Topic: Political Philosophy

Response to Tom Mann on Campaign Finance Reform

Tom Mann has responded to earlier criticisms by Bob Bauer and me of an op-ed by Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado. Bob responds on our behalf here. Bob has done well as usual; I respond here on my own behalf.

Mann argues that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) did not devastate the political parties. But I did not argue that it had devastated the parties. Tom concedes my original point: earlier trends suggest the parties have fewer resources in 2006 than they would have had without BCRA. I argued that this shortfall for the parties cost the Democrats 15 to 20 seats in 2006 since they were not able to fully exploit the national shift in public mood. Tom says they had enough money to contest the races. My claim about the effects on the party came from Rahm Emanuel and other party leaders. Here’s evidence from the New York Times [$$$] quoted in an earlier post:

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, …said that Republicans held 14 seats by a single percentage point and that a small investment by [Howard] Dean [head of the Democratic National Committee] could have put Democrats into a commanding position for the rest of the decade…” There was a missed opportunity here,” he said. “I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table.”


Mr. Emanuel said … : “More resources brings more seats into play. Full stop.”

Emanuel’s statement supports my claim. Tom himself cites the testimony of Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic party leader, in his post on another matter. If McAuliffe counts, so does Emanuel.

Here are some other arguments from Tom Mann (in italics) and my replies:

BCRA did not ban any political ads; it stipulated that electioneering communications may not be funded by corporations and unions.

Well, if an “electioneering communication” is a type of political ad and a law stipulates that corporations and unions may not fund them, then the law has banned the funding (and hence, the existence) of a certain kind of political ad. Part of the struggle over BCRA was whether these ads were “issue ads” (and hence protected by the First Amendment) or like contributions to campaigns (and hence, illegal because or earlier bans on contributions by labor unions and corporations). BCRA defined the ads as contributions by calling them “electioneering communications.” The Supreme Court acquiesced in that definition. The ads have disappeared from campaigns. The regulation of money does appear to eliminate speech. Sen. McCain himself thought disclosure of the supporters of the advertising would be enough to stop the ads (i.e. the political speech). Or so he said on the floor of the Senate.

There is another part of this story. These issue ads were irritating and threatening vulnerable members of Congress. In response, Congress declared funding of the ads illegal. That strikes me as striking evidence that campaign finance regulation protects its authors, i.e. members of Congress.

The amount of political advertising in 2006 supports the view that BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech.

This is an interesting confusion. If we define vibrant free speech as “the amount of political advertising in 2006,” then indeed BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech. But if BCRA constrained spending on political speech and other electoral activities, then it did restrict free speech, even if we had lots of speech otherwise. “Vibrant” here means something like “enough” political speech. Thus BCRA may have restricted some speech, but the society had enough for its purposes.

There is a parallel here to an argument made some years ago by the law professor Owen Fiss. He argued that the free speech of some disfavored speakers might be restricted to foster a “rich public debate,” which he took to be the goal of the First Amendment. Hence, in Fiss’s view, the First Amendment empowered government to suppress speech for the higher goal of a “rich public debate.”

Tom Mann is not explicitly arguing for suppression of speech. But he is implicitly reading the First Amendment as expressing a social goal rather than a restraint on government. Once we have “enough speech,” we should not be especially worried about restrictions on some speech.

This point supports Tom’s general observation that arguments about campaign finance are dependent on political theory. As I argue in The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, progressives have come to see the First Amendment as empowering government to regulate and suppress speech in pursuit of larger social goals. But the First Amendment simply restricts the government’s power over speech. It does not say the government may limit freedom of speech if we have enough speech during an election, or to assure that we have the right kind of speech for a “rich public debate.” It just restrains the government. (In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that not all of Tom Mann’s allies mentioned in his post are progressives; Michael Malbin is not for one).

Party soft money was not diverted to 527s. The research on this by the Campaign Finance Institute, reported in The Election After Reform, is crystal clear.

Mann may be correct here. If so, the parties were deprived of huge sums in 2006.

Samples judges BCRA by the arguments made in Congress by some of its supporters. I don’t doubt that some wanted to reduce the overall amount of money in campaigns and eliminate negative advertising. But those were not built into the design of the law.

This implies that the Senators who explicated the law on the floor of the Senate and later voted for BCRA did not understand its purposes or how it would work. We should wonder about the validity of a law if the people who enacted it did not understand its goals or its design. But, then again, the goals many senators assigned to BCRA were not constitutional. (You can read about the many purposes of BCRA in the Introduction to The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform).

Tom Mann finishes up by arguing that my “libertarian framework” leads me to ignore reality. (Similarly, Ornstein and Corrado branded critics of BCRA as “ideologues” in their original Washington Post piece). Here’s what Tom is doing rhetorically: Libertarianism is a kind of religion that believes things without proof. We – that is, Tom Mann and company – are pragmatic and moderate, trying to grapple with complexity in pursuit of the common good. So who are you going to believe? The simple-minded fundamentalist or the scientific centrists?

This is a neat rhetorical gambit often deployed by self-described moderates. But there are several ironies here.

First, Tom’s allies in the “reform community” (though not Tom himself, or any of the people he mentions) are not especially scientifically-minded. For example, I have been told that such self-described reformers have bitterly criticized political scientists for not finding evidence of corruption caused by campaign contributions.

Second, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform is filled with attention to empirical work and some original analysis of data. I do not simply assert that campaign finance law protects incumbents, I discuss data that is consistent with that hypothesis. I also mention data that is not consistent with that hypothesis (for the latter, see pages 231-2). I also deal with empirical work that suggests contributions do influence congressional behavior (see pages 98-100). I do discuss the political theories behind the campaign finance struggle. And yes, you can get all that for $22.04 plus shipping!

Note also that I wrote above, “Mann may be correct here.” But read the book and then decide for yourself whether Tom is correct about my attitude toward empirical evidence.

Third, policymaking about campaign finance itself has not been anything like the empirically-minded model Tom sets out. The basic federal campaign finance law was passed in 1974 (and amended a bit shortly thereafter). Its regulations were justified as a means to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. Over the next three decades studies consistently cast doubt on the influence of contributions on policymaking. Other studies indicated that campaign finance rules had little to do with trust in government. Were the laws changed in response to these studies? For example, were contribution limits raised to keep up with inflation or even increased? In fact, the limits were left at their 1974 levels, thereby becoming ever smaller through the effects of inflation. The appearance of corruption rationale, for its part, remains a frequently-cited justification for more campaign finance regulations. To be sure, studies have been used to justify more regulation of money in politics. Studies that suggest liberalization, however, are ignored by judges and legislators. In science, that’s called selection bias. In politics, it’s called business as usual.

The Right’s Love Affair with the Military

My post the other day about whether American society really ought to look more like the U.S. Army has induced a vein-popping, spittle-flying tirade over at Right-Thinking from the Left Coast. Apparently, the point I was trying to make was lost on some.

To recap, Robert Wright argued in the op-ed pages of The New York Times (subscription required) for an America that looked more like the U.S. Army. In that piece, Wright went on at some length pointing out all the wonderful things he found in that institution. Fine, although I certainly know people who spent time in the U.S. Army who saw things a lot differently.

But never mind. The author left out one not-so-inconsequential aspect of the U.S. Army - in fact, the one thing that actually defines the institution. To wit, it’s an organization in which people are expected to shut up and do as they are told. And if they don’t, they are jailed or even, in some circumstances, shot. And their job is to kill.

Do I think American society ought to look more like that? Uh, no.

Now, how do we get from that – which should have been obvious to most readers – to this shrill “you hate the troops” stuff out of Right-Thinking from the Left Coast? My guess is that there are a lot of people on the Right who worship the Pentagon and everything it stands for because they see it as representing the country as a whole. And, well, they love the heck out of their country.

I understand this, but to me, the military has always been less of a mirror image of the country I love than a mirror image of the Post Office I don’t so love – but a Post Office with heavy ordnance. Sure, we need the military to protect ourselves from bad actors abroad, but let’s not lose our perspective. We need construction workers to protect us from big potholes on the road too, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go into a conniption every time I run across someone with a none-too-rosy view of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The observation I made in my original post – that it’s unimaginable that any of our founding fathers would ever even dream of making Wright’s argument – was not off-handed rhetorical flourish. It’s a cold hard fact. James Madison, for instance, considered a standing army “necessary” but “dangerous” and, at the very least, an “inconvenience.” Consider the full quote from Federalist 41:

The liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale, its consequences may be fatal. On any scale, it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution.

And that’s on the mild side of the sentiments we find from other founders regarding the institution the modern Right so tightly embraces. In a letter to Samuel Cooper in 1770, for instance, Benjamin Franklin contended that the lot of a common soldier was worse than that of a slave and that the military was “a devouring monster.” George Washington in his farewell address contended that the military establishment is “inauspicious to liberty” and “particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Benjamin Rush proposed in 1792 that the entry to the Department of War should be inscribed with two captions; “An Office for Butchering the Human Species,” and “A Widow and Orphan Making Office.” John Randolph famously argued from the floor of the 6th Congress that:

The military parade which meets the eye in almost every direction excites the fall of our citizens; they feel a just indignation at the sight of loungers, who live upon the public, who consume the fruits of their honest industry, under the pretext of protecting them from a foreign yoke. They put no confidence, sir, in the protection of a handful of ragamuffins.

There may be statements from some founding fathers echoing John Ashcroft about “letting the eagle soar … with heavy weaponry,” but if so, I’ve never come across them. References to the military as a necessary evil are about as positive a statement as your going to find … from them or me.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, you can have liberty, or you can have missile worship. But you’re unlikely to have both in the long run.

Convoluted and Confused: Yet More Leonhardt-Bashing

Are we libertarians so cranky about David Leonhardt’s review of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism because he really hit us where it hurts? No. We’re cranky because the review truly is astonishingly clueless. As big government conservative Ross Douthat puts it:

As I said, I hold no particular brief for libertarians, but as evidence that they have a particularly noteworthy “soft spot” for tyranny (compared to whom? the New York Times?), this [i.e., Friedman’s hour with Pinochet; Rothbard’s electoral flightiness; Rand’s HUAC testimony] is thin stuff indeed, and it feels like a lazy book reviewer’s attempt to find some bones to pick with a movement he doesn’t know all that much about.

Lazy and ignorant, yes. But also convoluted and confused! In his embarrassingly incoherent penultimate paragraph, Leonhardt fires away completely indiscriminately in an attempt to score some kind of hit (why the effort, anyway?) by mentioning obscure anti-Semites actual libertarians have never heard of, airing completely baffling claims about Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq,” and making representations about Cato’s stance on global warming that should get the fact-checker fired (if the Times used one). But David Boaz and Gene Healy have touched on all this below. So let me address this choice bit from Leonhardt:

In fact, across a range of major issues — energy policy, health care, retirement savings — a hybrid form of laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism seems to be ascendant. The market will be allowed to work its efficient magic, but government will step in to correct the market’s failures. “Libertarian paternalism” is the name two University of Chicago professors, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, have devised for one version of this philosophy.

Many of the purists who populate “Radicals for Capitalism” would surely hate an idea like libertarian paternalism. But they also might understand that they helped to make it possible.

Now, Leonhardt is right that libertarians have helped make the popularity of “a hybrid form of laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism … ascendant” by making it completely intellectually discreditable to argue for collectivism unleavened by markets. He seems to think he’s making an interesting or relevant point by observing that Sunstein and Thaler have used a pattern of shapes that happen to spell the word “libertarian.” As I’ve pointed out before, this has nothing to do with libertarianism, the idea, and is little more than a spoonful of orthographic sugar to make their old fashioned paternalist medicine go down. Leonhardt also makes it sound as if “market failure” arguments are some kind of sexy new intellectual discovery that give the lie to full-on free marketeers and have breathed fresh life into the fusty old political philosophy of regulatory control by political elites. But, no.

Market efficiency does count as “magic,” as Leonhardt puts it – if the solidity of mostly empty-space matrices of molecules count as magic, that is. It’s just the way the world works, and minimally well-educated people know it. Magic surrounds us! That freely-set prices in well-ordered markets efficiently coordinate human cooperation and enable large surpluses from trade – that markets facilitate human prosperity – is an empirical fact now well-understood by anyone worth listening to about economics, politics or policy. That so many intellectuals (so many economics reporters?) still don’t understand how or why market coordination works, and don’t feel ashamed by their ignorance, shows just how far we have still to go.

A key to understanding market coordination is understanding that dynamically self-correcting systems need a steady stream of reliable feedback, which is what shifting market prices provide. If more people understood this, more people would be prepared to ask: Do policymakers in democratic governments generally receive the kind, quality, or volume of informational feedback they would need to spot and fix market failures – that is, to reliably spot genuine “market failures,” to devise the policies that would in fact correct them, to implement those policies in time, to assess accurately whether the policies are working, and to revise or remove them as circumstances change? Do democratically elected politicians generally receive the kind of feedback they would need to be motivated to do all that, even if such feedback mechanisms did exist? Do they get the feedback they would need to be motivated to appoint bureaucrats who would be motivated to make use all that information? Etc., etc. If the answer to each those questions is “Yes,” then why are we in Iraq, for example? If the answer to those question is “Yes,” then our world contains magic indeed.

Government initiatives often need a lot of magic to work, which is why they so often don’t – which is why there is so much government failure. However, part free-market, part statist chimeras don’t always need magic to fly, since markets can haul a lot of dead weight, if they are free enough. But what should we call the belief that we would all fly higher if only government could work more of its sandbagging magic? The audacity of hope. The extent to which “hybrid” energy, health, and retirement policies are going to be improved is the extent to which the government takes steps to stop banning certain kinds of markets – like dynamic spot-price markets in electricity, or real risk-sensitive insurance markets for health care.

As Brian Doherty’s book makes abundantly clear, libertarians have done more than anyone else over the past century to explain to the world how and why people flourish when we limit the institutions of coercion and legalize the institutions of free association and free exchange. No other major American political movement has such a clean conscience, such un-dirty hands. Leonhardt’s confused and aimlessly belligerent review should remind us that Doherty’s inspiring short history is only a beginning.

A Reply to Ornstein and Corrado

The fifth anniversary of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as BCRA or McCain-Feingold) has arrived, and two of its defenders, Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado, took to the pages of The Washington Post yesterday to counter “a widespread view that BCRA did not work, that campaign reform has been a failure.”

They argue that McCain-Feingold has led to “the spectacular resurgence of political parties.” But the political parties were not in decline prior to 2002. They had been reviving since at least the mid-1990s, in part because of the resources that came from party soft money. Ornstein and Corrado say many people thought BCRA would hurt the parties. But, they say, that did not happen. Evidence? “In the two elections held before BCRA, the national parties raised a total of $2.1 billion, nearly half of it in unregulated ‘soft money’…In the two elections since, the parties raised exactly the same amount, but all in ‘hard money.’”

Notice the trick here. Ornstein and Corrado are comparing party fundraising in 2006 to party fundraising in 2002. They show that under BCRA in 2006 the parties raised as much hard money as they did soft and hard money in 2002. But that’s not what we want to know! We want to know whether the parties raised as much or more money in 2006 under BCRA as they would have in 2006 without BCRA. If they did, BCRA didn’t have much effect on fundraising.

As it happens, total party soft money fundraising doubled from mid-term election to mid-term election from 1992 onward. In 2006, the parties would have raised an additional $500 million in party soft money if BCRA had not passed. To be sure, some of the soft money that would have been raised turned up as hard money contributions to the parties in 2006 or as contributions to 527 groups. Even taking those into account, I suspect the parties would have raised  at least tens of millions of dollars more in 2006 if BCRA had not banned soft money fundraising. So it is not accurate to say that “our parties are richer.”  

According to Ornstein and Corrado, BCRA also made the parties “stronger at the grassroots,” citing party building and get-out-the-vote efforts. Yet in 2004 it was 527 groups (whose funding is not covered by BCRA) who supported the organizations that got out the Democratic vote in battleground states. By law, the 527 efforts could not be coordinated with the parties. As a result, the multi-million dollar contributions by George Soros and others did nothing to build up the Democratic party. In fact, many observers think the disjunction between the 527 get-out-the-vote effort and the Democratic party organization hampered Sen. Kerry’s presidential bid. As for party building, Howard Dean, the current head of the Democratic party, wanted to build up his party in 2006 even in states where Democrats had done poorly in the past. Dean’s party building effort came up short for lack of money. Had the Democrats been able to raise soft money, they would have had enough to both fight the 2006 election and build up their party across the board.

Ornstein and Corrado credit BCRA for a purported rise in small donors to the parties. By cutting off soft money, they imply, BCRA forced the parties to find small donors. They ignore two other factors. The Internet cut the cost of finding contributions and of making contributions. Meanwhile, the Iraq war and rising party competition mobilized donors and voters who otherwise might have stayed on the sidelines.

Our authors then confront the question of incumbent protection, an argument they associate with Newt Gingrich. They note that 22 House incumbents and 6 Senate incumbents lost in 2006. Ornstein and Corrado do not note that all 28 of those losing incumbents were Republican which might suggest a national wave of unhappiness directed at GOP candidates. BCRA did not offer enough incumbent protection for those 28 former members of Congress. But that does not prove that the Democratic wave of 2006 might not have been stronger in the absence of BCRA. As I argued earlier, their leaders believe the Democrats left 15 to 20 House seats on the table in 2006. Without BCRA, they would have had more party soft money to have pursued those 15 to 20 seats. Campaign finance regulations protect incumbents in more ways than one.

The effects on Democratic candidates and the Democratic party are important. 90 percent of congressional Democrats voted for BCRA. They believed the law would help Democratic candidates and their party. If we are honest, that partisan outcome was a leading, if not the primary, purpose of BCRA. (If you doubt that, ask the congressional Republicans of 2002: 80 percent of them voted against BCRA). So the question lingers: if Democrats ended up with less money and fewer House seats with BCRA than without it, was the law a success for Democrats in Congress and in the nation at large?

Ornstein and Corrado try hard to deflect this question. They identify opposition to BCRA with Republicans, conservative activists, and ideologues. Their Democratic readers are supposed to think, as they always have thought: Ick! Who wants to agree with stupid and evil people like that! Especially about money in politics. 

But that rhetorical gambit, like much of campaign finance “reform,” has grown stale. It’s not just the opponents of liberalism who are having doubts about Sen. McCain and his handiwork. I am certain that the smart, tough people who run Democratic congressional campaigns know BCRA cost the party seats. An important left-leaning expert on campaign finance has raised questions about the failures of the law. He also reports that the foundations that gave over $100 million to lobby for BCRA are wondering why they did so. That’s a lot of money for so little in return.

Not surprisingly, Ornstein and Corrado omit other consequences of BCRA. The law prohibited broadcast advertising within sixty days of a general election for a motion picture criticizing the current president of the United States. It also prohibited advertising within that time frame urging citizens to contact their representatives in Washington (if those representatives were running for re-election). We have no idea how much political speech was suppressed by BCRA’s ban on some issue ads.

BCRA’s prohibitions also fostered money moving to 527 groups followed by a regulatory push to eliminate such groups. If 527 groups are done away with, money may well go to nonprofit groups which will be followed by efforts to tightly control the political activities of such groups. BCRA has brought under state control a larger part of private political activity than ever before; it has also fomented a regulatory push that may yet deeply invade what’s left of private financing of political struggle.

The authors also omit BCRA’s failure to live up to the promises made by its supporters on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (I document these goals in the first chapter of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform). BCRA did not restore public confidence in government, largely because campaign finance regulations have nothing to do with trust in government. It did not prevent corruption among several Republican members of Congress (and perhaps, one Democrat).

Ornstein and Corrado suggest the law reduced the number of negative ads. But that’s pure speculation. Judging by the complaints of the “reform community,” campaigns remain as negative as ever. Of course, negative advertising is good for American democracy, and in any case, advocates always said campaign finance regulations concerned money and not the content of speech. If BCRA really sought to improve the content of speech, doesn’t that mean the law violated the First Amendment from the start?

BCRA has had three other results, each hopeful in its own way.  

BCRA has had random political effects. People on the left, who generally support such restrictions on money in politics, discovered they too could be “reformed.” This discovery may reduce support for future restrictions on speech.

The law also fostered a successful bipartisan coalition against campaign finance regulation when BCRA’s defenders tried to regulate and restrict political speech on the Internet. Perhaps the Internet will remain a speech zone free of campaign finance regulation.

The law also appears to be a major obstacle to Sen. John McCain’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps in the future ambitious politicians will consider the electoral costs of supporting restrictions on speech. Emerging presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who voted for BCRA now says: “I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”

Neither misleading numbers nor rhetorical gambits can change the reality that BCRA has failed its supporters and the nation. Perhaps a new start with money and politics, one more mindful of the First Amendment, is in order.

Reviewing That Review

As David Boaz amply documents below, there are many irritating features to David Leonhardt’s NYT book review of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.  One that particularly stood out for me, however, was Leonhardt’s insinuation that libertarianism is partially to blame for the unfolding disaster in Iraq.  In a paragraph intended to catalogue libertarianism’s current political difficulties, Leonhardt writes that Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous.”  Now, if there is a properly “free-market” approach to bombing, invading, and occupying countries that don’t threaten us, I’m unaware of it. 

Perhaps Leonhardt is referring to Paul Bremer’s 2003 refusal to reopen state-run factories.  But the line suggests a broader attempt to hang the biggest foreign policy disaster in 30 years around libertarians’ necks.  Nice try.  The Iraq mess is the product of an ideological joint venture between neoconservatives and liberal hawks.  Libertarians, in the main, opposed it.  The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias–who’s no libertarian–understands this far better than Leonhardt.  As Yglesias put it a while back:   

the notion that anything even remotely resembling libertarianism could underwrite an effort to conscript huge quantities of resources from the American public and deploy them in an attempt to wholly remake the social and political order in a foreign country is too absurd to merit a rebuttal. This is an argument properly directed at egalitarian liberals, and we have reason to be asked to produce some specific arguments about why the dim prospects for succeeding at this were ex ante knowable (such arguments can, I think, be fairly easily produced) and/or why, given the opportunity costs, nation-building in Iraq was not a wise place to deploy the resources in question (this argument, I think, can be produced very easily). As long as the conversation is supposed to be proceeding on the shared basis of libertarianism, however, one hardly needs to say anything. It’s coercion, it’s planning, it’s every non-libertarian thing under the sun.

And as long as we’re passing out blame for the Iraq War, don’t forget that Leonhardt’s employer, the Grey Lady herself, deserves a large chunk.

Hillary Didn’t Invent Community

In an article on a pleasant suburban community near Washington, Roxanne Sweeney says,  “It’s like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” praising the neighborhood’s friendliness and strong community ties. Later, reporter Rebecca Kahlenberg writes,

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn’t feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

“I can’t even count how many meals were brought to me,” Sweeney said. “I hate this line because I’m not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place.”

No, Ms. Sweeney! Friendship and community were not invented by Hillary Clinton. As the reference to “Leave It to Beaver” suggests, such ties go back long before Senator Clinton put her name on the book “It Takes a Village.” And long before “Leave It to Beaver.” Family, parish, and village are natural connections that predate not just Clinton but government and even formal social organization. They are the first building blocks of civil society. Clinton’s contribution to the topic is to confuse the natural ties of love and neighborliness with the artificial and imposed order of a vast and distant federal government.

As I wrote in a recent article and in Libertarianism: A Primer, Hillary calls for a national consensus and a common vision of what the government should do for families. But there can be no such common consensus in a pluralistic society. People don’t agree about all the values involved in rearing children, helping others, worshiping God, and forming associations. That’s why a successful society leaves such choices to individuals. Even in the little community of River Falls, it isn’t a formal community organization that came to Roxanne Sweeney’s aid. It was her friends.

At so many points in our lives, it takes friends, it takes a village, but it doesn’t take the federal government.

NYT Clueless on Libertarianism

In Sunday’s New York Times, Times economics columnist David Leonhardt reviews Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

It might have made sense to get a libertarian, or someone familiar with the libertarian movement, or a political historian to write the review. Instead, the Times turned to someone who knows something about economics. Since the Times is the most important book review venue in the country, it’s worth taking a close look at Leonhardt’s complaints.

The first half of the review retells the story of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, which is fine. It’s an interesting story, though it’s probably the part of the book most likely to be already familiar to Times readers. After the Randian opening, Leonhardt writes:

The story of the American libertarian movement, like the story of its most famous salon, has been a combination of small numbers and big influence. It has never really emerged from the fringe, for the simple reason that most Americans want their government to educate the young and care for the old. But over the last few decades, they have also grown increasingly skeptical of collectivist policies that go beyond the basics. Libertarian thinkers — Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and others — have helped foment this skepticism and then enthusiastically pointed to the alternative.

Fair enough. Most movements are small, even those that have big effects. “Fringe” is a subjective issue; if a movement produces several Nobel laureates and a chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and plays a role in such policy reforms as the end of the draft, deregulation, sharply reduced taxes, and freer trade, is it still on the fringe?

Moving on:

Libertarianism has its roots in the writings of a pair of major 20th-century Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

That’s not exactly wrong, but it’s a little ahistorical. I’ll stand by what I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer: “Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration.” Key libertarian ideas emerged out of the struggles for religious freedom in the late Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period.

American libertarianism certainly finds its roots in an earlier period than Mises and Hayek: the American Revolution, abolitionism, the fight against imperialism, war, and prohibition. But Mises and Hayek are definitely important, especially as some earlier fights — against monarchy, established religion, mercantilism, and the pre-modern blind reliance on faith and tradition — were largely won.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan would win the presidency by campaigning on laissez-faire rhetoric. The day after his election, he was photographed on an airplane reading The Freeman, the flagship libertarian magazine, while Nancy Reagan rested her head on his shoulder.

I suspect most people familiar with the libertarian movement would identify Reason as its “flagship magazine,” but the Freeman was and is a fine publication, and probably better suited to Reagan’s interests.

Unfortunately, the movement’s steadily increased influence makes up only a small part of the story he tells. Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights.

Some libertarians have also made this complaint: too much reliance on minor figures. In fact, Brian Doherty organizes his book around five major figures: two Nobel laureates, the best-selling novelist of ideas of the 20th century, and two prolific scholars who never got the mainstream recognition they deserved but did influence thousands of libertarians. But look: this is a (freewheeling) history of the American libertarian movement. It’s not a strictly intellectual book, like George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. It’s not a book about trends in American politics. It’s a history of a movement, and so of course it discusses major figures and minor figures and even factional fights — that’s what makes up a movement. But “most”? I count more than 50 pages on Ayn Rand and more than 40 on Murray Rothbard; that seems like sufficient attention to major figures.

Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written “an insider’s history,” but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased.

Well, sloppy is a subjective term. But if this is Leonhardt’s only example, it’s not very convincing. On page 469, at the end of several pages on Friedman, Doherty writes, “Friedman died at age ninety-four in November 2006, just as this book went to press.” Get it? The book was written, edited, typeset, and on its way to the printer when the sad news of Friedman’s death was announced. The publisher managed to squeeze that fact into the book, and Leonhardt pounces. If that sentence had not been included, would Leonhardt have called the book sloppy for not being up-to-the-minute?

And almost everything about “Radicals for Capitalism” is too long: the terms (“Popperian falsificationist”), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages.

There are 127 Google hits for “Popperian falsificationist” and 1,300 for “Popperian falsification” (and at least 10 times that many if you take off the quotation marks), so it seems a reasonable term for a book about ideas. Some of the sentences may be too long, but I don’t think readers are going to be intimidated by them. As for the length of the book — gee, 619 pages (plus endnotes) for a comprehensive history of a political movement? For a short history of the libertarian movement, I heartily recommend chapter 2 of Libertarianism: A Primer — 32 pages on liberalism and libertarianism, only seven of which cover Brian’s topic. But if you want the comprehensive history, one that can serve as a reference on many different topics, from its five key figures to the history of various libertarian institutions, then this is the book. If Andrew Mellon is worth 800 pages in a new biography, I think the entire libertarian movement can warrant 700.

Leonhardt then devotes a long paragraph to criticizing Doherty for not adequately grappling with the mistakes and failings of various libertarian characters. Doherty does mention them — that’s how Leonhardt knows about them — but it’s true he doesn’t make them the central theme of his book.

He relates that Rand “notoriously testified” before the big-brotherly House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, when the committee was investigating Hollywood, where Rand had worked as a screenwriter, but the episode receives only two paragraphs.

This is rich, coming in a review in a newspaper that still to this day proudly touts the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1932 for Walter Duranty’s dispatches from Russia, reports that are now widely acknowledged to have minimized or covered up the horrors of Stalin’s government-created famine in Ukraine. I’m not sure Rand should have agreed to testify for HUAC. But she told them about the ideas that Communist screenwriters were putting into Hollywood movies, and she strongly opposed any effort at government censorship. So it’s hardly a terrible blot on her character, much less on an entire movement.

He skates over other questionable matters, too: for instance, that Friedman advised the murderous Pinochet regime in Chile;

Brian Doherty addressed Friedman’s Chilean connection at length here. Friedman had one meeting, of less than an hour, with Pinochet. He and other Chicago-school economists recommended sound economic policies for Chile, many of which were implemented, and ever since then Chile has had the strongest economy in Latin America. Is that a bad thing? Should Friedman have refused to give sound economic advice to the government of a poor country? Leonhardt doesn’t mention that Friedman spent far more time advising the murderous Communist regime in China. Friedman has noted that “I gave exactly the same lectures in China that I gave in Chile,” but nobody ever demonstrated against him for that. In fact, Friedman made three trips to China and talked to government officials each time. And perhaps he could take some credit for the rapid economic growth there as well.

…that Merwin Hart “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism”;

Despite 30 years in the libertarian movement, and despite having read this book, I had never heard of Merwin Hart. But I found him in the index (not always an easy thing; the best criticism of this book, which Leonhardt missed, is that the index is seriously inadequate; the Rand paragraphs on HUAC, for instance, are on page 188, not 150 as the index indicates). Turns out he ran something called the National Economic Council in the 1950s. And why is he in this book? Because he’s a major libertarian figure? Because he’s a minor libertarian figure? No. He gets one line in this book because movement founding father Leonard Read told people to stay away from Hart because, yes, he “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism” — in other words, he wasn’t one of us.

…and that Rothbard supported Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948 (because, Doherty casually observes, “he admired Thurmond’s states’ rights position”).

Okay, that’s embarrassing. And all those whose friends and forebears did not support the pro-Soviet Henry Wallace that year are entitled to criticize. But look: Rothbard was 22 at the time, raised in a family of actual sho-nuff Communists (except for his father), and still searching for a political home. Over the course of his life he managed to support Robert Taft, Adlai Stevenson, Norman Mailer, Nixon, various Libertarian Party candidates, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and George H. W. Bush. It’s hard out here for a libertarian trying to find a politician to support, and Rothbard grasped at more straws than other libertarians did.

The book fails to ask why people who claim to love freedom have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others.

If that’s the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it’s a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact — not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one — that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travelers. As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I’ll just say: George W. Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power. (Leonhardt, by the way, says that one sign of libertarianism’s waning influence is that Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous.” Talk about cluelessness.)

The libertarians at the Cato Institute, meanwhile, are struggling to persuade people that global warming — the archetypal free-market failure — is a hoax.

Nope. Climatologist Pat Michaels, a scholar at Cato and at the University of Virginia, says that the earth is warming, that human activity is partly responsible, but that the warming is almost certainly not going to be large or disastrous.

Leonhardt concludes that the “purists” who people Radicals for Capitalism might not be happy with “cap-and-trade” energy policies, “libertarian paternalism” in health care and retirement, and other hybrids of capitalism and collectivism, but “they helped to make it possible.” No, Mises and Rand and Read wouldn’t be happy with such outcomes, and neither would I. But those policies are a lot better than fascism or state socialism, which seemed to be the dominant ideas when Mises and Rand started writing. And they’re even better than ever-increasing FDR-style government intervention, which is what Read set out to fight.

Doherty makes the point that most of those people didn’t even dream of actually changing the world. They just thought it was important to speak truth to power, to stand up for freedom even in its darkest days, and to preserve the ancient ideas of liberty and individualism until the world was ready for them. They would never have anticipated the progress that Doherty describes. Even Leonhardt acknowledges that

libertarian arguments have enjoyed a nice run. Tax rates have been reduced; once-regulated industries have been opened to competition; any two consenting adults, including those of the same sex, can now marry in some places. One of today’s most fashionable political labels, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Doherty shrewdly notes, is “the basic libertarian mix.”

Doherty notes that despite the growth of some kinds of taxation, regulation, and government monitoring, “it’s not hard to see a world that is well worth celebrating — perhaps even reveling in — to the extent that it runs on approximately libertarian principles, with a general belief in property rights and the benefits of liberty. This is the ‘neoliberal’ world that has been seen by pundits and politicians all over the West as dominant since the death of communism. For most people living under it, it’s doing a pretty good job of delivering the ‘pursuit of happiness’ part of the Declaration of Independence, at least.”

No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of.