Tag: limited government

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.

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.

Let’s Get Serious about Immigration Reform

The controversy over America’s immigration policy does not allow for easy answers, as the post below by Roger Pilon demonstrates. Even among those of us who advocate limited government and free markets, there is room for debate about what our immigration policy should be and the order in which needed reforms should be pursued.

Roger gives a welcome nod to the argument for “a serious guest-worker program,” which I’ve argued is essential to any successful reform effort. He also acknowledges that its implementation should be in concert with serious enforcement rather than delayed indefinitely by demands that we “control the border first.”

One place where I differ with my dear colleague is in his assertion that: “We no longer control our southern border, and Congress seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it.”

I’m not sure there ever was a time, at least in recent decades, that the U.S. government exerted “control” over the southern border in the sense that illegal entry was largely prevented. Sealing a 2,000-mile border remains a daunting challenge to those who advocate it.

If anything, our border with Mexico is more under control today than at any time in recent years. According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Department of Homeland Security, the number of people living in the United States illegally has dropped by more than 1 million in the past two years. That strongly implies that the net inflow of illegal immigrants across the border has declined sharply.

The main reason for the drop in net illegal immigration is probably the recession, but increased enforcement has arguably played a role as well. According to a recent paper by Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA, the federal government has dramatically increased the resources it spends to “control the border.”

Consider: The U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has shot up by 714 percent since 1992, from $326 million to $2.7 billion. During the same period, the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the southwest border has grown from 3,555 to 17,415. Hundreds of miles of fencing has been constructed along the border, much of it across private property.

If this is the mark of a government “unwilling to do anything,” I would shudder at the cost and intrusion of a more concerted effort.

The bottom line is that our “enforcement only” approach to controlling the border has failed, and it will continue to fail until we create a legal alternative to illegal immigration.

Obama vs. Common Sense

President Obama delivered a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

He called on all Americans “to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate.”  Who could argue? Yet the president apparently believes that civility means protecting his policies from valid criticism.

He instructed graduates that “the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”  Right again.  But the civics lesson rings hollow coming from a president who falsely claimed there was “no disagreement” over his massive “stimulus” bill, and that opponents of his health care takeover offered no proposals of their own.

He explained, “what we should be asking is not whether we need ‘big government’ or a ‘small government,’ but how we can create a smarter and better government.”  Which is pretty much what every politician says when he wants big government and voters want small government.

Most troubling was this: “What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad.”  That remark reminded me of this passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” And it has me thinking that our president, a former constitutional law professor, who just received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Michigan, really doesn’t get the American idea of government. At all.

The States Respond to ObamaCare

Today Politico Arena asks:

Do the 13 state attorneys general have a case against ObamaCare?

My response:

Absolutely.  It will be an uphill battle, because modern “constitutional law” is so far removed from the Constitution itself, but a win is not impossible.  There are three main arguments.  (1) Under the Constitution, as properly interpreted, Congress has no power to enact such a plan.  (2) The plan conscripts state governments into carrying out and paying for federal mandates.  And (3) the individual mandate amounts to an unlawful capitation or direct tax.

The first argument will almost certainly lose, because under post-1937 readings of the Commerce Clause, Congress can regulate anything that “affects” interstate commerce, which at some level is everything.  Under modern “constitutional law,” that’s what we’ve come to – under the pressure of FDR’s infamous Court-packing scheme, a Constitution authorizing only limited government has been turned into one that authorizes effectively unlimited government.

The second argument has promise: In New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997) the Court held that the federal government could not dragoon state legislatures or executives into carrying out and paying for federal programs.  Yet that is just what’s at issue here with the “exchanges” that states are required to establish.  To be sure, the states can “opt out,” but as yesterday’s suit argues, with so many people already on the Medicaid rolls, that option is effectively foreclosed.  Indeed, the new bill will force millions more on to the Medicaid rolls, which is one of the main reasons these states, already strapped by Medicaid expenditures, have brought suit.  Florida alone estimates that the added costs will grow from $149 billion in 2014 to $938 billion in 2017 to over one trillion dollars by 2019.

The third argument holds the most promise.  ObamaCare compels individuals to buy insurance from a private company (why stop there? why not cars from GM?), failing which they will be required to pay a tax (fine?).  This is an unprecedented expansion of Congress’s power “to regulate interstate commerce.”  But even if it were to pass the modern Commerce Clause test, the tax should fail because it’s not apportioned among the states in accordance with their population.

Let’s be clear, however.  This suit was brought because the 13 states (and I predict more will follow) see the handwriting on the wall.  ObamaCare will mark the effective end of federalism as we’ve known it, will bankrupt the states, and, because of that – here’s the clincher – is but a  stalking horse for federal single-payer health care in America.  This suit will keep the issue alive until November, when the American people will have a chance to weigh in.

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.