Topic: Government and Politics

David Harsanyi’s Nanny State

In the Washington Post today, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I’ve thought a lot about in discussions of our growing “nanny state”:

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines….

It is true that in 1960 U.S. automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under “blue laws,” most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90 percent income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications, and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. “People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed.” Plus, “the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves.”

That’s a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it’s not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking, and fatty foods is that we’re adults; that we’re endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we “read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill.”

Debating the Law of the Sea Treaty

The Law of the Sea Treaty (dubbed LOST by opponents, and LOS by supporters), represents the culmination of a decades-long project to clarify the rules governing the oceans, from the seabed to the waves. The treaty, first rejected by President Reagan in 1982, has been revised over the years; now prominent Republicans, including Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, are urging passage. The Bush Administration has quietly endorsed the process.

Doug Bandow, who wrote a paper for Cato on the subject two years ago, makes a strong case for why the Senate should reject the treaty and continue with the status quo. He squares off this week against Raj Purohit of Citizens for Global Solutions in an online debate at the Partnership for a Secure America.

If you haven’t followed the issue closely, Doug and Raj do a good job of spelling out the relevant arguments for and against.

Senator Clinton’s “Savings” Plan

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed new 401(k)-style savings accounts. But the proposal is not really a savings program, it is a new entitlement program. Savings is about people being frugal today in order to improve their prosperity tomorrow. Real savings helps families and benefits the broader economy. But Senator Clinton’s plan would impose $20 billion per year of damage on families paying the cost, while distorting the economy with higher taxes.

The plan would take money from people who earned it, and simply give it to other people to spend on retirement, buying a house, paying for college, and other items. Those eligible could receive $1,000 a year, but at the expense of others who would bear the burden. I see no justice in that, nor any economic benefit.

I’ve got a better idea: Let’s allow Americans to keep their own money, downsize the giveaway factory in Washington, and reduce government hurdles to individual savings.

Senator Clinton should consider supporting expanded and simplified Individual Retirement Accounts. These accounts would not rob Peter to pay Paul, while boosting real savings and spurring growth to the benefit of all families.

The Future of the GOP?

Tuesday night’s CNBC/MSNBC Republican candidate debate showed those of us who still value limited government the extent of the GOP rebuilding process to date — a preview of what Republicans would stand for in a post-Bush world.

The top-tier candidates avoided the crass populism some of the second-tier candidates favor and defended free trade instead. It also seems that the candidates have at least learned something from the electoral trouncing last year since each of them ran screaming from the wreckage that is the GOP spending record of the past six years.

Yet each candidate seemed unwilling or unable to enunciate a coherent view of what the role of government should be in a free society. The support for free trade was saddled with an incongruous quest for an unachievable and nebulous “energy independence.” The promises to “control” health care costs were mostly uninfluenced by the notion that it was government meddling that caused the problems in the first place. Even a tepid endorsement of a private-account solution to the impending bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security was nowhere to be heard.

Some limited-government conservatives might have been slightly reassured by the look of the GOP future on Tuesday, but I’m sure many were left wanting, too.

[A version of this post originally appeared in a National Review Online symposium today.]

Krugman Misunderstands Conservatism

Paul Krugman declares that, contrary to those who think the Republican party has lost its way in the Bush years, President Bush is “the very model of a modern movement conservative.”

Maybe he’s talking about me, since I’ve criticized Bush’s policies as ”a far cry from the less-government, ‘leave us alone’ conservatism of Ronald Reagan.” I also wrote a whole book distinguishing libertarianism from both liberalism and conservatism, so I’m no spokesman for movement conservatism. But I can see the weaknesses in Krugman’s case. Krugman has a new book out titled The Conscience of a Liberal, but he doesn’t seem to have read – or at least understood – The Conscience of a Conservative.

Krugman writes:

People claim to be shocked by Mr. Bush’s general fiscal irresponsibility. But conservative intellectuals, by their own account, abandoned fiscal responsibility 30 years ago. Here’s how Irving Kristol, then the editor of The Public Interest, explained his embrace of supply-side economics in the 1970s: He had a “rather cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems” because “the task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority — so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

But Irving Kristol is hardly a conservative standard-bearer. As Ed Crane has been pointing out for years, the neoconservatives brought big-government ideas into the limited-government movement of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr., and the supply-siders ducked the issue of government spending to focus strictly on tax cuts. Bush may be the ultimate supply-side neocon, but that doesn’t make him a model conservative.

Krugman also writes:

People claim to be shocked by the Bush administration’s general incompetence. But disinterest in good government has long been a principle of modern conservatism. In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” published in 1960, Barry Goldwater wrote that “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

But Bush didn’t reduce government’s size. He increased it by one trillion dollars in six years. Seems like Bush and Krugman both sort of missed Goldwater’s point.

Krugman writes:

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s attempts — which, for a time, were all too successful — to intimidate the press. But this administration’s media tactics, and to a large extent the people implementing those tactics, come straight out of the Nixon administration.

But Nixon was no movement conservative, much less an advocate of limited government. In 1971 the main leaders of the conservative movement, led by Buckley, announced that they were “suspend[ing] support” for the Nixon administration, and many of them supported the insurgent candidacy of Rep. John Ashbrook in the Republican primaries the next year.

Conservatives have been responsible for many sins and errors of judgment over the years. (Whether any of them were as appalling as the left’s support for Stalin is a question for another day.) But Bush’s centralizing, federalizing, big-spending, imprudent policies hardly reflect the movement conservatism of Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan.

Which does raise one question, the question I asked in my first blog post 18 months ago: Why do conservatives like Bush? If Krugman had asked that question – why do conservatives rally so firmly behind a president who has jettisoned virtually all of their principles? – he might have had an interesting column. This one, alas, is just one more raising that other interesting question, What happened to the insightful young scholar who used to be Paul Krugman?

Romney’s Tax Plan

There are at least three approaches to tax policy a candidate may take in an election campaign:

  1. Use the tax code to offer limited giveaways that do nothing to improve the economy, but offers small benefits to the maximum number of voters. This is the Obama approach.
  2. Pursue major tax reforms combined with downsizing the government. This is the Ron Paul approach. Paul notes on his campaign website: “True tax reform is as simple as cutting or eliminating taxes” and “the real enemy of tax reform is the spending culture in Washington … we will never have tax reform in this country until Congress changes its spending habits.”
  3. Call for tax cuts that will spur economic growth and benefit all taxpayers. This is the Mitt Romney approach, as we will discuss here.

The Romney campaign released a “blueprint” on tax policy yesterday. The blueprint is just seven short bullet points, but they are all excellent points. Here they are in brief with my comments.

  1. Make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Great. Extending the income tax rate cuts and the dividend and capital gains tax cuts is important. But I’d swap the Bush child tax credits for further supply-side tax cuts.
  2. Make additional cuts to individual income tax rates. Great. That would improve economic efficiency and growth. I’d take this further and collapse the current rates into a flat rate or a two-rate structure
  3. Enact a zero tax rate on interest, dividends, and capital gains for those in the middle class. That’s a move in the right direction, but better to eliminate double-taxation on all savings. 
  4. Eliminate the estate tax. A no-brainer. The current estate tax damages growth, probably doesn’t raise any money, and enriches tax lawyers.
  5. Cut the corporate tax rate. Another no-brainer. The average corporate income tax rate in Europe is 24 percent. The average federal plus state rate here is 40 percent.
  6. Oppose Social Security tax increases. Romney’s right: tax increases won’t solve the problems with Social Security, as explained here.
  7. Make individual medical expenses deductible. A move in the right direction to equalize the tax treatment of individual and business health expenses.

All in all, candidate Romney has outlined a very pro-growth tax agenda. His plan contains numerous supply-side provisions that would increase economic efficiency and raise incomes. Kudos for proposing reforms that would benefit all Americans and resisting the impulse to craft useless tax giveaways, which is the approach of candidiate Obama.

Now if we could combine the Romney supply-side approach with the Paul downsizing approach, we would really be getting somewhere.

A Small Sign of Hope on Capitol Hill?

A bipartisan bill to strengthen inspectors general (the folks who monitor fraud in various agencies and departments) has swept through Congress. It even includes a provision sponsored by Congressman Tom Davis that would require IGs to report on duplicative programs.

This bill doesn’t acutally mandate the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse, but at least it will result in more information about ways to cut back a bloated federal budget. As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Congressional Quarterly reports (subscription required):

Democrats scored a victory Wednesday in their effort to bolster oversight of the executive branch with House passage of a bill that would give inspectors general more autonomy with the agencies they oversee. Despite a White House veto threat, the bill passed with considerable Republican support, 404-11, more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., speculated that Republicans were “hard-pressed to vote against an effort to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.” …Lawmakers also agreed, 274-144, to a Davis-sponsored motion to recommit the bill and amend it to require annual inspector general reports on program redundancy within federal agencies.

The idea that future administrations would be subjected to the bill’s limits was not lost on Republicans. “This is an even better bill under a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency,” said Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., referring to the Democratic senator from New York.