Tag: libertarian

John Stossel on Libertarianism

Don’t miss “Stossel” tonight on the Fox Business Network at 8:00 p.m. ET. He’ll be discussing “What’s a Libertarian?” with P. J. O’Rourke, Andrew Napolitano, and a panel including Cato senior fellow Jeff Miron and me. Here’s a column Stossel wrote after taping the show about his own evolution from “Kennedy-style liberal” to libertarian.

When I did talk shows after the publication of Libertarianism: A Primer, I was always asked, “What is libertarianism?” I said then, “Libertarianism is the idea that adult individuals have the right and the responsibility to make the important decisions about their lives. And of course today government claims the power to make many of those decisions for us, from where to send our kids to school to what we can smoke to how we must save for retirement.”

Here’s another way to put it, which I believe I first saw in a high-school libertarian newsletter from Minnesota: Smokey the Bear’s rules for fire safety also apply to government: Keep it small, keep it in a confined area, and keep an eye on it.

For more on libertarianism, check out Libertarianism: A Primer and The Libertarian Reader. For deeper thoughts, take a look at Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. Find an 80-minute interview on libertarianism here and a short talk here. And for a week-long seminar on libertarianism and our current crisis, come to Cato University this July at the beautiful Rancho Bernardo Inn outside San Diego.

Can We Be Both Up from Slavery and on the Road to Serfdom?

At Reason.com I argue that libertarians are wrong to look back at some point in the past for a golden age of liberty, and especially wrong to write paeans to the gloriously free 19th century without mentioning the little matter of 19 percent of Americans being held in chains.

For many libertarians, “the road to serfdom” is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think….

Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

I note that “I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery,” and I name a couple of examples. When we talk about how free Americans were in the 19th century, we should remember that many millions of Americans look back on those years and say

“My ancestors didn’t have the right to worship in their own way. My ancestors didn’t have the right to keep and bear arms. My ancestors didn’t have the protection of centuries-old legal procedures. My ancestors sure as heck didn’t have the right to keep what they produced, or to pursue an occupation of their choice, or to enter into mutually beneficial trades. In fact, my ancestors didn’t even have the minimal right of ‘the absence of physical constraint.’”

Read the whole thing.

Postscript: In late-breaking news after the Reason article was written, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R-VA) has issued a proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” As politicians often do with news they’re not really publicizing, McDonnell posted the proclamation on his website Friday, but no one noticed until Tuesday. The proclamation urges Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War” but does not mention slavery. Virginia’s last Republican governor, in issuing a proclamation remembering the Civil War, had at least acknowledged reality:  ”The practice of slavery was an affront to man’s natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians … Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war.” Amazingly, he was criticized for that simple and obvious statement, as was I when I quoted it a few years back.

A Post-Health Care Realignment?

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Joe Biden’s Big F-ing Deal, progressives have led a consistent and largely successful campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Now, Matt Yglesias suggests, it’s time to take a victory lap and call it a day:

For the past 65-70 years—and especially for the past 30 years since the end of the civil rights argument—American politics has been dominated by controversy over the size and scope of the welfare state. Today, that argument is largely over with liberals having largely won. […] The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage. This will probably lead to some realigning of political coalitions. Liberal proponents of reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel emboldened about pushing that agenda, since the policy environment is getting substantially more redistributive and does much more to mitigate risk. Advocates of things like more and better preschooling are going to find themselves competing for funds primarily with the claims made by seniors.

I’d like to believe this is true, though I can’t say I’m persuaded. It seems at least as likely that, consistent with the historical pattern, the new status quo will simply be redefined as the “center,” and proposals to further augment the welfare state will move from the fringe to the mainstream of opinion on the left.

That said, it’s hardly unheard of for a political victory to yield the kind of medium-term realignment Yglesias is talking about. The end of the Cold War destabilized the Reagan-era conservative coalition by essentially taking off the table a central—and in some cases the only—point of agreement among diverse interest groups. Less dramatically, the passage of welfare reform in the 90s substantially reduced the political salience of welfare policy. The experience of countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, moreover, suggests that if Obamacare isn’t substantially rolled back fairly soon, it’s likely to become a political “given” that both parties take for granted. Libertarians, of course, have long lamented this political dynamic: Government programs create constituencies, and become extraordinarily difficult to cut or eliminate, even if they were highly controversial at their inceptions.

We don’t have to be happy about this pattern, but it is worth thinking about how it might alter the political landscape a few years down the line.  One possibility, as I suggest above, is that it will just shift the mainstream of political discourse to the left. But as libertarians have also long been at pains to point out, the left-right model of politics, with its roots in the seating protocols of the 18th century French assembly, conceals the multidimensional complexity of politics. There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience. Libertarians are perhaps especially conscious of this precisely because we tend to take turns being more disgusted with one or another party—usually whichever holds power at a given moment.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what comes next. As 9/11 and the War on Terror reminded us, the central political issues of an era are often dictated by fundamentally unpredictable events. But some of the obvious current candidates are notable for the way they cut across the current partisan divide. In my own wheelhouse—privacy and surveillance issues—Republicans have lately been univocal in their support of expanded powers for the intelligence community, with plenty of help from hawkish Democrats. Given their fondness for invoking the specter of soviet totalitarian states, I’ve hoped that the folks mobilizing under the banner of the Tea Party might begin pushing back on the burgeoning surveillance state. Thus far I’ve hoped in vain, but if that coalition outlasts our current disputes, one can imagine it becoming an issue for them in 2011 as parts of the Patriot Act once again come up for reauthorization, or in 2012 when the FISA Amendments Act is due to sunset. In the past, the same issues have made strange bedfellows of the ACLU and the ACU, of Ron Paul Republicans and FireDogLake Democrats.  Obama has pledged to take up comprehensive immigration reform during his term, and there too significant constituencies within each party fall on opposite sides of the issue.

Further out than that it’s hard to predict. But more generally, the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization—the protracted health care fight, the economic crisis, and the explosion of federal spending have created an array of potent political communities outside the party-centered coalitions. They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  Suppose Yglesias is at least this far correct: The next set of political battles are likely to be fought along a different value dimension than was health care reform. Precisely because these groups formed outside the party-centered coalitions, and assuming they outlast the controversies that catalyzed their creation, it’s hard to predict which way they’ll move on tomorrow’s controversies. It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.  Still, it’s reason to expect that the next decade of American politics may be even more turbulent and surprising than the last one.

Who I’m Not Voting For

It’s that time of year again, when friends start telling me about this or that candidate I should support because he or she is a dedicated defender of liberty and limited government. I’m a political junkie, so I love getting these recommendations. But I don’t end up supporting or contributing to many candidates. In my view, it’s not enough for a candidate to say that he’s ”committed to slashing wasteful spending, providing tax relief, and eliminating red tape.” What’s your actual tax plan? What spending do you propose to cut or eliminate? Not many of them offer clear answers to that.

And liberty involves more than just economics. Often I’m told, “Congressman X is a libertarian.” I always check, and then I say, “He voted for the war, the Patriot Act, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Sounds like a conservative.” Now a conservative who opposed President George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar spending increase, his Medicare expansion, and his stepped-up federal involvement in education is a lot better than your average member of Congress. But those votes do not a libertarian make.

This year I’m looking for candidates who stand for freedom across the board, who want government constrained by the Constitution, who believe in the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.

And that means I don’t want to back candidates who support

  • the war in Iraq
  • the war in Afghanistan
  • war with Iran
  • the war on drugs
  • the constitutional amendment to override state marriage laws and make gay people second-class citizens
  • the president’s power to snatch American citizens off the street and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge
  • new restrictions on immigration

So don’t everybody write at once. But I’ll be looking out for political candidates who support liberty and limited government across a wide range of issues.

John Berry: Angry about Federal Pay

The head of the federal Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, has become unhinged by a few recent critiques of federal worker pay. Berry is an Obama appointee who apparently views his role as being a one-sided lobbyist for worker interests, rather than a public servant balancing the interests of taxpayers and federal agencies.

Here is an 11-minute audio interview with Berry on Federal News Radio on Friday, where he lashes out at USA Today, Washington Times, and the Cato Institute. Berry is defensive, emotional, and unwilling to accept that new data might indicate a possible problem with the underpaid federal worker thesis that is constantly pushed by the unions.

What do I mean when I say he is unhinged? An investigation by the USA Today found that in 83 percent of 216 occupations examined, federal workers earned more than comparable private-sector workers. Here is Berry’s response when asked whether he thinks the USA Today analysis is a good one: “It is absolutely not! It comes straight out of the Cato Institute!” But, believe it or not, the nation’s largest newspaper is not part of some libertarian plot.

The most troubling aspect of Berry’s performance is his deliberate effort to wrap himself in the flag and deny that anyone should even ask questions about federal workers during a time of national security concerns. It is strange that an Obama administration official would so vigorously use the Bush administration tactic of “waving the bloody shirt.

Here are excerpts from the interview starting at 1:48 minutes and then 5:54 minutes (my transcription):

Interviewer: “There was a line in this [Washington Times] editorial, one of the first lines, it was the first line of the second paragraph, and that is: ‘Consider how much money a bureaucrat can make for successfully sitting at his desk for a year.’

Berry: …You know, this is the kind of, it’s just a denigration of public service and, and it is, there should be no place for it in our country… And to be denigrated and say that they’re bureaucrats sitting at a desk pushing paper there should be no place in American society for such hyperbole.

Interviewer: I wonder if this is something that comes because of the economy. Where is this upswell of anger coming from?

Berry: …And that’s why I just get steamed when I read something like this because it denigrates that incredible motivation, and like I said to denigrate those who even put their lives on the line day in and day out so that the rest of us and our children can be safe, there should be no place for it. And I think my hope is that a lot of people, not just me, will rise up and respond to this with the anger and the facts that it deserves. Because as long as people can get away with denigrating that level of service, then we are putting at risk the future of our country.”

Have you got Berry’s message? We simply cannot allow people to use their free speech rights to question the operations of government because that will undermine national security. So people need to “rise up” and get “angry,” grab their pitchforks, and head to the homes of anyone who dares question high government worker pay because it puts “at risk the future of our country.”

Good grief!

More from me on federal worker pay here.

(Thanks to Solomon Stein and Justin Logan)

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”

Weekend Links

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