Topic: Political Philosophy

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Readers may have noticed that the fringes of the blogosphere have been aflame with attacks on the Cato Institute and several of our staff members—and former staff members, and former Board members, and occasional writers, and friends, and people we once met at a cocktail party—all because of our attempt to separate the grand old cause of classical liberalism from racism and bigotry.

Readers may also have noticed that we haven’t responded to any of these attacks. I published one statement setting forth my view that people who write racist newsletters “are not our comrades, not part of our movement.” And that’s been the extent of our response. (Though of course a few of my colleagues who maintain private blogs have written about the current controversy there.)

Indeed, you might note that this blog has never mentioned the name of the proprietor of the website where many of the vicious attacks have appeared, who is also widely reported to be the author of those reprehensible passages that have so embarrassed his political patron. Some people tell us they deplore “libertarian infighting.” Well, I’d make two responses to that: We’re not fighting. And people who defend racist writings (though almost never by actually quoting them, I note) are not what I’d call libertarians.

Let it not be thought that by ignoring these critics we tacitly concede their wild accusations and innuendos. Many of the things that have been written about us are false, or intentionally misleading, or wildly conspiratorial, or frankly nuts. (Of course, a few of the charges are true. I do in fact live near the Orange Line of the Washington Metro, and Reason magazine’s Washington office is on the Red Line, and red is next to orange in the color spectrum.) The reason we’ve refrained from answering these libels stems from a bit of folk wisdom I learned growing up in the South: Never wrestle with a pig; in the first place, you get dirty; and in the second place, the pig likes it. 

Besides, we’d rather take on bigger game. My colleagues and I will continue to spend our time arguing with big-government liberals and big-government conservatives, criticizing the Iraq war and the federal tax code, publishing the ideas of Bastiat, Mises, and Hayek in languages around the world, and skewering wasteful and unconstitutional government programs.

But I’ll take just a moment to repeat what I said a few days ago:

Libertarians should make it clear that the people who wrote those things are not our comrades, not part of our movement, not part of the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. Shame on them.

Thomas Jefferson at Cato

Today’s Wall Street Journal gives a warm review to the new book Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford:

Alan Pell Crawford treats his subject with grace and sympathetic understanding, and with keen penetration as well, showing the great man’s contradictions (and hypocrisies) for what they were…. Drawing on new archival sources, Mr. Crawford reconstructs daily life at Monticello and depicts a colorful supporting cast of eminent personages, family members and retainers.

Alan Crawford will discuss Twilight at Monticello at the Cato Institute on Tuesday, February 19. He promises to discuss Jefferson’s growing concerns about slavery and how he became a radical decentralist and admirer of the New England townships, where, he believed, the real fire of liberty burned bright. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m., so our hard-working friends can work a full day and still join us for a glass of wine and a new look at the man George Will called “the man of the millennium.”

The Corruption of Barack Obama

Barack Obama stands accused of moral shortcomings regarding money in politics: he has not invited the press to all of his fundraisers.

Obama has voluntarily disclosed his bundlers and opened some fundraisers to the media. But that is not enough. He is not inviting the media to all his fundraisers, probably to protect the privacy of his supporters. After all, Hillary may yet become president, and like most politicians, she is not known for forgiving and forgetting.

Obama might learn a lesson here. If you give the media what they want, they will only demand more. If you give them access to all your fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once-promising reformer.  On the other hand, if you don’t let them come to the fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once promising reformer.

The media have only one storyline about private money in politics: it corrupts the process. You don’t get a pass by supporting their crusade to restrict private money in elections (Obama does) or by giving in to their endless demands for access. They will write the same story.

Obama has shared that narrative until now. He has promised to move against big money when he has power. He is also famously open-minded. Perhaps his own “corruption” might occasion some rethinking about the politics of “reform.”

Campaign Finance Regulation without Romance

Candidates are in hot pursuit of the party nominations and eventually the presidency. That means they are defining enemies, inducing fear, and offering voters hope — that their enemies will be punished and their fears relieved.

The rhetoric of campaign finance regulation is replete with such  enemies — the special interests, “Big Money,” the rich and so on — and one set of friends, “reformers.” Barack Obama has been especially skillful practicing this politics of fear to pave the way for additional restrictions on money in politics.

However, the reality of campaign finance regulation is a lot different from the rhetoric, and the 2008 campaign has already brought an exemplar of regulation absent romance.

Unity08 is an organization that tried to put together a “centrist, bi-partisan approach to the solving of our nation’s problems and the possibility of an independent, unity ticket for the presidency.” Unity08 sought to be a movement first and a third party with a candidate, second. I use the past tense here because a posted letter to their supporters suggests their effort has come to an end.

Unity08’s analysis of the reasons for their failure merits attention. They now lack enough members or money to go on. The two are interdependent: more members generate more money and vice versa. The Unity08 leaders think a lack of money posed the biggest obstacle:

The Federal Election Commission … has taken the position that we are subject to their jurisdiction … and, therefore, that we are limited to $5000 contributions from individuals (even though the Democrat and Republican Parties are able to receive $25,000 from individuals). Needless to say, this position by the FEC effectively limited our fundraising potential, especially in the crucial early going when we needed substantial money fast to get on with ballot access and the publicity necessary to build our membership. We were caught in a peculiar catch-22; we wanted to break the dependence on big money by getting lots of small contributions from millions of members, but needed some up-front big money to help generate the millions of members to make the small contributions. And the FEC (in effect, an arm of the parties) didn’t let that happen.

The need for large donations to build fundraising capacity was first discovered by the best political science book you never heard of. Contribution limits complicate political organizing by outsiders and thereby stabilize the status quo and benefit those who hold power.

Campaign finance regulations are sold as a panacea for all that ails Americans. They are said to foster competition, prevent corruption, and purify political speech. The Unity08 leaders have found out the truth about such regulations. Such rules are largely created to stifle electoral competition to help out one party or the other, or — as in this case — to permit both parties to stifle a third alternative. Such regulations don’t outlaw competition; they do establish arcane rules that discriminate against outsiders like Unity08.

When a candidate starts demonizing Big Money, remember Unity08 and the reality its leaders discovered, too late for their cause.

Ron Paul’s Ugly Newsletters

For the past few months most libertarians have been pleased to see Ron Paul achieving unexpected success with his presidential campaign’s message of ending the Iraq war, abolishing the federal income tax, establishing sound money, and restoring the Constitution. Sure, some of us didn’t like his talk about closing the borders and his conspiratorial view of a North-South highway. But the main themes of his campaign, the ones that generated the multi-million-dollar online fundraising spectaculars and the youthful “Ron Paul Revolution,” were classic libertarian issues. It was particularly gratifying to see a presidential candidate tie the antiwar position to a belief in a strictly limited federal government.

And so it’s understandable that over the past few months a lot of people have been asking why writers at the Cato Institute seemed to display a lack of interest in or enthusiasm for the Paul campaign. Well, now you know. We had never seen the newsletters that have recently come to light, and I for one was surprised at just how vile they turned out to be. But we knew the company Ron Paul had been keeping, and we feared that they would have tied him to some reprehensible ideas far from the principles we hold.

Ron Paul says he didn’t write these newsletters, and I take him at his word. They don’t sound like him. In my infrequent personal encounters and in his public appearances, I’ve never heard him say anything racist or homophobic (halting and uncomfortable on gay issues, like a lot of 72-year-old conservatives, but not hateful). But he selected the people who did write those things, and he put his name on the otherwise unsigned newsletters, and he raised campaign funds from the mailing list that those newsletters created. And he would have us believe that things that “do not represent what I believe or have ever believed” appeared in his newsletter for years and years without his knowledge. Assuming Ron Paul in fact did not write those letters, people close to him did. His associates conceived, wrote, edited, and mailed those words. His closest associates over many years know who created those publications. If they truly admire Ron Paul, if they think he is being unfairly tarnished with words he did not write, they should come forward, take responsibility for their words, and explain how they kept Ron Paul in the dark for years about the words that appeared every month in newsletters with “Ron Paul” in the title.

Paul says he didn’t write the letters, that he denounces the words that appeared in them, that he was unaware for decades of what 100,000 people were receiving every month from him. That’s an odd claim on which to run for president: I didn’t know what my closest associates were doing over my signature, so give me responsibility for the federal government.

But of course Ron Paul isn’t running for president. He’s not going to be president, he’s not going to be the Republican nominee for president, and he never hoped to be. He got into the race to advance ideas—the ideas of peace, constitutional government, and freedom. Succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, he became the most visible so-called “libertarian” in America. And now he and his associates have slimed the noble cause of liberty and limited government.

Mutterings about the past mistakes of the New Republic or the ideological agenda of author James Kirchick are beside the point. Maybe Bob Woodward didn’t like Quakers; the corruption he uncovered in the Nixon administration was still a fact, and that’s all that mattered. Ron Paul’s most visible defenders have denounced Kirchick as a “pimply-faced youth”—so much for their previous enthusiasm about all the young people sleeping on floors for the Paul campaign—and a neoconservative. But they have not denied the facts he reported. Those words appeared in newsletters under his name. And, notably, they have not dared to defend or even quote the actual words that Kirchick reported. Even those who vociferously defend Ron Paul and viciously denounce Kirchick, perhaps even those who wrote the words originally, are apparently unwilling to quote and defend the actual words that appeared over Ron Paul’s signature.

Those words are not libertarian words. Maybe they reflect “paleoconservative” ideas, though they’re not the language of Burke or even Kirk. But libertarianism is a philosophy of individualism, tolerance, and liberty. As Ayn Rand wrote, “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.” Making sweeping, bigoted claims about all blacks, all homosexuals, or any other group is indeed a crudely primitive collectivism.

Libertarians should make it clear that the people who wrote those things are not our comrades, not part of our movement, not part of the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. Shame on them.

Training Economic Illiterates in France and Germany

A fascinating Foreign Policy article explores the anti-capitalist propaganda that is force-fed to students in France and Germany. Recalling the glorification of the New Deal that I was exposed to during my younger years and the environmental nonsense my kids deal with (even in private schools!) on a frequent basis, I know American students also get some statist misinformation, but the article makes it appear that American textbooks are written by Friedman, Hayek, and Mises compared to what passes for economic education in Europe:

Millions of children are being raised on prejudice and disinformation. Educated in schools that teach a skewed ideology, they are exposed to a dogma that runs counter to core beliefs shared by many other Western countries. …Just as schools teach a historical narrative, they also pass on “truths” about capitalism, the welfare state, and other economic principles that a society considers self-evident. In both France and Germany, for instance, schools have helped ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism. In one 2005 poll, just 36 percent of French citizens said they supported the free-enterprise system, the only one of 22 countries polled that showed minority support for this cornerstone of global commerce. In Germany, meanwhile, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs—47 percent in 2007 versus 36 percent in 1991.

Many of these popular attitudes can be traced to state-mandated curricula in schools. It is there that economic lessons are taught that diverge substantially from the market-based principles on which the Western model is based. The phenomenon may hardly be unique to Europe, but in few places is it more obvious than in France and Germany. A biased view of economics feeds into many of the world’s most vexing problems, from the growth of populism to the global rise of anti-American, anti-capitalist attitudes.

The past 20 years have “doubled wealth, doubled unemployment, poverty, and exclusion, whose ill effects constitute the background for a profound social malaise,” the text continues. Because the 21st century begins with “an awareness of the limits to growth and the risks posed to humanity [by economic growth],” any future prosperity “depends on the regulation of capitalism on a planetary scale.” Capitalism itself is described at various points in the text as “brutal,” “savage,” “neoliberal,” and “American.” This agitprop was published in 2005, not in 1972. When French students are not getting this kind of wildly biased commentary on the destruction wreaked by capitalism, they are learning that economic progress is also the root cause of social ills. …Germans teach their young people a similar economic narrative, with a slightly different emphasis. The focus is on instilling the corporatist and collectivist traditions of the German system.

Bosses and company owners show up in caricatures and illustrations as idle, cigar-smoking plutocrats, sometimes linked to child labor, Internet fraud, cell-phone addiction, alcoholism, and, of course, undeserved layoffs. The successful, modern entrepreneur is virtually nowhere to be found. German students will be well-versed in many subjects upon graduation; one topic they will know particularly well is their rights as welfare recipients.

The not-so-subtle subtext? Jobs are a right to be demanded from the government. The same chapter also details various welfare programs.

Like many French and German books, this text suggests students learn more by contacting the antiglobalization group Attac, best known for organizing messy protests at the annual G-8 summits. One might expect Europeans to view the world through a slightly left-of-center, social-democratic lens. The surprise is the intensity and depth of the anti-market bias being taught in Europe’s schools. Students learn that private companies destroy jobs while government policy creates them. Employers exploit while the state protects. Free markets offer chaos while government regulation brings order.

…training the next generation of citizens to be prejudiced against being enterprising and productive is…foolhardy. …If countries like France and Germany hope to get their nations on a new economic track, they might start paying more attention to what their kids are learning in the classroom.

What’s So Funny about P. J. O’Rourke?

I decided to give a young colleague a post-graduate course in political science and economics – P. J. O’Rourke’s books Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich. So I went to my local Barnes & Noble to search for them. Not in Current Affairs. Not in Economics. No separate section called Politics. I decided to try Borders. But first – to avoid yet more driving around – I went online to see if my local Borders stores had them in stock. (An excellent innovation that Barnes & Noble should copy, for customers who like to look at the actual book before buying it, or who don’t do their Christmas shopping far enough in advance to shop online.) Sure enough, they did, in a couple of stores just blocks from the Cato Institute. Checking to see where in the store I would find them, I discovered that they would both be shelved under “Humor–Humorous Writing.” Oh, right, I thought, they’re not books on economics or current affairs, they’re humor.

Yes, P.J. is one of the funniest writers around. But what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he is. Parliament of Whores is a very funny book, but it’s also a very perceptive analysis of politics in a late 20th century democracy. And if you read Eat the Rich, you’ll learn more about how countries get rich—and why they don’t – than in a whole year of econ at most colleges. In fact, I’ve decided that the best answer to the question “What’s the best book to start learning economics?” is Eat the Rich.

On page 1, P. J. starts with the right question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” Supply-and-demand curves are all well and good, but what we really want to know is how not to be mired in poverty. He writes that he tried returning to his college economics texts but quickly remembered why he hated them at the time–though he does attempt, for instance, to explain comparative advantage in terms of John Grisham and Courtney Love. Instead he decided to visit economically successful and unsuccessful societies and try to figure out what make them work or not work. So he headed off to Sweden, Hong Kong, Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, China, and Wall Street.

In Tanzania he gapes at the magnificent natural beauty and the appalling human poverty. Why is Tanzania so poor? he asks people, and he gets a variety of answers. One answer, he notes, is that Tanzania is actually not poor by the standards of human history; it has a life expectancy about that of the United States in 1920, which is a lot better than humans in 1720, or 1220, or 20. But, he finally concludes, the real answer is the collective “ujamaa” policies pursued by the sainted post-colonial leader Julius Nyerere. The answer is “ujaama—they planned it. They planned it, and we paid for it. Rich countries underwrote Tanzanian economic idiocy.”

From Tanzania P. J. moves on to Hong Kong, where he finds “the best contemporary example of laissez-faire….The British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.”

You could do worse than to take a semester-long course on political economy where the texts are Eat the Rich and Parliament of Whores. So, bookstore owners, leave them in the Humorous Writing section for sure, but also put copies in the Economics, Politics, and Current Affairs sections.