Tag: socialism

Is Obama Serious?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Although President Obama proposed a five-year, $40 billion per year freeze in non-security, discretionary spending, and Republicans want to cut spending by at least $100 billion a year, is either side serious about real spending cuts?

My response:

With uncontrolled deficits well into the future and a debt exceeding $14 trillion, for Obama to propose saving only $40 billion per year in discretionary spending over the next five years, while “investing” in pie-in-the-sky things like high-speed rail, wind farms, environmentally destructive ethanol, and the like, is worse than unserious – it’s an insult to our intelligence. Like Obama, many Republicans too treat military spending, among other things, as sacrosanct, but at least they’re proposing more serious budget cuts.

The deeper problem, of course, is systemic. Socialism, a large dose of which we have in America today, brings out the very worst in people. In the name of collective responsibility, it saps and then destroys individual responsibility, leading to a war of all against all. No one wants “his” entitlement cut for fear that his neighbor might profit at his expense – because, after all, “we’re all in this together.” Suspicion and envy are the order of the day. Meanwhile, dreamers like Obama (at least that’s his pose), who promote our collective drift, either can’t or won’t grasp the hard reality until it crashes down upon them, and us, as it is doing now in several of our states and in Europe. For the “hard-hearted” realists among us, November 2012 can’t come soon enough.

Saving Hayek from the People Who Think They’re Saving Hayek

I’ve been noticing a game lately played in the bookish corners of the left side of American politics. We’ll call it “We Know Hayek Better Than You.” It’s a game not without some attendant dangers. But it’s nothing if not fun.

Writing at Ezra Klein’s spot in the Washington Post, Karl Smith quotes Friedrich Hayek as follows:

That the ideal of justice of most socialists would be satisfied if merely private income from property were abolished and the differences between the earned incomes of different people remained what they are now, is true. What these people forget is that in transferring all property in the means of production to the state they put the state in a position whereby its action must in effect decide all other incomes.

He glosses:

That is, as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with communal ownership of the means of production. The mistake is to think that the government could facilitate such ownership because then the government is effectively a monopolist and that would give the government almost unlimited power.

The idea that in principle it would be okay to completely redistribute all capital wealth is far to the left of anything proposed in modern America.

I hate to say it, but this is quite the dog’s breakfast of confusion, misinterpretation, and strained reading. One ought to be suspicious when your author writes an entire book entitled The Mirage of Social Justice. Perhaps he’s not really too enthused about social justice, you know.

Although it’s probably true that most socialists’ idea of justice would be satisfied if income from private property were abolished, it does not follow that this was Hayek’s idea of justice. Hayek didn’t think it was “okay” to collectivize the entire means of production, whether by the state or by private action.

The ability to accumulate capital and to believe that one held it justly was, for Hayek, a most important incentive for the formation of responsible individuals. If the means of production were collectivized, individual character would suffer, and society would suffer with it. He wrote:

A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered (The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 78).

The sense of responsibility has been weakened in modern times as much by overextending the range of an individual’s responsibilities as by exculpating him from the actual consequences of his actions… To be effective, responsibility must be both definite and limited, adapted both emotionally and intellectually to human capacities. It is quite as destructive of any sense of responsibility to be taught that one is responsible for everything as to be taught that one cannot be held responsible for anything…

Responsibility, to be effective, must be individual responsibility. In a free society there cannot be any collective responsibility of the members of a group as such, unless they have, by concerted action, all made themselves individually and severally responsible… If the same concerns are made the responsibility of many without at the same time imposing a duty of joint and agreed action, the result is usually that nobody really accepts responsibility. As everybody’s property in effect is nobody’s property, so everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility (ibid., p 83).

So no, Hayek wouldn’t have thought it was a good idea to collectivize the means of production. There are some interesting theoretical questions hereabouts regarding corporations, their appropriate size, responsibilities, and attendant knowledge problems, but I suspect that my friends on the left aren’t actually pining for one megacorporation to rule them all. (Are they? I know it can be tough to keep up, but really, this is too much. Even I don’t support that.)

Hayek tells us we have private property and private capital because it does good things to the individual character. While there will be accidents, and while life is sometimes truly unfair, the best course of action is nonetheless for everyone to work as though their efforts actually mattered. And the best way to ensure that they will do so is to allow their efforts, whenever possible, to matter.

And when individual initiative has failed, what did Hayek want then? He wanted a modest system of social insurance – with emphasis on the modesty. After that, he wanted very stern incentives for people to get back up on their feet and leave that system.

One incentive that he considered at least reasonable was to forbid welfare recipients (and government workers!) from voting – an idea far to the right of anything now being considered in America. But not a bad idea in the abstract. He wrote:

It is also possible for reasonable people to argue that the ideals of democracy would be better served if, say, all the servants of government or all recipients of public charity were excluded from the vote (ibid., 105).

I look forward to my friends on the left continuing to deepen their knowledge of Hayek, and maybe entertaining this modest proposal. Were it not for my overwhelming concerns about how our current welfare system entraps its recipients, I might even support it myself.

Comparative Political Economy

Free-marketers often point to the varying success of pairs of countries – the United States vs. the Soviet Union, West vs. East Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan vs. China – to illustrate the benefits of markets over planning, regulation, and socialism. Some even point out the closer but real differences in GDP per capita between the United States and Western Europe. In his 1984 book Endless Enemies (p. 380) Jonathan Kwitny added the less familiar pairs “Morocco versus Algeria, Malaysia versus Indonesia, Thailand versus Burma, Kenya versus Tanzania.” Now Rama Lakshmi reports in the Washington Post that we can see the results of two systems of political economy in one country:

It didn’t take long for the first athletes arriving in New Delhi last week for the upcoming Commonwealth Games to catch a glimpse of modern India’s two faces.

Their gateway to the country was the capital’s gleaming new international airport terminal, built by a privately led consortium and opened in June four months ahead of schedule.

But the official wristbands that the visitors were handed at the airport turned out to be an emblem of India’s famous red tape and government inefficiency. When the teams reached the athletes’ village, the police guarding the facility refused to recognize the IDs, saying that the Games Organizing Committee had not sent the required authorization order.

The jet-lagged athletes stood about under a tree for hours with their luggage, calling their embassies for help, and the problem was not finally resolved for four more days.

To observers, the incident illustrated more than just the well-documented sloppiness that has marked India’s preparations for the Games. It also underscored the gap that has emerged between a government rooted in a slower-moving, socialist era and a private entrepreneurial class that is busy building global IT companies, the world’s largest oil refineries and spectacular structures such as the $2.8 billion airport terminal.

“It is about two aspects of the India story,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an entrepreneur and member of Parliament. “India’s private sector has been exposed to competition and therefore has developed capability. Accountability is firmly built into the entrepreneurial mind-set. But the government structure is a relic of the colonial past and continues to plod along.”…

For the Delhi [airport] project, [Grandhi Mallikarjuna]Rao said, his company worked with 58 government agencies.

“Our nation is in the process of transition from a command-and-control economic system to a more efficient market-driven structure,” he said. “It will take some time till this transition is complete.”

Given all this history, the interesting question is why some people in the United States want to continually transfer such vital functions as energy and health care from the competitive, accountable, capable entrepreneurial sector to the slower-moving, plodding, command-and-control bureaucratic sector. (Of course, the already-government-influenced health care and energy industries are not the most entrepreneurial sectors of the economy. But as the examples above demonstrate, even imperfect markets work better than government direction. Nor are the government-run local schools very competitive or accountable, but they are more so than they will be under tighter federal control.)

Now He Tells Us…

Here’s a story for the better-late-than-never file. Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro confessed that communism doesn’t work and that his nation’s economic system should not be emulated.

Fidel Castro told a visiting American journalist that Cuba’s communist economic model doesn’t work, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has conspicuously steered clear of local issues since stepping down four years ago. The fact that things are not working efficiently on this cash-strapped Caribbean island is hardly news. Fidel’s brother Raul, the country’s president, has said the same thing repeatedly. But the blunt assessment by the father of Cuba’s 1959 revolution is sure to raise eyebrows. Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked if Cuba’s economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.

Too bad Castro didn’t have this epiphany 50 years ago. The Cuban people languish in abject poverty as a result of Castro’s oppressive policies. Food is harshly rationed and other basic amenities are largely unavailable (except, of course, to the party elite). This chart, comparing inflation-adjusted per-capita GDP in Chile and Cuba, is a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government. Living standards in Cuba have languished. In Chile, by contrast, the embrace of market-friendly policies has resulted in a huge increase in prosperity. Chileans were twice as rich as Cubans when Castro seized control of the island. After 50 years of communism in Cuba and 30 years of liberalization in Chile, the gap is now much larger.

Economics 101

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

In his speech in Ohio yesterday, did President Obama draw a stark enough contrast with House Minority Leader John Boehner, whom he attacked by name eight times, to help his party in November?

My response:

The contrast the president drew was clear enough. His problem is that the people aren’t buying what he’s selling – and for good reason. His ideas, far from being new, have been tried countless times, both here and abroad. They don’t work. And they undermine basic American principles about individual liberty and free choice.

So when Obama says that Boehner and the Republicans have no new ideas, he’s partly right. (They have new ideas about how to address unsustainable entitlement programs – ask Rep. Paul Ryan.) At least in their rhetoric – their behavior in office, alas, is too often another matter – Republicans stand in substantial part for old ideas that work and conform more closely to the nation’s first principles, starting with lower taxes, less regulation, and less government management of the economy. That contrasts sharply with Obama’s countless “programs” to “stimulate” the economy, his targeted tax and spending schemes to create “green jobs,” to sell cars, and on and on. Listening to him, you’d think the economy would collapse were it not for Washington’s management of it.

The truth is quite the opposite, of course, as Americans are coming increasingly to appreciate. Economies prosper when entrepreneurs with ideas and capital are able to employ both for profit. But they won’t do that when conditions are uncertain, as they are when government meddles recklessly and uncertainly at every turn. How often have we heard entrepreneurs in recent months saying that they’d like to hire more people, but with the uncertainty of ObamaCare and so much else coming out of Washington, they’re sitting on their capital? And who can blame them?

So the answer is, get out of their way and let them do what they do best. But that’s not the Obama way. This “community organizer” – who organized people to demand more from government – seems to have no grasp of how economies work, beyond the failed command-and-control model. Even Fidel Castro has just now admitted that a government run economy doesn’t work. So either Obama smells the coffee coming now even from Cuba, or elections will take care of the matter.

Chávez Introduces ‘Good Life Card’, Better Known as Rationing Card in Cuba

The latest feature in Venezuela’s road to socialism was introduced yesterday by President Hugo Chávez. It’s the “Good Life Card,” an instrument that, according to the government, will make it easier to buy groceries at government-owned supermarkets.

Even though Chávez denies that the card is a way “to promote communism,” the concept of a government-sponsored card to buy food in a country suffering from acute shortages is well known. They call it a “rationing card” in Cuba.

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.