Topic: Political Philosophy

Hurray for a Bigger Welfare State!

The Bush administration is deeply infused with a pro-spending, welfare state mentality. It may contain a few conservative officials scattered here and there, but the vast machinery of the Republican executive branch churns out spending proposals, regulations, and big government propaganda just as prior Democratic ones did.

Consider this June 5 press release from the USDA , wherein higher spending and more recipients of government welfare is always a good thing.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says proudly: “We have increased our nutrition assistance budget by 70 percent since 2001 and we proposed that the 2007 Farm Bill do even more to increase access and participation in USDA programs to help those in need.”

Here’s one particularly silly statement: ”Today’s report highlights the recent growth in the Food Stamp Program — the largest Federal nutrition assistance program, and the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.”

Of course, free markets are the real “first line of defense against hunger.” Has no one in the administration read Adam Smith? It is the self-interest of the butcher, brewer, and baker that we can thank for providing our dinner.

George Will and the Ideological Switcheroo

George Will has a thoughtful column titled (in the Washington Post, at least) “The Case for Conservatism.” You might say that it demonstrates that George Will has accepted modernity, because his definitions of liberalism and conservatism are thoroughly modern, not historical. Consider:

Today conservatives tend to favor freedom…. Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.

Traditionally, of course, it was liberals who favored freedom and minimal government. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as a ”political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government.” Wikipedia is similar: “Liberalism refers to a broad array of related doctrines, ideologies, philosophical views, and political traditions which advocate individual liberty…. Broadly speaking, liberalism emphasizes individual rights.”

Conservatism, on the other hand, according to Britannica, is a “political philosophy that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” In many societies, of course, freedom is not a traditional practice. George Will may be talking strictly about American conservatism, in which case it is plausible to say that a conservative should want to preserve the traditional American institutions and practice of liberty and limited government. I have often wondered, what does it mean to be a conservative in a nation founded in libertarian revolution? If it means preserving the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then a conservative is a libertarian — or what used to be called a liberal.

But what if one wants to conserve something else? Who’s to say that the principles of 1776 are the right thing to conserve? What if you wanted to conserve Southern plantation society? Or the rights and privileges of the British monarchy? Or the institutions of the Dark Ages? Or the traditional Indian practice of suttee, in which widows are expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre?

That is why Hayek said that he was not a conservative — because conservatism is essentially a philosophy of “opposition to drastic change,” but without any fundamental principles of its own other than serving as a brake on change.

But that’s not the conservatism that Will describes. In his view, conservatism is about freedom and a sober recognition of the limits of power. “Liberalism’s core conviction [is] that government’s duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Conservatism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.”

If that’s the case, then there’s been almost a complete switch of the philosophies of liberalism and conservatism. Indeed, it’s intriguing to switch the words in Will’s article. Try the quotation above with the words reversed: “Conservatism’s core conviction [is] that government’s duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Liberalism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.” It still works, right? That’s the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and F. A. Hayek. And if it’s not the conservatism of Maistre or Shelley — who wanted government to resist change, not drive it — it might be the conservatism of those in contemporary society who want government to actively instill virtue in the citizens.

One might alternatively try substituting “liberalism” for “conservatism” in Will’s essay, and “illiberalism” for “liberalism.” Then we might get, for instance, “liberals tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Illiberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome.” Or:

This reasoning is congruent with liberalism’s argument that excessively benevolent government is not a benefactor, and that capitalism does not merely make people better off, it makes them better. Illiberalism once argued that large corporate entities of industrial capitalism degraded individuals by breeding dependence, passivity and servility. Liberalism challenges illiberalism’s blindness about the comparable dangers from the biggest social entity, government.

Liberalism argues, as did the Founders, that self-interestedness is universal among individuals, but the dignity of individuals is bound up with the exercise of self-reliance and personal responsibility in pursuing one’s interests. Illiberalism argues that equal dependence on government minimizes social conflicts. Liberalism’s rejoinder is that the entitlement culture subverts social peace by the proliferation of rival dependencies.

Maybe I’m dreaming of a golden age of liberalism that no longer exists, an age when liberals stood for freedom and limited government, for, in the words of Wikipedia, “a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power (especially of government and religion), the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports free private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens are protected.” Maybe.

But then, maybe George Will is dreaming of a Platonic vision of conservatism, a conservatism committed to freedom and limited government, a conservatism that certainly isn’t classical conservatism and isn’t the conservatism of the contemporary conservative movement. But it was the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and of Ronald Reagan’s speeches, and often of William F. Buckley, Jr. And maybe, just maybe, if George Will and a few of his conservative soulmates prevail, the conservatism of the future. If I can dream of a liberalism that once again seeks to liberate the individual from the constraints of power, then Will can dream of a conservatism that actually favors freedom.

Also posted at the Britannica Blog.

State to Young People: You Belong to Me

Under the benign headline “Turning Apathy Into Good Deeds,” former secretary of defense Melvin Laird endorses a strikingly authoritarian proposal: “a system of compulsory universal civil service for young people.” Laird recognizes that the military doesn’t need all the recruits a draft would produce and that today’s high-tech military needs longer-term training and commitment. But the drawn-out war in Iraq threatens to discourage future enlistments. So “universal service” might pressure just enough young people to join the army, while also producing a bumper crop of slave labor for schools, Head Start, Peace Corps, hospitals, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department.

Laird thinks such a program would “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Not among free and responsible people, it wouldn’t. It may be no accident that Laird repeatedly mentions democracy, but the words freedom and liberty–the fundamental values of America, which our constitutional republic was created to protect–do not appear in his piece.

Laird does not address how you square compulsory service with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Laird’s proposed “service” is clearly involuntary.

For generations and centuries, old people have complained that today’s young people just don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders. They talk too loud and they don’t care about the community. They need, in the words of William James, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

And meanwhile, they can do a lot of useful things that we older taxpayers would like to have done but don’t want to pay for. After all, in a market economy, if you want more people working in hospitals or day-care centers, you can pay them to do so. And if you don’t think $2.9 trillion is enough to pay for all the useful services of the federal government, you can propose a tax increase. But how much easier it might seem just to commandeer four million free or cheap laborers.

Of course, they’re not really so cheap. You do have to pay them something. And you’ll need massive new layers of bureaucracy to manage four million people (the approximate number of Americans who turn 18 each year).

And then there are the opportunity costs.  Workers will be allocated to government make-work jobs instead of the jobs where the market demand is strongest. The economy will be less efficient and less productive. As Doug Bandow writes, “paying young people to sweep floors entails the cost of forgoing whatever else we could do with that money and the cost of forgoing whatever else those young people could do with their time. An additional dollar spent on medical research might be a better investment than one used to add an extra hospital helper; an additional young person who finished school and entered the field of biogenetics might increase social welfare more than one more kid shelving books in a library.”

What kind of message does compulsory service send to young people? It tells them that they are national resources, state property, that they do not own themselves. That’s not the message the Founders thought they were sending in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s not an attitude appropriate for citizens of a free society. It’s a collectivist, authoritarian concept. It says, with much less charm than the old song, “You belong to me.”

Melvin Laird should be ashamed. So should John Edwards.

Sharks and the Tragedy of the Commons

The global shark population may be sharply declining, according to an article in the Washington Post. Actually, the article never quite gives a number for the global population, but it does warn that “something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.” And there are suggestive reports like this:

In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that shark attacks can be big news, but in reality sharks kill about 4 people a year worldwide, while people kill “26 million to 73 million sharks annually.”

Why kill sharks? To make money, of course, mostly for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. Shark fins are much more valuable than shark meat. Mexican shark hunters say they get $100 a kilogram for shark fins but only $1.50 a kilo for meat.

Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, “there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery.”

So OK, here’s where Eilperin should have said, “Wait a minute … if there’s money to be made, why would greedy capitalists want to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg? Shouldn’t they want to maximize their long-term profits?” And if she had, she might have run into a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” Owners try to maximize the long-term value of their property. Timber owners don’t cut down all the trees and sell them this year; they cut and replant at a sustainable rate. But when people don’t own things, they have no incentive to maintain the long-term value. That’s why passenger pigeons went extinct, but chickens did not; why the buffalo was nearly exterminated but not the cow.

But Eilperin says that “sharks take years to reach sexual maturity.” Maybe that’s why they can’t be profitably farmed. Maybe. But elephants also mature slowly, and African countries that allow ownership and markets are seeing booming populations of previously threatened wildlife (pdf).

Oceans, of course, present even more challenges: how do you create private ownership in fish or sharks or sea turtles that can easily move through vast and unfenced bodies of water? It’s a more difficult challenge, but attempts to create private solutions that overcome the tragedy of the commons are being studied and experimented with, especially in Iceland.

Eilperin reports on many proposals for “tight new controls” and legislative bans and endangered species lists and catch limits. Those proposals provide no incentives for sustainable harvests, they leave shark hunters every reason to try to evade them, and they failed to protect elephants and tigers. The Post’s readers — and the world’s sharks — would benefit if Eilperin would do a follow-up article on property-rights solutions that might properly line up incentives and create sustainable shark markets.

It’s the Government’s Money — They’re Just Letting You Keep It

At a policy forum yesterday, I mixed it up a bit with Jason Furman and Kate Baicker over the concept of “tax expenditures” and whether it is accurate to describe exclusions, deductions, credits, etc. as “government spending.”  I previously laid out my views on the matter here

Earlier this month, my colleauge Andrew Coulson took issue with someone who claimed that “yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding.”  Coulson cited court cases that disagreed.  He then commented:

When I see obviously counterfactual, readily falsified claims such as [this], by people who should know better, I’m always deeply puzzled as to how and why they occur. Somebody throw me a bone here.

Here are two possible explanations. 

  1. People who describe the revenue lost to tax breaks as “government spending” wish to suggest that the money, though in private hands, actually belongs to the government, and therefore the government has the right to take it and spend it on something else.  Taking those resources out of private hands (i.e., by eliminating the tax break) is therefore not a tax increase, but merely a reallocation of government resources.
  2. Alternatively (but no less opportunistically), some describe the revenue forgone as “government spending” because they do not like how private actors are spending that money.  Defining it as government spending subjects it to limitations that would preclude the objectionable expenditures — such as when teachers’ unions object that tax credits make it easier for the citizenry to spend their own money on religious schools (read: the unions’ non-union competitors).

Unfortunately, as Jason Furman gleefully pointed out in an email, even Cato scholars sometimes use the term “tax expenditure” — without the scare quotes.

Rizzo versus Thaler on “Libertarian Paternalism”

Earlier this month, a few of us at Cato had the opportunity to hear NYU economics professor Mario Rizzo discuss a paper he has been working on with Glen Whitman on the so-called “new paternalism.” Their conclusion is that there is nothing “new” about it, and that it collapses into plain old paternalism. Today, over at the Wall Street Journal’s Econoblog, Mario takes on Richard Thaler, who along with his University of Chicago colleague Cass Sunstein, is responsible for the notorious ”libertarian paternalism” pseudo-concept.

Mario, gets the best of Thaler, I think, despite the fact that Thaler is incredibly evasive and slippery in this exchange, basically refusing to address a number of Mario’s rather deep objections head on. He wants to keep the “libertarian paternalism” terminology while denying that he is offering a set of ideas that are in the same line of semantic business as either “libertarian” or “paternalism.” It’s hard to see the point of this, other than to rhetorically “nudge” people into thinking that paternalism is sometimes okay because it is sometimes “libertarian,” and to get people to think that even libertarianism can sometimes be “paternalistic.” 

It is surely true, as “behavioral economists” like Thaler have shown, that we have a tendency to make certain kinds of cognitive “mistakes” (relative to some impossible blackboard standard of economic rationality, at least) and suffer from certain weaknesses of will. And it may also be true that many workers will be glad to accept labor contracts that provide for work and compensation arrangements that help them structure their time or manage their money in light of these foibles. I guess if one insisted on abusing words, one could say that voluntary labor agreements are “libertarian” in the sense that they are uncoerced. (By the same standard, choosing to eat pistachio instead of rocky road ice cream is “libertarian.”) But if there is no coercion, there is no paternalism, since “paternalism” already means something. 

Here is how Thaler motivates “libertarian paternalism”:

People make mistakes, so sometimes they can be helped. It is possible to help without coercion. That is libertarian paternalism. The concept can be and is used in both the public and private sectors. For example, in London, pedestrians from abroad are reminded by signs on the pavement to “look right” because their instincts from back home are to expect traffic to approach from the left. No one is forced to look right, but fewer pedestrians are hit by trucks.

This is so broad as to be completely intellectually useless. If your kid is misspelling a lot of words, and then you teach them the “ ‘I’ before ’E’ except after ‘C’ ” rule, you’ve helped them correct mistakes non-coercively. Is that libertarian paternalism? A “watch your step” sign in restaurant? An instructional DVD that helps your golf swing? 

Mario, I think, gets it just right:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that seeks to reduce the activities of the state to a very low level. It is very much about less government. Paternalism is a political or moral philosophy that seeks to override the actual or operative preferences of individuals for their own benefit, however defined, according to Donald VanDeVeer’s 1986 book on the subject. When applied to the actions of government, paternalism cannot be libertarian. It can only be more or less intrusive.

Does Richard wish to reduce his “libertarian paternalism” to the appropriate management of government-owned streets or other enterprises? In the London case, what people want is obvious: They don’t want to get hit by cars. London is doing what entrepreneurs generally do: satisfying actual preferences. London is mimicking the market.

[…]

Richard wants to use the word “libertarian” to differentiate his paternalism from the traditional variants. Yet he uses the word in a fuzzy way. He wants to define libertarian along a continuous variable – the cost of exercising the exit option. However, libertarianism, as every libertarian understands it, uses a bright-line test – who imposes the cost? The authors of the concept of “libertarian paternalism” have said that clearly intrusive/coercive interventions are consistent with it. See my previous post. And they have also said, explicitly, that there is no sharp line between libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism. Thus, Richard cannot claim that his standard creates a bright-line rule that would help us resist the slippery slope.

As Mario and Glen have titled the paper they’re writing: “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss.”

If you missed it, be sure to check out Glen’s Cato paper, “Against the New Paternalism: Internalities and the Economics of Self-Control.”

A Brave Heart for Atlas Shrugged

Randall Wallace’s script for the movie Atlas Shrugged is 129 pages long, according to an interview in Script magazine. That seems pretty short for such a massive novel. According to one TV critic, “On a two-hour movie, the average screenplay runs 120 pages. Maybe 125. For ‘A Few Good Men,’ [the famously dialogue-heavy] Aaron Sorkin’s weighed in at 149. For ‘Schindler’s List,’ on which he did a final ‘dialogue polish’: 183 pages.” I don’t think they’re going to include John Galt’s Speech.

Wallace says he has finished the screenplay, and it’s been “greenlit” by the studio. Angelina Jolie has been signed to play Dagny Taggart, and the movie may be in theaters next summer.

Wallace was nominated for an Oscar for his script for Braveheart, another movie popular with many libertarians. He first read the novel when his son at Duke University recommended it. Wallace gave his son C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which suggests some interesting dinner-table conversations. (He’s also writing a screenplay for Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.)

Wallace found a familiar theme in Atlas Shrugged:

The assertion that change occurs when heroic individuals are willing to stand up–and further, that people in the herd want to be heroic individuals but aren’t encouraged to do so until they find a leader worth following–is very much in Braveheart, and it’s something thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche.

Wallace himself does not claim to be an Objectivist or a libertarian. He seems to be more enamored with the idea of great ideas than with the ideas themselves. And many fans of Atlas Shrugged are going to be skeptical that you can capture its essence in two hours. But I think Wallace is correct to say that a movie is not a book on screen. It has to be a creative work in its own medium. If it works well, it will introduce the ideas and the book to millions of new readers.

Wallace may direct the movie as well. The New York Times tells the story of the 35-year struggle to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big screen, with key roles played by Godfather producer Albert Ruddy and Objectivist businessman John Aglialoro. Script magazine is here, but the Wallace interview is not online.