Topic: Political Philosophy

Cato Launches Innovative Web-based Programs

The Bush administration made the promotion of democracy and freedom a key part of its foreign policy but has become far more muted on the subject of the benefits of political liberty overseas in recent months as it became clear that democracy can be messy and lead to the elevation of those who do not necessarily share the policy goals of the United States. While strongly opposed to the neo-conservative vision of the Bush administration and its actions in the Middle East, the Cato Institute believes that the promotion of the classical liberal ideals of liberty, free markets and peace is an essential effort.

As a result, on December 12, Cato launched six innovative foreign-language web-based programs. These new programs will publish in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Persian, Kurdish, and on the continent of Africa in English and Swahili. They join our other three highly-successful programs in Spanish, Arabic and Russian.

The Politics of Free Speech Change for the Better

The politics of free speech are changing fast.

The presidential public financing system is all but dead, largely because the candidates are raising so much money they don’t need to dun the taxpayers for campaign cash. The Democrats have raised a lot more money for the coming election than the Republicans. The Supreme Court is starting to favor free speech in campaign finance cases and casting a cold eye on laws like McCain-Feingold.

For most of the past three decades, so-called “reform” groups have dominated DC battles about campaign finance. These special interest groups lobbied Congress while their lawyers practiced the art of restricting speech before the Federal Election Commission.

Now that too is changing. A new group, SpeechNow.org, has formed to fight restrictions on speech. They just asked the Federal Election Commission to issue an advisory opinion about whether their fundraising must follow the contribution limits in federal election law.

Contribution limits exist–in law, if not in fact–to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. But SpeechNow.org is not giving money to federal candidates for office, and it is not incorporated (corporations cannot legally give money to parties or candidates). The organization is funded solely by individuals, some of whom want to give more than $5,000 to support the work of the new group.

What are they planning to do? The Center for Competitive Politics, which along with the Institute for Justice provides legal counsel to SpeechNow.org, says that “the group wants to run TV ads supporting and opposing candidates on free speech issues during the 2008 election cycle.”

Think about that for a minute. A group of citizens wants to come together to pool their resources to speak out for and against candidates on matters concerning free speech. They don’t plan to give candidates or the parties money, so the corruption threat does not exist. What could be more in line with the First Amendment and the Constitution? And yet… SpeechNow.org finds itself asking the Federal Election Commission “mother may I?” just to exercise its constitutional rights.

That should make you angry.

But think about this too. SpeechNow.org is something different from what we’ve heard on these issues for so many years, a group that plans to defend the First Amendment outside the courtroom. And somewhere in this nation is at least one person who is willing to give SpeechNow.org more than $5,000 for that effort.

That gives me hope.

Greenwald on the GOP and Limited Government

While I’m on the subject of Glenn Greenwald, I should point out his great response to David Brooks’s latest column on the alleged death of small government conservatism. Greenwald cites a Cato study by Gene Healy and Tim Lynch on the Bush administration’s terrible civil liberties record to make the broader point that the Bush administration has abandoned the limited government ideals that animated the Republican party in under the leadership of Goldwater and Reagan:

But neoconservatism – which is really what the right-wing pro-Bush movement has become – doesn’t believe in any of that, and Brooks’ column demonstrates that they are admitting that more and more explicitly. Instead, it touts a radical and authoritarian nanny-statism that seeks, at its core, to provide feelings of protection, safety, and moralistic clarity – “security leads to freedom” – all delivered by political leaders using ever-increasing federal government power and limitless militarism. Whether one believes in that radical and warped vision of the American federal government is, more than any other factor, what now determines one’s political orientation.

I have argued several times before that the radicalism of the Bush presidency and the neoconservatism on which it is based has resulted in a fundamental political re-alignment. As Brooks points out, the issues that shape our political spectrum and determine one’s political orientation have changed fundamentally – Brooks contrasts today’s predominant issues with those of the 1970s in order to demonstrate this shift, but the shift is just as drastic even when one compares today’s predominant political issues to those that drove the key political dispustes as recently as the 1990s.

There is one principal reason for this shift – the Bush presidency and the political movement that supports it is not driven by any of the abstract political principles traditionally associated with “liberalism” or “conservatism.” Whatever else one wants to say about the Bush presidency, it has nothing to do with limiting the size, scope and reach of the federal government. The exact opposite is true.

On every front, the Bush administration has ushered in vast expansions of federal power – often in the form of radical and new executive powers, unprecedented surveillance of American citizens, and increased intervention in every aspect of Americans’ private lives. To say that the Bush movement is hostile to the limited-government ends traditionally associated (accurately or not) with the storied Goldwater/Reagan ideology is a gross understatement.

Of course, our own Ed Crane saw this coming almost a decade ago, observing in 1999 that the future President Bush had absolutely no interest in carrying on the Goldwater/Reagan tradition of limited government.

Lind on Libertarianism

Michael Lind is at it again, proclaiming the death of libertarianism on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. “The two great trends now,” he writes, “are the collapse of libertarianism as a political force and the rise of economic populism.”

In the piece Lind provides a potted history of America’s evolving political economy. In the opening act of 1932-1968, New Deal welfare-state liberalism occupied the political center, flanked on the left by economic populism and on the right by Eisenhower-style “dime store New Deal” conservatism. Then came the shift to the right during 1968-2004, when welfare-state liberalism was shunted to the left, a newly assertive libertarianism occupied the right, and moderate conservatism commanded the center. Now, according to Lind, anxieties over globalization have led to the rout of the libertarians and the rebirth of populism. So we’re back to where we began, with welfare-state liberalism in the center (where, according to Lind, it rightfully belongs).

I’ll concede that we’ve seen a cyclical shift in recent years somewhat along the lines Lind describes. The political terrain has become more difficult for supporters of free markets and limited government, and more inviting for Lou Dobbsian populism.

But we need to be careful to distinguish between cyclical and secular change. Lind focuses on the back-and-forth of the pendulum and misses the fact that the whole clock has been moving. And it’s been moving in a generally libertarian direction.

Lind merrily proclaims that welfare-state liberalism has reclaimed the center that it occupied during 1932-1968. But he ignores the fact that welfare-state liberals today are dramatically more libertarian on economic issues than their predecessors in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Nobody these days seriously supports a return to a 70% top income-tax rate, or Keynesian fine-tuning, or interest-rate controls for banks, or the phone monopoly, or regulated trucking; nobody touts nationalization or wage-and-price controls as cures for what ails.

The economy today is dramatically more competitive and entrepreneurial today, and markets are dramatically less regulated, than was the case a few decades ago. And notwithstanding Lind’s fond hopes for a return of the New Deal liberal ascendancy, there is little reason to believe that this huge secular shift is going to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

Privatize Marriage

Stephanie Coontz, a historian, suggests in the New York Times that government get out of the marriage business. Why, she asks, “do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry?”

For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

So, she says, “Let churches decide which marriages they deem ‘licit.’ But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.”

It’s a great idea. Indeed, it’s such a good idea that I proposed it in Slate back in 1997:

So why not privatize marriage? Make it a private contract between two individuals. If they wanted to contract for a traditional breadwinner/homemaker setup, with specified rules for property and alimony in the event of divorce, they could do so. Less traditional couples could keep their assets separate and agree to share specified expenses. Those with assets to protect could sign prenuptial agreements that courts would respect. Marriage contracts could be as individually tailored as other contracts are in our diverse capitalist world. For those who wanted a standard one-size-fits-all contract, that would still be easy to obtain. Wal-Mart could sell books of marriage forms next to the standard rental forms. Couples would then be spared the surprise discovery that outsiders had changed their contract without warning. Individual churches, synagogues, and temples could make their own rules about which marriages they would bless.

One of the problems with this whole idea is that, as usual, the state has entangled itself in our lives. There are 1049 federal laws that mention marital status, most of them dealing with taxes or transfer payments. If marriage becomes a matter of private contract, the federal government will still have to decide whether to recognize all such contracts for the purpose of handing out marital benefits. And that doesn’t even get into custody, inheritance, property, next-of-kin, hospital visitation and other sorts of laws usually handled at the state level. Just another example of how the intrusion of the state into every corner of society makes it difficult to privatize any aspect of life. But it’s good to see the idea getting some discussion.

Hopkins on Gerson

Kara Hopkins has an elegant review of Heroic Conservatism, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s book, over at The American Conservative. Worth reading in full, but here’s a taste. Gerson on war:

Shortly after Gerson began scripting Bush, reporters noticed Biblical phrases creeping into the presidential rhetoric and wrote, with cryptologist’s glee, that Bush was sending coded messages to his Christian base. The truth was more perverse. As Presbyterian minister Fritz Ritsch noted, when Bush alluded to the hymn “There’s Power in the Blood” in a State of the Union text, he spoke of the “wonder-working power” not of the “precious blood of the Lamb” but of “the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people”—the world’s substitute saviors. Similarly, the president referred to the U.S. as “the light of the world,” which the “darkness” has been unable to put out—a clear invocation of John 1:1-5. As evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd pointed out, “In this paradigm, what applies to Jesus (“the light of the world”) can be applied to our country, and what applies to Satan (“the darkness”) can be applied to whomever resists our country. We are of God; they are of the Devil. We are the light; they are the darkness. Our wars are therefore ‘holy’ wars. With all due respect, this is blatant idolatry.”

And on Gerson’s big government conservatism:

[None of this is] to say that social justice isn’t a Christian concern. But Gerson is more stirred by abolitionists and activists like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., and the sweeping social change they wrought, than he is by Christ’s own model, which was conspicuously short on political impact and long on individual acts of mercy. He implies that his giants—poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, genocide—are too big for hand-to-hand combat. Thus the Biblical call to “do unto the least of these”—the hallmark of which is personal sacrifice—must be replaced by government programs—the wellspring of which is coercion. If this constitutes an act of worship, it honors a failed god.

Again, worth a read. I haven’t seen Gerson get a favorable reading anywhere this side of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.