Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

Libertarian Radicals

At the new Encyclopedia Britannica blog I ask whether Brian Doherty, in his Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, can have it both ways:

Doherty makes two claims about libertarianism that may seem to be in tension: First, as the title proclaims:”The most significant thing about libertarianism, the element that distinguishes its unique place in modern American thought, is that it is radical. It takes insights about justice and order and the fight between liberty and power farther and deeper than most standard American liberals, patriots, or Jeffersonians.”

But he also says:

“Libertarians can believe, with some justification, that we are in some sense already living in their world….We are not living in Karl Marx’s world….We live in a world energized and shaped by the beliefs of Marx’s political-economic rivals and enemies–the classical liberals, the thinkers who believed a harmony of interests is manifest in unrestricted markets, that free trade can prevent war and make us all richer, that decentralized private property ownership helps create a spontaneous order of rich variety.”

I think he can. And while you’re at the Britannica site, check out my entry on libertarianism.

If Inequality Is Okay, Let’s Redistribute Anyway

In an outstanding post, Alex Tabarrok explains how the changing economic and technological conditions that helped Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling become a billionaire lead to inequality without apparent injustice.

Matthew Yglesias’s reply puzzled me:

Insofar as this is a large part of the inequality story, it does tend to undercut highly moralized objections to the right [to be] so darn rich. Rowling isn’t doing anything wrong to get so rich. But on the other hand, insofar as this story is right, it also seems to me that the primary pragmatic worries one might have about pro-equality measures likewise tend to melt away. If the very best in a range of fields are just bound to reap enormous windfall earnings under current technological conditions then it seems unlikely that tax measures aimed at limiting the size of those windfalls would significantly deter anyone from doing their work. One doubts Rowling set about down this path because she thought it stood any reasonable chance of making her a billionaire.

I am confused. If Alex’s account “tends to undercut” the moralized objection to wealth inequality generated by superstar effects, then it also tends to undercut a large part of the motivation for wealth-equalizing confiscation and redistribution, namely, so-called “distributive justice.” Despite his misguided insistence in referring to a sum created by millions of voluntary acts of exchange as a “windfall,” Matt has, it seems, conceded that Rowling’s riches have been justly earned–that the process by which all this money got “distributed” to her is fair. So there is no question of exploitation, injustice, cause for redress, etc. Nevertheless, Matt would like us to know that should political elites decide to confiscate a good portion of Rowling’s fortune anyway, despite the fact that she owns it justly, this policy may not actually be self-undermining in the long run. But then, what is the point of this kind of “pro-equality” redistribution once it is agreed that there was no moral objection to the prior distribution? I’m sure Matt has something in mind, and I hope he’ll share it.

In any case, regarding the “pragmatic” case for taxing superstars, in The Winner Takes-All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that huge payouts for superstars induce inefficient overinvestment in their fields. The point of taxing superstars, on this account, is precisely to limit entry into superstar fields and to channel human capital investment that will otherwise be wasted in the largely futile attempt to become NBA players or Hollywood screen legends into more socially productive uses. Frank and Cook acknowledge that this may result in a reduced supply of excellence in certain fields, but argue that this loss is more than offset by more mundane economic gains from increased efficiency in the allocation of skills to people. Even if we don’t get the best rock stars, we’ll still have good rock stars, and we’ll have fewer people wasting productive years trying to be rock stars. And lower levels of inequality!

Now, I don’t know about Rowling’s motivations in particular, but Frank and Cook’s argument – the most sophisticated case I’m aware of for raising taxing on superstars – seems to me to undercut Matt’s general point. If Matt would like to change his argument to “Sure, by sticking it to big-money authors we might not have gotten Harry Potter, but we would have gotten offsetting returns from increased output among schoolteachers and lawyers, and a decrease in inequality,” then I’ll be happy to argue against that instead. As it stands, his current argument seems wrong both as a matter of morality and a matter of pragmatism.           

Substantiating the Libertarian Vision, One Anecdote at a Time

Yesterday, it was six seconds to get a “yes” from a private entity when a government official took eight days, four hours to reach “no.”

Today, “Why is it that one guy with a laptop can accomplish more in 20 minutes that an army of city officials and bureaucrats can in as many weeks?

While the D.C. Taxicab Commission dithers over issuing a new map, some guy just went ahead and made one on Google maps.

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.