Topic: Political Philosophy

Happy Birthday, America—and Thanks for Having Me

This will be my first July 4th holiday in Washington, DC. Last year I was in New York City with my family, celebrating my 30th birthday (yes, I’m a bicentennial baby). So I am looking forward to seeing how the nation’s capital celebrates Independence Day.

As a recent arrival, I know that my experience of Independence Day is necessarily limited. But the ideals upon which America was based and which we celebrate tomorrow are common to many around the world, no matter where they call home. The American dream–to make a better life for yourself and to pursue whatever brand of happiness to which you aspire–is the human dream. As David Boaz notes in his podcast (mp3) today, the line of people at the immigration centers of American embassies is larger than the line of picketers outside, no matter how harsh the criticisms of the rest of the world can seem.

The government and the country are not the same thing. So for all those who have taken offense at a foreigner criticising U.S. farm and trade policy over the last year, please know that I will be celebrating a wonderful country tomorrow, along with all of you.

Cato@Liberty: Safe For Children

Libertarians are often associated with such out-of-the-mainstream activities as drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc., because out-of-the-mainstream activities are the very things that intolerant mainstream types try to stamp out via coercion.

But according to the web site mingle2.com, the Cato@Liberty blog you’re reading right now would be rated PG by the motion picture industry.  Evidently, the words “drugs” and “torture” kept us from getting that coveted G-rating. 

Good god, have we gone mainstream?

Heritage — Unhealthy

In his post on the differences over energy policy between the (conservative) Heritage Foundation and the (libertarian) Cato Institute, Jerry Taylor mentions that the two Washington think tanks also have differences regarding health care. For those who are curious, here’s where I see the biggest differences between Cato scholars and Heritage scholars on health policy:

The Heritage Foundation’s health policy team generally supports having the government force people to buy health insurance. Cato scholars generally do not. A couple of weeks ago, Heritage’s director of health policy studies Bob Moffit wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

[M]y Heritage Foundation colleagues and I support the “personal responsibility principle.” It’s a simple idea: All adults have a responsibility to buy their own health insurance, pay their own health care bills, and not shift those costs to others….

People who can reasonably afford it have a responsibility to buy health insurance to protect themselves and their families against the financial devastation of catastrophic illness….

People who do not wish to buy health insurance for whatever reason should be free to do so. But, in exchange, they must demonstrate in some tangible way that they are really going to pay their own hospital bills. 

My Cato colleagues and I generally differ, for a number of reasons: such “individual mandates” are impractical, ineffective, and expand government power beyond its legitimate scope. Government should and does require people to pay their debts, meaning that patients already are legally responsible for their medical bills. The Heritage “personal responsibility principle,” on the other hand, would hold a Christian Scientist responsible for debts that he will never incur.

In addition, Heritage scholars embrace the idea that government should pursue “universal coverage.” Meanwhile, I do things like start the Anti-Universal Coverage Club (whose membership is growing).

There are many areas where Cato and Heritage scholars agree. I personally respect every member of their health policy team. Why, just yesterday Cato hosted Heritage’s Ed Haislmaier at a forum where we released a study critical of the Heritage-backed Massachusetts health plan. 

Where we disagree, we criticize. But I consider such criticism a form of praise. The only reason we bother to criticize is because what Heritage scholars say matters.  A lot.

This Cato-Heritage disagreement over health care goes back more than a decade. It contributes to the free-market movement’s lack of direction on health care reform. The movement cannot move on in a unified manner until that disagreement is resolved.

Announcing the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

Inspired by National Review’s recent editorial and Andrew Sullivan’s embrace of same (as well as by Greg Mankiw), I have decided it would be fun and educational to keep tally of those who reject the idea that federal or state governments should strive to provide every American with health insurance.  Call it the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Here are the guiding principles of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

  1. Health policy should focus on making health care of ever-increasing quality available to an ever-increasing number of people.
  2. To achieve “universal coverage” would require either having the government provide health insurance to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it.  Government provision is undesirable, because government does a poor job of improving quality or efficiency.  Forcing people to get insurance would lead to a worse health-care system for everyone, because it would necessitate so much more government intervention.
  3. In a free country, people should have the right to refuse health insurance.
  4. If governments must subsidize those who cannot afford medical care, they should be free to experiment with different types of subsidies (cash, vouchers, insurance, public clinics & hospitals, uncompensated care payments, etc.) and tax exemptions, rather than be forced by a policy of “universal coverage” to subsidize people via “insurance.”

If you’d like to join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club, let me know by posting something to your own blog, or by emailing me mcannon [at] cato [dot] org (here).  Feel free to forward items from other like-minded individuals.

I predict that neither the American Medical Association, nor the Federation of American Hospitals, nor America’s Health Insurance Plans will join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Government Makes Things Worse, Not Better

In this column, John Stossel eviscerates David Brooks, the ostensibly conservative columnist for the New York Times. Brooks has argued for big new government initiatives to boost human capital. Stossel correctly explains, though, that Brooks wants to expand failed government programs when the right approach is to move in the other direction:

David Brooks is a bright guy, so I wonder how he can blame the free market for failing in this way. He continues, “Despite all the incentives, 30 percent of kids drop out of high school and the college graduation rate has been flat for a generation.” Excuse me, but why is that the market’s fault? Government dominates education in America. K-12 education is a coercive, often rigidly unionized government virtual monopoly that fights every attempt to experiment with free-market competition. Brooks writes that Hamiltonians like him “think government should help people get the tools they need to compete.” But when has government ever been good at that? He claims the state can “increase the quality of human capital” by, for example, providing “Quality preschool [to] help young children from … disorganized homes. … ” Really? What is the chance that it would be “quality” preschool if government runs it? Even the acclaimed Head Start has not been shown to have any lasting effect on academic performance. …When I asked Brooks why a government that performed as ineptly as FEMA did after Hurricane Katrina will be better at running preschools, he said, “Some lives are so screwed up, it’s hard to make them worse.” Government coercion almost always makes things worse. It discourages individual effort, and sucks capital away from more productive uses. …America became an economic power despite, not because of, Hamiltonian intervention. Hong Kong and much of East Asia went from abject poverty to affluence in a few decades not because their governments gave people “tools they need to compete” – they didn’t – but because they exercised limited powers.

Enough is Enough

Three years ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down McConnell v. FEC, a decision that upheld McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on political speech. The future seemed bleak for any limits on government regulation of speech and association.

But things are looking up. Today the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life.

McCain-Feingold made it a federal crime for any corporation to broadcast, 30 to 60 days before an election, any communication that mentions a federal candidate for elected office and is aimed relevant voters.  Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) is an ideological corporation that accepted funding from other corporations. Its members wanted to run ads in 2004 urging citizens of their state to contact its two senators and urge them to oppose a filibuster of judicial nominees. Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the senators and a co-author of the law in question, was running for re-election. Wisconsin Right to Life’s advertising plans thus constituted a federal crime. At least, they were a crime if the relevant part of McCain-Feingold was constitutional as applied to WRTL. In fact, McCain-Feingold was constitutionally invalid in this case and probably many others.

To understand why requires a quick summary of campaign finance law. Congress long ago prohibited contributions to candidates from the general treasuries of corporations and labor unions. But corporations could fund ads commenting on the issues of the day. However, if those ads directly advocated the election or defeat of a candidate, they became an attempt to circumvent the ban on corporate contributions and thus a federal crime. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court said such “express advocacy” contained words like “elect” and “defeat.” If an ad did not use the words, it was not express advocacy and hence, not subject to campaign finance regulation.

In the 1990s some businesses and labor unions started funding advertising that met the legal standards for issue advocacy. The ads were legal and often highly critical of vulnerable members of Congress in the run up to an election. McCain-Feingold made such speech illegal. It said corporations could not fund ads that mentioned a candidate for federal office with 30 to 60 days of an election. The McConnell Court went along arguing that the ads in question were the “functional equivalent of express advocacy.” In the WRTL decision, the author of the majority opinion, Justice Roberts, has contracted rather than expanded the scope of government regulation. He has done so by redefining the meaning of express advocacy: “a court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” The WRTL ad seemed to a reasonable person to be attempt at grassroots organizing. Hence, WRTL wins.

But this standard implicates more than this case. Many of the ads in the 1990s that were the target of McCain-Feingold might have been free of regulation under this standard. Reasonable people could have believed that the ads were attempts to persuade voters to contact their representatives. The political space free of government regulation seems to have expanded. Indeed, it seems possible that many fewer ads will be judged the “functional equivalent of express advocacy” in the future.

So, the good guys won one at last. “Enough is enough,” as Justice Roberts writes in considering efforts to further expand government control of politics.

But still there is reason to worry. The majority did not declare the relevant part of McCain-Feingold unconstitutional. Justice Alito did suggest a willingness to hear constitutional challenges to the McConnell decision (and hence, to McCain-Feingold). Justice Roberts also set out some criteria for the “express advocacy” that are fairly broad. An ad that mentions “an election, candidacy, political party, or challenger; or [that takes] a position on a candidate’s character, qualifications, or fitness for office” could become express advocacy depending on future judgments by the Court and perhaps, by the Federal Election Commission.

An important battle has been won. The war continues.

The Libertarian Case for Free Software

One of the most interesting trends in tech policy over the last decade has been the emergence of free software as a major force in the computer industry. For example, some of our readers probably use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which was developed by a team of volunteers collaborating over the Internet. And in fact, you’re using free software right now! Cato’s own web servers use the Linux operating system and the Apache web server to serve up Cato’s website. Both Linux and Apache are free software, developed by volunteers and made available for free to the general public.

Free software has caught some flack among libertarians who fault it for its failure to rely on the traditional mechanisms of the market. In the latest edition of Cato’s TechKnowledge newsletter, I argue that this criticism is misguided.

Free software is precisely the kind of decentralized, voluntary cooperation that libertarians should be holding up as an alternative to the coercive power of the state. Free software is produced by volunteers donating their time, without a government program in sight. If that’s not a libertarian success story, I don’t know what is.

So why do we see so many libertarians criticizing such peaceful, but noncommercial, forms of social organization? Many are taking the bait offered by the subset of free software proponents who have adopted the rhetoric of the left to promote their goals. We’re used to arguing with these people, who advocate using the state to impose communal forms of organization. Libertarians criticize forcing employees to join unions, prohibiting organ donors from becoming organ sellers, and requiring children to attend government schools. In each case, we hold up markets, business, and money as the tools of voluntary alternatives to coercive government programs.

In these arguments, progressives often claim they can use state power to create and nurture the rich social structures that typify civil society. But they’re wrong. State intervention almost always results in bureaucratized and politicized institutions that pit us against one another in bitter struggles. For example, a lot of progressives laud the potential of public schools to create more unified communities. But in practice, the opposite is true: our public schools have become one of the most divisive institutions in American society. They’ve sparked pitched battles over what to teach our children about sex, evolution, religion, and many other topics. The reality is that you can’t create civil society by government fiat.

So libertarians are right to criticize policies aimed at accomplishing communal goals via coercive means. But some libertarians have gotten so used to defending the market against those who want to impose collectivism that they start criticizing purely voluntary efforts to organize people on more communal lines. They are forgetting that libertarianism is not necessarily about increasing the role of for–profit enterprise in every aspect of our lives. Commercial activity is one alternative to statism, and an extremely important one. But it’s just one possible mode of cooperation, and it’s not necessarily the best choice in every situation.