Topic: Government and Politics

McCain Surges On

From this morning’s Washington Post:

After a heavily guarded walk through a newly fortified Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain declared that the American public was not getting “a full picture” of the progress unfolding in Iraq.

McCain…cited a drop in murders, the creation of a constellation of joint U.S.-Iraqi military outposts and a rise in intelligence tips as signs of the progress.

“These and other indications are reason for cautious optimism,” McCain said.

[…]

His comments came on a day when the military reported that six American soldiers had been killed by roadside bombs southwest of Baghdad.

More evidence, if any was needed, that John McCain is at least as disconnected from reality as our current president.

Welfare for the Wealthy (an Ongoing Series)

An earlier post noted the hot political trend of convincing the upper middle class and the wealthy that they are financially vulnerable and in need of government assistance.

From loan subsidies for McMansions to blue-blood public works, from the doling out of market power and financial support to businessmen, to the offering of government money and tax breaks to (usually well-to-do) people who consume in a government-approved manner, politicians of Red stripes and Blue are all about helping the down-and-out in the (gated) community.

Such welfare-for-the-wealthy is the subtext of Sunday’s NYT story about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP was once intended to help children in families that are low-income but that do not qualify for Medicaid; now Congress is pushing for the state-operated/federally supported program to use its money to cover families up to four times the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning $82,600 a year) — that is, nearly all families in the second-highest income quintile, aka the upper middle class.

The NYT article includes a provocative figure about the effects of CHIP. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of families with income between the poverty level and 200% of the poverty level (i.e., the families whom the program was intended to help) with uninsured children began to decline, falling from 20% in 1998 to about 12% by 2002. However, the percentage of those lower-income families with privately insured children also began to fall over that time, from about 55% to about 45%. Since 2002, the percentage of uninsured children in that income range has roughly plateaued while the percentage of children with private insurance has continued to fall, to about 35 percent by 2006. This suggests (though, by itself, does not prove) that, by 2002, CHIP had gone about as far as it could go in reducing the percentage of uninsured children in poor families; since then, CHIP has simply displaced private insurance — a dubious policy goal.

Given that, it’s no wonder politicians want to mission-creep CHIP into wealthier income brackets. But one must wonder what the next welfare-for-the-wealthy program will be. Perhaps a chicken in every pot and a Lexus in every garage?

Hillary Didn’t Invent Community

In an article on a pleasant suburban community near Washington, Roxanne Sweeney says,  “It’s like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” praising the neighborhood’s friendliness and strong community ties. Later, reporter Rebecca Kahlenberg writes,

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn’t feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

“I can’t even count how many meals were brought to me,” Sweeney said. “I hate this line because I’m not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place.”

No, Ms. Sweeney! Friendship and community were not invented by Hillary Clinton. As the reference to “Leave It to Beaver” suggests, such ties go back long before Senator Clinton put her name on the book “It Takes a Village.” And long before “Leave It to Beaver.” Family, parish, and village are natural connections that predate not just Clinton but government and even formal social organization. They are the first building blocks of civil society. Clinton’s contribution to the topic is to confuse the natural ties of love and neighborliness with the artificial and imposed order of a vast and distant federal government.

As I wrote in a recent article and in Libertarianism: A Primer, Hillary calls for a national consensus and a common vision of what the government should do for families. But there can be no such common consensus in a pluralistic society. People don’t agree about all the values involved in rearing children, helping others, worshiping God, and forming associations. That’s why a successful society leaves such choices to individuals. Even in the little community of River Falls, it isn’t a formal community organization that came to Roxanne Sweeney’s aid. It was her friends.

At so many points in our lives, it takes friends, it takes a village, but it doesn’t take the federal government.

Heartland Insurgency

On Tuesday, it was Nebraska senators Chuck Hagel (R) and Ben Nelson (D) who provided the winning margin for a Senate bill to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Today it’s five-term congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.) deciding that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign.

Pretty soon, the neocons are going to be calling for an invasion of Nebraska.

Sweden Repeals Wealth Tax

Globalization has been an ally of taxpayers. Because it is increasingly easy for jobs and capital to cross borders, politicians are being forced to eliminate or reduce taxes that penalize productive behavior.

The latest example comes from Sweden, which is now eliminating its tax on wealth:

Maybe the next Bjorn Borg won’t feel compelled to move to Monaco now that Sweden plans to scrap a decades-old “wealth” tax that imposes levies on assets — not just on income. …The move, expected to be approved by parliament later this year, underscores the country’s efforts to keep successful Swedes and their capital at home by changing its fabled but costly welfare state.

“It’s not sustainable to keep taxes that radically diverge from other countries,” Finance Minister Anders Borg, who is not related to the tennis great, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Not if you want the money to stay in the country.”

Sweden is not alone. The article notes that other nations have been forced to eliminate this punitive levy on capital:

Several European countries have dropped taxes on wealth in the last decade, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland.

Switzerland and Monaco seem to be the favored destinations of Sweden’s tax exiles. At least the new government recognizes the damage caused by punitive tax rates. The wealth tax is being abolished in an effort to lure talented entrepreneur and capital back to Sweden:

[T]he wealthiest Swedes have fled the country, including IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, No. 4 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people. He lives in Switzerland. Five-time Wimbledon winner Bjorn Borg moved to tax-haven Monaco in the late 1970s. The principality is also home to many Swedish sports stars such as Alpine skier Anja Paerson, high-jumper Kajsa Bergqvist and triple jumper Christian Olsson.

The government says more than 500 billion kronor, the equivalent of almost C$83 billion of Swedish capital, is outside of the country’s borders. “This is money that, if it was brought home, could be invested to create jobs and welfare in Sweden,” the country’s coalition leaders said in a joint statement this week.

Stefan Persson, the main owner of fashion retailer H&M, threatened to leave the country in the 1990s because of the wealth tax. The Social Democratic government at the time changed the law, giving him an exemption.

…Borg, the finance minister…added it was necessary for Sweden to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy. “It’s a step on the way back toward making Sweden an entrepreneurial society,” he said.

Is Giuliani a Supply-Sider?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Forbes endorses Rudy Giuliani and makes a reasonably compelling argument that he believes in smaller government:

Rudy Giuliani…cut taxes and the size of government…. Mr. Giuliani delivered, overcoming the initial resistance of the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council. He ultimately prevailed 23 times, including cuts in sales, personal income, commercial rent and hotel occupancy taxes.

…Mr. Giuliani always made fiscal discipline a priority: instructing city commissioners to cut agency budgets even when the deficits had turned to surpluses. Mr. Giuliani set out to cut the size of city government, insisting that New York should live within its means. New Yorkers saw their quality of life improve with more effective delivery of services while the bureaucratic ranks were being thinned by nearly 20,000 — a near 20% decrease in city headcount, excluding police officers and teachers.

But there are reasons to question Giuliani’s pedigree. In a post on the New York Sun’s political blog, Ryan Sager quotes Giuliani trashing the flat tax:

“It [the flat tax] would really be a disaster and it’s totally inconsistent with the movement of the Republican Congress toward giving more responsibility to state and local government,” Mr. Giuliani said on CNN’s “Capital Gang,” on March 9, 1996.

To be sure, even good policymakers sometimes say silly things because of competing political interests. Nonetheless, it is difficult to reconcile Giuliani’s recent supply-side rhetoric with his harsh 1996 statement. If he had merely expressed concern, that would be understandable, but claiming that a flat tax would be a “disaster” suggests a genuine hostility to the flagship policy goal of supply-side economics.

‘Security Is the New Freedom’

That’s what David Brooks declares in yesterday’s New York Times. In the column, he argues (yet again) that limited-government conservatism is dead, and that what should take its place is an orientation that focuses less on “negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back) and more [on] positive liberty (Can I choose how to live my life).” We also learn from Brooks that since “The ‘security leads to freedom’ paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology,” it must be the right way to look at man’s relationship to the state.

Since Brooks cites Tyler Cowen’s contribution to Cato Unbound, now’s as good a time as any to carp about that essay. I can’t agree with Professor Cowen that the libertarianism of the future ought to share the Left’s focus on ‘positive’ liberties and make its peace with big government. The 21st century libertarianism he’d like to see, a doctrine that seems to view principled distrust of government as an anachronism, isn’t libertarianism at all. It’s modern liberalism with a greater appreciation for markets — Thomas Friedman without the mixed metaphors. If modern liberalism moves in that direction, the world will be better off, and if libertarians can help encourage that transition, we should.

Yet I don’t understand why the continuing resilience of the welfare state constitutes an “intellectual crisis” for libertarianism. An ideology is in intellectual crisis, it seems to me, when certain of its core tenets turn out to be wrong. That people still like the idea of free stuff from government doesn’t count unless libertarianism has been in crisis from its inception.

In any event, my guess is that any political prediction that Cowen, I, or any other aspiring Hari Seldon might choose to make will, in a matter of decades, look as quaint as one of those 1950s magazine pieces on our Jetsons-style future. Given the difficulty of predicting the future, we might do better to focus on what’s true instead of what we believe to be politically possible.

If the welfare state impedes human flourishing, if the drug war is an abomination, if the New Deal constitutional revolution was an intellectual fraud from top to bottom, then libertarians ought to say those things. Because they’re true. Because they’re not said often enough. And because describing the world accurately is the first step towards changing it.

What sort of changes are possible? Who knows? But even if you think the best we can hope for is a less-awful welfare state, don’t underestimate the clarifying effect of bold, uncompromising ideas. Such ideas can help make positive, incremental reforms possible. The welfare reform we got in 1996 — generally a good thing — looks more like Robert Rector’s program than Charles Murray’s “end welfare” thought experiment in Losing Ground. But would we have gotten that sort of reform if Murray had decided that imagining a world without welfare wasn’t worth the effort?

One of the most wonderful things about Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism is how little the ideology’s founding mothers and fathers cared about what sort of bills might plausibly get out of committee. There’s no denying that 20th century libertarianism had elements of apocalyptic pessimism. But it’s hard to miss the equally broad streak of insane optimism. To stand in the middle of the Century of the State and proclaim a vision of a world unshackled, a world governed by the rule of “anything that’s peaceful,” that is, a world hardly governed at all — what could be bolder or more hopeful? The Audacity of Hope!

Sure, Hayek and Friedman were willing to accept aspects of the modern welfare state. But it’s only when divorced from historical context that they look like Moderates for Capitalism. In the (sparkly) teeth of New Frontier liberalism, Capitalism and Freedom proclaims that Kennedy’s inaugural address — “ask not what your country…” — was founded on a worldview unworthy of free men in a free society. It was, for its time, a radical book.

Writing in 1949, Hayek had an effective rejoinder to the idea that classical liberals ought to limit their aspirations to what’s currently politically possible:

We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians. Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls” is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm.

The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.

I’ll stop the Braveheart speech there. But just one more observation: Brooks’ (and Cowen’s?) notion that the modern world has outgrown the Liberty vs. Power paradigm is bizarre. Barring some miraculous change in human nature and the nature of government, that paradigm’s as enduringly relevant as anything gets in politics. There’s a reason “Skepticism about Power” is the section that opens David Boaz’s Libertarian Reader. That heuristic flows from observable truths about man’s nature and the state’s. Distrust of government lies at the heart of libertarianism and at the heart of the American experiment. Liberty’s future depends on rekindling it.