Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

McCain says GOP is Corrupt

Last night in the Republican presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said, in response to Mitt Romney’s criticism of McCain-Feingold:  ”Is there anyone who believes there’s not enough money washing around money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?

His “we have enough money in politics” argument has become a standard defense of McCain-Feingold. The idea here is that while McCain-Feingold may have restricted spending on politics, there is still “enough” money in politics. But McCain characteristically misses the point. In a free society, the question is not whether citizens collectively produce “enough” spending on politics. It is rather whether they are free to spend on politics as they wish. McCain-Feingold abridged political liberties even if Sen. McCain believes we have “enough” political speech left over. 

McCain’s charge that the GOP is corrupt also recalls the debates surrounding McCain-Feingold. The Senator then charged the entire Senate with corruption, but when Sen. McConnell challenged him to name a single corrupt individual, he could not. Now McCain thinks the GOP itself was corrupted by money in politics. That seems like a strange way to appeal for the votes of active Republicans. But Sen. McCain should be required to say exactly how campaign finance corrupted the entire Republican party.  

Lobbying Reform Reformed

The Politico offers an article about House Democrats and their effort to legislate about lobbying. The Senate passed a lobbying bill in January.

The road to the Senate bill included a struggle over the disclosure of funding for grassroots lobbying. Groups like the National Rifle Association or the National Right to Life Committee sometimes pay firms to communicate with citizens and urge them to contact their members of Congress on issues of concern to the group. The usual “reform groups” wanted the Senate to force disclosure of the sums spent mobilizing public opinion in this way. The Senate left disclosure out of their bill.

The effort to mandate disclosure resumed when the House took up lobbying reform. We held a forum on the topic that can be seen here. It now appears that the mandated disclosure will not appear in House version of the bill though it may be offered as an amendment.

The grassroots lobbying disclosure effort looked a lot like normal politics. The new majorities in Congress were (on the whole) Democratic and liberal, the groups that would be forced to disclosure their political activities were (on the whole) Republican and conservative. The new powers-that-be were apparently looking at ways to harass and perhaps discourage speech they did not like. As I said, normal politics.

Why has mandated disclosure apparently failed? A leader of one of the targeted groups told me that she hoped Speaker Pelosi would include the mandate in the lobbying reform bill. This leader believed the Speaker and her party would end up with a political black eye from the fight. Perhaps Speaker Pelosi agreed in the end.

For now, at least.

Barney Frank, the Occasional Libertarian

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, gave a resoundingly libertarian interview to NPR’s “All Things Considered” Friday evening. Frank has introduced a bill to repeal last year’s ban on online gambling. As he did in this 2003 Cato Policy Forum, he made his argument in libertarian terms. From the Nexis transcript:

ROBERT SIEGEL: First of all, what is your motive here? Is it libertarian? Is it to achieve more revenues for the government by taxing activity? What is it?

Rep. FRANK: It’s libertarian. I am appalled at the notion that the government tells adults that they cannot do certain things with their own money on their own time in ways that do not harm anybody else because other people disapproved of them. …

But my motive is overwhelmingly that I just don’t want to see the government telling people what to do….

SIEGEL: How much money would taxing Internet gambling bring in to the federal government?

Rep. FRANK: Well, in the bill I am - not a lot - I really want to make it very clear, that’s not my major focal point here. Potentially this could be a useful source of revenue just like any other business. But I do want to stress, my main motivation here is that I do think I should mind my own business and I want to deal with the environment, and I want to deal with economic problems, and I want to deal with poverty and all these other things. But I spend a lot of energy trying to protect people from other people. I have none left for protecting people from themselves.

In between those segments, Frank said that we allow lots of things over the Internet–like wine sales–that are appropriate for adults but not for children. And he said that conservatives want to ban things they think are immoral, and liberals want to ban things they think are “just tacky.”

It’s good to hear an elected official use the word libertarian, and use it correctly, and apply it to issues. Would that more of his colleagues would do so. I’m reminded that seven years ago I did a libertarian rating of Congress. Frank did better than most Democrats, and indeed better than most Republicans (including 7 of the 11 members of the Republican Liberty Caucus Advisory Board). But he voted to restrict steel imports, restrict gun sales and gun shows, and implement the restrictive “Know Your Customer” bank regulations, and he opposed a tax cut. So his commitment to not telling what people to do with their own lives and their own money seems limited.

This year, as Financial Services chairman, he’s demonstrating his interventionist tendencies as well as his sometime libertarian instincts. He wants to push all workers into government health care, to regulate corporate decisions about executive compensation, to put more obstacles in the way of free trade across national borders, to keep Wal-Mart from creating an internal bank clearinghouse to hold down its costs. Not to mention expanding anti-discrimination rules to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Frank told another journalist:

“In a number of areas, I am a libertarian,” Frank said. “I think that John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a great statement, and I was just rereading it.

“I believe that people should be allowed to read and gamble and ride motorcycles and do a lot of things that other people might not want to let them do.”

Would that the Republicans who once took Congress on the promise of “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money” also reread (or read) “On Liberty” and take its message to heart. And would that Barney Frank come to realize that adults should also be free to spend the money they earn as they choose and to decide what contracts, with foreign businesses or local job applicants, they will enter into.