Topic: Political Philosophy

Prophets of the Communist Police State

In a review of five books on the Soviet police state, David Satter notes this prophetic volume:


By Nikolai Berdyaev, et. al (1909)

The year was 1909. Terrorists were murdering not only czarist ministers but provincial officials and police. It was in this atmosphere that “Landmarks” was published in Moscow. The contributors, all of them Russian Orthodox believers, called on the intelligentsia to reject materialist moral relativism and return to religion as a means of grounding the individual. Their essays, with stunning foresight, described all of the characteristics of the coming Soviet state. The religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev explained the roots of its contempt for the individual. He said that the revolutionary intelligentsia hungered for a universal theory but was only prepared to accept one that justified their social aspirations. This meant the denial of man’s absolute significance and the total subordination of spiritual values to social goals. Bogdan Kistyakovsky wrote that the intelligentsia’s predilection for formalism and bureaucracy and its faith in the omnipotence of rules were the makings of a police state. A hundred years later these essays are still among the best arguments ever made against revolutionary fanaticism, political “correctness” and the drive to create “heaven on earth.”

Sounds like a book I should have heard of before now. 

How to Engage with Cato on Social Media

In case you haven’t been following what the Cato Institute has been doing lately on social media, here’s an accessible list of all of Cato’s current projects across different social media platforms:



‘Crony Capitalism’ Is Not Capitalism

David Brooks has a piece in the New York Times this morning that’s worth reading, “Health Chaos Ahead,” even if it misses a crucial aspect of its subject. Obamacare is off to a rough start, he argues, and it’s only going to get worse. He says he’s talked to a bipartisan group of health care experts, and even some of the law’s supporters “think the whole situation is a complete disaster”—many predicting that it will collapse. Yet “a clear majority,” he adds, including some of the law’s opponents, believe that after a few years of messiness we’ll all settle down to a new normal.

That’s hard to believe, given the “cascades” of problems Brooks goes on to discuss: structural, technical, cost, adverse selection, and provider concentration cascades. That last one is especially noteworthy because, as Brooks says, “the law further incentivizes a trend under way: the consolidation of hospitals, doctors’ practices and other providers.”

That it does. So why does Brooks himself seem to believe that the system will survive? It’s because, even if the law’s unpopularity costs President Obama and the Democrats control of the Senate in 2014, the giant insurance companies and health care corporations spawned by Obamacare will come to the fore to defend it. “Having spent billions of dollars adapting to the new system, they are not going to want to see it repealed or replaced.”

He’s doubtless right about that, but it’s not simply because they want to preserve their “sunk costs” in the new system that these “rent seekers,” as economists call them, are and will continue to be the system’s biggest defenders. These are the same institutions, after all, that were onboard with Obamacare from the start. And they were onboard because, working hand-in-hand with government, they sought to gain advantages over smaller competitors that invariably find it difficult and often impossible to compete in so highly regulated a market as we have here.

Call it “crony capitalism,” yet it’s not capitalism at all. Labeled most charitably, it’s cartelism. But the root of the problem is not with the corporate importunings of Congress. It’s with congressional acquiescence. They’re the people who take an oath to uphold our Constitution for limited government. I’ve always thought that the snake, in the Garden of Eden, got a bum rap. Yes, he was tempting Eve, but she could have just said “no.” Maybe the 114th Congress will have enough members, viewing the health care disaster unfolding before them, who will just say “no.” Then we might start returning to real capitalism.

Who Killed Gun Control?

The Establishment is very concerned this morning that the representatives of the people have resisted demands for stricter gun control measures. The president calls it “shameful.” The New York Times editorial board intones, “The Senate Fails America.” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post deplores a lack of “courage” on Capitol Hill, though some might think it takes courage to defy the overwhelming drumbeat of the national media.

Whatever the merits and popularity of the specific measures that went down to defeat in the Senate on Wednesday, I think the Establishment fails to appreciate the depth of American support for the Second Amendment. NPR and other media have lately noted a growing libertarian trend in American politics. That’s not just about taxes, Obamacare, marijuana, and marriage equality. It also involves gun rights. After each high-profile shooting, support for gun control rises. But it tends to fall again in short order, as public opinion reverts to the baseline of strong support for gun rights.

I was struck by this poll graphic in the Washington Post on Wednesday. Despite the virtually unanimous support for stricter gun control in the national media, along with other opinion shapers such as Hollywood and the universities, and despite the mass shootings that have received so much attention in our modern world of 24-hour news channels, Americans are becoming more convinced that guns make your family safer. 

 Washington Post Poll on Guns

The fact is, America is a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. Our libertarian values helped to create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and those documents in turn shape our thinking about freedom and the limited powers of government. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.” If political scientists Herbert McClosky and John Zaller are right that “[t]he principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others,” then we can expect Americans to cling to their gun rights for a long time.

The New Republic’s daily email this morning asks, “Who killed gun control?” Who? The Americans.

Changing the World, Little By Little

If ever you wondered how important institutions were for changing the climate of ideas, the Chronicle of Higher Education released a cover article today, “How Conservatives Captured the Law,” that should settle the question. Written by Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin – she a Boston attorney, he a Suffolk University law professor and former president of the far left National Lawyers Guild, whom I’ve debated more than once – it’s a surprisingly dispassionate chronicle of the growth and influence of the Federalist Society over the past 30 years.

Cato, our outreach, and our Supreme Court Review come in for mention early on. And the Legal Studies Institute of The Fund for American Studies, in which I co-teach, gets credit at the outset. But the main focus is understandably on the Federalist Society. Reflecting on its origins at the society’s 25th anniversary gala, Justice Antonin Scalia remarked, “We thought we were just planting a wildflower among the weeds of academic liberalism, and it turned out to be an oak.” It did indeed, with a membership today of more than 50,000 lawyers and law students, lawyer chapters in 75 cities, and student chapters in every accredited law school in the country, the society last year held nearly 2,000 events, including many involving Cato people.

The authors’ dispassionate account notwithstanding, it takes little imagination to see where they stand:

The Federalist Society’s membership includes many brilliant and sincere theorists who raise important and interesting issues. On the other hand, the society’s critics say, its overall impact is reactionary. By glorifying private property, demonizing government intervention (particularly at the federal level), insisting that originalism is the only legitimate method of constitutional interpretation, embracing American exceptionalism as a reason to remain apart from global governance, and pushing related policies, these critics say, the society advocates a form of social Darwinism that has been discredited by mainstream American legal thought since the 1930s.

Social Darwinism? That must be how Progressives see the eclectic group that speaks and debates through the Federalist Society’s auspices, because without so much as a beat in between, the authors continue:

Membership includes economic conservatives, social conservatives, Christian conservatives, and libertarians, many of whom disagree with one another on significant issues, but who cooperate in advancing a broad conservative agenda. They generally support individual rights and a free market, and prefer states’ rights to action by the federal government.

We do indeed, discrediting the “Darwinism” – the Hobbesian war of all against all – that is the product today of the jurisprudence of the 1930s. And in that cooperation there is a lesson. To be sure, we don’t always agree. But we agree on enough to be able to work together to get something done. Read the whole piece to see how much has been done.

Yay Authoritarianism!

Cato-at-Liberty readers who are enjoying—or, at least, chronicling—our nation’s slide down The Road to Serfdom will have to add Neil Irwin’s Washington Post Outlook piece, “Why the financial crisis was bad for democracy,” to their travelogue:

In a democratic society, there will always be tension over which decisions should be made by expert appointees, and which by those with the legitimacy and accountability that come with competing for citizens’ votes. The technocrats can make complex decisions quickly, quietly and efficiently. The words “quick, “quiet” and “efficient” are rarely applied to the U.S. Senate or the Italian Parliament — but these institutions are imbued with an authority that comes directly from the people, the explicit consent of the governed.

So, in a crisis, which do you want: unaccountable decisiveness or inefficient accountability?

Consciously or not, we’ve made our choice: The financial crisis and its long, ugly aftermath have marked the triumph of the technocrats…

None of this is a great way to run a society. Like most journalists, I believe in transparency and accountability. I wish the Federal Reserve’s policy meetings were broadcast on C-SPAN. Instead, we get written transcripts five years later. (That still beats Europe, where such information is under lock and key for 30 years.)

Yet, when the world is on the brink, decisive problem-solving trumps the niceties of democratic process. I won’t like it much — but I’ll take it.

Authoritarianism cannot take hold without intellectual support, and Friedrich Hayek couldn’t have described the rationale better himself. Just equally well. Almost verbatim, actually.

For more, see my paper (with Diane Cohen) on IPAB and this Cato policy forum on IPAB and Dodd-Frank. And of course, read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while it’s still legal.

Was William Shakespeare the First Libertarian?

I’ve never been a big Shakespeare fan, but that may need to change. It seems the Bard of Avon may be the world’s first libertarian.

Some of you are probably shaking your heads and saying that this is wrong, that Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith are more deserving of this honor.

Others would argue we should go back earlier in time and give that title to John Locke.

But based on some new research reported in, we need to travel back to the days of Shakespeare:

Uncertainty over the likely future success of his plays led William Shakespeare to do “all he could to avoid taxes,” new research by scholars at Aberystwyth University has claimed. The collaborative paper: “Reading with the Grain: Sustainability and the Literary Imagination,”…alleges that, in his “other” life as a major landowner, Shakespeare avoided paying his taxes, illegally hoarded food and sidelined in money lending. …According to Dr Jayne Archer, lead author and a lecturer in Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth: “There was another side to Shakespeare besides the brilliant playwright - a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others’ expense and exploit the vulnerable - while also writing plays.”

In that short excerpt, we find three strong indications of Shakespeare’s libertarianism.

  1. What does it mean that Shakespeare did everything he could to avoid taxes? His actions obviously would have upset the United Kingdom’s current political elite, which views tax maximization as a religious sacrament, but it shows that Shakespeare believed in the right of private property. Check one box for libertarianism.
  2. What does it mean that the Bard “illegally hoarded food”? Well, such a law probably existed because government was interfering with the free market with something like price controls. Or there was a misguided hostility by the government against “speculation,” similar to what you would find from the deadbeats in today’s Occupy movement. In either event, Shakespeare was standing up for the principle of freedom of contract. Check another box for libertarianism.
  3. Last but not least, what does it mean that Shakespeare “sidelined in money lending”? Nations used to have statist “usury laws” that interfered with the ability to charge interest when lending money. Shakespeare apparently didn’t think “usury” was a bad thing, so he was standing up for the liberty of consenting adults to engage in voluntary exchange. Check another box for libertarianism.