Topic: General

The Strategy of Pure Destructionism

The flight of the Iraqi middle classes (New York Times; requires simple registration), which means among other things people with education and a more worldly viewpoint, is an especially dire sign for the future of Iraq. The goal of at least a large faction of the terrorists is pretty clear: to murder, bomb, and destroy their way to total chaos. This is just one example of their strategy:

Trash is collected only sporadically. On April 3, insurgents shot seven garbage collectors to death near their truck, and their bodies lay in the area for eight hours before the authorities could collect them, said Naeem al-Kaabi, deputy mayor for municipal affairs in Baghdad. In all, 312 trash workers have been killed in Baghdad in the past six months.

Trash collectors, electricians, sewage repairmen, nurses, police officers, lawyers, and many other professions have been targeted, not for their ethnicity or their politics, but in order to wreck social order, destroy the infrastructure, and create such chaos that only the most vicious and brutal will survive to establish their rule. For some that means a revival of Ba’athism, for others a theocracy. And for yet others, an endless war throughout the region that will bleed America.

I have worked with Iraqis on my trips to the country to try to craft an acceptable constitutional and legal improvement over the previous situation and I will continue to do so. But I also do not underestimate the challenges that Iraqis face. As I pointed out in this essay in Reason magazine (the third essay of the three that are linked),

The war being fought in Iraq is unlike any other. Parallels with Vietnam are of limited use for the simple reason that the Communists were seeking to kick out the Saigon government and replace it, not to create a firestorm that would engulf the region. For Al Qaeda in Iraq, it won’t be over if the U.S. and allied forces withdraw, or the U.S.-backed government falls. In fact, many of those fighting the U.S. and the elected government don’t want the U.S. to withdraw. They want to draw us in further, hoping, as Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently put it, to “make the West bleed for years.” Nor is World War II a useful comparison: Once the Fascists and Nazis were beaten, they were beaten. They didn’t go underground and wage a war of destruction; their ideology was effectively defeated with their armies.
The goal of at least a large faction among the insurgents is to create maximum chaos and maximum bloodshed. They account for a tiny fraction of the Iraqi population, and no one really knows what percentage of them are foreigners, but they are ruthless and determined. They will also be very difficult to defeat. No accommodation is possible with them. The existence of an armed faction that is dedicated to destruction per se makes the job of defeating the insurgency all the more difficult.

George Will’s remarks on Thursday in Chicago at the Milton Friedman Prize dinner honoring 2006 winner Mart Laar were quite on target when he lambasted the administration for their decision to invade. The administration’s naivete in thinking that all you had to do was to remove a dictatorship to uncover a democracy has been shown to be absurd. Criminally so. (The issue of WMD is more complex, since it seems that they sincerely believed that Saddam had poison gas and biological weapons. Nonetheless, the president’s decision to award a medal to the man who presided over the “intelligence” fiasco was a deliberate thumb-in-the-eye to the American people.)

It’s long past time for the U.S. to craft a careful withdrawal strategy that sets goals for the Iraqis but makes it clear that U.S. forces will be gone and therefore that Iraqis will have to create peace among themselves. As the fiasco with Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who refused to step down for months, even though it was clear he could not be confirmed) made clear, factions will jockey for power and delay any defeat of the terrorists so long as they think that the U.S. will be there to protect them. That safety net for politicians has to be removed. They will have to fashion their own safety net by fashioning peace themselves among the factions.

Punting on Medicare Reform

I just returned from lunch with Mark McClellan, MD/PhD (economics) and administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Servicesa very smart guy. The lunch was hosted by Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Merrill Matthews of CAHI. (Thanks for lunch, guys.) 

Dr. McClellan told the group of the success of Medicare Part D, including the fact that it has (so far) cost less than projected. 

When recognized for a question, I made the following points:

  1. Part D has contributed to a rift in the president’s base, as evidenced by an editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
  2. Though there is disagreement over the significance of Part D’s lower-than-expected spending projections, there is no question that Part D made it more difficult to meet Medicare’s already unsustainable promises. 
  3. One result of Part D is that people who would otherwise be talking about Medicare reform are talking only about whether Part D is a success. 

I asked Dr. McClellan when the president might begin pushing Medicare reform, in particular the kind of reforms discussed by the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare in 1999. 

McClellan answered that the president’s budget proposes (a) slowing the growth of Medicare spending on hospital care, (b) requiring wealthier seniors to pay more for their Medicare benefits, and (c) having Congress create another Medicare commission to tackle the problem.

The first two proposals are both potentially helpful and woefully inadequate. The third is a punt. 

Today’s Wall Street Journal also reports that yesterday Alan Greenspan “repeated a warning to lawmakers, saying Medicare spending is unsustainable and could one day drive government debt and interest rates substantially higher.” The president has acknowledged his duty to address those unfunded liabilities. 

An anxious nation waits … and waits … and waits … .

Hudson Reargued

The Washington Post has a write-up of yesterday’s unusual second round of oral arguments in the Hudson v. Michigan case (see my summary of the case and its implications here, Cato’s amicus brief in the case here [pdf]). The case was almost certainly reargued because it ended in a 4-4 tie the first time around, meaning that new justice Samuel Alito is the likely tie-breaking vote. To that end, there’s reason for pessimism:

The case may have a different outcome without retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She seemed ready, when the case was first argued in January, to rule in favor of a Detroit man whose house was searched in 1998.

Alito was confirmed to replace O’Connor before the case was resolved. The new argument was scheduled apparently to give Alito a chance to break a tie vote.

Alito, a former appeals court judge and government lawyer, seemed more sympathetic to police. He asked tough questions of the lawyer for Booker Hudson Jr., who was convicted of cocaine possession based on evidence found in the search. Alito had no questions for government lawyers.

According to the Post, if one were to judge by the oral arguments the first time around, the justices lined up in a neat left-right split, with Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, and Kennedy on the state’s side, and Stevens, Ginsberg, Souter, and Breyer for the defense. The Post suggests Kennedy may be hedging:

Another justice who could be crucial to the outcome is Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a moderate swing voter. During the January argument, Kennedy called the issue “troublesome,” but seemed most supportive of police. He also appeared conflicted Thursday.

I’d like to think Thomas will continue his libertarian growth on the bench and find for the defense in this case. But the tone of the questioning in the second round of arguments suggests otherwise. What’s clear is that Bush’s nomination of Alito may very likely tip the outcome. O’Connor seemed ready to side with the defense:

During the January argument, O’Connor worried aloud that police officers around the country may start bursting into homes to execute search warrants. She asked: “Is there no policy of protecting the home owner a little bit and the sanctity of the home from this immediate entry?”

The answer, sadly, is “no.”

In the last election, I seem to remember hearing lots of lecturing from conservatives, telling libertarians they should overlook President Bush’s big-government record and support him, if for no other reason than for the Supreme Court justices he’d appoint.

Still waiting for that payoff….

Driven to Distraction

Not 24 hours after President Bush signed into law the latest round of tax cuts (which have no effect on the size of government), Republicans from around town gathered to gush about their Medicare prescription drug program (which increases the size of government).

I’ll not name names, but there were a few faces at the GOP love-fest who, in their hearts, truly want to reform Medicare.  The greatest tragedy of Part D might be the way it has distracted those Republicans from that purpose.

(Erratum: On a previous occasion, I accused the GOP of throwing your tax dollars off the back of a truck.  It appears Republicans have been using a bus rather than a truck.  I apologize for the error.)

Do Libertarians Have a Prayer?

Many people think political philosophy comes in two varieties, liberal or conservative. The former values social freedoms while seeking government control over capitalist acts between consenting adults (in Robert Nozick’s wonderful phrase). Conservatives defend economic freedom but not other acts between consenting adults. As a philosophy that seeks both social and economic liberty, libertarianism has sometimes seemed at the margins of American politics. A recent poll throws doubt on that assumption.

The Pew Research Center measured political ideology based on six questions from one of their 2004 surveys. Three of the questions concerned economic liberty, the others social freedoms. Liberals scored high on social freedoms, conservatives on economic liberty, and populists had little regard for either. Libertarians, as you might expect, consistently supported liberty in both dimensions.

Pew estimates that 9 percent of Americans are libertarians. That might seem low until you realize that 18 percent are liberal, 16 percent populist, and 15 percent conservative. Pew calls the rest of the nation “ambivalents” who have no firm ideological outlook. As Scott Keeter, the author of the Pew study, concludes “libertarians, though the smallest of the ideological groups, represent a substantial percentage of the population.”

A lot of what Pew discovered about libertarians may not surprise you. They are more likely than the rest of the population to have a college degree, to be in the highest income category, and to come from the West. On the issues, libertarians are more likely to think homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem-cell research, to believe businesses make a fair profit, and to find free trade good for the nation.

But some of Pew’s other findings about libertarians are more unexpected, at least to me. Libertarians are 50 percent more likely to declare themselves “secular” than the general population. Still, only about 12 percent of the libertarians surveyed identified themselves this way. Libertarians are also more likely than the general population to identify as a “white Catholic.” Finally, almost two-thirds of the libertarians said they go to church at least once a month. That’s a little less than the general population, but a lot more than I would have guessed.

Half of the libertarians identified with or leaned toward the Republican party. At the same time, 41 percent affiliated themselves with the Democrats. Sen. Kerry got 40 percent of the libertarian vote in 2004. President Bush did better among libertarians than you might expect given the party identification numbers. Bush got 57 percent of libertarian vote last time. But as they say, “if the election were held today….”

I have saved the best for last. One-third of Pew’s libertarians are between 18 and 29 years of age. Libertarians are thus fifty percent more likely to be found among the young than in the population as a whole. They are also much more likely to be found among the youngest cohort than are conservatives or populists.

So the present may seem bleak for libertarians. But just wait. Help is on the way.

Mart Laar, Friedman Prize Winner

Tonight, in Chicago, Cato is hosting the formal presentation of the third biennial Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. This year’s winner is Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia responsible for guiding his country’s successful transition from communism to a democratic market economy.

We are now in the fifteenth year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and unfortunately many of the former Soviet republics have made little progress in either economic or political reform. Estonia, however, is a glittering exception. According to the Economic Freedom of the World report, the country now ranks 12th out of 127 countries in economic freedom. Freedom House gives Estonia its highest rankings for both political rights and civil liberties. And the World Economic Forum rates Estonia 20th out of 117 in its Growth Competitiveness Index.

For Laar to win the Friedman Prize is especially fitting, since Laar’s bold free-market reforms were inspired by Friedman himself. Before entering politics, Laar was a historian. “I had read only one book on economics – Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. I was so ignorant at the time that I thought that what Friedman wrote about the benefits of privatization, the flat tax and the abolition of all customs rights, was the result of economic reforms that had been put into practice in the West. It seemed common sense to me and, as I thought it had already been done everywhere, I simply introduced it in Estonia, despite warnings from Estonian economists that it could not be done. They said it was as impossible as walking on water. We did it: we just walked on the water because we did not know that it was impossible.”

Here is Laar’s 1992 book, War in the Woods, on Estonian resistance to Soviet occupation during and after World War II. And here is a paper presented by Laar at a 2004 Cato conference in Russia on Estonia’s reform experience.

Rapanos v. United States: The Blog

The Pacific Legal Foundation is the lead counsel in one of the biggest cases of the Supreme Court’s current term: Rapanos v. United States, a case involving egregious interference with private development by federal and state environmental regulators. In anticipation of the Court’s decision, PLF has started a blog on the case, which you can access here. For more Rapanos fun, read a short Wall Street Journal write-up about the story behind the case here. You can read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in the case (written by yours truly) here.