Tag: Hayek

Journalism and Generality

The media makes it hard for ordinary people to be libertarians. In large part, this is because journalism is in the business of selling panic—panic about terrorism, panic about drugs, panic about food, panic about pornography, panic about our health care system. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not news. To the lazy journalist, everything becomes an emergency—and emergencies always—always—demand state action.

The media makes things hard for the would-be libertarian in other ways, too. Consider this story from today’s Washington Post, about… well, it’s hard to say, actually:

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation’s five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes — “50-50,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

So far, the Democratic tax agenda is focused on ending subsidies for big oil companies, a hugely popular proposal involving what Democrats see as a prime example of wasteful giveaways in the tax code. By raising the issue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans either to drop their rigid stance against new taxes or to defend taxpayer subsidies for some of the world’s most profitable corporations, including Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The proposal came in response to remarks Tuesday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said raising taxes is “off the table.” A day earlier, he gave a speech demanding more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for GOP support for an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing through the end of next year.

Where am I confused, you ask? On almost everything a libertarian ought to care about. I’ll explain.

One of the key aspects of any good law is generality—that is, equality before the law. As F. A. Hayek put it:

[T]hough government has to administer means which have been put at its disposal (including the services of all those whom it has hired to carry out its instructions), this does not mean that it should similarly administer the efforts of private citizens. What distinguishes a free from an unfree society is that in the former each individual has a recognized private sphere clearly distinct from the public sphere, and the private individual cannot be ordered about but is expected to obey only the rules which are equally applicable to all….

The general, abstract rules, which are laws in the substantive sense, are… essentially long-term measures, referring to yet unnkown cases and containing no references to particular persons, places, or objects. Such laws must always be prospective, never retrospective, in their effect (The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 14, section 2).

Now, with every passing day our government stomps all over this generality requirement again and again, chiefly in the economic sphere. But is it doing so on the front page of today’s Washington Post? That’s a good question.

I can think of lots of ways we might deny a tax break to a certain five oil corporations. Some are decidedly better than others in their generality. Consider the following, ranked from least general to most:

  1. “The corporations known as Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are hereby denied tax break X. All others still qualify, or not, as they did before.”
  2. “Oil corporations with an annual revenue above $198 billion are denied tax break X.”
  3. “We find that tax break X itself is lacking in generality. It is hereby repealed, and the overall corporate tax rate is increased accordingly.”

Which one are they proposing? From the story’s first paragraph, we could easily conclude that it was (1). Many people on the left would be happy with (1), because big corporations are anathema to them, and everything they do is evil, and punishing them—generality be damned—is just great.

But then, it could also be (2), and this measure is somewhat more general, even if ConocoPhillips—the smallest company on the list—just so happens to have an annual revenue of $198.655 billion. As Hayek noted, “[C]lassification in abstract terms can always be carried to the point at which, in fact, the class singled out consists only of particular known persons or even a single individual” (ibid., section 4). Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

And finally, there’s (3), clearly the winner in terms of generality. Is that in fact the proposal being discussed by members of Congress? Or is it still more general than that—something perhaps as described by my colleagues Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren earlier this month?

Last week President Barack Obama responded to rising public anger over soaring gasoline prices by banging the drums for the elimination of various tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry…

[L]et the record show that President Obama is right… about these tax breaks. They make the economy less — not more — efficient and do nothing to reduce prices at the pump.

Rigging the tax code to make investments in manufacturing artificially more attractive than investments in something else is an enterprise designed to harm non-manufacturers for the benefit of … manufacturers. Conservatives who want government to leave markets alone have no business throwing their political bodies in front of this tax break. If their political rhetoric means anything, they would see the president’s bid and raise him by calling for total repeal of this tax break for everyone, not just for oil and gas companies.

If only we were so lucky! Getting back to the Post, we learn much later in the story—in the fifteenth paragraph —that the congressional proposal “would close several long-standing tax loopholes, yielding roughly $2 billion a year in savings to be applied to lowering the deficit. It would affect only the five largest oil companies, excluding smaller producers.”

This is confusing to the point of deception. Does it really “close” a loophole to take a few entities and exclude them from the prior exclusion from the tax? By my understanding, it makes the law less general, more convoluted and more arbitrary, than it was before. Close the loophole—or just don’t close it, I think a Hayek might say. Don’t make companies play human Tetris to figure out whether they aren’t not un-disincluded.

One day I think people will look back on our era—from roughly the civil rights movement to the present—and marvel. They will be amazed at how, while the law grew much more general regarding many non-economic matters, it became increasingly partial and favoritist when it came to running a business. At times our journalism and even our language seemed blind to this contradictory development, which only encouraged it. Even thinking about the generality of our laws is made difficult when it’s just not a topic on the national media’s radar.

But equality before the law should apply, well, equally. Shouldn’t it?

Clinton, Obama, and Hayek

President Obama has been saying that if the United States government can find and eliminate Osama bin Laden after ten years of searching, it can do anything:

Already, in several appearances since the raid, Obama has described it as a reminder that “as a nation there is nothing that we can’t do,” as he put it during an unrelated White House ceremony Monday. On Sunday night, during his first comments about the operation, he linked it to American values, saying the country is “once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

This is, of course, nonsense. Finding bin Laden, difficult as it proved to be, was an incomparably simple task compared to using coercion and central planning to bring about desired results in defiance of economic reality. You can’t deliver better health care to more people for less money by reducing the role of incentives and markets, even if you set your mind to it. As Russell Roberts said about a similar concept, “If we can put a man on the moon, then…”:

Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.

Obama should listen to Bill Clinton, who last fall seemed to be channeling Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Bill Clinton, 9/21: “Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don’t know what in the living daylights they are talking about?”

Look Who’s Back. Keynes and Hayek.

Keynes and Hayek are at it again in this new video from EconStories.tv.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession ended almost two years ago, in the summer of 2009. Yet we’re all uneasy. Job growth has been disappointing. The recovery seems fragile. Where should we head from here? Is that question even meaningful? Can the government steer the economy or have past attempts helped create the mess we’re still in?

The video was produced by Russ Roberts, advisor to the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, and John Papola for EconStories.tv. I could be mistaken, but I believe that’s Duke professor Michael Munger as the bumbling security guard.

Inside Every Leftist Is a Little Authoritarian Dying to Get Out

I’ve been meaning to write about how ObamaCare’s unelected rationing board — innocuously titled the Independent Payment Advisory Board — is yet another example of the Left leading America down the road to serfdom.  (Efforts to limit political speech — innocuously called “campaign finance reform” — are another.)

As Friedrich Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom (1944), when democracies allow government to direct economic activity, the inevitable failures lead to calls for a more authoritarian form of governance:

Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective “talking shops,” unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be taken “out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts — permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.

The problem is well known to socialists.  It will soon be half a century since the Webbs began to complain of “the increased incapacity of the House of Commons to cope with its work.”

Sound familiar?  National Review’s Rich Lowry picks up on the theme here.

Making this connection got a lot easier the other day when the University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack, a leading advocate of a “public option,” vented his frustrations over at The American Prospect blog about how Congress is likely to defang the Independent Payment Advisory Board. And he ends up just where Hayek predicted:

Despite many reasons for caution — the words George W. Bush foremost among them — I’m becoming more of a believer in an imperial presidency in domestic policy. Congress seems too screwed up and fragmented to address our most pressing problems.

This isn’t how it starts. This is how it snowballs.

Paging Dr. Hayek…

Is Libertarianism Selfishness?

That’s what Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes in the Washington Post. I take a different view in my new column at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog:

Libertarians want to live in what Adam Smith called the Great Society, the complex and productive society made possible by social interaction. We agree with George Soros that “cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition.” In fact, we 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….

The American, and libertarian, belief in freedom is not a “mania,” nor is it “selfishness.” It’s a philosophy of individual rights, the rule of law, and the institutions necessary for social cooperation. Read Locke, Hume, Smith, TocquevilleHayek—and yes, Rand—if you seriously believe that the philosophy of freedom can be summed up as “selfishness.”

Much more at the Britannica.

Saving Hayek from the People Who Think They’re Saving Hayek

I’ve been noticing a game lately played in the bookish corners of the left side of American politics. We’ll call it “We Know Hayek Better Than You.” It’s a game not without some attendant dangers. But it’s nothing if not fun.

Writing at Ezra Klein’s spot in the Washington Post, Karl Smith quotes Friedrich Hayek as follows:

That the ideal of justice of most socialists would be satisfied if merely private income from property were abolished and the differences between the earned incomes of different people remained what they are now, is true. What these people forget is that in transferring all property in the means of production to the state they put the state in a position whereby its action must in effect decide all other incomes.

He glosses:

That is, as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with communal ownership of the means of production. The mistake is to think that the government could facilitate such ownership because then the government is effectively a monopolist and that would give the government almost unlimited power.

The idea that in principle it would be okay to completely redistribute all capital wealth is far to the left of anything proposed in modern America.

I hate to say it, but this is quite the dog’s breakfast of confusion, misinterpretation, and strained reading. One ought to be suspicious when your author writes an entire book entitled The Mirage of Social Justice. Perhaps he’s not really too enthused about social justice, you know.

Although it’s probably true that most socialists’ idea of justice would be satisfied if income from private property were abolished, it does not follow that this was Hayek’s idea of justice. Hayek didn’t think it was “okay” to collectivize the entire means of production, whether by the state or by private action.

The ability to accumulate capital and to believe that one held it justly was, for Hayek, a most important incentive for the formation of responsible individuals. If the means of production were collectivized, individual character would suffer, and society would suffer with it. He wrote:

A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered (The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 78).

The sense of responsibility has been weakened in modern times as much by overextending the range of an individual’s responsibilities as by exculpating him from the actual consequences of his actions… To be effective, responsibility must be both definite and limited, adapted both emotionally and intellectually to human capacities. It is quite as destructive of any sense of responsibility to be taught that one is responsible for everything as to be taught that one cannot be held responsible for anything…

Responsibility, to be effective, must be individual responsibility. In a free society there cannot be any collective responsibility of the members of a group as such, unless they have, by concerted action, all made themselves individually and severally responsible… If the same concerns are made the responsibility of many without at the same time imposing a duty of joint and agreed action, the result is usually that nobody really accepts responsibility. As everybody’s property in effect is nobody’s property, so everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility (ibid., p 83).

So no, Hayek wouldn’t have thought it was a good idea to collectivize the means of production. There are some interesting theoretical questions hereabouts regarding corporations, their appropriate size, responsibilities, and attendant knowledge problems, but I suspect that my friends on the left aren’t actually pining for one megacorporation to rule them all. (Are they? I know it can be tough to keep up, but really, this is too much. Even I don’t support that.)

Hayek tells us we have private property and private capital because it does good things to the individual character. While there will be accidents, and while life is sometimes truly unfair, the best course of action is nonetheless for everyone to work as though their efforts actually mattered. And the best way to ensure that they will do so is to allow their efforts, whenever possible, to matter.

And when individual initiative has failed, what did Hayek want then? He wanted a modest system of social insurance – with emphasis on the modesty. After that, he wanted very stern incentives for people to get back up on their feet and leave that system.

One incentive that he considered at least reasonable was to forbid welfare recipients (and government workers!) from voting – an idea far to the right of anything now being considered in America. But not a bad idea in the abstract. He wrote:

It is also possible for reasonable people to argue that the ideals of democracy would be better served if, say, all the servants of government or all recipients of public charity were excluded from the vote (ibid., 105).

I look forward to my friends on the left continuing to deepen their knowledge of Hayek, and maybe entertaining this modest proposal. Were it not for my overwhelming concerns about how our current welfare system entraps its recipients, I might even support it myself.

Good Point

In his recent book Ill Fares the Land, a passionate defense of the democratic socialist ideal, the historian Tony Judt writes that Hayek would have been (justly) doomed to obscurity if not for the financial difficulty experienced by the welfare state, which was exploited by conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Yes, if Hayek had been wrong about the viability of the welfare state, then his warnings would have had less resonance.

This line appears in a generally thoughtful treatment of how The Road to Serfdom has stayed in print for decades and become a bestseller in the past two years. The article by Jennifer Schuessler appeared in the New York Times Book Review last July, but has only just come to my attention.