Topic: Political Philosophy

Libertarians for Obama?

At Freedom Communications, the media company founded by the tenacious libertarian publisher R. C. Hoiles, which is still largely family-owned and freedom-oriented, they had an internal lunch debate on presidential politics the other day. According to Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, their corporate philosopher Tibor Machan advocated voting for the Libertarian Party. But the company’s CEO, Scott Flanders, had a different view:

But there was a hush as Flanders reasoned that Obama is the best candidate to work on four top libertarian reforms: 1) Iraq withdrawal, 2) restoring the separation of church and state; 3) easing off victimless crimes such as drug use; 4) curtailing the Patriot Act.

As it happens, a few days earlier I had talked to a leading libertarian writer, who told me that he supposed he’d vote for Obama on the basis of the Iraq issue.

Libertarian voters should be up for grabs this year, the Republicans having done such an effective job of pushing them away. But the Democrats don’t seem to be making much of a pitch for them. At the last Democratic debate, Clinton and Obama spent the first 30 minutes proclaiming their devotion to socialized medicine and protectionism. But maybe issues of peace and civil liberties — combined with the Republicans’ loss of credibility on fiscal and economic issues — really will push some libertarians into the arms of the Democrats, especially if the Democratic nominee is not self-proclaimed “government junkie” Hillary Clinton.

RIP WFB

WFB - From the Washington PostWe knew it had to happen but still it’s a shock. A classical liberal — and libertarian enabler — in so many ways, William F. Buckley, Jr. was the quintessential public intellectual without whom public intellectual life is now hard to fathom.

Though not a great philosophical influence on me personally — I came around to his writing later even than I started reading National Review (originally finding it, to use both Buckleyesque language and irony, sesquipedalian) — the institution he created and movement he fostered certainly affect my life daily. Before think tanks emerged to counter the left-wing takeover of the academy and public discourse, before cable channels provided alternatives to network news, long before the Reagan Revolution, Buckley famously began standing athwart history yelling stop.

All this while embodying the prolific, polymathic, bon vivant style that appeals to those of us who ever dreamed of inhabiting that realm of ideas between academia and the real world and having great fun doing it. Well played, Mr. Buckley, well played.

The Politics of Freedom: Libertarianism with Sizzle

Brian Doherty, the author of the magisterial Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, has some generous things to say about my new book The Politics of Freedom in Sunday’s New York Post. I especially like the subtitle in the reason.com version: “sells the libertarian message with sizzle.”

Brian discusses my claims about the extent of libertarianism among American voters and writes:

Whatever the near-term prospects for libertarian political victories, The Politics of Freedom reminds you of the service libertarians provide to public discourse: They can point out the hypocrisy, power grabs, hubris and counterproductive folly issuing from Washington under either political brand name since they are beholden to neither. …

No major political party has fully embraced the implications of the proper role of government that follow from Boaz’s simple limited-government vision. But when expressed that plainly, it’s a moral vision many Americans can cheer.

The Politics of Freedom is available at all fine bookstores, at Amazon, and from the Cato Institute.

Inside the Sausage Factory

The cover story of this week’s Washington Post Magazine offers a fantastic look at how lobbyists make a living by helping some people take from others.  Every citizen should read it.  Casual observers of government may be surprised (and nauseated) to see how elaborate, expensive, and disingenuous such efforts have become.  (Students of public choice economics will not be.)  As author Jeffrey H. Birnbaum notes, it’s usually the wealthy who are trying to do the taking.

The article is about the travel industry trying to force taxpayers to fund the industry’s advertising campaigns.  (Birnbaum includes such gems as: “One thing everyone agreed on: The travel industry did not want to pay for the ads itself.”)  But the story could have been written about nearly any of the countless lobbying shops littering the D.C. landscape:

The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington’s decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation’s capital.

Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it’s a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients’ costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance – measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided – a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry’s growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.

And why wouldn’t ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.

Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.

Lobbying is Washington’s version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow. 

All of which raises this question: why don’t we see more such stories?  Whatever the reason, Birnbaum deserves kudos for inspecting this small corner of the sausage factory.

Of course, the solution is not to restrict the people’s ability to lobby Congress.  All that sleazy lobbying is nothing more than “petition[ing] the government for a redress of grievances” – a constitutionally protected activity.  The solution, conveniently enough, is to respect the rest of the Constitution too.  Were the People to do that, those sleazy lobbyists wouldn’t get anywhere.

The Free Market Produces Incoherent Headlines

Today’s Washington Post has a story on economic espionage by Chinese interests, most of which have connections to the Chinese government and military. Inexplicably, the headline of the story is “Even Spies Embrace China’s Free Market.”

Government-sponsored economic espionage has little to do with free markets. These are crimes (or at least civil wrongs) sponsored directly or indirectly by over-large governments. Crime and over-large governments are antithetical to free markets, not a part of them.

Evidently, there’s some kind of market failure at the Post. (Note to the economic illiterates at the Post: That’s a joke.)

Privatized Law Enforcement

The New York Times has a fascinating article explaining how bail bondsmen are a uniquely American, quasi-private element of the criminal justice system:

…posting bail for people accused of crimes in exchange for a fee…is all but unknown in the rest of the world. In England, Canada and other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant’s bond in exchange for money is a crime akin to witness tampering or bribing a juror — a form of obstruction of justice. …Other countries almost universally reject and condemn Mr. Spath’s trade, in which defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot make bail on their own pay an outsider a nonrefundable fee for their freedom. “It’s a very American invention,” John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. “It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.” …Bail is meant to make sure defendants show up for trial. It has ancient roots in English common law, which relied on sworn promises and on pledges of land or property from the defendants or their relatives to make sure they did not flee. America’s open frontier and entrepreneurial spirit injected an innovation into the process: by the early 1800s, private businesses were allowed to post bail in exchange for payments from the defendants and the promise that they would hunt down the defendants and return them if they failed to appear. …The system costs taxpayers nothing, Mr. Kreins said, and it is exceptionally effective at ensuring that defendants appear for court. …According to the Justice Department and academic studies, the clients of commercial bail bond agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they flee than those released under other forms of supervision.

Libertarians sometimes get accused of being utopians because of occasional debates about the degree to which things such as roads, defense, and law enforcement can be handled by the private sector. But this article is a great introduction to a thought experiment: Imagine if America’s private bail system did not exist and one of Cato’s legal experts proposed privatization of whatever system the government had created instead. That proposal doubtlessly would be condemned as utopian, unrealistic, impractical, and unworkable. Fortunately, that impossible idea has been successfully in place for about two hundred years. Just something to keep in mind the next time a statist tells you that something only can be done by government.

McCain Undone?

John McCain has a campaign finance problem. When his campaign was down and out, he agreed to take public funding for the primaries. Public funding comes with spending limits overall and by state. Also, a candidate who accepts funding cannot raise money from private sources. Now that it is possible he will be the nominee, McCain will want to be free of those fundraising and spending limits, but he cannot withdraw from the public system. Or perhaps he could but only with the approval of the FEC, which is not operating because of a struggle over its nominees. The FEC does not now have a quorum to meet and regulate. (The lack of a quorum was caused by Barack Obama’s hold on a nominee to the FEC, but never mind).

McCain will want out of the public system because he is probably close to hitting the limit, and he could not get more money for his campaign until he received public funding after the GOP convention during the summer.  His “dark period” would thus be a period without campaign funding that would run from spring until after the GOP convention. During that “dark period” Obama or Hillary, both of whom have not accepted public funding for the primaries, would be able to continue spending money; some of that spending would be directed against McCain after Obama or Hillary has secured the party’s nomination.

So McCain needs to get out of the public system and fast. One way would be to refuse public funding for the fall campaign; he could then start raising money privately now; however, he pledged to accept public funding for the general election if his opponent did so. Obama has taken a similar pledge.   Also, McCain would get around some of this by using “outside groups” (527 groups and others ) to fund his effort, but he has been a fierce critic of such groups and tactics.

I have often noticed that people whom you would expect to support campaign finance regulation (e.g. liberal Democrats) often are strident critics of the system if they have had some personal contact with the web of regulation.  McCain is in a mess fostered in part by his own self-righteousness. Somehow I do not expect his personal contact with the system will make him a critic of it in 2009.

See also Mark Schmitt’s concise and informative report.