Tag: individual liberty

The Zero Percent Doctrine

I was never a fan of Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine.

According to Ron Suskind, after 9/11 Cheney explained to law enforcement and intelligence officials that they should treat even the one percent chance of a terrorist attack as a mathematical certainty. The particular case was of a Pakistani nuclear scientist helping al-Qaeda to acquire a nuclear bomb, but the standard became a shorthand for U.S. counterterror efforts generally. No scale of effort would be too great. Better to chase down 100 leads, 99 of which turn out to be bogus, because finding just that one nugget would have been worth the level of effort.

Now we have evidence that the federal government is chasing down far more than 99 blind alleys for just one lead. From today’s front-page story in the New York Times, Eric Schmitt explains how the FBI has adapted and evolved since 9/11:

The bureau now ranks fighting terrorism as its No. 1 priority. It has doubled the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism duties to roughly 5,000 people, and has created new squads across the country that focus more on deterring and disrupting terrorism than on solving crimes.

But the manpower costs of this focus are steep, and the benefits not always clear. Of the 5,500 leads that the squad has pursued since it was formed five years ago, only 5 percent have been found credible enough to be sent to permanent F.B.I. squads for longer-term investigations, said Supervisory Special Agent Kristen von KleinSmid, head of the squad. Only a handful of those cases have resulted in criminal prosecutions or other law enforcement action, and none have foiled a specific terrorist plot, the authorities acknowledge. (Emphasis mine.)

So, just to review:

  • 5,500 leads over 5 years
  • 5 percent deemed credible
  • “A handful” technically would mean five or less, but charitably might total a few dozen. Still, that translates to far less than 1 percent of leads investigated resulting in a criminal prosecution.

But, and here’s the kicker,

  • None – zero, zip, nada – foiled a specific terrorist plot.

On the face of it, this seems like a waste of time and resources that should be spent elsewhere.

There are several plausible explanations, however, for why I’m wrong and why those who believe that we are not dedicating sufficient resources to combating terrorism are right.

  • Perhaps other government agencies have been far more effective at disrupting terror plots. (But when the relative comparison is zero, it isn’t very hard to clear that bar.)
  • Perhaps Schmitt got his facts wrong. (Doubtful. He is one of the most experienced and reliable reporters on the beat.)
  • Perhaps the knowledge that 5,000 people chasing down 5,500 leads deters would-be terrorists from even attempting anything. (Or it could simply be helping bin Laden’s plan “to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”)

Two other points bear consideration. First, it is possible that arresting, prosecuting and convicting people of lesser crimes disrupts what might someday become a full-scale terror plot. There is no reason to think that the guy trying to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch was much smarter than the 15 guys who provided the muscle for the 9/11 attacks. The difference was leadership, which defined a plausible terrorist attack and devised the means to carry it out. That said, there are problems associated with the expansion of federal laws, and the growing power of prosecutors, and I would still much prefer that common criminals be handled in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Local cops, local prosecutors, local jails.

Which leads to the second point. Reflecting the growing federalization of the criminal law, the FBI strayed into a number of areas even before 9/11 that should have been handled by local law enforcement. This expansion of the federal criminal law poses a threat to individual liberty. (Thanks to Tim Lynch for pointing to this source.) But counterterrorism is one of the few legitimate functions for a federal law enforcement agency, and if the FBI is devoting more resources to that than to other crimes, that in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I remain unconvinced, however, that what we are seeing is a wise expenditure of resources. And while I understand that zero terrorist plots uncovered is not equal to zero threat of a future attack, it is incumbent on the FBI – and more generally those who think that the problem is too little, as opposed to much, being devoted to counterterrorism – to prove why they need still more resources.

Until that occurs, I think that UCLA’s Amy Zegart, who is quoted in the Times story, should get the last word on this point:

Just chasing leads burns through resources. … You’re really going to get bang for the buck when you chase leads based on a deeper assessment of who threatens us, their capabilities and indicators of impending attack. Right now, there’s more chasing than assessing.

Chavez Tries to Shut Down Pro-Free Market Educational Conference

The Cato Institute media department sent this press release to media outlets in Latin America, after the Venezuelan government tried to shut down a Cato-sponsored conference this week:

CAUCAGUA, VENEZUELA—A Cato Institute educational seminar fell victim to an attempt by the Venezuelan government to shut it down for expressing ideas critical of the Chavez regime.

Numerous Venezuelan government agencies harassed the Cato Institute event, called Universidad El Cato-CEDICE, or “Cato University,” which took place in Caucagua, Venezuela May 24-26. The event is co-sponsored by the Venezuelan free-market think tank Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico por la Libertad (CEDICE) and was organized to teach and promote the classical liberal principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.

During the course of the event on Monday, the National Guard, state television and a state representative from a ministry of higher education interrupted the seminar, demanding that the seminar be shut down on the grounds that the event organizers did not have permission to establish a university in Venezuela. When the authorities were told that neither Cato nor CEDICE was establishing a university and that the Cato Institute has long sponsored student seminars called Cato Universities, the authorities then insisted that the seminar was in violation of Venezuelan law for false advertising.

After two hours of groundless accusations, the Chavez representatives left but their harassment has continued. One of the speakers at the seminar, Peruvian intellectual Alvaro Vargas Llosa, was detained by airport authorities Monday afternoon for three hours for no apparent reason. He was released and told that he could stay in the country as long as he did not express political opinions in Venezuela.

“The government’s attacks on freedom of speech are part of a worrying pattern of abuse of power in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela,” said Ian Vasquez, director of Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, from Caucagua. “But they have so far not managed to alter the plans of the Cato Institute here, and will hopefully not do so, as we continue to participate in further meetings the rest of this week.”

For more information about Cato programs in Latin America, visit www.ElCato.org.

UPDATE (5/27, 2:30 PM EST) : Cato just received word from scholar Ian Vásquez that “Chavistas are gathering in front of the conference hotel now…Cato is all over state TV.”

Vásquez snapped this photo of people carrying anti-Cato signs and protesting the conference.img00017

Jim DeMint’s Freedom Tent

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has been a leader in the fight for fiscal responsibility in Congress. He’s even led on issues that many elected officials have shied away from, such as Social Security reform and free trade. Recently he said that he would support Pat Toomey over Arlen Specter in a Republican primary, which may have prompted Specter’s party switch. DeMint was widely quoted as saying, “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.”

It may have been feedback from that comment that caused DeMint to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on his vision of a “Big Tent” Republican party. He makes some excellent points:

But big tents need strong poles, and the strongest pole of our party – the organizing principle and the crucial alternative to the Democrats – must be freedom. The federal government is too big, takes too much of our money, and makes too many of our decisions….

We can argue about how to rein in the federal Leviathan; but we should agree that centralized government infringes on individual liberty and that problems are best solved by the people or the government closest to them.

Moderate and liberal Republicans who think a South Carolina conservative like me has too much influence are right! I don’t want to make decisions for them. That’s why I’m working to reduce Washington’s grip on our lives and devolve power to the states, communities and individuals, so that Northeastern Republicans, Western Republicans, Southern Republicans, and Midwestern Republicans can define their own brands of Republicanism. It’s the Democrats who want to impose a rigid, uniform agenda on all Americans. Freedom Republicanism is about choice – in education, health care, energy and more. It’s OK if those choices look different in South Carolina, Maine and California.

That’s a good federalist, or libertarian, or traditional American conservative vision. But is it really Jim DeMint’s vision?

DeMint says “that centralized government infringes on individual liberty and that problems are best solved by the people or the government closest to them.” And he says it’s OK if “choices look different in South Carolina, Maine and California.” But marriage is traditionally a matter for the states to decide. Some states allow first cousins to marry, others don’t.  Some states recognized interracial marriage in the early 20th century, others didn’t. And in every case the federal government accepted each state’s rules; if you had a marriage license from one of the states, the federal government considered you married. But Senator DeMint has twice voted for a constitutional amendment to overrule the states’ power to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In his op-ed, he writes, “Republicans can welcome a vigorous debate about legalized abortion or same-sex marriage; but we should be able to agree that social policies should be set through a democratic process, not by unelected judges.” That’s a reasonable argument, but the amendment that DeMint voted for would overturn state legislative decisions as well as judicial decisions.

Does Jim DeMint believe that “it’s OK if choices [about marriage] look different in South Carolina, Maine, [Vermont, New Hampshire], and California”? If so, he should renounce his support for the anti-federalist federal marriage amendment. If not, then it seems that he opposes the Democrats’ attempts to “impose a rigid, uniform agenda on all Americans …  in education, health care, energy and more,” but he has no problem with Republicans imposing their own “rigid, uniform agenda on all Americans” from South Carolina to Vermont.

It might be noted that Senator DeMint also supported the federal attempt to overturn Florida court decisions regarding Terri Schiavo, but we can hope all Republicans have learned their lesson on that bit of mass hysteria.

Cato Unbound Update

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.

As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn’t vote for either of them, and I don’t regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.

This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.

As our disclaimer makes clear, Cato Unbound doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cato Institute. No endorsement is implied. Instead, we strive to present ideas and arguments that will be interesting to libertarians and also, if possible, to the general public.

Sometimes this means soliciting opinions that are very, very far from the American mainstream, and also far from our own views. It was a proud day for me when a prominent climate change blog suggested that Hell had frozen over – because the Cato Institute had published a piece by Joseph Romm. But that’s just the kind of place that Cato Unbound has always tried to be. We court controversy.

Some of Lind’s harshest barbs were reserved for contributor Peter Thiel, and for his suggestion that, demographically speaking, women have tended to oppose libertarian policies:

According to Thiel, one problem with democracy is that women have the right to vote:

Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.

What could more beautifully illustrate the pubescent male nerd mentality of the libertarian than Thiel’s combination of misogyny with the denial of aging and death? We had a nice John Galt libertarian paradise in this country, until girls came along and messed it up!

Thiel continues:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’

After considering the possible mass migration (if that is not a contradiction in terms) of libertarians to cyberspace and outer space, he opts for Fantasy Island:

The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism. For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.

Here’s an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren’t allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Emphasis added. Owen Thomas at Gawker jumped to about the same conclusion, but with even more ad hominem.

Yet Thiel’s claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems – to my mind at least – regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women’s suffrage. Of course women should be able to vote. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.

Consider that a Democrat might complain that white evangelical Christians don’t support enough Democrats, and that this works out badly for the country. No one would ever conclude that Democrats want to take away the votes of white evangelical Christians. We would all figure that they are just confronting a failure of practical politics, and perhaps trying to do better at realizing their particular vision of the world. That’s what Thiel was doing too, albeit not via electoral politics. Something about libertarians, however, seems to demand that some people read us as uncharitably as possible.

Seasteading proposes to create a demonstration of how a libertarian society might work. Its proponents believe that if it works, everyone will be drawn to it, including women. Will they succeed? I have some serious doubts, to be honest.

That’s why I set up this issue of Cato Unbound, and why I think the discussion has been valuable.

First 100 Days: More of the Same

President Obama campaigned on a promise of change. But the first 100 days of his administration have seen a continuation of the Bush administration’s irresponsible fiscal policies: more bailouts, higher spending, and mounting debt.

The president has already signed a tax hike that disproportionately hurts lower-income people, and is seeking additional tax increases to fund a transition to a more centrally-planned, European-styled economy.

Just as previous administrations have done, the president is using the current economic ‘crisis’ to justify further government encroachment upon the private sector. In doing so, dangerous precedents are being set that could have negative repercussions for future economic growth and individual liberty.

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

Events This Week

kennedy-bookMonday, March 23, 2009

BOOK FORUM- The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty
12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)
The Cato Institute

Author Helen Knowles examines how Kennedy’s background as a law student and classroom teacher has influenced his judicial philosophy. The book begins by examining Kennedy’s judicial thought in the context of libertarian thought. Knowles does not call the justice a libertarian. Instead, in a sympathetic but not uncritical analysis, she uses libertarian philosophy, focusing on privacy, race, and speech cases, to draw out Kennedy’s views about limited government and individual liberty. Please join us for a discussion of Justice Kennedy’s “modest libertarianism,” with comments by one of the nation’s foremost constitutional scholars, Professor Randy Barnett.

Watch live online here.

CAPITOL HILL BRIEFING- Tax Havens Should Be Celebrated, Not Persecuted
12:00 PM (Lunch Included)
B-340 Rayburn House Office Building

Join Cato scholar Dan Mitchell and former member of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority Richard Rahn to review the myths and realities about the role of tax havens in the global economy.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

POLICY FORUM- Georgia’s Liberal Institutions In the Wake of War and the Global Economic Crisis
12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)
The Cato Institute

Featuring David Bakradze, Speaker of the Georgian Parliament; Kakha Bendukidze, Former Minister of the Economy and Reform Coordination, Georgia; and Andrei Illarionov, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute.

Register to attend or watch live online here.