Topic: Government and Politics

But

“I’m for free enterprise, but –” You can hear it coming. “I’m against all these government giveaway programs, but –” It’s a common and frustrating experience for a libertarian, hearing a ringing declaration of principle followed by a qualification that the speaker doesn’t have any intention of giving up his own subsidy, regulation, tariff, or pet project.

Years ago, when I was raising money for a free-market business group, I remember one of those letters: “I agree with everything you say. Government is too big. Subsidies and regulation are impeding the operation of our free enterprise system. But the Hawaiian sugar industry is unique.” A friend told me once that he’d persuaded his father, a dentist, to become a consistent libertarian–except on licensing for dentists. What about licensing for brain surgeons? I asked. No, my friend said, I think he’s OK with letting the free market work there.

And now NPR has brought us the latest example. On the way home, my mind wandered as “All Things Considered” reported on a biodiesel refinery in Washington state. And then I heard a familiar opening line from the tech millionaire who is now the CEO of Imperium Renewables, which built the refinery.

I’m a pretty conservative guy, generally. I’ve voted Republican my whole entire life. And I’m very skeptical of the government’s role in any kind of market.

Wait for it, wait for it – you just know there’s a “but” coming.

But, in this case, there’s no other way to do it but with government support and mandates.

Turns out biodiesel is profitable with a federal tax subsidy of up to a dollar a gallon, and with the anticipation of restrictions on greenhouse gases. So a guy who’s normally “very skeptical of the government’s role” supports subsidies in this case because there’s “no other way to do it.” But that’s the whole point of markets and prices–to tell us what economic endeavors make sense. If Hawaiian sugar, or South Carolina textiles, or biodiesel fuel isn’t economically viable without subsidies, then that means it’s not the best use of our limited resources.

One of the values of a political philosophy–sometimes dismissed as “ideology” or “dogma”–is that it gives us a rule, a set of principles, for deciding such questions. We don’t have the time to look at all the data and decide what we think about every issue, and we’re certainly all subject to personal biases on the issues that touch us. There are lots of speakers I’d personally like to shut up, but if I remember that I do believe in the First Amendment, I realize I have to allow even offensive speech. I may want Amtrak to run fast trains between Washington and New York, or I may want to keep my own factory in business. But if I remember that the free-market economy produces the best results for all of us, then I will accept the outcomes of the market process.

People should think about the benefits of the whole libertarian system–free markets, free speech, freedom of religion, constitutional limits on government–whenever they’re tempted to say “I’m for freedom, but–”.

Is Hillary 2008 like IBM 1984?

The Washington Post has a big story on a “viral attack ad” about Hillary Clinton that’s been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Jose Antonio Vargas and Howard Kurtz report:

It’s a “mash-up” of Ridley Scott’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial that portrayed IBM as an Orwellian Big Brother and introduced Apple’s Macintosh as the bright new vanguard of computing. But now it’s Big Sister, Clinton, vs. the upstart, Sen. Barack Obama.

The ad shows the oppressed masses staring in unison at a huge screen featuring Hillary Clinton as phrases from her deadly “conversations” lull the viewer into a stupor. As she drones on, a young blond woman in athletic gear twirls with a sledgehammer, then hurls it into Clinton’s giant image.

The ad concludes with the tagline “On January 14, the Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984.”

The most interesting point in the Post story is that Vargas and Kurtz were unable to find out who created and posted the ad. It ends with a plug for Barack Obama, but the Obama campaign denies any knowledge of it. On YouTube, the creator claims to be 59 years old and gives the user name ParkRidge47. He or she didn’t answer emails from the Post. But Vargas and Kurtz note that Hillary Rodham was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1947, which makes her 59 years old.

Did she post the video herself? It hardly seems likely. But then – just last night, on FX’s “Dirt,” an actress gained great notoriety, then sympathy, then career advancement after a graphic sex tape featuring her was posted on the internet. And after much investigation, it was discovered that she posted it herself.

Still, it surely wasn’t Clinton or her supporters. It was created by someone who prefers Obama. And it’s a great example of anonymous pamphleteering for the internet age. As Jonathan Wallace pointed out in a Cato study, that’s a tradition that goes back to Cato’s Letters and the Federalist Papers. But our modern election laws have tried to stamp out anonymity. All expressions of political support are supposed to be disclosed, reported, and regulated. But why do we need to know who created this great ad? If you take offense at it, create a better one in response.

Democratic Budget Threatens Repeal of Bush Tax Cuts and Adoption of Dorgan and Levin Anti-Tax Competition Bills

In a discouraging development, the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee has crafted a budget that does not make the Bush tax cuts permanent. He implies that the tax cuts can be extended if other taxes are raised, and he specifically suggests that legislation attacking so-called tax havens could provide offsetting revenue. But these punitive and discriminatory bills would raise very little money (especially since they would force many American companies and entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to compete in global markets). As the Wall Street Journal explains, Senator Conrad’s real goal is repealing the Bush tax cuts and imposing a huge tax hike on the productive sector of America’s economy:

Mr. Conrad has no intention of extending the Bush tax cuts… But Senate Democrats don’t want anyone to know this, at least not before the 2008 election. So Mr. Conrad says his budget revenue estimates “assume that Congress will take steps to counter the effects of the expiration of tax cuts in 2010 in a manner that does not add to the nation’s debt burden.” How so? Well, “this additional revenue can be achieved without raising taxes by closing the tax gap, shutting down illegal tax shelters, addressing tax havens, and simplifying the tax code,” he avers. …The 10-year revenue increase from repealing the Bush tax cuts is something like $2 trillion, according to Congress’s static-revenue models. Mr. Conrad is claiming that Congress will make up for all of that lost revenue by chasing down such illusions as the “tax gap,” which the IRS claims is the difference between the taxes people owe and what they pay. …All of this is really sleight-of-hand to disguise that Democrats are intent on repealing the Bush tax cuts. This would raise the tax on capital gains to 20% from 15%, more than double the tax rate on dividends to 39.6% from 15%, and sharply increase marginal tax rates at all levels of income. …The market fell 200 points on the day Mr. Conrad unveiled his magic act last week.

Why Won’t Al Gore Debate?

Former vice president and Oscar winner Al Gore is scheduled to testify to both House and Senate committees today about global warming. For the past few years Gore has traveled across America speaking to audiences that range from friendly to worshipful, from journalists in New York and Washington to actors in Hollywood. If he has ever faced skeptical questions, it hasn’t been reported.

We have several times invited the former vice president to present his famous slide show at the Cato Institute, in conjunction with a slide show prepared by Patrick J. Michaels, who takes a more benign view of climate change. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. He is the state climatologist of Virginia, a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, and an author of the 2003 climate science “Paper of the Year” selected by the Association of American Geographers. His research has been published in major scientific journals, including Climate Research, Climatic Change, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Climate, Nature, and Science. He received his Ph.D. in ecological climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1979. His most recent book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, which has been number one on Amazon’s global warming bestseller list for months at a time and has been reprinted twice this year.

Gore’s office has declined our invitations. If Vice President Gore is committed to public understanding of climate change, why will he not demonstrate to a Washington audience composed of both supporters and skeptics that his ideas can carry the day in a dialogue with a leading critic? He wiped the floor with Ross Perot; does he fear that the case for catastrophic climate change is not as strong as the case for NAFTA?

The invitation is still open. Mr. Vice President, please come to the Cato Institute and present your slide show to an audience of journalists and scholars with a knowledgeable climate scientist also on the dais.

More on Libertarians and Democrats

In a blog post yesterday, my colleague John Samples tried to pour cold water on my idea of libertarian outreach to the left. Specifically, he cites depressing polling data that show strong support among Democratic voters for increased government spending. Alas, the appetite for free ice cream from Washington isn’t restricted to Democrats, as I point out in an essay for this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. I’ll concede, though, that Democratic voters are especially unlikely to pressure their representatives to show spending restraint.

Does that mean libertarians have no business seeking common ground with liberals? Let me make just a couple of quick points.

First, polls aren’t everything. After all, as Cato’s Stephen Slivinski has written, real federal spending increased at an annual rate of only 1.5 percent under Bill Clinton, as compared to a 5.6 percent rate of growth during George W. Bush’s first term. So Democratic politicians can run and win on a record of fiscal prudence. Yes, it’s true that Clinton’s good spending record was due in significant part to the fact that he faced a GOP Congress for most of his time in office. But this just shows that people who care about controlling spending would do better to rely on divided government than on Republicans’ small-government rhetoric. And you can’t have divided government without electing some Democrats!

Second, spending isn’t everything. The cause of limited government has many other dimensions besides the degree of budget bloat. How, I wonder, do Democratic voters compare to Republicans in their attitudes on getting out of Iraq? Getting into Iran? Torture? Warrantless wiretapping? Immigration? The drug war? Whatever voters tell pollsters, it’s clear that Democratic politicians are more likely than their GOP counterparts to resist government overreaching in these vital areas.

The sad fact is that libertarians have few allies today in either political party. Why on earth then should we refuse to seek common ground with those Democrats who hold relatively pro-market attitudes?

REAL ID News and Views

An interesting report says that at least one member of the Carter-Baker Commission would not have signed on to its recommendation to use REAL ID as a voter ID card had she known more about it.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe editorializes against REAL ID, calling it “unrealistic.”

Greater safety is imperative. But given its flaws, the Real ID law should be scrapped. The country needs to invest more thought, time, debate, and money into how best to upgrade driver’s licenses.

The State Department’s Misguided Money-Laundering Wish List

A couple of decades ago, there were no laws against money laundering. Instead, governments fought crime by…well…fighting crime. Then politicians came up with the idea of making it illegal to use the proceeds of crime. This was not necessarily a bad idea. After all, crime theoretically will be reduced by polices that either increase the expected punishment or lower the expected rewards. Unfortunately, anti-money laundering laws have been an expensive failure. They costs billions of dollars yet there is no peer-reviewed literature showing that they have any impact on crime. Heck, they don’t even stop crooks from laundering funds. Yet the myopic bureaucrats at the State Department publish an annual report hectoring other nations to make their anti-money laundering laws more intrusive and burdensome. Richard Rahn’s Washington Times op-ed reviews some of the sillier suggestions:

This month, the State Department has set a new record by managing to insult the citizens of 123 different lands at one time in the “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes.” The 450-page report discusses what other countries are doing to reduce money laundering and financial crimes, which is fine. But then the authors go on gratuitously lecturing each of the countries by name about how they could do things “better.” To understand the total hypocrisy of the State Department nags, it is important to remember that more money laundering goes on in the United States than anywhere else, and that the U.S. is the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs. The Report…is filled with endless demands that other countries do a better job enforcing their laws, pass more laws, sign more international treaties and engage in some practices that would be illegal and unconstitutional in the U.S. Many of the demands would not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test… Some examples: The Belgians “should strengthen the adherence to reporting requirements by some nonfinancial entities, such as lawyers and notaries,” so says State, while completely ignoring the importance of lawyer client confidentiality. …To the Germans they say, “Amend legislation to waive the asset-freezing restrictions in the EU Clearinghouse for financial crime and terrorism financing, so that the freezing process does not require a criminal investigation.” Perhaps, the folks at State Department forgot there are certain historical reasons why the Germans now insist on strong legal protections against a potentially abusive state. The Greeks (and others) are told, “Abolish company-issued bearer shares, so that all bearer shares are legally prohibited.” Maybe the State Department gurus were unaware that bearer shares are perfectly legal in some states in the U.S., such as Nevada, and can serve a sound economic and personal privacy purpose. The authors say the government of Dominica “should eliminate its program of economic citizenship.” But then again, maybe they were unaware that many, if not most, countries allow permanent residency and/or citizenship (including the U.S.) to noncitizens who invest a certain amount in their adopted homeland. …Singapore is told that it “should add tax and fiscal offenses to its schedule of serious offenses.” Perhaps again, it did not occur to the folks in State that the highly educated and prosperous citizens of Singapore are quite capable of figuring out for themselves which laws ought to be “serious offenses.”