Topic: Government and Politics

Trimming Government for Dummies

Polls show voters generally believe the federal government is not on the right track. Runaway spending is a chief concern.

A new report shows “extensive fraud” at Fannie Mae.

Options for the GOP Congress:

(a) Forget this news story and look for creative ways to increase popularity with likely voters. Maybe a congressional resolution that will call for Barbaro’s speedy recovery.

(b) Act on today’s report. Issue scores of news releases denouncing fraud.

(c) Schedule a hearing after the summer recess “to get to the bottom of these allegations.”

(d) Trim the government. Now.

Memo to Congress: Choose (d). It would be good politics and good policy.

Memo to the White House: If Congress chooses (d), this would not be the right moment for Mr. Bush to use his veto for the first time. That would be bad politics and bad policy.

Congress Rouses Itself

At last Republican congressional leaders have found an abuse of executive power that offends them:

An unusual FBI raid of a Democratic congressman’s office over the weekend prompted complaints yesterday from leaders in both parties, who said the tactic was unduly aggressive and may have breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government….

Republican leaders, who previously sought to focus attention on the Jefferson case as a counterpoint to their party’s own ethical scandals, said they are disturbed by the raid. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he is “very concerned” about the incident and that Senate and House counsels will review it.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) expressed alarm at the raid. “The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case,” he said in a lengthy statement released last night.

“Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress,” he said….

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in an e-mail to colleagues with the subject line “on the edge of a constitutional confrontation,” called the Saturday night raid “the most blatant violation of the Constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime.”

If they are finally awake to the executive branch’s indifference to constitutional restrictions, they could find some more opportunities for oversight and correction here and here.

Tories for Happiness

The politics of happiness research just got a bit more interesting. British Conservative leader David Cameron is now campaigning on a happiness platform. In a speech at a conference organized by Google in Hertfordshire, Cameron said,

It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB—General Well-Being.

This is interesting because up until now, the politics of “well-being” have been primarily a welfare-liberal or social democratic phenomenon. So why the happiness schtick for the Tories? Why now? The Financial Times editorial page says:

Mr Cameron’s call for the Tories to address GWB is not a coded cry for redistribution. After green issues and childcare it is another sensible step towards increasing the opposition party’s appeal by redefining popular values in modern Britain. From the Thatcher era onwards, the Conservatives have faced the charge of being cold and uncaring. Mr Cameron’s task is, in part, to persuade voters that the Tories are warm and cuddly.

Although there is much support in the happiness literature for proposals to allow individuals greater control over our lives, I worry that creating a climate hospitable to risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and greater personal control (and, necessarily, greater personal responsibility) may be perceived as bracing, but not so much as “warm and cuddly.” In his talk, Cameron dilated on the wonders of Howies, a “socially conscious” Welsh company in the mold of the US’s American Apparel, praising their lack of hierarchy and the flexibility in work arrangements.

Now, greater work flexibility is great, and that’s a big part of what it would mean policy-wise to enhance well-being by giving people more control over their lives. But what does Cameron have in mind? Is this anything more than emotionally appealing talk? If so, genuine work flexibility requires deregulating the labor market, allowing individuals to bargain terms of employment for themselves, rather than getting stuck with the terms their union (which workers in certain areas often have little choice but to join) negotiated, or with terms set by the government, independent of the desires of the parties to the agreement. A system in which a certain wage, a certain package of benefits, certain labor conditions, etc., are mandated by the government is a system in which it is harder for people to opt in and out of the labor market, or to negotiate flexible contracts that uniquely suit their individual and family needs. There is a lot to be said in favor of companies that create a hospitable, flexible climate for their employees. But as the FT editorialist points out:

Not every employer can introduce flexible work practices and not every job carries high satisfaction levels. To behave as though this were possible could invite cause for dissatisfaction.

If Cameron seeks to mandate Howie’s-like flexible work practices, rather than removing existing labor market interference from unions and government, he will end up reducing real flexibility for workers. Furthermore, as UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge points out, not every worker wants a non-hierarchical work environment. Not everyone likes being saddled with participation in management decisions in addition to their regular work. Companies should certainly be encouraged to create work environments that inspire loyalty and productivity from their workers—and good returns for their shareholders. And if you’re a consumer for whom the production process is part of what you’re buying, you should feel free to patronize businesses that reflect your values. But mandating flexibility, or a particular “work-life balance,” won’t deliver it. The heirs of Thatcher should know this, and it is sad if they think thay have to act like they don’t. We’ll see.

In defense of GDP, it is worth pointing out that focus on the size of the economy does not imply the state’s endorsement of a narrow-minded, acquisitive ethos. Wealth is not a morally questionable, or even a morally neutral, end. It is easy for people to imagine that the size of the economy grows magically, due to some incomprehensible ju ju down in the basement at Google Labs or something. But it’s not magic; it’s virtue. The economy grows primarily because innovations in knowledge enable us to produce more, and therefore to offer more, to others in cooperative exchange. GDP growth is the steady increase in the size of the surplus from human cooperation. Extended, peaceful, increasingly effective human cooperation is not an easy thing to sustain, and the institutions, and the habits of heart and mind, that do sustain it are moral triumphs. As Deidre McClosky draws out in the brand new Cato Policy Report :

“Modern economic growth,” as the economists boringly call the fact of real income per person growing at a “mere” 1.5 percent per year for 200 years, to achieve a rise in per capita income by a factor of 19 in the countries that most enthusiastically embraced capitalism, is certainly the largest change in the human condition since the ninth millennium BC. It ranks with the first domestications of plants and animals and the building of the first towns. Possibly, modern economic growth is as large and important an event in human history as the sudden perfection of language, in Africa around 80,000 to 50,000 BC. In a mere 200 years our bourgeois capitalism has domesticated the world and made it, from Chicago to Shanghai, into a single, throbbing city.

There has been no force in history that has done more to promote “general well-being” than economic growth. There is no force that will do more good in the foreseeable future. I hope that Cameron takes note that in cross-national econometric studies the only variable that correlates with reported well-being more strongly than GDP per capita is a society’s degree of economic freedom.

There is a politics of limited government and personal repsonsibility lurking in the happiness data. If Cameron is going to run on happiness, let’s hope he is able to find it, and allay Frank Furedi’s worries, and mine, about an illiberal, infantalizing therapeutic state.

Libertarians and Liberals

Last week I looked at a Pew Research Center analysis of libertarians and other ideological groups in the United States. Using the Pew results, let’s compare libertarians to liberals as way of speculating about the upcoming election. 

The two groups have a lot in common demographically. Both libertarians and liberals are more likely than other groups to be found in the highest income groups and to have a college education (though liberals are by far the most educated group). Strikingly, both groups are the least likely among the Pew respondents to be supported by African-Americans.

Libertarians and liberals are the least religiously observant among the Pew groups. Both are much more likely than others to say they are “secular” and to state that they “seldom or never” attend church. This secular tendency showed up when Pew looked at responses by groups to some questions about issues. Libertarians and liberals were about as likely to believe homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem cell research, and to oppose more restrictions on abortion. (Liberals more so on each issue). In each case, the two groups oppose positions endorsed by Roman Catholicism or evangelical Protestant groups. Judged only by these issues, libertarians and liberals should be quite similar politically. 

But they are not, and you can guess why. The two differ over the scope of government power over economic life. The Pew data defines liberals in part by their faith that government regulation is needed to protect the public interest. Liberals also oppose tax cuts much more than any other group and to think businesses make too much profit. Liberals are about as likely as any American to believe free trade is good for the nation, their only significant departure from what you might expect on the economic front.

This difference on economic policies translates into partisan differences. Exactly half of libertarians in the Pew survey identified themselves as Republicans or leaning that way. 57 percent voted for President Bush in 2004. When forced to choose, these voters seem to assign more weight to the economic aspects of liberty than the social side.

On the other hand, 41 percent of the Pew libertarians identify with, or lean toward, the Democratic party. Could that number rise?

Here’s one guess, popular with libertarians angry with the GOP. Libertarians are close to liberals demographically and on social issues, and liberals are overwhelmingly Democratic. If Republicans support economic policies similar to liberal positions, libertarians have little reason to vote Republican. The only difference between the parties would concern social questions, and on those issues, the Democrats are more often if not always more libertarian than Republicans.

Here’s the problem with this guess about the future. Libertarians have to consider what Republicans and Democrats will do in the future, and rationally, they need not simply extrapolate from the recent past to do that.

It is true that Republicans have expanded government rapidly to maintain control of Congress (among other reasons). But that does not mean Democrats in power would not expand government even more rapidly for reasons of ideology and interest. Democrats complained that the Medicare prescription drug benefit was not generous enough, not that it expanded government too much. More generally, the American National Election Survey found in 2004 that two-thirds of self-identified liberals and 56 percent of Democrats believed “it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending.”  This support for expanding government, by the way, is the highest ever reported for both liberals and Democrats. It is almost 40 percent higher for liberals and 47 percent more for Democrats than it was in 1996 when Bill Clinton declared the end of big government. If Democrats in power listen to their base in 2007 (or 2009 with the presidency in hand), they will not be responding to the moderates at the Democratic Leadership Council. 

Given all that, I don’t think many libertarians who have been voting Republican are likely to start voting Democratic. As bad as the Republicans have been on limiting government, libertarians primarily concerned with economic liberty have reason to think the Democrats would be worse. So they will continue doing what they have been doing unless the Democrats start looking better or the Republicans become even worse.

Democrats Out of Power

The Washington Post reports today that the Ds are planning an onslaught of staged media events over the Memorial Day weekend to highlight their discontent over high gasoline prices. The Democrats are kicking off their campaign today in Ohio, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is scheduled to appear in front of the cameras with Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate there, in front of a giant wind turbine outside a Cleveland science center.

Presumably, the Democrats think that the windmill symbolizes their commitment to break America’s so-called addiction to oil. In reality, the windmill symbolizes the Democrats’ incoherence on energy policy. Unless they plan to strap those turbines onto the hoods of our cars, wind power cannot substitute for oil because windpower is used to generate electricity and only a trivial amount of oil is used for that purpose.

“Wherever you live, your gas prices are out of control, and you want to hold someone accountable for it,” Reid said. While Reid predictably blames “Big Oil,” he apparently missed the FTC report out today finding nothing underhanded about gasoline prices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I’m sure you’ll hear all about on tonight’s O’Reilly Factor.

Applying the Law

Some additional thoughts on the Hudson case, which Radley wrote about earlier today …

To quickly recap Hudson, it involves a police search of a man’s home, during which the police found contraband. The law says that before the police can break into a person’s home, they must first “knock and announce” themselves. In this case, all admit the police violated the knock-and-announce rule, but there is a dispute about how to handle this violation.

 A lot can be said about this case, but for this particular post, I think I’ll introduce (or perhaps reacquaint) readers with an axiom of our criminal law: Generally speaking, the government demands strict application of the law to the people, but lenient application of the law to itself.

A few examples: 

Elwyn Lehman found himself under arrest and facing deportation after living in the United States for 15 years. Lehman was a tour bus driver. A few years ago, he was driving gospel singer CeCe Winans to the White House from out-of-town for a special guided tour. The 53-year-old driver did not realize he had a handgun on board his bus until he was at the gates of the White House. He immediately told the Secret Service about his mistake and turned the pistol over to them. Lehman was sent to the downtown jail on three counts of weapons possession.

Daniel Yirkovsky found a single 22-caliber bullet while he was remodeling his home. He placed the bullet in a box in his room and forgot about it. Months later, when police responded to a former girlfriend’s complaint that Yikovsky had kept some of her things, they discovered the bullet. Nothing else—no gun, no stolen property. Federal prosecutors charged him with being a “felon in possession of ammunition.” Yirkovsky is now serving a 15-year sentence.

Edward Hanousek was a railroad roadmaster who was sentenced to prison under the Clean Water Act. A backhoe operator who was working for Hanousek accidently ruptured an oil pipeline while removing rocks from a section of track. Hanousek was off-duty at the time of the accident, but the backhoe operator was working under him. Thus, prosecutors charged Hanousek with “negligent failure to supervise.”

These are just three quick examples of the strict application of the law. The rule of law is important, prosecutors say, and swift and severe punishment will deter violations. 

But on closer inspection, we find that when the prosecutors were speaking of “the law,” they did not mean the Bill of Rights. Yes, the Fourth Amendment is law. Yes, the police violate the law when they fail to knock and announce themselves when they break into people’s homes. But, it is argued, this is not a situation for the strict application of law.  Severe punishment in this context is totally inappropriate. Justice, in these circumstances, requires leniency and non-enforcement, for some reason. 

In the Hudson case, Justice Scalia and Justice Alito know the law was violated, but they seem keenly interested in making sure that the penalty or remedy is “proportionate” to the violation. This is the axiom at work. 

Some people may prefer a strict application of the law, across the board. Some may prefer a lenient application of the law, across the board.  A case can be made for both. I also think a case can be made for strict application of the law as applied to the government, but a lenient application as applied to the people. But the least defensible position, it seems to me, is the one that dominates: Strict justice for the people and leniency for the government.  

The speculation is that there is a 4-4 split on the Court in the Hudson case and that Justice Alito will tip the balance. It is a bad sign that he had no questions at all for the government lawyers who were urging a lenient response to Fourth Amendment knock-and-annonce violations.

Do Libertarians Have a Prayer?

Many people think political philosophy comes in two varieties, liberal or conservative. The former values social freedoms while seeking government control over capitalist acts between consenting adults (in Robert Nozick’s wonderful phrase). Conservatives defend economic freedom but not other acts between consenting adults. As a philosophy that seeks both social and economic liberty, libertarianism has sometimes seemed at the margins of American politics. A recent poll throws doubt on that assumption.

The Pew Research Center measured political ideology based on six questions from one of their 2004 surveys. Three of the questions concerned economic liberty, the others social freedoms. Liberals scored high on social freedoms, conservatives on economic liberty, and populists had little regard for either. Libertarians, as you might expect, consistently supported liberty in both dimensions.

Pew estimates that 9 percent of Americans are libertarians. That might seem low until you realize that 18 percent are liberal, 16 percent populist, and 15 percent conservative. Pew calls the rest of the nation “ambivalents” who have no firm ideological outlook. As Scott Keeter, the author of the Pew study, concludes “libertarians, though the smallest of the ideological groups, represent a substantial percentage of the population.”

A lot of what Pew discovered about libertarians may not surprise you. They are more likely than the rest of the population to have a college degree, to be in the highest income category, and to come from the West. On the issues, libertarians are more likely to think homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem-cell research, to believe businesses make a fair profit, and to find free trade good for the nation.

But some of Pew’s other findings about libertarians are more unexpected, at least to me. Libertarians are 50 percent more likely to declare themselves “secular” than the general population. Still, only about 12 percent of the libertarians surveyed identified themselves this way. Libertarians are also more likely than the general population to identify as a “white Catholic.” Finally, almost two-thirds of the libertarians said they go to church at least once a month. That’s a little less than the general population, but a lot more than I would have guessed.

Half of the libertarians identified with or leaned toward the Republican party. At the same time, 41 percent affiliated themselves with the Democrats. Sen. Kerry got 40 percent of the libertarian vote in 2004. President Bush did better among libertarians than you might expect given the party identification numbers. Bush got 57 percent of libertarian vote last time. But as they say, “if the election were held today….”

I have saved the best for last. One-third of Pew’s libertarians are between 18 and 29 years of age. Libertarians are thus fifty percent more likely to be found among the young than in the population as a whole. They are also much more likely to be found among the youngest cohort than are conservatives or populists.

So the present may seem bleak for libertarians. But just wait. Help is on the way.