Tag: libertarians

Communitarians and Libertarians

Communitarian “guru” Amitai Etzioni debated Roger Pilon at Cato two weeks ago. Also me, 18 years ago. And last week he had two postings at the Encyclopedia Britannica blog. I offer some thoughts on individualism, communitarianism, and implausible misrepresentations of libertarianism at the Britannica today.

When I hear communitarians like Etzioni describe the libertarian view of individualism, I wonder if they’ve ever read any libertarian writing other than a Classic Comics edition of Ayn Rand….

There’s no conflict between individualism and community. There’s a conflict between voluntary association and coerced association. And communitarians dance around that conflict.

Do you believe that “The libertarian perspective, put succinctly, begins with the assumption that individual agents are fully formed and their value preferences are in place prior to and outside of any society”? Of course not. Who would? Read the Britannica column to find out who says you do.

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?

Libertarians and the Arab Spring

The astonishing changes sweeping the Arab world hold great promise for liberty and peace, but those goals are much less likely to be realized without the active input of libertarians.  Arab libertarians are organized in a number of networks, one of which held a series of programs recently in Cairo on building the institutions of liberty and development in a post-revolutionary society.  The director of the Arabic “Forum of Liberty” (Minbaralhurriyya.org), Dr. Nouh El Harmouzi (also a university professor of economics in Morocco) spoke at the massive rally on Tahrir Square April 8 with a clear message for Egyptians (in Arabic, with English subtitles):

Also speaking at the rally (on democracy and the rule of law) and in other programs in Cairo was Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble India, author of the best-selling books India Unbound and The Difficulty of Being Good, and chairman of India’s Centre for Civil Society.

Those who wish to contribute to the spread of liberty in the Middle East and North Africa can find more information here.

Thursday Links

Reagan’s Libertarian Spirit

At the Britannica Blog I take a look back at Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his impending 100th birthday (February 6):

Libertarians have mixed feelings toward Ronald Reagan. When we’re feeling positive, we remember that he used to say, “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Other times, we call to mind his military interventionism, his encouragement of the then-new religious right (“I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”), and his failure to really reduce the size of government. But the more experience we have with later presidents, the better Reagan looks in retrospect….

And in those moments we’re tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Bonus: The entry contains links to Encyclopedia Britannica entries on such topics as libertarianism and individualism, normally available only to subscribers. More Britannica reflections on Reagan here. Some other Cato thoughts on Reagan here.

Social Conservatives Left Behind?

Lots of the criticisms of the tea party movement as “extremist” assume that the movement is some sort of “American Taliban” – theocratic, censorious, antigay. The reality is that the highly decentralized tea party movement has done a remarkable job of staying focused on a specific agenda that is nothing like that. The Tea Party Patriots website proclaims its mission as “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.” Many tea partiers say that “tea” stands for Taxed Enough Already. Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco [not Wacko] Tea Party, told NPR Thursday, ”Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility.”

In fact, some social conservative activists are annoyed that President Obama’s big-government agenda and the robust tea party response have focused the country’s attention on the issues of spending, debt, and the size of government rather than cultural war. On that same NPR interview Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association complained that “the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place … when it comes to social issues” and demanded that the movement “send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues.” Walker explained that the tea party isn’t opposed to social conservatism, it just doesn’t take a position on those issues: “It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That’s not what the NRA is about. They’re about gun rights.” As she said:

I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that’s one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it’s a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that’s why we stick to the issues that brought us together.

In the Washington Times social conservatives complain about the tea party movement’s emphasis on fiscal issues:

“There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating. [Not clear if this is also the position of his current employer, the American Council for Life Insurance.]

“Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws,” Mr. Keating added. “Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry.”

In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country’s strict laws on drug use.

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal quotes me in a discussion of the Values Voter Summit and social conservatives’ griping about the tea party:

[Christine] O’Donnell’s appearance at the Values Voter Summit in Washington put a spotlight on the challenge facing social conservatives, prominent in GOP politics earlier in the decade, as they try to hitch themselves to the fiscal insurgents of 2010. They may be ideological soul mates, but that doesn’t mean they’d govern the same way.

“My sense of the average tea party-endorsed candidate this year is that what motivates them is their concern over spending and the national debt,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. “If a gay-marriage ban came before Congress, they’d probably vote for it, but that’s not what motivates them.”

Mr. Boaz predicted tea-party congressional freshmen would push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, not an amendment to ban gay marriage. “I don’t think there’s likely to be a lot of social activism coming out of them,” he said….

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in June found that just 2% of those identified as tea partiers put social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their priority lists for federal action. 

The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It’s organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That’s a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it’s a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government.

Liberals spend too much of their time being deathly afraid of the religious right. Brink Lindsey described contemporary American politics as a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Over the past 50 years, social conservatism has lost its battles against civil rights, against feminism, against sexual freedom, against gay rights. It hasn’t even managed to reduce the illegitimacy rate.  The real challenge in American politics today is to constrain and reverse the past decade’s accumulation of money and power in Washington. And in that effort the tea party movement is on the front lines.

Libertarian Review Now Online

Many issues of the late, great libertarian magazine Libertarian Review are now available online. The magazine was published from 1972 to 1981, first as a newsletter of book reviews and then as a glossy monthly magazine edited by Roy A. Childs, Jr. It made quite a splash during those years, and Childs became one of the most visible and controversial libertarian intellectuals. After the magazine folded, as so many intellectual magazines do, he spent almost a decade as editorial director and chief book reviewer for Laissez Faire Books. He had read everything, and he knew everyone in the libertarian movement. He got lots of prominent people – including Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Thomas Szasz, Roger Lea MacBride, and Charles Koch – to write for the magazine. And he discovered and nurtured plenty of younger writers.

Libertarian Review featured

  • news coverage and analysis of inflation, the energy crisis, economic reform in China, the 1979 Libertarian Party convention and the subsequent Clark for President campaign, the Proposition 13 tax-slashing victory, the rise of the religious right, the emergence of Solidarity, Jerry Brown, Three Mile Island, and the return of draft registration.
  • classic essays like Jeff Riggenbach on “The Politics of Aquarius” and “In Praise of Decadence,” Joan Kennedy Taylor on Betty Friedan, Rothbard on “Carter’s Energy Fascism.”
  • interviews with F. A. Hayek, Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann, Henry Hazlitt, John Holt, and Robert Nozick.
  • and especially Roy Childs: on William Simon’s A Time for Truth, on Irving Kristol, on the rise of Reagan, on drugs and crime, on the hot spots of Iran, Afghanistan, and El Salvador.

As Tom G. Palmer put it in a letter published in The New Republic of August 3, 1992, just after Roy died, “Roy Childs was one of the finer members of a generation of radical thinkers who worked successfully to revive the tradition of classical liberalism – or libertarianism – after its long dormancy, and who dared to launch a frontal challenge to the twentieth-century welfare state. An autodidact who knew more about the subjects on which he wrote than most so-called ‘experts’, his writings exercised a powerful influence on a generation of young classical liberal thinkers.”

Check it out.