Topic: Government and Politics

Full-Spectrum Lindsey

Cato vice president for research Brink Lindsey tries to be a uniter, not a divider. In his much-discussed “Liberaltarians” article for the New Republic, Brink held out an olive branch to liberals. TNR’s Jonathan Chait was, well, less than enthusiastic.

In his “A Farewell to the Culture Wars,” recently published in National Review, Brink does much the same for conservatives, advising them to seek to conserve the “great American heritage of limited government, individual liberty, and free markets,” instead of, say, exclusively heterosexual marriage and a not-so-Mexican America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru has declined the advice. Brink’s rejoinder, published online this Tuesday, is smart and effective:

Ramesh Ponnuru concedes the main point I was trying to make. Specifically, he admits that “[i]t really is pointless to pine for the social order that existed prior to the late 1960s,” and that “most conservatives would not want to go back if they could.”
 
Ramesh makes this concession almost casually, as if it were no big deal. But I’m sorry, it’s a very big deal indeed. After all, a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy on the right has been expended over the years in precisely the kind of pining Ramesh now regards as pointless. Conservatives have defended, with great conviction and moral passion, positions on race relations, the role of women in society, and sexual morality that most conservatives today would disown as ludicrous or offensive. I don’t think it suffices to dismiss these glaring errors of judgment with an Emily Litella-like “Never mind.”

While commentators left and right may be hesitant to pick up what Lindsey’s laying down, that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop trying to transcend the stale terms of yesterday’s political dialectic.

Tune into Cato Unbound on Monday, where Brink will kick off a fresh round of discussion on “The Politics of Abundance” with a panel of blogosphere luminaries. On the left, we’ll have The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias. On the right, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. And in the … middle? … Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez.  

Wishful Thinking about Universal Coverage

One Richard Eskow criticizes an op-ed that Mike Tanner and I wrote for the L.A. Times. Rather than fisk the whole thing, I’ll zero in on just this one claim:

[W]hile the authors observe that some people on waiting lists are in chronic pain, they fail to note that few if any universal coverage advocates believe that is anything other than a flaw that needs to be corrected.

A flaw that needs to be corrected! Et si ma tante en avait, elle s’appellerait mon oncle.

In a Cato Institute policy analysis titled “Health Care in a Free Society: Rebutting the Myths of National Health Insurance,” John Goodman explains why Eskow’s belief that waiting lists are minor problems to be corrected is mostly just wishful thinking:

The characteristics described above are not accidental byproducts of government-run health care systems. They are the natural and inevitable consequences of placing the market for health care under the control of politicians. Health care delivery in countries with national health insurance does not just happen to be as it is. In many respects, it could not be otherwise….

Why do national health insurance schemes skimp on expensive services to the seriously ill while providing so many inexpensive services to those who are only marginally ill? Because the latter services benefit millions of people (read: millions of voters), while acute and intensive care services concentrate large amounts of money on a handful of patients (read: small numbers of voters).  Democratic political pressures in this case dictate the redistribution of resources from the few to the many.

Goodman offers other examples of problems inherent to political control of health care that are not so easily fixed. Read the whole thing.

Murdoch vs. The Man

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Rupert Murdoch’s drive for total world domination. I’d be as disappointed as anyone if he took over the Wall Street Journal and wrung out of it what makes the Journal a great paper.

But a recent New York Times story on “Murdoch, Ruler of a Vast Empire” rather off-handedly made clear what real power is — and it isn’t what Murdoch has. As the Times reported,

Shortly before Christmas in 1987, Senator Edward M. Kennedy taught Mr. Murdoch a tough lesson in the ways of Washington.

Two years earlier, Mr. Murdoch had paid $2 billion to buy seven television stations in major American markets with the intention of starting a national network. To comply with rules limiting foreign ownership, he became an American citizen. And to comply with rules banning the ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market, he promised to sell some newspapers eventually. But almost immediately he began looking for ways around that rule.

Then Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stepped in. Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.” [This is an unfair claim by the Times; one columnist at the Herald calls Kennedy that. This is like saying “The Times often refers to Cheney as ‘Shooter’ ” because Maureen Dowd does.] He engineered a legislative maneuver that forced an infuriated Mr. Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post.

Murdoch could spend $2 billion on American media properties and change his citizenship — but one irritated senator could force him to sell his favorite American newspaper. The Times continued,

“Teddy almost did him in,” said Philip R. Verveer, a cable television lobbyist. “I presume that over time, as his media ownership in this country has grown and grown, he’s realized that you can’t throw spit wads at leading figures in society with impunity.”

Well, actually you can in a free society. That’s what makes it a free society — that you can criticize the powerful. And true, nobody tried to put Murdoch in jail. They just forced him to change his citizenship and sell his newspaper.

He ran into similar problems in Britain. His newspapers there, unsurprisingly, usually supported the Conservative Party. But in 1997 two of them endorsed Labour Party leader Tony Blair for prime minister. Blair reacted warmly to the support, but some Labour leaders still wanted to enact media ownership limits, which might have forced Murdoch to sell some of his properties.

“Blair’s attitude was quite clear,” Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times under Mr. Murdoch in London from 1983 to 1994, said in an interview. “If the Murdoch press gave the Blair government a fair hearing, it would be left intact.”

Is this what the long British struggle for freedom of the press has come to? A prime minister can threaten to dismantle newspapers if they don’t give him “a fair hearing”?

Murdoch has been a realist about politics. He knows that while he may buy ink by the barrel, governments have the actual power. They can shut him down at the behest of a prime minister or a powerful senator. So he plays the game, in Britain and the United States and even China.

After the 2006 elections, for instance, News Corporation and its employees started giving more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“We did seek more balance,” said Peggy Binzel, Mr. Murdoch’s former chief in-house lobbyist. “You need to be able to tell your story to both sides to be effective. And that’s what political giving is about.”

Rupert Murdoch’s empire may become yet more vast, but he’ll still be subject to the whims of powerful politicians. This is hardly surprising in China. But one would hope that in the country of John Milton and the country of John Peter Zenger, and especially in the country of the First Amendment, a publisher would be free to say whatever he chooses without fear of government assault on either his person or his property.

Unequal Justice?

There it was, emblazoned across the front page of the Washington Post, a headline made especially disturbing by its publication on July 4:

Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

What did it mean, I wondered. Poor parents go to jail, rich parents walk? The law is enforced in black neighborhoods, winked at in white suburbs?

Not exactly. In fact, the Post reported,

In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

So it’s not a story about unequal justice, just about different jurisdictions with different laws. But the Post sees it differently:

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties.

“Inconsistency.” “Patchwork.” “Conflicting legal practices.” This is ridiculous. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. On the Fourth of July, let’s pause to remember: The United States is a federal republic, not a unitary centralized state. Different states and even different cities and counties have different laws.

One of the benefits of a decentralized republic is that laws can reflect people’s different values and attitudes. Decentralism also allows states and counties to be “laboratories of democracy.” If voters in Maryland and the District of Columbia read about how Virginia sentences parents to 27 months in jail for serving alcohol to teenagers after taking away their car keys — and they think that sounds like a good idea — then they can change their own laws. Or if Virginia voters notice that Maryland has a slightly lower highway fatality rate, then they might decide to change their laws.

States in our federal republic have different laws about lots of things, certainly including alcohol since the repeal of national Prohibition. I grew up in a dry county in Kentucky — no legal sales of alcohol of any kind — but neighboring counties were wet. The old joke was that Bourbon County was dry while Christian County was wet, but that seems not to be true any more. First cousins can marry in some states but not in others. The rules used to vary on interracial marriage until the Supreme Court stepped in and banned laws against it. In the past couple of years we have begun to experience different state laws on same-sex marriage.

Some people seem to want all laws to be uniform across this vast nation, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf stream waters, from sea to shining sea. They use their power in Congress to impose national speed limits, national environmental rules, national school testing laws, national marijuana bans, and so on. But the beauty of America is that we have resisted many of those pressures, and there are still real differences in the laws of San Francisco and San Antonio; Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas; Wyoming and Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.

The laws are even different in Virginia and nearby Maryland. That does not mean that justice is unequal.

Hillary’s Chutzpah

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton denounces the Libby commutation as “disregard for the rule of law” and a “clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice.”

She has a point. But hello?! Wasn’t she part of the Clinton administration? Speaking of disregarding the rule of law.

And abusing the pardon power? The Clinton administration was notoriously stingy in pardoning real victims of unjust sentences. When it did use the pardon power, it seemed to have an unerring instinct for scandalous and undeserving beneficiaries. In 1999, as Hillary Clinton began her Senate campaign, President Clinton pardoned 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist organization FALN, raising questions about whether the pardons were intended to curry favor with New York’s Puerto Rican electorate. And then there was the infamous last day in office, when Clinton managed to pardon or commute the sentences of

  • Marc Rich, a fugitive tax evader whose ex-wife was a major contributor to the Clintons;
  • Susan McDougal, who loyally refused to testify in the Whitewater scandal;
  • Child-molesting Democratic congressman Mel Reynolds;
  • Post Office-molesting Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski;
  • Cocaine kingpin Carlos Vignali, whose father was a major Democratic contributor;
  • Four Hasidic shysters alleged to have promised and delivered Hasidic votes to Hillary Clinton’s first campaign;
  • Clinton’s half-brother Roger;
  • and various crooks who paid fees to Hillary Clinton’s brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham to lobby the First Family.

With so many people in jail who deserve a pardon, as Gene Healy and I have discussed in earlier Cato@Liberty posts, it’s appalling that both President Clinton and President Bush have used their pardon powers in such ways. And if anyone lacks credibility to criticize the Libby pardon, it would be President Clinton and Senator Clinton.

“He Has a Terrific Knack of Not Looking through the Rearview Mirror.”

So says Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) of President Bush in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Conaway, a “longtime friend who once worked for Bush,” meant this as a compliment, and it is – to a point. Even though I am a historian, I am willing to put the study of history into perspective. Sticking with the metaphor, I don’t drive down the highway with tape over my windshield. When you’re moving forward, you need to keep your eyes on the road.

But my driving instructor also told me to at least glance in that rearview mirror from time to time. And it is the president’s unwillingness to ask hard questions about his past decisions that so undermines his ability to fashion effective policy.

This story hearkens back to a widely-cited article by Ron Suskind, published just before the 2004 election, and particularly to a quote maddeningly attributed to a “senior adviser” to Bush. Suskind writes:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

George W. Bush will leave office on January 20, 2009. He’ll be creating his own reality for 567 more days. And there doesn’t appear to be anything that anyone, particularly those of us who “study…how things will sort out,” can do about it.