Topic: Political Philosophy

The Mysterious Mr. Obama

Yesterday, one minute apart, I received two email messages that sort of sum up the mixed libertarian views on Barack Obama. First, an old friend forwarded an AP story in which Obama promised to repeal any executive orders that “trample on liberty”:

Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that “trample on liberty,” several lawmakers said… .

The Illinois senator “talked about how his attorney general is to review every executive order and immediately eliminate those that trample on liberty,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Good stuff! Let’s just hope he realizes that Bush isn’t the first president to issue executive orders that “trample on liberty.” It was President Bill Clinton’s aide, Paul Begala, who drooled at the notion of using executive orders to do what Congress wouldn’t go along with: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.” For a look at some pre-Bush executive orders that might warrant elimination, Obama’s attorney general might consult “Executive Orders and National Emergencies: How Presidents Have Come to ‘Run the Country’ by Usurping Legislative Power,” published by Cato in 1999. There he can find information about Clinton orders that nationalized land, sought to reverse Supreme Court rulings, rewrote the rules of federalism, and waged war in Yugoslavia.

One minute after receiving that story, I received another Obama analysis in my inbox. That one was an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily titled “Barack Obama’s Stealth Socialism.” The editorial noted Obama’s repeated use of the sneaky phrase “economic justice” and cited a laundry list of spending programs and regulations that Obama supports. It’s a pretty scary list for a libertarian, from national health insurance and penalties for companies that do business internationally to huge new federal burdens on employers.

To the extent that some libertarians look favorably on Obama, I think it’s mostly negative: Bush and the Republican Congress have been so bad that any alternative looks good. But occasionally Obama does indeed say something almost libertarian. And then he promises that he’s the guy who can build a consensus to actually implement Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda, and libertarians are reminded of why they rarely vote Democratic. In Obama’s case, of course, the confusion is created by his lack of much public record. He was a senator for only two years before he began running for president full-time. Unlike candidates such as Clinton and John McCain, he doesn’t have decades’ worth of votes and statements to review. So we parse the substantive moments amid his soaring rhetoric and try to determine if he’s “the most liberal member of the Senate,” “more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” a “a pro-growth, free-market guy,” or even a “left libertarian.”

Sounds Familiar?

“[The speaker] urged the students to study in order to serve the people and those in need, and not to fill their pockets,” reported the media.

Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t Barack Obama urging students to pursue “collective service” instead of chasing after a “big house and nice suits,” but Aleida Guevara, the daughter of the infamous Che Guevara, talking to Paraguayan students yesterday.

Guevara went on to say that “Each of us isn’t worth anything. The processes belong to the people, and not to any individual man.”

That’s a good audition for the commencement address at Wesleyan University next year.

Pushing Help on Flood Victims

In a recent Cato@Liberty post that I’m particularly proud of (because it’s about TV! - “TV is Great”), I pointed out an example where a midwestern farming couple victimized by the recent flooding weren’t expecting help from the government.

Said Barb Boyer:

We’ve always lived our life that we’re responsible for our own choices, our own destiny. And we chose not to carry the flood insurance. That was our responsibility. …[O]f course, we are going to need help, but do I expect it? No. We’ll start over. That’s all I know right now.

Well, it looks like they might get help from the government anyway. Introduced in the House on Wednesday, H.R. 6587 would provide various forms of tax relief for the victims of the recent harsh weather in the Midwest.

When tax time comes, the Boyers and their neighbors will be presented with lots of ways to reduce their tax liability for having been in the area where the storms and flooding hit — nevermind that they didn’t insure for it. They’d be fools to refuse the savings.

Libertarians often talk about the possibility of private charity picking up the slack for reduced government welfare. Statists scoff at such notions, pointing to the weakness of local community and cultural institutions today. The charge rings true, but the reason, if this is the case, is not that the American character is weak and that it casually ceded responsibility to government. It’s because government largesse is an insidious, attacking organism that goes right for the fibers and joints of civil society to draw down their strength and make them arthritic.

My sympathies go to victims of the flooding. I would go to my pocket to help them. But our representatives are in our pockets already, taking not just tax money, but the sense of sympathy and shared purpose that would bind us to our fellow Americans.

The Mechanics of Government Gaining Ground

Over at the new WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve posted a piece illustrating the simple modern mechanics of something Jefferson warned against: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

Congress is considering a bill to cancel the scheduled termination of a commission that studies minority veterans issues. It would only cost three cents per U.S. family to keep it going, but it’s one of nearly 10,000 bills of all different stripes pending in the current Congress.

Did minority veterans fight for a country where each group looks to the government for special treatment or a little cut of the loot from taxpayers? Or for the country where the people’s spirits are still free?

Naomi Klein Doesn’t Know What She’s Talking About

Johan Norberg has done the world a service with his workup of Ms. Klein’s rubbish, but now here’s Jonathan Chait to pile on:

[Klein] pays shockingly (but, given her premises, unsurprisingly) little attention to right-wing ideas. She recognizes that neoconservatism sits at the heart of the Iraq war project, but she does not seem to know what neoconservatism is; and she makes no effort to find out. Her ignorance of the American right is on bright display in one breathtaking sentence:

“Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think-tanks with which [Milton] Friedman had long associations–Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute–called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a worldview that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.”

Where to begin? First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call “national greatness” over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”) And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.

Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement “Friedmanite to the core,” and identifies the Iraq war as a “careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology” over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention–not once, not anywhere, in her book–is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of “aggression.”

It ought to be morbidly embarrassing for a writer to discover that the central character of her narrative turns out to oppose what she identifies as the apotheosis of his own movement. And Klein’s mistake exposes the deeper flaw of her thesis. Friedman opposed the war because he was a libertarian, and libertarian conservatism is not the same thing as neoconservatism. Nor are the interests of corporations always, or even usually, served by war.

No word on any forthcoming apology from John Cusack.

McDonald’s CEO on Globalization and Eating Your Vegetables

In an age when most corporate CEOs shun controversy, it was refreshing to read a recent interview with McDonald’s Corp. CEO Jim Skinner.

In the August 2008 issue of the Wall Street Journal magazine Smart Money [sorry, the interview has yet to be posted online], Skinner was asked what responsibility his fast-food company has for combating the national “obesity epidemic.” Skinner replied: “We are not going to solve society’s problems. People have to do that on their own …[I]f you can’t get your kids to eat vegetables, why is it my job?”

Exactly. Why should parental responsibility be treated as such a radical idea?

Skinner does note that the restaurant chain has expanded its menu to meet demand for healthier foods beyond burgers and fries. For example, McDonald’s now buys 39 million pounds of apples a year, more than any other buyer in the country.

In the same interview, Skinner credited globalization as one of the reasons the company’s stock has roughly doubled in the past three years while the economy and the rest of the stock market have struggled.

You look at the proliferation of restaurants outside the U.S. since the last big recession, in 1990 to 1991. It’s an enormous offset. Half our sales come from abroad. And we are as well positioned today as at any other time in our opportunity to serve customers and not nick their pocketbook.

Which is just the point I made a few months ago in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin on how globalization and free trade have helped U.S. companies and the economy to better weather domestic downturns.

Turning Socialism Upside Down

Raúl Castro addressed the Cuban National Assembly this weekend for the first time since officially becoming head of state. There, he gave us this rhetorical jewel:

Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income. Equality is not egalitarianism.

This is certainly not the brand of socialism I was taught by my college professors in Costa Rica. Otherwise, I might’ve ended up being a “socialist.”

However, I’m sure Raúl’s statement raised some eyebrows among the Communist Party officials gathered in the Assembly. So, in order to diffuse any misunderstanding, Raúl quickly added that he has “learned everything” from his brother Fidel.

Then, he received a standing ovation.