Tag: libertarianism

Freedom on Film

It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.

As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):

Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)

War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.

Obamacare’s Atomistic Individualism

Lots of people are engaging in mockery and schadenfreude over the New York Times report that 

Many in New York’s professional and cultural elite have long supported President Obama’s health care plan. But now, to their surprise, thousands of writers, opera singers, music teachers, photographers, doctors, lawyers and others are learning that their health insurance plans are being canceled and they may have to pay more to get comparable coverage, if they can find it.

It’s a liberals’ nightmare:

It is not lost on many of the professionals that they are exactly the sort of people — liberal, concerned with social justice — who supported the Obama health plan in the first place. Ms. Meinwald, the lawyer, said she was a lifelong Democrat who still supported better health care for all, but had she known what was in store for her, she would have voted for Mitt Romney.

It is an uncomfortable position for many members of the creative classes to be in.

“We are the Obama people,” said Camille Sweeney, a New York writer and member of the Authors Guild. Her insurance is being canceled, and she is dismayed that neither her pediatrician nor her general practitioner appears to be on the exchange plans. What to do has become a hot topic on Facebook and at dinner parties frequented by her fellow writers and artists.

“I’m for it,” she said. “But what is the reality of it?”

But I noticed something that I haven’t seen any comments on: the way the Affordable Care Act is forcing people out of group plans and forcing them to enter the health insurance system as individuals:

They are part of an unusual, informal health insurance system that has developed in New York, in which independent practitioners were able to get lower insurance rates through group plans, typically set up by their professional associations or chambers of commerce. That allowed them to avoid the sky-high rates in New York’s individual insurance market, historically among the most expensive in the country.

But under the Affordable Care Act, they will be treated as individuals, responsible for their own insurance policies. For many of them, that is likely to mean they will no longer have access to a wide network of doctors and a range of plans tailored to their needs. And many of them are finding that if they want to keep their premiums from rising, they will have to accept higher deductible and co-pay costs or inferior coverage.

Libertarian scholars stress the importance of civil society. I wrote about it in Libertarianism: A Primer. David Beito wrote a whole book on the mutual aid associations that brought people together in social groups were replaced by “impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.” Tocqueville and his modern followers extolled the virtues of “mediating institutions” that stood between the lone individual and the all-powerful state.

Now it seems that Obamacare, perhaps unintentionally, is destroying some of those mutual aid organizations, those mediating institutions, in order to force individuals to deal directly with the state and/or the vast insurance corporations.

Left-liberals often accuse libertarians of favoring “atomistic individualism” – an absurd charge about people who regard cooperation as 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. But now it seems we have another example of a big-government, left-liberal policy that is pushing people away from cooperation and community and toward atomistic individualism.

Immigrant Attitudes toward Libertarian Values

A recent paper by psychology Professor Hal Pashler of UCSD analyzes General Social Survey (GSS) data and finds that immigrants are less libertarian than the U.S.-born.  This is an interesting paper and professor Pashler notes the many limitations of his findings – mainly that the GSS doesn’t ask many questions that are good barometers of libertarian ideology.  But that hasn’t stopped non-libertarian immigration opponents from using the paper’s conclusion to try and convince libertarians to oppose immigration reform: “With increasing proportions of the US population being foreign-born, low support for libertarian values by foreign-born residents means that the political prospects of libertarian values in the US are likely to diminish over time.” 

Here are some reasons why Pashler’s paper shouldn’t worry libertarians much or convince many to oppose immigration:

First, libertarians generally support immigration reform, the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, and increasing legal immigration because it is consistent with libertarian principles – not because immigration reform will lead to breakthrough electoral gains for libertarian candidates.  The freedom for healthy non-criminals to move across borders with a minimum of government interference is important in and of itself.  General libertarian support for immigration reform does not depend upon immigrants producing a pro-liberty Curley effect – as nice as that would be. 

Second, under free immigration the freedom of current Americans to sell to, hire, and otherwise contract with foreigners would increase substantially.

Third, the ideological differences between the U.S.-born and immigrants are relatively small for some of the questions Pashler analyzes.  For instance, the GSS asked whether the government should do more or less to reduce economic inequality with a response of “1” meaning the government should do much more and a score of “5” meaning the government should do much less.  The average score for immigrants was a 2.75 while the average score for the U.S.-born was 3.18 – a statistically significant difference but hardly one that will push the U.S. toward central planning.

Fusionism: Hot or Cold?

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting a book forum on the new book by vice chairman of the American Conservative Union Donald J. Devine: America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution. (Register here).

Devine’s conservative credentials are impeccable: a veteran of the Reagan campaign, he served as head of the administration’s Office of Personnel Management, where, as a Washington Post profile once put it, “at the mere mention of his name, federal workers grit their teeth and express fear and loathing.” He was also an early and vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration for enabling massive government growth, “fueled by neoconservative dreams of empire and which threatens the whole project of American liberty.”

How can the Right recover from the wreckage of the Bush years? In America’s Way Back, Devine makes “the case for 21st century ‘fusionism’” — a reinvigoration of the Cold War–era conservative-libertarian alliance that employed “libertarian means for traditionalist ends.”

He can expect some friendly pushback from our commentator, Reason magazine editor Matt Welch, a fusionism skeptic who has (with Reason’s Nick Gillespie) argued that traditional political groupings are fast becoming moribund, and the rise of political “independents (especially of the libertarian flavor) hint strongly that another form—something unpredictable, fantastical, liberating—is gathering to take their place.”

I’ll be moderating what promises to a lively discussion on libertarianism, conservatism, and the future of the Right. Register now!

Guide to Libertarian Movies

I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. My friend Jon Osborne worked for years on this project, but the 2001 book has been out of print for years. It’s the best available guide to movies with libertarian themes, with more than 250 short reviews.

What are the best libertarian films? Well, the book doesn’t rank them, but some that make his list of Top Libertarian Films are Amistad, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, Shenandoah, and We the Living. Libertarians may be familiar with all of those, but he also recommends the lesser-known Cash McCall, East-West, Improper Conduct, and many more.

No such list is exhaustive, of course, or uncontroversial. When I listed some of my own favorite libertarian-themed films, I included some that Osborne doesn’t: So Big (1953) and My Beautiful Laundrette. Not to mention the republican Gladiator and the anti-Nazi, anti-communist Sunshine, both released in 2000.

Few if any of these movies are like libertarian essays on film. Osborne includes movies that have such themes as anti-socialism (under which he includes anti-National Socialism), anti-war, bureaucratic abuse of power, creator as hero, freedom of speech, individualism, social tolerance, and voluntaryism. Each film is rated for both its libertarian content and its entertainment value, and also briefly reviewed.

Osborne mostly stopped reviewing—and maybe even seeing—movies when his daughter was born, so there aren’t many movies here from the past decade. But from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), there are enough movies here to keep you busy for the rest of the year.

Richard Epstein’s Ricochet Post on the NSA

Over at the Ricochet website, Richard Epstein elaborates on his defense of the NSA surveillance programs that were recently exposed by Edward Snowden.  In this post, I want to scrutinize some of Epstein’s observations and arguments.

Epstein begins by waving off the track record of government abuse generally.  Forget about the recent IRS scandal and the Associated Press wiretaps, he says, we must focus instead on the “parts of the government” that are organized to address terrorist activity.  According to Epstein, those parts of the government “seem to have performed well.”  Thus, he concludes, we should have confidence in the federal government’s efforts to stop terrorists.

Let’s take a closer look at the “parts of the government” that address terrorism:

•    The Federal Bureau of Investigation:  The Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that between 2003 and 2007, the FBI violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times as agents collected phone and financial records.  A few years later, another investigation found that the FBI repeatedly broke the law while monitoring telecommunications.  Major telecom companies had their employees detailed to work in FBI office space and they would respond to very informal verbal requests for phone records, including the “calling circles” of certain reporters.  One FBI agent said it was like having an ATM next to his desk.

•    The Central Intelligence Agency: It is still hard to believe that the American government hid prisoners from the Red Cross and engaged in torture, but it happened.  In 2005, CIA Director Porter Goss went on a TV show and said “What we do does not come close to torture … We do debriefings.”  The American public was repeatedly misled about the prisoner policies, but we later learned about the “black sites” and “ghost prisoners.”  The CIA also destroyed audio and video tapes of its interrogation practices even after the federal courts issued orders to preserve such evidence.

•    The Pentagon:  We have also seen problems in the U.S. military.  The Pentagon kept a database of persons who protested against the Iraq war.  We also know that American prisoners, such as John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, were badly mistreated while in military custody.  And those were among the most highly publicized cases.  (The treatment of Bradley Manning is worth mentioning even though he is not an accused terrorist.)  For the non-publicized cases, let’s just recall the letter from U.S. Army Captain Ian Fishback to Senator John McCain: “Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”   

The Kids Are All Right

Is libertarianism a worldwide trend among young people? There are poll reports from the United States, Great Britain, and Turkey this week that point in that direction.

The College Republican National Committee put out a report finding that young voters are very much against excessive government spending (though they do support higher taxes on the wealthy) and are strongly in favor of gay marriage. They want to reform entitlements but see the Republican party as “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”

Meanwhile, the Economist, in an editorial titled “The strange rebirth of liberal England” (in an allusion to a famous history book), writes, “Young Britons have turned strikingly liberal, in a classical sense….The young want Leviathan to butt out of their pay cheques as well as their bedrooms.” An accompanying article declares, “Britain’s youth are not just more liberal than their elders. They are also more liberal than any previous generation”:

Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.

More than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements”. Less than one-third of those born after 1979 say the same. According to [the long-running British Social Attitudes survey], members of Generation Y are not just half as likely as older people to consider it the state’s responsibility to cover the costs of residential care in old age. They are also more likely to take such a hard-hearted view than were members of the famously jaded Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979) at the same stage of life.

“Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster.

And finally comes this headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

Maybe this really is the libertarian momentStudents for Liberty attracted 1,400 attendees to its February national conference, and another 365 to a European conference in March. Now, as the Economist says, if only the young people will vote – and the parties will offer them candidates.

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