Topic: Government and Politics

‘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.

Pure Protectionism

Several years ago, I appeared on the radio show of the late and much-missed David Brudnoy to discuss deregulation of taxicabs. I advocated a free market and an end to licensing and medallions. We got a call from a spokesman for the taxicab industry, who was outraged. Public safety! he exclaimed. “Without licensing, you could have some crazy person driving a cab and have an accident and you could have a mudda an’ a dotta killed! Do you want to be responsible for that?!”

I remembered that call when I saw the letter in the Washington Post from Michael C. Alin, executive director of the American Society of Interior Designers. Responding to George Will’s column on the absurdity of licensing for interior decorators, Alin writes:

In one of the worst hotel fires in U.S. history, 85 lives were lost and more than 700 people were injured at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in November 1980, partly because some of the materials in the interior finish and furnishing fueled a rapid spreading of the fire. If furniture is placed in such a manner that it impedes egress during an emergency, people will die. Should a nonqualified, non-educated person select the materials for the interior of a hospital, school or high-rise building? 

Will had blithely and insensitively mocked the idea of criminal penalties for impersonating an interior designer:

In Las Vegas, where almost nothing is illegal, it is illegal — unless you are licensed, or employed by someone licensed — to move, in the role of an interior designer, any piece of furniture, such as an armoire, that is more than 69 inches tall. A Nevada bureaucrat says that “placement of furniture” is an aspect of “space planning” and therefore is regulated — restricted to a “registered interior designer.”

Placing furniture without a license? Heaven forfend.

I hope that Will is suitably chastened now that he understands the real risks of letting just anyone pick out wallpaper and position furniture.

The Fact of Voter Fraud

I was surprised to see left-Democratic lawyers Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt casually acknowledge in a Washington Post op-ed that “Lyndon Johnson won a 1948 Senate race after his partisans famously ‘found’ a box of votes well after the election.” Johnson’s “miracle of Box 13” has been discussed for years, but I didn’t expect to see Democrats at the Brennan Center casually accept it.

It certainly makes you think about LBJ’s huge influence on American politics. The Great Society was the biggest expansion of the state since the New Deal, and no one, including Ronald Reagan, has made a dent in it since.

Johnson apparently won election to the Senate through fraud, and there’s pretty good evidence that he also became vice president in a fraudulent election. (Not to mention the argument that Kennedy-Johnson didn’t even win the popular vote, since he shouldn’t be credited with Alabama’s votes for unpledged Democratic electors who did not vote for the Democratic ticket.) Would America be a very different place if Lyndon Johnson had not won one of those controversial elections?

It seems ironic that Waldman and Levitt’s reference to a monumentally important stolen election comes in a parenthetical aside in an article titled “The Myth of Voter Fraud.”

David Brooks Gets It Wrong

In an op-ed (TimesSelect) from today’s The New York Times, David Brooks writes that Reagan-Goldwater small government conservatism is out-moded in today’s society. He is wrong for three important reasons.

First, as I argued in my book, Leviathan on the Right, the 2006 congressional elections should have shown Republicans that big government conservatism was an electoral loser. It wasn’t just Iraq and scandal that brought about the Republican defeat; it was a belief that the party had abandoned its basic principles. If voters wanted massive increases in domestic spending and a federal takeover of education, why not vote for Democrats?

Second, big government doesn’t work, whether practiced by liberals or conservatives. In the wake of the government’s failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia mess, and all the other examples of government failure, does Brooks really believe that big government can fix health care, the economy, and even our families?

Finally, Brooks is wrong because, regardless of political fashion, freedom really does matter. Americans should be free to raise their families, run their businesses, choose their doctor, or support their favorite charity without the interference of big government.

Brooks tells us that “security leads to freedom.” To which Ben Franklin offers the still-timely reply: “He who surrenders freedom for some temporary security, deserves neither freedom nor security.”

(Ways and) Means to an End

The House Ways and Means Committee released their trade policy vision on Tuesday, and it should give cause for concern to free-traders who thought a compromise could be reached between the Democratic majority and the administration on how to advance the trade agenda. There are few details on how exactly trade agreements could be made acceptable to Democrats in the immediate future, and plenty of demands that could give potential trade partners cause for alarm.

The administration must give 90 days’ advance notice to Congress when seeking its approval for trade agreements, under the terms of the trade promotion authority delegated by Congress to the President. Because that authority expires on July 1, there are only two working days left to iron out differences on completed trade agreements (those with Peru, Colombia, and Panama, and possibly the still-under-frantic-negotiation agreement with South Korea). The Democrats’ one-pager was lamentably short on details about how to make these agreements acceptable to them.

In the longer-term, if the new majority’s trade strategy is indicative of its overall approach to trade policy (and we have every reason to believe that it is) then negotiated trade liberalization looks to be over for the next two years at least. Unless, of course, the secret 15-page proposal (mentioned in this NY Times piece) presented to the administration contains more of substance, and less of the deal-breaking demands, than what was released to the public.

The details we do have from the one-pager, however, do not paint a pretty picture. The Democrats’ plan proposes new emphasis on labour and environmental standards (including some standards to which, some critics point out, the United States is not a party), non-tariff barriers, calls for immediate action (italics in original) on currency manipulation in China and Japan, and more help for workers displaced by trade. Organized labor has welcomed it, of course, although–bizarrely–so have some Republican members of the committee, including the ranking Republican, Jim McCrery (R-LA). Steven Pearlstein in an article in yesterdays Washington Post, called some of the demands “political poison pills.”

Previous Cato research on some of these topics can be viewed here, and my colleague Dan Ikenson gave an interview on BBC on Tuesday night on the Dems’ proposal: view here.

Still Dissing Reagan

Twenty-seven years after his election as president, journalists still like to take a poke at Ronald Reagan whenever they get the chance. A Washington Post story today on lawyer-actor-senator Fred Thompson’s possible presidential candidacy notes that equal time rules could require TV stations to take “Law and Order” off the air during if Thompson becomes a candidate and then says

In the 1970s and 1980s, stations dropped “Bedtime for Bonzo” and other Reagan movies during his campaigns for governor of California and for president.

Yes, no doubt they did drop Reagan’s most amusingly titled movie. But they presumably also dropped such movies as Dark Victory, Brother Rat, Knute Rockne All American, The Hasty Heart, and Kings Row. But those just don’t sound as goofy.

I wonder how many liberal journalists have ever watched Bedtime for Bonzo. It’s actually quite funny to see Reagan as a young liberal college professor trying to prove the “nurture” side of the nature-vs.-nurture and saying that there are no bad kids, just bad environments.

It’s Only Disclosure!

Policymaking in First Amendment area begins with a presumption of liberty. That is, strong reasons must be given to restrict basic liberties.

Mandatory disclosure of campaign finance activity requires such strong reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court has given three reasons for mandated disclosure: to deter corruption, to inform citizens so they can predict what a candidate might do in office, and to help enforce contribution limits.

Not much is known about how the policy of mandated disclosure actually relates to these “state interests.” No one has been much interested in examining their effects because no one much objected. Mandatory disclosure was thought of as the least intrusive means to regulate campaign finance and political activity. Hence, even people inclined to criticize campaign finance regulation were heard saying, “it’s only disclosure.”

Since the agenda of possibilities was limited, alternatives were not considered in light of the costs and benefits of disclosure. Now that’s changing. Dick Carpenter and the Institute for Justice have conducted a survey to learn more about the likely effects of disclosure, especially in the context of a ballot initiative. The results do not encourage complacency about mandated disclosure. The study is well worth a look.

Bob Bauer comments on the Institute for Justice study during his insightful remarks on the fifth anniversary of you-know-what.