Tag: libertarian

Cato Unbound: Property, the State, Libertarians, and the Left

Talk between libertarians and the left usually follows one of two scripts, each of which frustrates me.

In the first script, both sides find things that they can safely dislike together – war, eminent domain, small business licensing – while carefully avoiding all the contentious areas. They’re a lot like that recently divorced couple at the Christmas party you’ve just attended, chattering as much as they dare… but mostly about the weather.

In the second script, someone yells “Taxation is theft!” or “You hate the poor!” and it’s not long before someone gets a drink thrown in their face. Perhaps also like that Christmas party you’ve just attended.

If I may say so myself, this month’s Cato Unbound has been quite different. The disagreements have been sharp, but well-informed and polite. (Even the libertarians are disagreeing among themselves; it’s a good sign that our movement isn’t just a set of dogmatic propositions, as some have claimed.)

As readers may already know, the December issue is about the role of property rights in social democracy. Discussants Daniel Klein, David D. Friedman, Ilya Somin, and Matthias Matthijs are arguing about whether social democracy entails the concept of overlordship – that is, the idea that the state must be the final, true owner of all property in a social democracy. If it’s not explicitly and by declaration, then at least it’s implicitly and by inference from its actions.

Klein shows that social democrats were once quite explicit on the point, and did indeed portray themselves as would-be overlords. Today they have to be cagier, but the claim remains logically implicit, he says.

Friedman argues that property has existed without the state, and perhaps even before the dawn of the human race. The state might claim any number of things, but we should judge it by what it actually accomplishes.

Somin suggests that today’s social democrats aren’t really overlords; they’re pragmatists without much in the way of theoretical principles at all.

And Matthijs actually is a social democrat. A proud one, by the look of it. He’s even European! Rights aren’t meaningful unless something enforces them, he argues, and the state does the work we all depend on. In this sense, all rights are artificial; all rights are created by the state. And he’s gamely defending his claims against a barrage of libertarian criticism.

Is your blood boiling? Or are you giggling behind your hand? Either way, grab yourself another egg nog, promise not to throw it at anyone, and go read the discussion for yourself.

Is Wikileaks Libertarian?

In response to Wikileaks’ complaints that Amazon.com will no longer host the whisteblower site’s activities, Chris Moody, over at the Daily Caller, writes:

Unfortunately for WikiLeaks’ argument, Amazon is a private company that can legally sever ties with anyone it wants. If anything, the company is exercising its right to free speech and association by choosing not to work with another independent organization.

That’s correct, though I would add that it was Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who bullied Amazon into cutting Wikileaks from its server. Thus, it was partially government coercion, not private consent, that severed a business relationship.

As an aside, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in a recent interview with Forbes that he is influenced by “American libertarianism, market libertarianism.” (Hat tip: Reason’s Matt Welch.) For more on Assange, check out his old website.

The Moral Equivalent of Monarchy

Matt Yglesias plumps for monarchy, based on – what else? – human nature:

[I]t seems inevitable in any country for some individual to end up serving the functional role of the king. Humans are hierarchical primates by nature and have a kind of fascination with power and dignity. This is somewhat inevitable, but it also cuts against the grain of a democracy. And under constitutional monarchy, you can mitigate the harm posed by displacing the mystique of power onto the powerless monarch. We follow the royal family with fascination, they participate in weird ceremonies, they have dignity, they symbolize the nation, we all talk about them respectfully, etc. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister gets to be just another politician. Admittedly the one who’s most important at this given moment in time. But that’s no reason not to jeer at him during Question Time. He’s not the symbol of the nation who’s owed deference. He’s a servant of the people and people who feel he’s serving them poorly should say so.

Dignity and power?

Dignity, sure. I admit, I am fascinated by dignity. I delight when formerly servile people regain it. I love, without apology, the dignity of being an American, under which our “weird ceremonies” happen chiefly of our own volition. I love the dignity of the immigrant shopkeeper – she might not have much, but what she has is hers, she’s worked for it, and she knows it. I love the dignity of a good book, a well-baked loaf of bread, or Dvořák’s Ninth. I love the dignity of suburbia, and of bohemia. I’ve known them both, and what they have in common is this – large stretches of time in which you are left to your own devices. That’s dignity.

But power? In a wide swath all around it, power destroys dignity. That’s not just an unfortunate side-effect. That’s the whole point of power. That’s what it does. It’s telling that Yglesias manages to praise power unstintingly – but only among a group of preposterous twits who’ve long ago stopped wielding any significant power themselves. Except, evidently, the power to fascinate the power-hungry.

Is it human nature to love power? Maybe for some. Indeed, I could hardly explain otherwise the continued presence of coercion in the world. Thinkers far greater than I have come to the same conclusion, so let’s just leave it at that.

Not everyone, though, is quite so keen on power. As Ravi Iyer, Jonathan Haidt, et al. have recently suggested, one self-identified group – libertarians – has a high degree of skepticism regarding authority, tradition, and conformity. Self-described libertarians place a high value on individualism, personal choice, and reason, even sometimes at the expense of other values, like emotion or community. In short, when we see a king, we don’t say “Wow!” We say – “Why?”

Even if you’re not a libertarian, it’s probably a good thing that someone is out there asking that question for you. That’s particularly so if Yglesias is right, and if most humans are hard-wired to idolize. Even a few false idols can be pretty costly. Having people around who encourage us to see them can do us a lot of good in the long run.

As I’m sure I don’t have to point out, the mistrust of kings, of those so-called gods on earth, runs deep in the American tradition. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

Modern science is increasingly finding that humans aren’t equal in a positive, descriptive sense. You and I are emphatically and obviously quite different, from the genetic level on up. Modern political experiments have shown that we should not try to make ourselves materially equal by rearranging society, either. The results of all such projects have been atrocities.

But claims about human equality really do shine in one area. They say, as Jefferson did, that your notions of the superior man are probably delusions, and that we should be aware of our embarrassing tendency toward them. Personally, I’d no more bow to the queen of England than I would to the doorman at the Ritz-Carlton. They both have fancy clothes, and a retinue of servants attending them, and time-honored traditions that they uphold. Bully for them. But also for our power to place them, at least once in a while, on the same level.

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

Libertarian Politics in the Media

Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party.” He cites Ron Paul’s winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul’s upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson’s evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he’ll campaign on spending cuts – including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he’s a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:

In my mind, the word “libertarian” has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and “Tea Party” activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.

I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.

Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.

And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:

Liberty is our heritage; it’s the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn’t seem to have used the term any more.

You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation – or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee – believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I’ve also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you’re a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don’t embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it’s good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.

Eradicating Social Evils

The goal of a new Chinese government campaign is to “eradicate all social evils” and “advocate a healthy, civilized and high-minded lifestyle,” according to the Washington Post. Some elements of the state just don’t like the way the Chinese people are using their newfound freedom.

On a different level, we face the same arguments here in the United States. Both the Hillarys and the Huckabees in our world seek to fight “social evils” and lead us to “a healthy, civilized and high-minded lifestyle.” The Huckabees focus on our souls, urging the government to stamp out sin and push us to do God’s will (as they see it). The Hillarys often focus on our bodies, with campaigns against smoking, popcorn, sodas, salt, and all manner of “unhealthy lifestyles.” Then again, the Hillarys do want to save our souls, as well, with campaigns to eradicate racism and sexism and spread the environmentalist gospel.

In China, economic freedom is giving people an opportunity to throw off old social rules and restrictions and to experiment with living their lives as they choose. Economic freedom has the same impact here, and in both countries there are powerful people who don’t like the choices free people make.

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.