Topic: Political Philosophy

Liberalish Rather than Liberal: A Kuwaiti Grades the Gulf Kingdom

Kuwait City, Kuwait—“I read your blog post,” Dr. Anood Al-Sharikh told me when we met. “Kuwait isn’t really liberal, but more liberalish, don’t you think?”

She’s right, though in the Middle East even liberalish is a major advance over ugly authoritarian systems like the Saudi theocracy. Kuwait hosts many traditionalists and Islamists who live conservatively, but there is space for most everyone. Many women, like Al-Sharikh hold professional jobs, travel the world, and dress fashionably.

Moreover, politics is freer than elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwait is ruled by an emir who appoints government ministers, but an elected National Assembly can challenge government ministers and force a cabinet’s resignation. On Tuesday I sat through some the “grilling” of the health minister, a liberal royal who I met last year when he was working in the prime minister’s office. Animated legislators vigorously challenged his performance as well as the arguments of their colleagues while pushing a no confidence motion.

Still, the government clearly has the upper hand, aided by problems elsewhere in the Gulf. A year ago, Kuwait was host to multiple demonstrations by an angry opposition which ranged from secular liberal to Islamist. Today “things have calmed down,” noted Waleed Moubarak of Alghanim Industries. That’s positive, in his view, since you “can only sustain so much political drama.”

But more happened than people being worn out. The authorities “sucked the wind out of” the opposition movement, noted Al-Sharikh. The “government struck back effectively” in a notably illiberal fashion, jailing some people and using its various forms of influence. It even pressed Islamist clerics to issue fatwas against the opposition. Moreover, she asked, “how can anyone in Kuwait be against the government,” which offers jobs, provides homes, pays for education, and more.

Internal contradictions hobbled the opposition: by allying with Islamists, the liberals were effectively promoting a political agenda that included imposing dress codes, closing churches, executing blasphemers, and enshrining sharia as the fount of law. Equally important, the collapse of the Arab Spring had a sobering effect. A bank analyst told me “the public was fed up, it saw chaos in Egypt, violence in Syria, and said that is not for us. People decided there was more to lose than to gain if they went down that particular route.”

In fact, Kuwait well demonstrates the tensions between a democratic polity and liberal society. Thus the “liberalish” country’s fascinating paradox: today, at least, Kuwait’s hereditary emir might be more likely than an elected parliament to encourage development of a free society.

Race Has Nothing to Do with the Judicial Nominations Fight

The Congressional Black Caucus has now explicitly attacked Republicans as racist for blocking President Obama’s latest judicial nominees. Not only are they racist, but if you scratch them, you find Confederate gray. 
 
Unbelievable. 
 
Do these elected officials really think that the filibustering of three D.C. Circuit nominees (one of whom is black) has more to do with race than either judicial philosophy or the ongoing battle over whether this underworked court actually needs more judges? Even after Indian-American Sri Srinivasen was confirmed to that same court unanimously in May after Caitlin Halligan (who’s white) was blocked for ideological reasons?
 

Thank Inventors and Innovators for a Better Life

Hans Riegel recently died at age 90. He changed the world for the better. He brought us the treat known as gummi bears. 

Politicians routinely crusade against wealth and inequality, but that occurs naturally when people create products and offer services benefiting the rest of us.   

Today people live on their cell phones. Once we didn’t even have telephones. Thank Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

The internal combustion engine auto came from Karl Benz. He was a design engineer who in 1886 won a patent for a “motor car.” 

In 1903, Clarence Crane created the hard fruit candy known as Life Savers. 

Helen Greiner, a fan of Star Wars’ R2D2, came up with the Roomba vacuum cleaner robot in 2002. 

John Mauchly and John Eckert created the first computer in 1946—the Electronic Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. 

Thomas Edison gave us working light bulbs in 1879. Joseph Swan might have beaten Edison, but the latter bought Swan’s patent. 

The 3-D printer was created in 1983 by Chuck Hall. His first creation: a tea cup. 

Flight Not an Option in Public School Wars

People viciously go for each other’s throats when they’re trying to help “the children.” At least, according to a new Politico article, that’s the case over the last several years, with demonization increasingly the weapon of choice when it comes to education politics.

Several pragaraphs in, the piece gets to the inflamed heart of the problem:

The policies the two sides fight over are high-stakes indeed. They drive hundreds of billions in public spending. They could impact millions of union  jobs and millions in corporate profits. And they will have an enormous impact on where, how and what the next generation learns.

That may be why the hostility seems to be escalating.

Public schooling politics is a zero-sum game: all people pay in, but only those with political power get control. That is exactly why public schools drive such vitriol and anger. It is like politics generally, but with the emotionally charged, added stakes that people’s children and, often, their basic values, hang in the balance. Making matters worse is that basic decisions about crucial questions—including who is held “accountable,” how, and what children will learn—have for roughly 50 years been increasingly made at the federal level. As a result, people who want something different can’t move to another district or even state to get the education they want. There is no more flight. There is only fight.

Of course, painful conflict caused by public schools is nothing new, even if nationalization is making it worse and more visible. Familiarizing oneself with the history of American education makes clear just how divisive public schooling has been. For instance, see the Philadelphia “Bible Riots,” or the textbook war in Kanawha County, WV. And just because something is local- or state-controlled doesn’t free it from conflict. Cato’s still-under-construction public schooling “battle map” pinpoints well over 800—and growing—contemporary battles over basic values and rights fought at the school, district, and state levels. And that doesn’t include constant combat over budgets, teacher evaluations, school start times, math curricula, and on and on.

Ultimately, understanding why public schools are the source of unceasing conflict—and why it worsens the more that control is centralized—requires the simplest of logic: One government school system cannot possibly serve all, diverse people equally. And the higher decision-making goes, the more diversity the monolithic system encompasses.  

Government schooling essentially guarantees war without end, and increasing centralization only puts peace further out of reach.

The Sickness of Government

People shouldn’t be surprised about the botched roll-out of Obamacare and all the damaging effects of the law that are now generating headlines. Over the decades, federal efforts to subsidize and manipulate the economy have failed over and over again.

That lesson has been driven home to me in researching Downsizing Government. Farm policies, for example, have been an ongoing boondoggle for more than eight decades. President Herbert Hoover’s Federal Farm Board blew $500 million trying to stabilize crop markets, but it did the opposite by inducing overproduction and depressing prices. Every farm bill since then—including the one moving through Congress right now—has been based on two very dumb ideas: that farm businesses need welfare and that agriculture needs government central planning.

I recently came across “The Sickness of Government,” (PDF) a 1969 essay by famed management theorist Peter Drucker. It is strikingly relevant to the problems we see in Washington today from Obamacare, to farm programs, to IRS abuse, to NSA spying. Unlike, say, Ayn Rand–who at the time was writing about government from the standpoint of individual freedom–Drucker was writing from the practical perspective that Big Government simply wasn’t working.

Here are some excerpts from Drucker, but his whole essay is worth reading:

Americans’ Liberty Matters More than Washington’s Credibility

For two weeks most Americans didn’t notice that the federal government had closed.  Other nations complained that the shutdown undercut America’s position as a great power, but Americans must debate fundamental issues despite the criticism of foreign governments.

Some analysts worried that the partisan budget deadlock would ruin America’s international reputation.  For instance, Sina Toossi of Foreign Policy in Focus argued:  “It is clear that politicking in Washington is reaching the point where consequential damage is being done to the broader and longer term national interests of the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the America-bashing.  He warned that if the partial shutdown was “prolonged or repeated,” people might question America’s ability to “stay the course” and whether the U.S. can “be counted on.” 

The shutdown may have been a foolish political tactic, but such hand-wringing was silly.  For all of the drang und sturm in Washington, people elsewhere barely noticed.  American politicians looked stupid, but that’s nothing new.  International policies, treaties, and alliances remained unchanged.

Moreover, as I pointed out in my latest Forbes online column:

Even more important, nothing changed outside of government.  The U.S. economy remained the world’s largest and most productive.  American entrepreneurs continued to circle the globe looking for business opportunities.  U.S. culture continued to hold sway most everywhere people travel and electromagnetic waves reach.  American people continued to visit other nations as tourists, athletes, missionaries, educators, and humanitarians.  The world didn’t wait on the U.S. since the American people didn’t wait on their government.

President Obama did cancel a trip to Asia.  Aleksius Jemadu of Indonesia’s Pelita Harapan University opined that the “Obama administration has to convince again partners in Asia that the United States is really serious about the plan to focus on Asia.”  Shihoko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson International Center similarly contended that even a friend like Japan is “beginning to regard Washington’s political impasse as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the region.” 

Yet Washington’s Asia policy remained the same.  U.S. military forces continued to provide what amounts to defense welfare to prosperous and populous allies throughout the Asia-Pacific.  (Unfortunately!) 

Of course, the president missed some meetings.  But most of the work at international gatherings is done by staff, and none of the president’s planned trips were particularly important.  The Secretaries of State and Commerce—officials more influential than the heads of state and government of most other nations—attended the largest gathering.  Moreover, political leaders the world over routinely forgo foreign travel in response to domestic political crises. 

Still, Secretary Kerry was worried:  “The question no longer is whether our politics stops at the water’s edge, but whether our politics stops us from providing the leadership that the world needs.”

Yet a world so utterly dependent on the U.S. is not good for the U.S., let alone the rest of the world.  In fact, American and foreign leaders alike hype Washington’s importance for their own ends.  U.S. officials enjoy their supposed indispensability and bask in lavish attention accorded by other states.  Foreign governments enjoy foisting their most difficult problems on America while benefiting from all manner of financial and military subsidies. 

American Security Project’s August Cole complained that “America is losing its ability to lead globally on the strength of its actions and ideas, to support a vibrant free-market system, to nurture a responsive democratic political system and to uphold a social contract that honors economic and social progress.” 

The nation’s vibrant free-market system and responsive democratic system are under serious threat, but not from the recent political battle.  The danger comes from ever more expansive government. 

For instance, Washington’s take over of American health care is bending the cost curve up.  By inflating health insurance expenses government is threatening economic growth and job creation.  By raising government costs the Obama program is weakening federal finances.  Finally, by imposing unpopular legislation amid a cascade of lies—such as that everyone could keep their own insurance if they wanted—the administration is undercutting American democracy.

While the shutdown was counterproductive, only political vigilance and concerted action can preserve a vibrant market economy and responsive political democracy.  That battle must be fought even if other nations look askance at the result.  What other think matters far less than preserving liberty at home.

Supporting Individual Rights, Opposing Eminent Domain Abuse

A recent blogpost published by Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center (with whom we sometimes work with on op-eds and briefscriticized Cato’s involvement in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action as cowardly, and inconsistent with our ideals. While Cato has great respect for any organization that, like the CAC, works “to preserve the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” their criticism of our brief is baseless, and grossly mischaracterizes Cato’s position in the case and track record generally. 

While I’m wary of misrepresenting the post through over-simplification, it can be boiled down to the following: 

  1. Mount Holly is a case about eminent domain;
  2. Pro-property rights groups (including Cato) have a history of “howling” against eminent domain;
  3. Those groups’ failure to argue against eminent domain in this case (and their support of the Township of Mount Holly), is inconsistent with their previous stance on property rights, and evinces a lack of moral courage;
  4. That failure can be explained because this case is also about civil rights and equality, and conservative groups hate equality, and live to help the state further oppress the downtrodden masses. 

 CAC’s criticism stems from an incorrect framing of the case at hand:

an important case out of Mount Holly, New Jersey, that involves Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims in the context of an effort by Mount Holly Township to use eminent domain to redevelop its only predominately minority community—and in the process, displace and raze the homes of its residents.

While that description is accurate in that the case is important, originates in Mount Holly, and concerns the applicability of the Fair Housing Act to a redevelopment plan, the case before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with eminent domain. The question to be argued before high court couldn’t be plainer: “Whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.”

It’s surprising that CAC would make such a basic mistake about the case, given that they filed a brief in the case, supporting the Mount Holly residents (a brief which makes no mention of eminent domain – at all).

“Eminent domain” refers to a specific way that the government can acquire private property against the will of the owner. So far, Mount Holly Township hasn’t resorted to eminent domain. Of the 329 properties that the township wants to include in the redevelopment plan, it has been able to acquire all but 70 of them through voluntary sales. If those remaining 70 owners – some of whom are parties to the case – were to challenge any attempts to expropriate their homes, Cato would be first in line to file a brief in their support, probably joined by those “howling”  pro-property groups like the Institute for Justice and Pacific Legal Foundation. (Sadly, it’s unlikely that we would garner CAC’s support, because the group has “long supported the reasonable use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes.”)

No, this case isn’t about eminent domain because the residents aren’t challenging the township’s acquisition of property, but what it intends to do with that property. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs argue that the Fair Housing Act – which forbids governments and private individuals from refusing “to sell or rent … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin” – bars not just intentional discrimination like restrictive covenants, but also any action that, even if entirely neutral and colorblind,  has a “disproportionate impact” on the ability of members of a protected class to buy or rent a home. They argue not that Mount Holly is intentionally discriminating against minority residents, but that the increase in property values as a result of redevelopment would effectively price the poor out of the neighborhood – and that counts as discrimination because the poorer residents are disproportionately drawn from minority groups

Cato opposes that theory of law generally, for the same reason that we oppose governmental abuse of eminent domain: we stand firmly against attempts by the government to control how people may dispose of their property. A homeowner should be able to sell his house for whatever price he thinks fair – without worrying that if his asking price is too high, he’ll be accused of racism and forced to defend himself in court. Our position in Mount Holly is the product of the reasoned and consistent application of well-articulated liberal principles, not “cowardice.”

As a closing note, we take issue with the implication that Cato “detests civil rights statutes.” Cato supports laws that protect individual freedom and opposes those that don’t. We may disagree with CAC on whether a law falls in the first or second category, regardless of whether it’s a “civil rights” statute or otherwise, but make no mistake that we support individual civil (and other) rights.

Indeed, we believe that the first and foremost duty of civil rights legislation (and constitutions) is to protect citizens from undue state interference with their daily lives and liberties. A reading of the FHA that embraces disparate impact claims doesn’t protect individuals from the state but instead represents an expansion of state interference. Behavior that was once lawful – selling your home for whatever price you wish – would become sanctionable. Disparate impact theory holds private individuals responsible not for personal bigotry, or the direct consequences of their actions, but for economic realities beyond their control – and that makes no one freer, nor more equal.

Update: Repeating what happened in the previous disparate-impact FHA case, Magner v. Gallagher, this case has apparently settled. The only question now is what the administration did to keep this issue away from the Supreme Court again. 

Further update: A couple of readers familiar with the facts on the ground in Mount Holly point out that while it’s technically correct that Mount Holly “hasn’t resorted to eminent domain,” the town’s redevelopment plan is indeed all-too-typical of eminent-domain abusers. That is, while not employing eminent domain – no condemnation proceedings have (yet) been filed – the town threatened to use it and then claimed “voluntary” sales when the homeowners capitulated. The redevelopment authority has represented that the incentives it offered for relocation were greater than what homeowners would’ve gotten from the eminent domain process – that alas is probably true, because the compensation paid for government takings is rarely “just” – but of course they would’ve had to sweeten the deal even more if they couldn’t threaten eminent domain in the first place. In other words, as we and our pro-property-rights allies have long argued, the ultimate solution is to reverse Kelo v. New London and take away the government’s ability to forcibly transfer property from one private party to another. If such eminent-domain-abuse claims aren’t foreclosed by the Mount Holly settlement, I suggest that the town’s residents hire IJ to litigate them. Cato would look forward to filing an amicus brief in support.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner.