Topic: Political Philosophy

Insuring John Galt?

Caleb’s latest podcast is an interview with Charles Murray on his new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission. You can watch the podcast below or download the audio here. Be forewarned: if you’re like me, you’ll be Kindle-ing the book before the interview ends.

The word “provocative” is applied to far too many books these days, and often to books that should instead be called “wacky.” Murray’s thesis fully earns the former adjective, and perhaps a touch of the second–and I write that as high praise.

He argues that American government today is so far divorced from the nation’s founding principles of limited government and individual liberty that it can’t be returned to those principles through normal political action. No presidential administration, congressional turnover, or set of SCOTUS appointments will restore the Commerce and General Welfare clauses. Thus, he writes, supporters of liberty should try to effect change through carefully chosen but broadly adopted acts of civil disobedience against publicly unpopular regulations. Some examples that come to my mind: people could become part-time Uber drivers, or cash businesses could routinely make deposits of $9,999, or parents could include cupcakes in their schoolchildren’s packed lunches.

Left and Right in China

There’s an ideological divide in China, and it’s basically statist vs. classical liberal, as Tyler Cowen puts it.

Based on 171,830 responses to an online survey, Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu “offer the first large scale empirical analysis of ideology in contemporary China.” They “identify one dominant ideological dimension in China.”

Individuals who are politically conservative, who emphasize the supremacy of the state and nationalism, are also likely to be economically conservative, supporting a return to socialism and state-control of the economy, and culturally conservative, supporting traditional, Confucian values. In contrast, political liberals, supportive of constitutional democracy and individual liberty, are also likely to be economic liberals who support market-oriented reform and social liberals who support modern science and values such as sexual freedom.

This is interesting in several ways. First, of course, it means that China is no longer ideologically monolithic, as it was at least officially in the days of Maoism. And a significant number of people seem to support what we would call classical liberal or libertarian values – “constitutional democracy and individual liberty, … market-oriented reform … modern science and values such as sexual freedom.” The online survey isn’t scientific or representative enough to estimate the prevalence of each ideology.

Second, it’s refreshing to see ideological views lined up in a coherent way. Libertarians usually find the standard American ideologies inconsistent. Today’s “liberals” (unlike classical liberals from Locke and Smith and Mill to Hayek) tend to support democracy and at least some forms of personal and civil liberties, but not free markets. Today’s conservatives support free markets but have tended to oppose civil rights, drug decriminalization, and sexual freedom. In China those who support “the supremacy of the state and nationalism” also, quite understandably, support state control of the economy and state support for traditional values. That’s a bad package, but at least it’s coherent. And so is the opposing liberal ideology.

Repeal, Not Reform, Is Necessary for the Bloated Welfare State

The United States is effectively bankrupt. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures the United States faces unfunded liabilities in excess of $200 trillion. Only transforming or eliminating such programs would save the republic.

The Left likes to paint conservatives as radical destroyers of the welfare state. Instead, some on the Right have made peace with expansive government.

Particularly notable is the movement of “reform conservatism,” or the so-called “reformicons” who, noted Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, “have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running commitment to free markets and limited government.”

The point is not that attempts to improve the functioning of bloated, inefficient programs are bad. But they are inadequate. Yes, government costs too much. Government also does too much.

End the Personal Bribes Members of Congress Are Getting Not to Reopen ObamaCare

The U.S. Constitution vests the legislative, executive, and judicial powers in separate branches of the government that are supposed to police each other. But what if one of those branches violates the law in a manner that personally benefits the members of another branch? That’s what has been happening since the day ObamaCare became law in 2010. For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. A decision today by the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee not to investigate those illegal subsidies shows just how difficult it can be to prevent one branch of the government from corrupting members of another branch.  

It is no secret that executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. King v. Burwell challenges the IRS’s decision to offer illegal premium subsidies in states with federally established health-insurance Exchanges. University of Iowa law professor Andy Grewal recently revealed the IRS is illegally offering Exchange subsidies to at least two other ineligible groups: certain undocumented immigrants and people who incorrectly project their income to be above the poverty line. Treasury, Health and Human Services, and other executive-branch agencies have unilaterally modified or suspended so many parts of the ACA, it’s hard to keep count – and even harder to know what the law will look like tomorrow. Even some of the administration’s supporters acknowledge its actions have gone too far

The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

Senator Whitehouse Declaims

On the floor of the Senate last night, on the eve of Earth Day, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse went after the Cato Institute—among others, including the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal—for our having accused the senator and his friends in the environmental movement of “having a widespread faith in the government’s ability to solve problems.” We plead guilty. Not only do we believe those folks are of that faith—the evidence is plain, even if the evidence supporting the faith is lacking—but we believe also that it is a self-serving faith, because it drives them to find ever more problems to solve, problems most of us never knew we had.

But it’s a letter that then-Cato President John Allison recently sent to Sen. Whitehouse and others in Congress that seems most to exercise the good senator. As the C-SPAN transcript puts it:

cato also sent us a letter in response to our inquiry, telling us we cannot use the awesome power of the federal government to cow cato and others. cow? according to the “wall street journal” editorial page, which, sadly, has become a front for the fossil fuel industry, we were – quote – “trying to silence the other side.” although i have to confess, mr. president, it is not clear how the other side would be silenced by simply having to reveal whose payroll they’re on, which is all we asked. let’s be clear our letter didn’t suggest that industry scientists should be silenced, just that the public should know if those scientists are being paid by the very industries with a big economic …

Ah. There we have it. We’re in the pockets of Big Oil. Never mind that the facts show otherwise, that Cato’s donor base is wide and composed almost entirely of individuals animated by the idea of a free society under limited government.

But that’s not the main point, not really. Rather, it’s the assumption of Sen. Whitehouse and his friends that they, whose outlook depends so much on government funding, fairly dripping with the taxpayers’ blood, have the cleanest of hands and the purest of motives. Yet why should we believe that the avaricious individuals these folks call on government to check, suddenly become virtuous when they have the monopoly power of government in their grasp, to say nothing of the public till at their disposal? If ever scrutiny were warranted, I should think it on that side of the ledger.

Henry Butler: George Mason Law School’s New Dean

Our friends over at the George Mason University Law School have a new dean this morning—and he’s one of their own, Henry Butler, Foundation Professor of Law at George Mason and Executive Director of the law school’s Law & Economics Center. Late last evening, George Mason Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu sent out a notice of the appointment to a wide circle of the law school’s friends.

Over the years, Henry has contributed more than once to Cato’s work.  And in 2009 we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of Henry and the late Professor Larry Ribstein, challenging, among other things, the method through which members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board were removed under the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley Act. In 2010, citing a violation of the separation of powers, the Court would find that method unconstitutional.

Following in the footsteps of Dean Daniel Polsby—and especially, before that, of his mentor, the late Henry Manne—“Henry II” has a great foundation on which to build. The first Henry brought the law school into national prominence. Dean Polsby secured that accomplishment by adding stellar members to an already impressive faculty, many of whom we have worked with and published. With Dean Butler now at the helm, we look forward to more such cooperation in the future. Congratulations Henry.

“Charity Is in Its Nature Essentially Civilizing”: In Defense of Herbert Spencer

Ian Millhiser has responded to both my defense of Herbert Spencer and one from Reason’s Damon Root. Unwavering in his belief that Spencer was a monster, Millhiser has doubled down on his claim that Spencer advanced a kind of “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser has rightly retreated, however, from boldly claiming, without evidence, that Rand Paul is a fan of Herbert Spencer. I thank him for his response, and I offer a few more thoughts on Spencer here.

First, it’s clear that Millhiser is an active and vehement opponent of libertarianism. He seems to believe–although I don’t want to put words in his mouth–that libertarianism is inherently “genocidal,” regardless of whether it’s advocated by Spencer, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. So, on one level, Millhiser’s reaction to Spencer is simply a reiteration of his distaste for libertarianism and, insofar as that is the source of Millhiser’s discontent, I’m not going to try to argue with him that libertarianism isn’t inherently a cold, heartless philosophy. The possibility of that debate being productive is long passed.

But is there something particularly odious about Spencer’s brand of libertarianism, as Millhiser seems to think? Spencer writes with the peculiar verve of a 19th-century British intellectual, coming from the same milieu as anthropologists who would blithely discuss the “savage and uncivilized mongoloid and negroid races.” Similarly, Spencer would insouciantly attack the lazy, shiftless, and incompetent.

Post-modern relativism makes us balk at these absolute terms. In modern politics we tend to think more about the conditions into which people are born rather than their personal responsibility. Discussions of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” are now largely uncouth.

But to Spencer, as to most 19th-century political and social theorists, the distinction mattered. Like many modern libertarians and conservatives, Spencer was very concerned that profligate and indiscriminate assistance for the poor would incentivize bad behavior. Although many on the left loathe the idea that welfare can create bad behavior, most people understand that concern. To anyone who’s ever had to cut off ne’er-do-well friends or family from further charity in order to help them out, those concerns make sense.

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