Topic: Political Philosophy

Fusionism: Hot or Cold?

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting a book forum on the new book by vice chairman of the American Conservative Union Donald J. Devine: America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution. (Register here).

Devine’s conservative credentials are impeccable: a veteran of the Reagan campaign, he served as head of the administration’s Office of Personnel Management, where, as a Washington Post profile once put it, “at the mere mention of his name, federal workers grit their teeth and express fear and loathing.” He was also an early and vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration for enabling massive government growth, “fueled by neoconservative dreams of empire and which threatens the whole project of American liberty.”

How can the Right recover from the wreckage of the Bush years? In America’s Way Back, Devine makes “the case for 21st century ‘fusionism’” — a reinvigoration of the Cold War–era conservative-libertarian alliance that employed “libertarian means for traditionalist ends.”

He can expect some friendly pushback from our commentator, Reason magazine editor Matt Welch, a fusionism skeptic who has (with Reason’s Nick Gillespie) argued that traditional political groupings are fast becoming moribund, and the rise of political “independents (especially of the libertarian flavor) hint strongly that another form—something unpredictable, fantastical, liberating—is gathering to take their place.”

I’ll be moderating what promises to a lively discussion on libertarianism, conservatism, and the future of the Right. Register now!

The Discourse Gap

Earlier this week, Paul Krugman wrote of a “wonk gap” between Republicans and “conservative ‘experts’” and their political and philosophical counterparts.

According to Krugman, “the G.O.P. [has a] near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive.” Or, put in its elementary school playground formulation, he says, “You guys are just stupid.”

Of course, Krugman is wrong. Many conservative thinkers (and thinkers from other political viewpoints) have many substantive and important arguments for their views. Krugman and others who dismiss those ideas out-of-hand either don’t really understand them or else are trying to ignore them. Narrow minds, alas, are hard to penetrate.

It’s thus tempting to dismiss the column as just Krugman being Krugman. But the column does (unwittingly) illustrate a gap that is real, important, and truly worrisome: the gap in thoughtful discourse between different viewpoints in American politics. Discourse is vital both because it forces those viewpoints to sharpen their better arguments while discarding their weaker ones, and because it moves policymakers and the public toward better decisions. However, instead of seriously and thoughtfully engaging in such conversation, too many politicians and commentators give serious attention only to ideas and arguments in line with their own views.

Sadly, Krugman occupies one of the most echo-ey of those chambers, routinely misunderstanding (and then lampooning) viewpoints at odds with his own. For some examples, see this by Tyler Cowen, or these posts by Alan Reynolds.

Indeed, if Krugman followed thoughtful policy discourse, he wouldn’t have buttressed his “wonk gap” column with three highly dubious arguments:

Krugman, of course, isn’t the only commentator or politician to shelter in an echo chamber. It’s too easy to become a public-policy Stuart Smalley, believing, “My ideas are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like them (and my opponents are just stupid).” But that deprives America of important political considerations and better public policies. And that truly is stupid.

C/P at MPPI Policy Blog

Turning New York City into Detroit?

I recently speculated whether Detroit’s fiscal problems should be a warning sign for the crowd in Washington.

The answer, of course, is yes, though it’s not a perfect analogy. The federal government is in deep trouble because of unsustainable entitlement programs while Detroit got in trouble because of a combination of too much compensation for bureaucrats and too many taxpayers escaping the city.

A better analogy might be to compare Detroit to other local governments. Some large cities in California already have declared bankruptcy, for instance, and you can find the same pattern of overcompensated bureaucrats and escaping taxpayers.

And the same thing may happen to New York City if the next mayor is successful in pushing for more class-warfare tax policy. Here are some excerpts from an excellent New York Post column by Nicole Gelinas:

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio…thinks New York can hike taxes on the rich and not suffer… De Blasio’s scheme is this: Hike income taxes by 13.8 percent on New Yorkers making above half a million dollars annually….After five years, de Blasio would let this tax surcharge lapse, and — he says — find another way to pay.

But there’s a big problem with de Blasio’s plan. Rich people are not fatted calves meekly awaiting slaughter.

In 2009, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (the 34,598 households making above $493,439 annually) paid 43.2 percent of city income taxes (they made 33.9 percent of income), according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Each of these families paid an average $75,477. No, most people won’t up and leave (though if 20 percent did, they’d leave New York with less money than before the tax hike). But they can rearrange their incomes. Unlike most of us, folks making, say, $10 million have considerable control over how and when they get paid. That’s because much of their money comes from cashing out a partnership, or selling stock or a house or a painting. To avoid a tax hike, it’s easy enough for them to pay themselves earlier by selling their stuff earlier — before the tax hike. The city made $800 million in extra taxes last year because rich people sold their stuff before President Obama increased investment taxes in December. Or, people can pay themselves later — after the five years’ worth of higher taxes are up.

Gelinas makes some very important points. She warns that the city would have less money if just 20 percent of rich people escaped. She doesn’t think that will happen, but she does explain that rich people can stay but take some simple steps to reduce their taxable income.

New Mexico Court Is Wrong: Government Must Treat People Equally, but Individuals Should Have Liberty to Speak, Associate, and Believe

On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in Elane Photography v. Willcock that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a photographer’s right to decline to take pictures of a same-sex wedding against the requirements of the state’s Human Rights Act, which forbids discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This is a terrible result, for the freedom of speech and association, and for religious liberty. As I’ve argued before, even supporters of marriage equality (and equality generally) should not be blind to other violations of fundamental rights.

The New Mexico law is one of multiple state and federal “public accommodations” laws that prohibit private discrimination by companies that offer services to the public. These laws are antithetical to liberty and forbidden by the Constitution. The Supreme Court held in 1883’s Civil Rights Cases that the 14th Amendment – the provision that speaks to equal protection – doesn’t authorize Congress to legislate against discrimination by private citizens.

A hundred years later, however, the Court held that such power exists under the Commerce Clause – even where the business is confined to a single state. This is just one more instance of Commerce Clause abuse, something Cato has fought on numerous occasions, including the successful Commerce Clause challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate.           

The legislation at issue in Elane Photography didn’t come from Congress, so the question of federal power doesn’t arise. But even if a state legislature has the authority to act in a specific area, that authority can’t be exercised in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of the those subject to it. Yet the New Mexico high court disagreed with the position we took in our amicus brief and held that compelling someone to engage in artistic photography somehow doesn’t violate the freedom of speech if they aren’t forced to broadcast a government-sponsored message (for more on the inadequacy of the court’s ruling see comments by Dale Carpenter and Hans Bader). 

Even if you agree with the court that New Mexico’s law doesn’t violate Elane Photography’s speech rights, however, it clearly violates the company’s freedom of association and freedom of contract – two rights which, while not explicitly named in the Constitution, are clearly implicit in our understanding of “liberty.” The right to freely associate and contract with others must include a negative right not to do so – or the right is meaningless. This isn’t a defense of bigoted business practices, but a defense of choice, and it applies across the board: I don’t like homophobia, or racism, or any other number of irrational or even deplorable attitudes, but as I said on 20/20 earlier this month, being a jerk isn’t illegal.

If a restaurant doesn’t like how you’re dressed, it has the right not to serve you. No shirt, no shoes, no service, no problem – or, at least that’s the way it should be. My property is my property and my time is my time. I have the right to sell or rent both to anyone I want – or not to, as the case may be. We don’t need a government forcing businesses to serve people because the market will do that for us: refusing customers – refusing to make a profit – over something as irrelevant as a customer’s skin color or sexual orientation is a losing business strategy. 

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been hostile to freedom of association and contract since the 1930s, notably in the 1984 case of Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, where the Court upheld a law that required the Jaycees, a private self-help and leadership training group, to begin admitting women, over the membership’s objections. More recently, Christian Legal Society v Martinez, (in which Cato also filed a brief), the Court ruled that a Christian student group couldn’t restrict candidacy for leadership and ministerial positions to students who shared the group’s faith. (Accordingly, Democrats apparently have to admit Republicans, PETA has to admit meat-lovers, and so forth.) In these cases, the Supreme Court, like the New Mexico court, held that the government’s interest in equality and “non-discrimination” allows it to run roughshod over individual liberties.

While the last few terms at the Court have included numerous important victories for freedom – and we may be living what I like to call the Court’s “libertarian moment” – the Court’s protection of individual liberty is patchy. The rights of criminal suspects, the religious, property owners, businesses, and many others, are all occasionally sacrificed in the name of “progress”.

The Political Revolution Made by Margaret Thatcher

The rise of Ronald Reagan was improbable. Margaret Thatcher’s journey to British prime minister seemed almost impossible. Journalist Charles Moore tells the story in Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands

Margaret Roberts was the younger of two daughters of a middle class grocer. She married businessman Denis Thatcher, who supported her political career.

Although she was not the first female MP, they were few in number. Rarer still were those with an aptitude for “men’s issues,” such as economics. But Thatcher impressed party elders and local residents, and in 1958 won the Conservative Party nod to compete in Finchley, a Tory stronghold.

In the following years she served in and out of government, impressing those around her with her knowledge of the issues and ability in debate. She joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970.

As I wrote in my review in the Washington Times, that government:

“was battered by turbulent times.  Indeed, I lived through much of his premiership, since my Air Force father was stationed in Britain from 1970 to 1973.  Unfortunately, Heath lacked the principled beliefs and firm character necessary to challenge the expansive welfare state.

He went to the polls early and lost.  The majority of Tory MPs then wanted to defenestrate him, but the obvious challengers hung back.  So the lady from Finchley challenged Heath.  On February 11, 1975 she piled up an overwhelming majority on the second ballot to become opposition leader.”

It was another four years before the weak Labor government collapsed. But on May 3, 1979, British voters gave the Conservatives a 43 seat majority, making Margaret Thatcher prime minister. The country’s economic problems seemed intractable and party moderates soon wanted to retreat. However, she famously responded: “The lady’s not for turning.” 

Her premiership was rescued by Argentina’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982. The islands didn’t seem worth a war and Britain’s military power was waning. However, the “Iron Lady” risked all, and won. That set the stage for her future success. Writes Moore:  “The Falklands War established Mrs. Thatcher’s personal mastery of the political scene, and convinced people of her special gifts of leadership.”

There ends volume one, with much more to come.  It’s well worth the read, and likely will leave any political buff waiting for more.

Please—Enough with the ‘Gridlock’ Lament

National politicians and commentators are once again worrying that “political gridlock” is preventing government from “fixing the nation’s problems.”

President Obama began this lament’s latest chorus last week during his economy snoozer speech at Knox College in Illinois. “[O]ver the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse,” he said, vowing, “I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way.” Earlier this week the New York Times asked Obama, “Do you worry that [a stalled agenda] could end up being your legacy because of the obstruction … and the gridlock that doesn’t seem to end?” That prompted National Journal writer Ron Fournier to claim that the current gridlock is the result of a lack of will by political leaders: “At the White House and in Congress, most Democrats and Republicans have abandoned hope of fixing the nation’s problems.”

Many Republicans may be asking, “What gridlock?” After all, President Obama has had little trouble advancing his agenda, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the subsequent series of fiscal stimulus and “jobs” bills, to the Dodd-Frank Act and creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), to tax increases. The GOPers would argue that the president’s setbacks have been few, temporary, and/or small. As evidence that he doesn’t feel too fettered by gridlock, they might point to his “compromise offer” to raise corporate taxes in exchange for increasing government spending.

But the Republicans are wrong. Washington is severely constrained by gridlock, and that is harming Americans’ standard of living, health, and financial security, and exacerbating unemployment, income equality, and our children’s education and future well-being. Right now, political obstructionism is blocking numerous policy ideas and legislative proposals that would greatly benefit Americans. Among them: