Topic: Political Philosophy

A Free Market Gem in Guatemala

The L.A. Times has a very fine article today on Francisco Marroquín University, Guatemala’s libertarian institution of higher learning, and its founder, Manuel “Muso” Ayau.

Those of us who have visited UFM can testify as to the passion for liberty that fills the place. It’s certainly a free market gem in the midst of Central America.

Today, In the Role of David Brooks, Mike Huckabee

A few weeks back, David Brooks was telling George Packer that philosophies of limited government were “politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American.” Now we have Mike Huckabee telling the Huffington Post the same thing:

The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says “look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it.” Well, that might be a quote pure economic conservative message, but it’s not an American message. It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people. That’s not historic Republicanism. Historic Republicanism does not hate government; it’s just there to be as little of it as there can be. But they also recognize that government has to be paid for.

If you have a breakdown in the social structure of a community, it’s going to result in a more costly government … police on the streets, prison beds, court costs, alcohol abuse centers, domestic violence shelters, all are very expensive. What’s the answer to that? Cut them out? Well, the libertarians say “yes, we shouldn’t be funding that stuff.” But what you’ve done then is exacerbate a serious problem in your community. You can take the cops off the streets and just quit funding prison beds. Are your neighborhoods safer? Is it a better place to live? The net result is you have now a bigger problem than you had before.

First, there’s nothing “new” about libertarianism, although it appears someone’s just alerted Mike Huckabee to the phenomenon. Second, this business of the “un-Americanism” of libertarianism is ahistorical, although not particularly surprising coming from a Know Nothing demagogue like Mike Huckabee. Someday, advertising one’s own ignorance about the world won’t be considered a mark in one’s favor by conservatives. Until then, Mike Huckabee.

Fiscal Responsibility, Bush Style

As we all know, if you just put the word “defense,” or “homeland” or “security” anywhere in the name of a government program, its fiscal impact is immediately zeroed out. But if this mystical transformation didn’t take place, President Bush’s fiscal legacy would be looking darker and darker each day. Noah Shachtman gives us a rundown:

The Pentagon’s internal watchdogs can’t keep up with the explosive growth in military spending. Which means $152 billion’s worth of contracts annually aren’t being reviewed for fraud, abuse and criminal interference by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, according to a newly-unearthed report to Congress. The result: “undetected or inadequately investigated criminal activity and significant financial loss,” as well as “personnel, facilities and assets [that] are more vulnerable to terrorist activities.”

Since fiscal year 2000, the military’s budget has essentially doubled, from less than $300 billion to more than $600 billion. Two wars have begun. But the number of criminal investigators and financial auditors at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DoD IG) has stayed more or less the same. So there are now “gaps in coverage in important areas, such as major weapon systems acquisition, health care fraud, product substitution, and Defense intelligence agencies,” according to the report, obtained by the Project on Government Oversight.

[…]

The DOD IG’s office has certainly stayed busy. In just the last few months, the DOD IG caught a Philippine corporation bilking $100 million from the military health care system; nabbed a trio trying to bribe their way into drinking water contracts for troops; busted an Air Force general who tried to steer a $50 million deal to his buddies; and launched investigations into the Pentagon’s propaganda projects and the youthful arms-dealer who sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of dud ammunition to the government.

Shachtman then observes: “The question is: How much more could they have done, with a bigger staff?” It’s almost like you sink a half a trillion dollars a year into one massive bureaucracy and it’s hard to keep track of it all. President McCain’s going to have to find a lot of earmarks to offset this sort of thing.

Justified Praise for Cult of the Presidency

Gene is too modest to link to it himself (I wouldn’t be!), but George Will’s column in this week’s Newsweek centers on Caesaropapism and, Gene Healy’s new book. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Barack Obama recently said, “I believe in our ability to perfect this nation.” Clearly there is something the candidate of “change” will not change—the pattern of extravagant presidential rhetoric. Obama is trying to replace a president who vowed to “rid the world of evil”—and of tyranny, too.

But then, rhetorical—and related—excesses are inherent in the modern presidency. This is so for reasons brilliantly explored in the year’s most pertinent and sobering public affairs book, “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power,” by Gene Healy of Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute.

Healy’s dissection of the delusions of “redemption through presidential politics” comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d’être, “agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility.” Liberals think boundless government is beneficent. Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls “Caesaropapism” as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor.

“Faux conservatives” is just right. Elsewhere, Gene has demonstrated that conservatives have shamefully prostrated themselves at the totem of executive power, a position that would have nauseated their intellectual forebears.

On Following the Money

Thomas Frank writes in the Wall Street Journal,

Consider the poor Washington libertarian. Everywhere else in America his type is an exotic species, a coffee-shop heretic who quotes from “Atlas Shrugged” and steers every conversation toward Ron Paul or gold. Take him or leave him, he doesn’t care. He is his own master.

Not so the Beltway variety. Here, in the very home of the taxing, regulating leviathan, the libertarian is such a commonplace and unremarkable bird that no one gives him a second glance. Here he is a factotum of the establishment, a tiny voice in a vast choir assembled by business and its tax-exempt front groups to sing the virtues of the entrepreneur.

And therein lies his dilemma. Almost by definition, our young libertarian’s job is to celebrate the profit motive from the offices of a not-for-profit organization. He is subsidized, in other words, to hymn the unsubsidized way of life. Rugged individualism may be his creed, but a rugged individual he ain’t.

This is more than just an abstract problem, as I discovered last week at a panel discussion hosted by America’s Future Foundation, one of the lesser libertarian nonprofits in the city. The questions that night were whether nonprofit work constitutes a “real job” and if moving to the private sector was “selling out” — ideas well known to any liberal do-gooder.

No, let’s not consider the beltway libertarian. Or at least, let’s not consider him all alone. Instead, let’s look at a couple of money trails. Here’s the first one:

1. Consumers buy products because they want or need them.

2. An entrepreneur, who has supplied these products, collects the money, which the consumer has given of his own free will.

3. The entrepreneur gives some of this money to his investors, some to his employees, and some he keeps for himself as a just reward.

4. The entrepreneur, his investors, or his employees give a portion of that money to a libertarian think tank like the Cato Institute. (Nearly all of Cato’s money comes from individual donors, not corporations or foundations.)

5. I work for the Cato Institute, and it pays me a salary.

There’s something remarkable about this money trail: every step is voluntary. Every step is the product of a private, individual decision. None of them are coerced.

Maybe I don’t live on the shores of Walden Pond. But it’s still hard to see how my individualism has been compromised. I might easily change my career direction; my boss might decide he doesn’t need my services; the donors might get fed up with Cato and stop giving; the entrepreneur might liquidate his business; the consumers might stop buying the products. At every point in the chain, the individual is in charge, and the same would be true if my own place in the chain were at position #3 rather than position #5. Either way, it’s all voluntary, and my libertarian conscience is clean.

Yes, yes, I might make more money elsewhere. But money is just one dimension of personal satisfaction. Although money is important, other values are worthwhile too. There’s nothing wrong about wanting a job that is personally satisfying, or that is intellectually stimulating, or that furthers your vision of the good. A libertarian appreciates the value and purpose of money (possibly more than most), but he’s allowed to have other values, too. It’s only cartoon plutocrats who refuse to care about anything else.

Now let’s look at another money trail. I have a hard time thinking it’s the better one:

1. The government takes your money in taxes. If you don’t pay, you’ll find an unscheduled appointment on your agenda, possibly involving men with guns.

2. The government turns this money over to “nonprofits.” Or perhaps to plain old profit-seeking corporations.

Bit of a difference there, isn’t it?

Cato does not accept any government money, and if it ever does, I suspect that many of us will exercise our voluntary choice and leave the organization. This is the money trail that libertarians should — and do — reject. Once again, my conscience is clean. This is also why Frank gets it wrong when he writes,

Private-sector Washington is one of the wealthiest places in America. Public-service Washington lags considerably behind. The chance of ditching the one for the other is what accounts for everything from the power of K Street to the infamous “revolving door,” by which a public servant takes a cushy corporate job after engineering some extravagant government favor for the corporation in question — or its clients.

The libertarian nonprofits that line the city’s streets often serve merely to rationalize this operation after the fact, giving a pious shine to the policies that are made in this unholy manner.

I don’t deny that it happens. But I do deny that these people are libertarians, whatever they happen to call themselves. One thing that separates the Cato Institute from many other public policy shops is that it has been perhaps the loudest in denouncing exactly these sorts of abuses. Here’s hoping we keep at it.

Will 2009 be 1965?

Forty four years ago today Lyndon Baines Johnson traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to deliver a speech that outlined the vision that would guide his administration. The speech may be read profitably today. 

LBJ began that spring day by stating a goal: “The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.”

The statement may be usefully compared to some earlier words about the purposes of American government: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words from the Declaration of Independence reflect the individualistic, natural rights philosophy of the American founders.

LBJ’s words reflected a fundamentally different philosophy, Progressivism. Individuals do not pursue happiness within a framework of rights; government pursues happiness for them or rather for “our” people. Johnson noted two means to that collective end: the life of our Nation and the liberty of our citizens. The first is tautological, the second is revealing. The liberty of the individual is not a goal of government; it is rather the means for the collective pursuit of happiness.   The Great Society would realize that collective happiness. In the Great Society , “men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” They put aside “unbridled growth” and “the demands of commerce” to fulfill “the hunger for community.” Mere business and trade do produce a “soulless wealth” that is far short of national aspiration.  

The reader who sees in LBJ’s words as call to secular spirituality through government are not far wrong. He said to the students and faculty of the University of Michigan: “You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.” The speech ends with the hope of a “new world,” a remaking of the nation.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened later, LBJ also claimed that “The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.” Over the next decade, federal spending tripled.

Like LBJ, Barack Obama sees in politics and governing the possibility of secular transcendence. He is a far better orator than LBJ was, and his skills might well bring a third phase of Progressivism to the United States in 2009.

However, there is room for doubt. Obama lives in a different world than LBJ.

In 1965, Democrats held more than two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. As LBJ said on his inaugural night, “We can pass it all now.” Democrats may gain seats in Congress this year, but they will not have the same majorities LBJ had. President Obama will not say as LBJ did:“We can pass it all now.”

LBJ began his quest for the Great Society by cutting taxes. Obama will have to raise taxes to pursue his dreams. Excuse me, “our” dreams. Once “hope” and “change” cost real money, Obama may find Congress less willing to dream.

1n 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right almost always or most of the time. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently reported that ”positive views of the federal government are at their lowest point in at least a decade. Americans may not be in the mood for a new crusade to change the world through collective coercion.

People skeptical of the beneficence of the federal government have reasons to be pessimistic in 2008. Neither candidate shares their skepticism fully. But the spring of 1964 was much worse. Barack Obama may expect to renew the left’s quest for a secular spirituality rooted in politics and government, a religion to replace the older faiths. But 2009 is unlikely to be 1965.  

A David Brooks Two-fer!

David BrooksCouple of notes on recent David Brooks-related program activities. First, he calls the small-government wing of the conservative movement un-American. No, honestly, he does:

At the end of [1995], when the radical conservatives in the Gingrich Congress shut down the federal government, they learned that the American public was genuinely attached to the modern state. “An anti-government philosophy turned out to be politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American,” Brooks said. “People want something melioristic, they want government to do things.”

Then, in today’s column for the Times, Brooks points out how screwed up the legislative process is, a function of myriad rent-seekers, lobbyists and special interests. His foil? The farm bill:

Interest groups turn every judicial fight into an ideological war. They lobby for more spending on the elderly, even though the country is trillions of dollars short of being able to live up to its promises. They’ve turned environmental concern into subsidies for corn growers and energy concerns into subsidies for oil companies.

The $307 billion farm bill that rolled through Congress is a perfect example of the pattern. Farm net income is up 56 percent over the past two years, yet the farm bill plows subsidies into agribusinesses, thoroughbred breeders and the rest.

The growers of nearly every crop will get more money. Farmers in the top 1 percent of earners qualify for federal payments. Under the legislation, the government will buy sugar for roughly twice the world price and then resell it at an 80 percent loss. Parts of the bill that would have protected wetlands and wildlife habitat were deleted or shrunk.

My colleagues on The Times’s editorial page called the bill “disgraceful.” My former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ripped it as a “scam.” Yet such is the logic of collective action; the bill is certain to become law. It passed with 81 votes in the Senate and 318 in the House — enough to override President Bush’s coming veto. Nearly everyone in Congress got something.

Funny thing, though: I bet I can think of a much, much better example of what Brooks is driving at here. After all, at least there was broad elite consensus that the farm bill was depraved. But where could we find an example of a legislative product where literally all interests are tied up in rent-seeking and resource extraction? Ah, right:

In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Hitler and Stalin destroyed America’s isolationist tradition. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize interest groups against defense spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti-war liberals confronts a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organizational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.

Physician, heal thyself. Yet more evidence the that contemporary Right offers nothing of value to libertarians.