory contains the foundation for protesting the injustice and remedying it.  But if you don’t even have a robust rights theory in the first place, there’s no foundation for complaining about lost liberty.  So my concern is that, all the good progress notwithstanding, liberty as an ideal is weaker than it once was.  One thing that’s widespread, e.g., is the constant conflation of positive rights and negative rights.  And at the same time that positive rights are being accorded the status of negative rights, negative rights are increasingly being viewed as encroachable.

David Mayer: In terms of economic liberty and property rights, Americans today are certainly far less free than they were a century ago, or even two centuries ago.  What was once a vast realm of human activity that American law left to individuals’ freedom of contract (the whole realm of business activity as well as personal life, in terms of what substances individuals may choose to ingest in their own bodies, the wages and hours they can work, whom they can hire or fire, to whom they can sell their property or refuse to sell their property, etc., etc.), has now been almost wholly subjected to the dictates of government, thanks to the rise of the 20th century regulatory / welfare state.  Business owners today (to pick one obvious category of Americans – arguably, the most important category, if as I do, you agree with Calvin Cooolidge’s maxim, “The business of America is business”) are certainly far less free today than they were 100 years ago (before the “Progressive” era), or 70 years ago (before the “New Deal revolution”), or 50 years ago (before the “Civil Rights movement” and the various federal anti-discrimination laws), or 20 years ago (before, say, enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act) – or even a year ago (before enactment of the Democrats’ health insurance nationalization law).

Glenn Reynolds: I think that David’s piece is useful in another way:  If your narrative is one in which freedoms are always shrinking, and government always growing, it may tend to discourage people from working to make things better.  I see a lot of that kind of thing from people on the Right, and it irritates me no end.  I remember when the passage of the assault weapons ban was presented as just another downward ratchet in freedom, and yet now the gun issue is such that even lefty Dems are for the most part unwilling to touch it.  That, it seems to me, is an example of how freedom can expand even in the comparatively short term.

Steve Horwitz: The way I see this is that we’re trying to answer the question “Are we more free?”  To do so, we need to address both the “we” and the “free” pieces.  I read David as making two points:  1) We need to think carefully about the “we” and recognize, as we all have noted, the major gains in freedom for non-white, non-males (and maybe non-Christians too).  2) But he was also saying there are more freedoms in the calculus than the economic.  Even white men are freer along a number of dimensions than they were in the 19th century, when one takes the social realm seriously.  Some folks have noted those.

My own view is that one can look at this in the economist’s old tool:  the 2 x 2 matrix:

economic freedoms        social freedoms

White men           notable losses            good-sized gains

Others                       huge gains                    huge gains

I think by any accounting, the NW quadrant is smaller than the sum of the others.  We can debate over how much smaller, but if we could somehow aggregate these freedoms, I think there’s no question the total amount of freedom per capita is bigger today than “before.”

Mark LeBar: Speaking for myself, I don’t think it’s a matter of economic vs. other freedoms. If I were to put my finger on what I would say seems to me most significant in thinking the losses in NW swamp whatever gains there are elsewhere, I would say it has to do with the loss of respect for contract. That’s not to say there are no gains: as others have pointed out, 2 centuries ago I could not have contracted with women, or Africans, and to the extent non-whites and non-males have been accepted to the relevant moral community, that is indeed an expansion of my liberty as well as theirs. But, as I noted earlier, my authority to bind myself in ways that are not subject to veto by the state is a shadow of what it once was. I won’t enumerate the list again. But not only is that list much smaller, the rightfulness of the state to determine just how much smaller it may be continues to expand virtually without pause, as those on this list will need no reminder. I would say there has been a sea-change from the idea (however imperfectly implemented) that the flow of authority goes from individuals to the state, to just about exactly the opposite. And that is simply a catastrophic loss to liberty, not just for white males, but for everybody. It’s hard for me to see that there can be good reasons for rejecting either the claim that the authority relation is now generally seen as running the other way, or that that amounts to a massive loss of liberty. And I don’t see imminent prospects for broad change in those attitudes. Hence the pessimism.

David Olson: I think that perhaps I am missing something. In reading today’s exchange, I thought that people were working toward a consensus that had largely been reached and summarized by Steven’s email. But now Mark writes that liberty gains to everyone but straight white Christian males are swamped by the liberty losses to white males (and to hypothetical non-whites and females compared to the liberty they might have enjoyed if they’d had full equality 200 + years ago).

I’m very surprised by this statement. The logic of this would seem to lead to the proposition that it would be better if things were still as they were 200 years ago. Would anyone actually make that statement? If not, is there some value in addition to freedom that people are focusing on in deciding the question? (And let’s take medical and dental care advances out of the question to avoid skewing the answer.)

John Hasnas: I suspect that no one on the list would disagree with the assertion that between the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the present, the political and legal commitment to a government of limited, enumerated powers has greatly declined. I also suspect that no one on the list would disagree with the assertion that a vastly greater proportion of the population enjoys freedom from illegitimate political and legal restrictions and disabilities than was the case at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Out of this universal agreement, we have managed to manufacture disagreement by asking a vague question that equivocates on the meaning of the word freedom; to wit, “Are we more free?”

It seems pretty obvious that to the extent that we are free, that freedom is much more widely distributed than in the past. It also seems pretty obvious that to the extent that there is less legal protection against the interference of the federal government with our activities, there is less freedom. Beyond this, the value of determining whether we are more “free” in some unspecified sense escapes me.

Aeon Skoble: Actually, I wasn’t asking “Are we more free?” – I conceded David’s claim that we were.  I was expressing some concern over whether the trend will continue positively or negatively, given that the positive and negative senses of freedom are so frequently conflated (not by members of this list, but in general, both in the academy and among the general public), and that in many quarters the very concept of freedom is in disfavor, and the idea that all rights are subject to encroachment by the state, which is more and more thought of as having limitless power.

Steve Horwitz: I agree with Aeon’s concerns.  One way to put it is, as I think Mark LeBar did earlier, even if it’s true that we are collectively (per capita) more free, those gains have come at the weakening of the sacredness of certain principles that affect everyone’s freedom, especially in the long run.  I too share the concern that the last two years have accelerated that process in very problematic ways.

Stephen Davies: There’s actually general agreement here with the broad argument David made but some mild disagreement over the (probably unanswerable) question of whether the aggregate of total freedom is greater or larger. That wasn’t the main thrust of David’s piece as I read it though, he was talking about the implications and consequences of the (clearly wrong imho) line that for liberty it’s been downhill all the way since the later 18th century. This is a common line as we all know and I think its really problematic. As David says it means you come over as indifferent to the undoubted gains made in some areas by various groups and so as only concerned with the position of one subgroup. This may well be wrong but impressions matter. This line also shows a deeply conservative sensibility and mindset. If you are libertarian in the sense of not liking large or expansive government but deeply conservative in other ways (e.g on questions of social hierarchy or relations between the sexes or family organisation) then you will feel that it’s been downhill for a long time. …

I think the real problem though with the approach David criticises is the way it leads you to behave with regard to current events. Basically you are going to see yourself as playing defence all the time and probably as fighting a losing battle against an inexorable tide of rising coercive statism. This means you will come over as angry, negative, and despondent, which are not attractive qualities. Also you will let the other side set the agenda and then respond to them rather than taking the initiative. This means you spend all your time criticising and attacking proposals that are liberty hostile instead of spending most of your time advocating positive liberty enhancing changes. …

Finally, if I could put my historian’s hat on for a minute. We need to distinguish between two different measurements - the size of government (as shown by its share of GDP) and it’s extent or range (as shown by the number of activities or areas of life that are considered to be its concern). In the first case there’s a clear growth (we’ve all seen the graph). Even there there’s Tyler Cowen’s argument that a 40% share of a really big GDP is less bad than a 15% share of a much smaller pie. In the second case there’s been considerable gains as well as losses. Religious belief, observance etc was once seen as the central concern of government. Now it’s a private matter. Governments used to concern themselves with things such as dress, diet and public interactions (under sumptuary laws) and intimate details of people’s sexual behaviour (through both church and secular courts). This is no longer true. OTOH there are clearly areas where there’s been a shift in the wrong direction such as mood altering substances and firearms or where there’s a danger of a bad movement (diet for example).

The following comments are prompted by Jacob Hornberger’s response in Reason.

Brad Smith: Hornberger notes that the concept of what it meant to be free was much broader in the 19th century (something Aeon also touched on).  True, some people were not free – but for those who were, the concept had much more meaning.  That’s why I think one can agree with both perspectives, that freedom has both gained and lost ground in important ways.

Implicitly, Hornberger notes the extent to which government was simply not a presence in the lives of most people.  The average free man could go days, weeks, or even months with no direct contact whatsoever with the government. Hornberger might also have noted that a free man didn’t need a passport to travel, or an operator’s license to drive his wagon, or a license plate for his horse.  In most cases, he didn’t need a building permit to add to his home.   Even laws that might be on the books (but were perhaps not so ubiquitous as many think) laid lightly on people – laws against prostitution, sodomy, polygamy and such.  A gay man in the 19th century might fear great social sanction if his predilections or activities became known, but the idea that the government would interfere with his activities was not really an issue at all, whatever the state code might say.  In the 19th century, one certainly didn’t need to license one’s pets, and one was never harangued by government sponsored advertising to properly cook your eggs or spend time with your children.  Today, for white men and for women and minorities, government permeates every aspect of our lives, essentially 24/7/365.

Even as we have expanded the blessings of freedom to more people, society’s concept of freedom seems to have narrowed tremendously, to where even many self described libertarians seem to think a 39% income tax bracket is pretty darn acceptable.  The boundaries of what it means to be free seem to have retreated, and to have retreated enormously.  Thus, even as more people have benefited from freedom, the long term outlook for freedom seems in many ways much more grim.

Keith E. Whittington: The overseer or master exercised lawful, violent coercive force over the slave on a daily basis and did so with the full support and backing, if necessary, of the government.  Moreover, “the government” (such as slave patrols) often consisted precisely of ad hoc groupings of armed civilians operating under the titular direction of a government official.  And the government wasn’t always willing to stand ready protect people from coercive private groups who wanted to enforce social conformity.  So, on the one hand, some prostitutes might be tolerated if they kept to themselves in the wrong part of town, but on the other hand abolitionist newspapers editors could have their houses burned down and Catholics and Protestants could find themselves becoming armed gangs and rioting to secure their respective neighborhoods.  No level of government had an expansive police force in the 19th century, but that just means that social order was generally maintained by other mechanisms.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that people were free from social order.

Mark LeBar: David is certainly right that slavery and the legal subordination of women are blights on the very institutions that were modeling liberty, and especially for those directly affected it is a gross mistake not to recognize what those changes in law and society mean in gains in liberty. But that is an observation that pretty much any decent person, libertarian or not, can be expected to make. There is a distinctiveness to the point of insisting, as Hornberger and Brad do, that the very liberty that is reaching to more people is radically constrained in many ways. We can grant, it seems to me, that many people are freer in significant ways than they once were, while insisting that the point of liberty itself is in danger of getting lost in the process. That, it seems to me, is a case that libertarians are uniquely in position to make.

Eugene Volokh: Prof. LeBar writes, that “what it means to be free is a shadow of its former self.”  But is that right, even as to white males?  Economic regulation, including of a sort that libertarians much oppose, is not a novel matter.  Neither is taxation (which, to be sure, is at a much higher rate than in the past, but I’m not sure that the precise rate is that much a part of “what it means to be free”).  Neither is regulation of trade.  Neither is restriction on freedom of association.  Neither is regulation of guns.  Neither is regulation of personal behavior; alcohol prohibition first emerged in the U.S., for instance, in the mid-1800s, and of course the regulation of sexual behavior was far greater in the past tan today.

What’s more, all these were favored, I think, by people who believed in freedom, which meant to them (as it does to many lovers of freedom today) freedom subject to at least some constraints aimed at protecting the freedom of others and at protecting the well-being of society.  Liberty has long been respected and fought for by Americans; but that the late 1700s and late 1800s were liberty-loving times doesn’t mean that the legal systems of that era were particularly libertarian as we libertarians would want them to be.  “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”  I don’t think there’s been a past Golden Age of Liberty, in which freedom was generally accepted as meaning something far deeper and broader than what it means today, even for white men.

Steve Horwitz: I do think part of what’s going on here are two cross-cutting conversations.  Or at least two distinct claims.

1.  “Americans, on the whole, are freer than they were, say, 150 years ago.”

2.  “Government is more obtrusive in a moment-to-moment or day-to-day way than 150 years ago.”

I actually think both of these are true.  The enormous restrictions on the freedom of blacks and women (and others) of 150 years ago, though ultimately backed by the force of the state, did not require the state to be, as it were, “in their faces” on a moment-to-moment basis, as slavery and the second-class status of women were simply part of the institutional furniture (and often policed “privately” as Keith noted and as I noted about domestic violence in my earlier comments).

So it seems to me 1 and 2 are both true if one accepts that slavery and patriarchy don’t require the kind of constant and widespread, if small on each margin, government intervention we have in our own time.

We are collectively more free, I would argue, even though the underlying principles that assured the freedom of those who had such freedom 150 years ago have broken down significantly.

Keith Whittington: There is no doubt that you can run through statutes, court decisions and executive actions in the mid-19th century and compare the total to the mid-20th century and conclude that there is more overall government regulation in the latter than the former.  The latter is more voluminous and more detailed.  My only qualification/concern on this would be to note that while the 19th century regulation is less detailed it could be extremely intrusive (Sunday laws literally shut down all commercial, social and transportation activity in large parts of several states during parts of the 19th century) and that formal government activity was supplemented with informal private activity that was equally stultifying.  Without a robust vision of individual self-ownership, to borrow from Mark, that combination of social and governmental regulation could be extremely restrictive of anything we would want to recognize as individual liberty.  The battle for the idea of individual liberty, as well as the legal and social reality of it, was an on-going one throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and I’m not confident how you net out the debits and credits.

Glen Whitman: Might it be helpful to ask why so many libertarians and conservatives want to say that America used to be more free than it is now?

Aside from sheer misplaced patriotism (which I’m sure is a big piece of the story), I think it comes from the desire to have an answer to the question, so often posed by statists, “When has a laissez-faire system ever worked?”  Rather than saying, “I’m advocating an untested idea,” we’d like to be able to say, “Yes, laissez-faire has indeed worked.”

And is that really wrong to say?  I think that with respect to specific issues, we can say that (a) the U.S. was freer before, and (b) somehow the country didn’t go to hell in a handbasket.  We can say, for instance, that drugs used to be largely legal and we didn’t become a nation of useless addicts.  We can say that labor markets functioned without extensive regulation.  (Of course, blacks and women were often excluded from those markets – but I’d say the markets functioned *despite* their exclusion, not because of it.)  We can say that there wasn’t a welfare state, and private charities and mutual aid societies did a fine job of helping those who fell on hard times.

None of which refutes David’s point.  Some groups were markedly less free, and everyone was less free in certain ways.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes point to history as a guide, which I suspect is what we really want.

Stephen Davies: I think Glen makes an important point here. Quite apart from the argument about how to quantify or compare different restrictions on liberty at different times and in different areas of lie is the question of rhetoric. Why present the story of liberty in the US as one of a decline from a golden age rather than as a story of slow growth in a positive direction or (my own favourite) one of decline in some areas and growth in others? Apart from the reason he gives I think one reason is the dominance of the jeremiad as a form of political argument. This isn’t confined to libertarians of course, in fact it seems sometimes that every political persuasion thinks things are going to the dogs. I think it’s a bad strategy however as well as being questionable.

I do think Mark and Aeon are on to something however in saying that there’s been a decline in the ideal of self-government or at least in the degree to which it’s articulated and the extent to which it’s understood as a complex idea rather than just a matter of doing your own thing. It was a much thicker concept in times past partly because it was associated with lots of other ideas of psychology (the notion of character) and sociology for example - there was a strongly held idea that you couldn’t be fully self-governing or independent if you were not economically self supporting and so the idea of freedom was tied in with all sorts of other ideas.

If you look outside the US, Dicey made the argument towards the end of the nineteenth century that there’d actually been a movement away from intrusive paternalistic regulation in the earlier nineteenth century followed by the growth of a new kind of intrusive state action after the later 1880s. He ralated this to public opinion which for him meant widely held but often unarticulated notions, beliefs and understandings on the part of the population at large or at least the politically active part of it. This kind of account makes more sense to me, particularly if you combine it with an approach that says that while freedom may have increased for some groups it declined for others and that at any one time it was growing in some areas of life while being in recession elsewhere. Complicated and messy but that’s history for you.

Loren Lomasky: To the extent that a consensus emerges in preceding comments it’s that the losses of liberty to white males over the past century or two are juxtaposed against liberty gains for people of color, women, some marginalized others.  Enjoying somewhat less than a genuinely full consensus is the proposition that on the liberty ledger the minuses of the former class are outweighed by the pluses of the latter.

Because the balance seemed so patent to me, I’ve said nothing previously.  I now wish to add, though, that it is far from obvious that even establishment white males suffered a liberty deficit over this period, and that not just because of gains with regard to social freedom but even with regard to core economic liberty.  Each of the following is an enormous gain for liberty:

1) The capacity to pursue one’s ends with willing others by forming corporations without any need of special legislative grants;

2) Rights of workers to associate freely with each other in pursuit of economic advancement  (unions, etc.)

3) Military services now performed by paid professionals who volunteer for the job rather than via a draft.

I could go on, but these themselves are not trivial.  Each is orders of magnitude more significant on the plus side than, say, Obamacare is on the negative.  An enormous number of state actions piss me off, but not to the extent that they blind me to the evident truth that the history of the United States since 1776 is a history of liberty in ascendance.

David Mayer: Albert Venn Dicey’s Law and Public Opinion in England in the Nineteenth Century does indeed identify a “golden age” for liberty, in (roughly) the middle third of the 19th century, when (according to Dicey’s analysis) classical liberal ideas were the dominant opinion (in terms of public policy).  That was a “golden age,” in Britain, because it was sandwiched in between (again, according to Dicey’s analysis) a period of “Old Tory” paternalism (the early 19th-century, continuing from the 18th century) and a period of “collectivism,” or socialism (with the rise of the late-Victorian-era welfare state in Britain, in the last third of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century).

U.S. history is quite different.  We were founded as, essentially, a classical liberal nation:  the American Revolution was based on “radical Whig” ideas – the same ideas that so influenced British public policy during its classical liberal reform period (for example, many of the mid-18th-century radical Whigs who were friends of American independence – men like John Cartwright – were also leaders in the Parliamentary reform movement, culminating in the Reform Act of 1832).  But, as I have written elsewhere (see my essay on “Completing the American Revolution” (my Atlas Shrugged 50th anniversary essay) in Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Spring 2008) the American “liberal” revolution of 1776 was far from complete.  Sure, we founded government explicitly on the protection of individual rights, and we instituted written constitutions to help limit the power of government (a huge advance in the history of world “political science”).  But, of course, as David and other participants in this discussion have noted, we did not consistently implement the “new science of politics” implied by the principles of 1776:  not only did we retain the institution of slavery and denied full legal equality to women but, in many ways, we retained in the law (mostly in the English common law as received and only slightly modified in American law) much of the older, paternalistic role of government that England had had for centuries and that had been brought over to the English colonies in America.  (One simple example:  the notion that government may regulate prices of businesses “affected with a public interest” – a concept from English law (one that in the early 17th century was used by apologists for royal absolutism to justify various kinds of economic regulations by the King’s government) not only survived in early American law but was used by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1877 decision in Munn v. Illinois, to justify government fixing of maximum rates for certain businesses – and ultimately, in the 20th century, to justify all sorts of needless government licensing and other restrictions on businesses.)

So, it’s quite true (as several participants in the discussion have noted) that there’s not been really any single “golden age” for liberty in the history of the United States.  Depending on how you measure it (by the size of government, the magnitude of taxes and spending, or the variety of forms of “legal paternalism,” for example), or what aspect you’re focused on (“economic” liberty versus “personal” liberty, for example, notwithstanding the artificiality of that distinction), or whose liberty you’re focusing on (business owners versus workers and/or consumers, men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, native-born Americans vs. immigrants, etc.), there’s no clear pattern:  liberty (as a whole) is at once on the ascendance, on the decline, and staying about even, in the American “mixed bag” of freedom/paternalism.  But (if I might be permitted to return to the main point of my original post) there’s little doubt that government regulation of business – government interference with the free market – at all levels, and especially at the national level, has been steeply rising, and thus a very important aspect of liberty (economic freedom) has been steeply falling, since the rise of the “progressive” regulatory/ welfare state in the early 20th century.  That part of American history (the past century or so) most closely resembles the age of “collectivism,” or socialism, that Dicey identified in Britain in the latter third of the 19th century.

The Flat Tax: Good for America, Bad for Washington

America’s biggest fiscal challenge is excessive government spending. The public sector is far too large today and it is projected to get much bigger in coming decades. But the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code is second on the list of fiscal problems. This new video, narrated by yours truly, explains how a flat tax would work and why it would promote growth and fairness. Something to keep in mind with tax day in just a couple of weeks.

There are two big hurdles that must be overcome to achieve tax reform. The first obstacle is that the class-warfare crowd wants the tax code to penalize success with high tax rates. That issue is addressed in the video in a couple of ways. I explain that fairness should be defined as treating all people equally, and I also point out that upper-income taxpayers are far more likely to benefit from all the deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, and other loopholes in the tax code. The second obstacle, which is more of an inside-the-beltway issue, is that the current tax system is very rewarding for the iron triangle of lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats (or maybe iron rectangle if we include the tax preparation industry). There are tens of thousands of people who make very generous salaries precisely because the tax code is a playground for corrupt deal making. A flat tax for these folks would be like kryptonite for Superman. But more than two dozen nations around the world have implemented a flat tax, so hope springs eternal.