Topic: Government and Politics

A Reading List for Presidents’ Day

As government workers – though only about a third of private-sector office workers – get a day off for Presidents’ Day (legally, though not in fact, George Washington’s Birthday), I thought I’d offer some reading about presidents.

First, my own tribute to our first president, the man who led America in war and peace and who gave up power to make us a republic:

Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Then, of course, Gene Healy’s book The Cult of the Presidency, which argues that 200 years after Washington, “presidential candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.” Buy it today, at a 50 percent discount!

Gene updated that argument with a short ebook, False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency. As they say, start reading in minutes!

And then you can read my short response to Politico’s question, who were the best and worst presidents? I noted:

Presidential scholars love presidents who expand the size, scope and power of government. Thus they put the Roosevelts at the top of the list. And they rate Woodrow Wilson – the anti-Madisonian president who gave us the entirely unnecessary World War I, which led to communism, National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War –8th. Now there’s a record for President Obama to aspire to! Create a century of war and terrorism, and you can move up from 15th to 8th.

Hmmm, maybe it would be better to just read a biography of George Washington.

 

Justice Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

The news has just broken that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, was found dead today in his room at a luxury resort in west Texas where he was attending a private event. He apparently died of natural causes.  

Scalia has been a major force in American law since President Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1986. His opinions, including his trenchant dissents, have shaped every area of our law. A leader of the conservative wing of the Court, the force of his intellect, both on and off the bench, was immense.

The immediate question on many minds, of course, is whether his seat will be filled before President Obama leaves office. Given the growing differences between the president and the Republican majority in the Senate, especially over the reach of executive power under the Constitution, it is likely that the seat will remain vacant until the next president is in office.

May Justice Scalia rest in peace.

 

A Libertarian Argument for Bernie Sanders?

Will Wilkinson notes that there is a libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure I buy the precise point Wilkinson is making. Sanders says he wants to make the United States more like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And those countries do indeed rank higher than the United States in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, compiled by my colleagues Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik. But Sanders wants to emulate those countries in the ways they are less free than the United States (i.e., expanding government transfers), not in the ways they are more free (taxes and regulation). I think this powerful Sanders ad featuring Eric Garner’s daughter Erica is a much better libertarian argument for Sanders.

Why We Celebrate Washington’s Birthday

Monday, February 22, will be the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, although the federal government in typical federal government fashion has instructed us to observe Washington’s Birthday (not Presidents’ Day) on a convenient Monday sometime before the actual date. There’s a reason that we should celebrate George Washington rather than a panoply of presidents. 

wrote this several years ago:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power. 

John Trumbull, “General George Washington Resigning His Commission”

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

John Adams said, “He was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” Indeed, Washington was a person very conscious of his reputation, who worked all his life to develop his character and his image.

In our own time Joshua Micah Marshall writes of America’s first president, “It was all a put-on, an act.” Marshall missed the point. Washington understood that character is something you develop. He learned from Aristotle that good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction – “We are what we repeatedly do.” Indeed, the word “ethics” comes from the Greek word for “habit.” We say something is “second nature” because it’s not actually natural; it’s a habit we’ve developed. From reading the Greek philosophers and the Roman statesmen, Washington developed an understanding of character, in particular the character appropriate to a gentleman in a republic of free citizens.

Obama’s Abysmal Record Before the Supreme Court

I’ve written exhaustively about this administration’s sheer statistical failure at the Supreme Court. It has the worst record of any modern presidency, whether you count in absolute won-loss – where the solicitor general’s office struggles to get to 50 percent, against a historical norm of 70 percent – or by unanimous losses alone.

While we’re still in the part of the Court’s term before the decisions start flying fast and furiously, I thought I’d present the latest update on where we stand with respect to those unanimous losses, where President Obama doesn’t even get the votes of the two justices he appointed. Here are the stats:

  • In the first 6.5 years of Obama’s presidency (January 2009 to June 2015), the government lost unanimously at the Supreme Court 23 times, an average of 3.62 cases per year.
  • In all 8 years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the government lost unanimously 15 times (1.875 cases per year).
  • In all 8 years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the government lost 23 times (2.875 cases per year).
  • In other words, Obama has lost unanimously twice as often as Bush and 1.5 times as often as Clinton. Obama also passed Bush’s 8-year total in less than 5 years.
  • The Justice Department’s unanimous loss rate from 2012 to 2014 was especially bad – 13 cases in 30 months – almost three times Bush’s overall rate and almost twice Clinton’s (and that doesn’t count amicus litigating positions with unanimous losses).

For the record, here are the unanimous losses in the last four terms, so we can reminisce about the greatest hits (cases in which Cato filed marked with an asterisk):

  • 2012 (4 cases): United States v. Jones*; Sackett v. EPA*; Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC; Arizona v. United States
  • 2013 (5 cases): Gabelli v. SEC*; Arkansas Fish & Game Commission v. United States*; PPL Corp v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue*; Horne v. USDA*; Sekhar v. United States
  • 2014 (4 cases): Burrage v. United States; Bond v. United States*; Riley v. California*; Noel Canning v. NLRB*
  • 2015 (3 cases): Mach Mining v. EEOC; Henderson v. United States; McFadden v. United States

These cases have nothing in common, other than the government’s view that federal power is virtually unlimited: Citizens must subsume their liberty to whatever the experts in a given field determine the best or most useful policy to be. If the government can’t get even one justice to agree with it on any of these unrelated cases, it should realize there’s something seriously wrong with its constitutional vision. 

And so, as we look ahead to the opinions due to come down this spring and summer, keep in mind that if the government loses, it won’t be because its lawyers had a bad day in court or because the justices ruled based on their political preferences. It will be because the Obama administration continues to make legal arguments that don’t pass the smell test.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

Bernie Wins and Super PACs Continue to #FeeltheBern

The Seattle Times reports that more super PAC money has been spent in express support of Sen. Bernie Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton. For the record, Sanders would happily abolish super PACs by working to overturn one of the two major court rulings that gave rise to the super PAC:

Of course, that’s not quite how it works, but you get the idea. A President Sanders would do his level best to make sure that he becomes the last candidate to receive the benefits of supportive speech facilitated by the super PACs.

The fight for free political speech is a regular topic on the Cato Daily Podcast (subscribe!: iTunes / Google Play / CatoAudio). I recently spoke with Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice about Bernie’s massive support from super PACs and common misconceptions about how the groups actually function.