Topic: Political Philosophy

News Flash: Neocons Hate Ron Paul

So Ron Paul’s record fundraising haul has rattled the cubicles on 17th Street, forcing the Weekly Standard to run a hit piece on him, offering the limp zinger that he’s the “don’t tase me, bro” candidate, named for the fellow who got zapped at a John Kerry event earlier this year*.

It’s not surprising that the neocons hate Ron Paul, for his policy views, of course, but it also seems likely that they’re envious. As Cato’s president Ed Crane and chairman Bill Niskanen pointed out over four years ago

The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism. Always a movement of bright intellectual leaders, neoconservatism has mostly been a movement with a head but no body. One rarely runs into a neocon on the street.

That’s what makes it so obvious that the Standard’s lament that

Paul supporters organized the event on their own with minimal coordination with the campaign.

is an apt reflection of their envy that an unlikely fellow like Paul has had such a genuinely grassroots groundswell of support, and has been pushed forward by his supporters rather than attempting to cajole them into line. It’s equally funny that an ostensibly conservative magazine criticizes his views not just on foreign policy, but grouses that

He hates the Iraq war. He hates the rest of our foreign policy. He pretty much thinks we shouldn’t have a foreign policy. He hates our bloated and meddlesome federal government. (What’s that they say about stuck clocks?) He hates abortion. He hates the Treasury and floating currency.

That sounds fairly conservative to me. But it’s funny to see the Standard squirm at the realization that the ideas of peace and freedom are rousing the electorate.

*[Update: A reader advises that the tasing incident took place at a John Kerry speaking engagement earlier this year, not in 2004. I regret the error.]

Arabic Lamp of Liberty Re-Lit!

Arabs have had almost no access to the literature and the ideas of liberty….until now. The Misbah al Hurriyya (“Lamp of Liberty”) project of the Cato Institute is bringing Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and many more thinkers to the Arab public. The team behind the Lamp of Liberty, notably Editor Fadi Haddadin and Business and Promotions Manager Ghaleb Hijazi, have outdone themselves with a newly redesigned website for the project: www.misbahalhurriyya.org.

It’s got more than a new look, though. Now you can see the incredible success of Ghaleb’s syndication of hundreds of articles to the Arab press, find information on Misbah al Hurriyya books, including John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Ludwig von Mises’s Economic Policy, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Global Capitalism, and the Economic Freedom of the World Report, and browse through hundreds of studies, articles, and essays. The site also features Mudawwanat al Hurriyya (“Blog of Liberty”), an interactive map of economic freedom (in the bottom left corner), policy debates, video streaming of interviews, online books, and much, much more.

Even those who can’t read Arabic will appreciate the ingenuity and brilliant design of the site. And when you know that it’s presenting a positive alternative to the violence, oppression, and poverty that have plagued so much of the Middle East and North Africa, you will know that the positive attractions of what Adam Smith called “the simple system of natural liberty” – rather than more violence and military force – are a powerful response to the ideas of statism and intolerance. Ideas aren’t generally defeated with mere force; ultimately, it takes another idea.

The re-designed Arabic Lamp of Liberty will be joined soon by its Kurdish [www.chiraiazadi.org] and Persian [www.cheragehazadi.org] sister projects. They’re all part of Cato’s Center for Promotion of Human Rights family of projects, including the existing Spanish [www.elcato.org] and Russian [www.cato.ru] projects (each with books, podcasts, websites, and more) and forthcoming Portuguese, Azeri, French, and African (in English, French, and Portuguese) initiatives. Ten team members of the African initiative will meet in Tanzania at the African Resource Bank meeting in a few weeks. Anyone who’s interested in supporting the promotion of libertarian ideas and policies around the world should contact the Institute. (Any funds specified for a particular language or region will be spent only on works in that language or region.)

America’s Future Foundation Panel on Health Care

Last month, I spoke on an AFF panel on health care reform. Click here to listen to the podcast.

It was a good exploration of the health care debate taking place within the free-market movement, and a good companion to my recent National Review Online article where I offer friendly advice to conservatives wrestling with health care reform.

Why the Mechanisms of Inequality Matter

Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias argues that it doesn’t matter why income inequality is increasing. According to Matt, as long as higher top tax rates and more downward redistribution won’t much hurt economic performance, then we ought to just go ahead and raise taxes and increase transfers, never mind the mechanisms of rising inequality.

Oftentimes, though, liberals act as if the thing that needs to be done is to prove somehow that inequality has exploded because people are in some sense “cheating” – so you get these long stories about corporate governance and corrupt compensation committees, etc. The problem here, though, is that even if this is true, it could still also be true that the cure – policy interventions into the operation of the market – would be worse than the disease. And, conversely, if you could prove that the rise in inequality was all above board – really was driven entirely by globalization and technological change – nothing about that causal analysis would debunk the idea that we ought to make our tax system more progressive.

The relevant debate isn’t about how we got here, it’s about what would happen if we tried to change things. Some people, of course, think changing things would be immoral. Indeed, there are some people I know who adhere to the bizarre view that one source of injustice in the contemporary United States is that our richest citizens aren’t rich enough. But beyond those people, you have a lot of people who take the view that raising taxes would have dire economic consequences, whereas lowering them would have large benefits. That’s the only debate that really matters in this regard. If the costs to the non-rich of higher taxes on the rich would be small (as I believe), then higher taxes on the rich to provide more benefits to the non-rich makes sense irrespective of why inequality has grown so much whereas if the costs would be high then it doesn’t make sense – again, completely apart from the causal issue.

I think Matt and I agree that the pattern of national incomes is largely morally irrelevant, but for quite different reasons.

From the classical liberal perspective, if today’s pattern is less equal than yesterday’s, but both patterns emerged from billions of individual transactions, each one of which took place on terms agreeable to the parties involved, then there is really nothing left over to evaluate morally. The relevant questions about the distribution of the gains from trade have already been settled in both cases.

Additionally, once we notice that many of these billions of transactions take place between parties of different nationalities – Americans trading with Canadians trading with Chinese, etc. – it becomes obvious that it is extra arbitrary to focus on national patterns of income, as if the nation were a giant factory with profits in need of equitable distribution. Many liberals, even extremely gifted professional liberal economists like Paul Krugman, seem congenitally incapable of thinking carefully about why nation-level equality matters, partly due to the blithe assumption of a fundamentally fallacious economic nationalism that afflicts both popular politics and academic economics.

That said, many welfare liberals are at some level quite sensitive to the fact that if the pattern of national incomes emerged from fair processes, then the argument for taking some people’s money and giving it to others is extremely weak. That is why many of Matt’s fellow travelers are keen to show that the pattern of incomes did not emerge from fair processes. The emphasis in some quarters on the importance of unions is a good example. If you think that strong unions are required to bargain laborers a fair share of their firms’ profits, and that the power of unions has eroded, then it will be natural to think that labor is now receiving an unfairly low wage, which will likely be reflected in nation-level inequality measures. In this case it should be obvious why this mechanism of rising inequality matters: because it matters for both morality and policy. If the problem is labor’s diminishing share of profits due to diminishing bargaining power, then the appropriate response will be measures designed to improve the bargaining position of unions. An increase in taxes and transfers will simply miss the structural cause for moral concern.

I take it (both from his blogging and from personal conversation) that Matt is some kind of utilitarian who really couldn’t care less about matters of fairness or justice – or equality. What Matt cares about is utility. The reason Matt thinks we ought to redistribute “irrespective of why inequality has grown so much,” is simply that he doesn’t care about inequality per se, and so he doesn’t care what caused it. He just suspects that if it were lower, national utility would be higher. If the marginal utility of money is greater for people with less money than for people with more, then we should take money from people with more and give it to people with less, period. Whether or not people acquired their money through fair processes, whether or not they are entitled to it, or have some “right” to it, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether someone ought to take it away from them and give it someone else.

But surely Matt understands that the inability of utilitarianism to acknowledge principled constraints on the way people may use one another is the main reason why most moral philosophers believe utilitarianism to be false. Perhaps Matt thinks these philosophers confused. But if so, then they share their confusion with most Americans, who also don’t believe utility maximization is a good justification for the appropriation of their property. As a matter of practical politics, philosophers don’t matter, but the public does. Which is why Yglesias-style utilitarian arguments for redistribution are non-starters in American politics, while arguments based in structural unfairness have the potential to be powerfully persuasive. If the system is rigged at a deep level against some people, then some redistribution may seem like a good way of balancing the scales. As matter of practical politics, his welfare liberal colleagues are right to keep sniffing around for “cheating” in the system.

Now, as I like to point out, the problem with structural injustice is structural injustice, not the nation-level inequality it may help produce as a side-effect. Which is why I think national Gini coefficients are a distraction, and why programs that lower the national Gini coefficient simply by moving money around make it all-too-easy to ignore the real, hard problems. I suppose a virtue of Matt’s argument for redistribution is that it doesn’t even pretend to be fixing a problem.

David Harsanyi’s Nanny State

In the Washington Post today, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I’ve thought a lot about in discussions of our growing “nanny state”:

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines….

It is true that in 1960 U.S. automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under “blue laws,” most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90 percent income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications, and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. “People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed.” Plus, “the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves.”

That’s a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it’s not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking, and fatty foods is that we’re adults; that we’re endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we “read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill.”

Where’s Vargas Llosa?

Doris Lessing is no doubt a deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and given her advancing age the Swedish Academy may well have felt that recognizing her was urgent. But I can’t help noting what the Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, said on Sunday:

In the world at large [Mario Vargas Llosa] is known as one of the leading writers in the Latin American literary “Boom,” his acclaim today probably exceeded only by that lavished upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That he has not been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature is nothing short of scandalous.

After deploring the “many nonentities to whom the prize has gone in recent years,” Yardley suggests a possible reason for the continuing error:

Doubtless the prize went to Garcia Marquez on merit, but doubtless as well his cozy relationship with Fidel Castro helped his cause; Vargas Llosa by contrast is of a more conservative persuasion, and this the complacently ideological Swedes do not countenance, much less honor.

If Yardley read Vargas Llosa’s nonfiction as carefully as his fiction, he would note that the great author considers himself a liberal, not a conservative. But the social democrats of Sweden dislike real liberalism as much as conservatism.

Gerson’s Lament

In the WaPo today, Michael Gerson worries that conservatives have “beg[un] to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy.” But Mr. Gerson’s idealism, on display in Iraq, has been revealed as delusion. The war in Iraq has sown carnage and instability rather than “freedom” in Iraq, killed nearly 4,000 Americans, and bled more than half a trillion dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers, rather than making us more secure.

The distinction at the heart of the debate over foreign policy is different than that described by Mr. Gerson: it is not between instinctive opponents and proponents of radical change, but between the empirical and the notional—between, on the one hand, those who adhere to observable reality, drawing from history and social science, and, on the other hand, those who rely on the abstract ruminations of essayists in comfortable chairs.

Like so many proponents of the Iraq disaster, Mr. Gerson writes as if the past 5 years never happened, demonstrating himself to be a steadfast adherent to Max Weber’s ethic of ultimate ends and in opposition to Weber’s ethic of responsibility. The former, in Weber’s nomenclature, determines that “if an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” The latter, by contrast, acknowledges the importance of outcomes: “he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.” Weber warned that “in the world of realities, as a rule, we encounter the ever-renewed experience that the adherent of an ethic of ultimate ends suddenly turns into a chiliastic prophet.”

There’s really a bit of irony in all this. After all, it was President Bush who once told a confab of religious writers that

The culture needs to be changed. I call it, so people can understand what I’m talking about, changing the culture from one that says, “If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,” to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. …