Topic: Political Philosophy

Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

Federal Follies 200 Years before Ex-Im

Anyone who thinks that Washington waste is something new should examine the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This essay discusses the mismanagement, corruption, and failures of the BIA since it was created in 1824.

As early as 1828, Indian expert H. R. Schoolcraft concluded: “The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme. One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork … there is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.”

By the 1860s and 1870s, New York Times editorials were railing against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau,” and arguing that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful.”

In their recent book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, Burton and Anita Folsom describe the failure of a major Indian policy even before 1824. Here is the basic story:

• Unhappy that British fur traders were out-competing American traders, Congress appropriated $50,000 in 1795 to create frontier posts stocked with American goods to trade with the Indians for furs.

• These government-run fur “factories” were supposed to earn a return, but they “were so poorly run that many Indians held them in contempt and refused to trade there.” Congress had to heavily subsidize the system to keep it operating.

• Rather than respond to the market demands of the Indians, as private traders did, the official running the government system, Thomas McKenney, tried to push products on the Indians that he thought they ought to have.

• The government set up its trading posts at substantial distances from Indians. By contrast, private fur trader John Jacob Astor had his agents build close relationships with Indians, and he made trading easy for the tribes.

• Astor instituted pay for performance, while the government paid its fur bureaucrats fixed salaries.

• Astor watched international fur markets closely and adjusted his operations and marketing accordingly. The government ignored markets, and simply dumped furs in Washington for auction.

• Thomas McKenney was embarrassed by the government’s falling market share and the huge success of Astor. So, in 1818, McKenney began lobbying Congress to ban private fur traders. When that attempt at monopolization failed, McKenney lobbied to impose large fees on private traders and to boost taxpayer subsidies for the government system.

• Despite a new fee on private traders in 1820, the government system was falling apart because of plunging sales. An official report exposed the huge inefficiencies of the government system, and Congress finally voted to end it in 1822.

Long before Solyndra and the Export-Import Bank, politicians should have learned some basic lessons about why Washington ought to stay out of business. Unfortunately, each new generation of politicians are tempted to believe that enlightened federal planners can run the economy better than businesspeople and markets. Rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars as it did two centuries ago, Congress blows billions of dollars today on new versions of its fur-trading folly.

Hobby Lobby Demonstrates That Expansive Government Is Religious Liberty’s Worst Enemy

The federal government has taken over ever larger swaths of American life, most recently health care.  ObamaCare demonstrates that as state dictates expand, religious liberties recede.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was extremely narrow but also extremely important.  Religious liberty is the first freedom and must be protected from government.

The Founders chose not to create a church-based government.  Previous experiments had turned out tragically for both human liberty and religious faith. 

Religion’s relationship to politics has become more important as politics has swallowed more of American life.  In 1789, the new national government was minuscule.  Moreover, in America’s early days, there was a shared Biblical worldview, if not faith, and a common belief in the value of civil religion. 

However, that world has disappeared.  Today there is little government does not do, pushing ever more aspects of life into the public square.  Equally important, Americans have increasingly divergent views of the transcendent. The First Amendment simultaneously guarantees individuals the right to practice and denies government the right to impose.  There may be no more tortured area of federal jurisprudence. 

Libertarian Voters: Still Invisible in New Pew Study

The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study of political ideology in America, based on 10,000 interviews early this year. That’s far bigger than most polls, so it allows more detailed examination of diverse political opinions. Indeed, the study is titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” And yet, disappointingly, it continues to try to place Americans into red and blue boxes: different groups are characterized as “consistently” liberal or conservative, or as groups that “don’t hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views.” There’s no suggestion that there might be consistent views other than contemporary liberalism and conservatism.

Take the interesting discussion of the “Young Outsiders” group: 

Young Outsiders lean Republican but do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party; in fact they tend to dislike both political parties. On many issues, from their support for environmental regulation to their liberal views on social issues, they diverge from traditional GOP orthodoxy. Yet in their support for limited government, Young Outsiders are firmly in the Republicans’ camp….

Young Outsiders share Republicans’ deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs. About three-quarters of Young Outsiders (76%) say the government can’t afford to spend more to help the needy.

However, the Young Outsiders’ generational imprint on issues like homosexuality, diversity and the environment make the Republican Party an uncomfortable fit. In views of societal acceptance of homosexuality, for instance, Young Outsiders have more liberal views than the public overall, and are much more liberal than Republicans….

The Young Outsiders today are very different, as they share the GOP base’s deep skepticism of government programs, but favor a more limited foreign policy, and hold decidedly liberal social views.

As I read this, I keep thinking there’s a word at the tip of my tongue … wait a minute … Oh, I know: The Young Outsiders hold libertarian views. Was that so hard? 

#LibertyIn140 Twitter Contest

Happy Independence Day from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute! What better time than the Fourth of July to think about individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and the foundational role they have played in our nation’s history? In honor of America’s birthday, Libertarianism.org is sponsoring a Twitter contest; tweet the best short description of libertarianism with #LibertyIn140 and you could win up to $500!

You can find all the details on Libertarianism.org’s Tumblr page.

Is There a Libertarian Center at the Supreme Court?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “The Supreme Court’s Libertarian Moment,” perhaps mostly though not entirely from Ilya Shapiro. A detailed analysis of the 2013-14 Supreme Court term in the Washington Post provides some evidence for that, if you read to the very end. In an article on the rising number of unanimous decisions this term, Robert Barnes notes at the end:

Criminal cases are often ones where the lines between the court’s liberal and conservative wings are blurred.

“There’s been a lot of talk in progressive circles about how you want to avoid taking cases to this particular Supreme Court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel with the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “One of the areas we’ve seen the Roberts court taking what might be called liberal positions are areas where there are a liberal-libertarian alliance.” [A point that two of her colleagues had made at length in the Post a few days earlier.]

Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer and former Scalia clerk who represented challengers in the recess appointments case, said there is the same gravitation on the right.

“I think one of the most interesting phenomenon we’ve seen on the court over the last 30 or 40 years is what I would call the evolution of the conservative instinct,” Francisco said. It no longer means “a thumb on the scale for the government.”

Roger Pilon explored the revival of libertarian legal thought in the Chapman Law Review last year.

The Republic of Gilead Is Not Nigh

If you were judging only from the outraged reaction  online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby had just mandated the adoption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the blueprint for American society.  Yet as my colleague Ilya Shapiro notes, there’s a profound disconnect between all the rhetoric about “denial of access” to contraception and the substance of the ruling.

At the heart of the majority’s opinion is this: The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees’ contraception coverage.  In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees.  Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers.  The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren’t being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions.  Which, one would think, is a win-win.

Against this background, the Court simply held that since HHS has already found a way to achieve the government’s aim of ensuring employees have access to free contraception without compelling non-profit employers to act against their profound religious convictions, they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is “closely held.”  The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government’s ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions. As Justice Alito’s opinion emphasizes: