Topic: Political Philosophy

Guide to Libertarian Movies

I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. My friend Jon Osborne worked for years on this project, but the 2001 book has been out of print for years. It’s the best available guide to movies with libertarian themes, with more than 250 short reviews.

What are the best libertarian films? Well, the book doesn’t rank them, but some that make his list of Top Libertarian Films are Amistad, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, Shenandoah, and We the Living. Libertarians may be familiar with all of those, but he also recommends the lesser-known Cash McCall, East-West, Improper Conduct, and many more.

No such list is exhaustive, of course, or uncontroversial. When I listed some of my own favorite libertarian-themed films, I included some that Osborne doesn’t: So Big (1953) and My Beautiful Laundrette. Not to mention the republican Gladiator and the anti-Nazi, anti-communist Sunshine, both released in 2000.

Few if any of these movies are like libertarian essays on film. Osborne includes movies that have such themes as anti-socialism (under which he includes anti-National Socialism), anti-war, bureaucratic abuse of power, creator as hero, freedom of speech, individualism, social tolerance, and voluntaryism. Each film is rated for both its libertarian content and its entertainment value, and also briefly reviewed.

Osborne mostly stopped reviewing—and maybe even seeing—movies when his daughter was born, so there aren’t many movies here from the past decade. But from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), there are enough movies here to keep you busy for the rest of the year.

Bad Arguments About Public Goods

Get a good education and you’ll probably lead a more fulfilling, more successful life than you would have without it. Since those benefits accrue directly to you, education is partly what economists call a “private good.” But while you’re busy earning a living and paying taxes, you aren’t dependent on government handouts or (probably) holding up liquor stores. So your whole community benefits, indirectly, from your education (especially the liquor stores). As a result, education is also partly a “public good.”

The thing about public goods is that the beneficiaries don’t have to pay for them. Economists fear that if the public doesn’t have to pay for something, it won’t; and that if something isn’t paid for, it won’t be produced in the first place. As a result, some economists theorize that government must step in to ensure that education delivers the public goods, either by operating schools of its own or by subsidizing and regulating the kind and quantity of schooling that teachers are allowed to offer and that families are allowed to consume.

This is the dominant economic argument for the existence of a major government role in K-12 education, and it is based on a pair of unstated assumptions, both of which are testable and false.

The first assumption is that, left to their own devices, families would consume insufficient education, or the wrong kind of education, to produce the sought-after public benefits. If that’s true, it seems that we’d be most likely to see it in times and places where most parents had low levels of education themselves—places like early 19th century Britain and America. And, indeed, these are widely viewed as cases in which government education spending and mandatory attendance laws brought universal literacy and school attendance to a previously benighted populace.

Widely, but wrongly. As far back as 1965, economist E.G. West demonstrated that growing 19th century government education expenditures in the U.K. did not so much increase the consumption of schooling as displace pre-existing sources of private funding—in his phrase: “jumping in to the saddle of an already-galloping horse.”

In the 1994 update of his book Education and the State, West did much the same thing for the U.S. case, showing that the elementary enrollment rate was close to 90 percent and still rising in early 19th century New England, at a time when no state board of education yet existed, the majority of students attended private or home schools, and tax-funding made up only a small portion of total education spending—even in the semi-public “common” schools (which charged most families tuition).

Echoing this pattern, I pointed out in a chapter for the book Liberty and Learning (p. 105) that U.S. compulsory attendance laws had no noticeable effect on enrollment rates over the decades (1852 to 1918) in which they were introduced.

In modern times education researcher James Tooley has repeatedly shown that destitute families living in slums of the developing world are increasingly paying for ultra-low-cost private schooling themselves, despite the availability of better-funded “free” public schooling. They do this, they tell Tooley, because they feel the public schooling is inferior or even worthless. Tooley’s careful studies of these schools, reported in academic journals and his wonderful book The Beautiful Tree, confirms the parents’ view.

The second assumption of the public good argument is two-fold: first, that government is a better judge of how to create the public benefits of education than are families acting individually; and second, that government provision and/or regulation are capable of producing the outcomes which they nominally seek. Both are contradicted by the evidence.

One of the single most consistent lessons of the history of education from classical Greece to the present, which I chronicled in Market Education: The Unknown History, is that parents have tended to make better decisions for their own children than elected or appointed bureaucrats have made on their behalf. Since its publication, I have reviewed the world-wide, within-country statistical research comparing alternative school systems and found that the most parent-driven, market-like, least regulated school systems do the best job of serving families across all outcomes measured.

The one outcome area which that literature review does not cover is civic-mindedness—the sort of tolerance and desire to engage with one’s fellow citizens that is perhaps the most public of education’s public goods. That area, however, has been studied by others and the results are much the same: they compellingly favor the private, minimally regulated provision of education as more effective in creating these social virtues. See, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf and David E. Campbell.

And if all this is not enough to bury the public good argument for a major government role in education, there’s more: state control over the content of education actually has demonstrable negative social effects: “public bads,” if you will. As I chronicled in Market Education: The Unknown History, ceding control over learning to the state forces people of diverse beliefs into conflict over the content of that officially-sanctioned education. My colleague Neal McCluskey has documented this ongoing effect in his paper titled “Why We Fight,” and on an interactive “battle map,” of public-schooling-induced social conflicts around the United States.

Education does indeed have spillover benefits to society at large, but these benefits are best secured through free and voluntary association. The best policies are those that move us in that direction.

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”

The Kids Are All Right

Is libertarianism a worldwide trend among young people? There are poll reports from the United States, Great Britain, and Turkey this week that point in that direction.

The College Republican National Committee put out a report finding that young voters are very much against excessive government spending (though they do support higher taxes on the wealthy) and are strongly in favor of gay marriage. They want to reform entitlements but see the Republican party as “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”

Meanwhile, the Economist, in an editorial titled “The strange rebirth of liberal England” (in an allusion to a famous history book), writes, “Young Britons have turned strikingly liberal, in a classical sense….The young want Leviathan to butt out of their pay cheques as well as their bedrooms.” An accompanying article declares, “Britain’s youth are not just more liberal than their elders. They are also more liberal than any previous generation”:

Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.

More than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements”. Less than one-third of those born after 1979 say the same. According to [the long-running British Social Attitudes survey], members of Generation Y are not just half as likely as older people to consider it the state’s responsibility to cover the costs of residential care in old age. They are also more likely to take such a hard-hearted view than were members of the famously jaded Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979) at the same stage of life.

“Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster.

And finally comes this headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

Maybe this really is the libertarian momentStudents for Liberty attracted 1,400 attendees to its February national conference, and another 365 to a European conference in March. Now, as the Economist says, if only the young people will vote – and the parties will offer them candidates.

A Brief Civil Liberties Quiz

See if you can spot the civil-liberties victory:

  1. The Supreme Court says the government can put your DNA in a national database, even if you were wrongly arrested.
  2. The State of Mississippi imposes mandatory collection of the DNA of babies born to teenage moms, neither of which is suspected of a crime.
  3. The Department of Justice is tracking and threatening to prosecute reporters, for the crime of reporting.
  4. The National Security Agency is collecting everyone’s phone records, even if they suspect you of nothing.
  5. The U.S. Senate kills a bill that could lead to a registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Answer: #5. 

Those crazy senators are looking less crazy all the time. 

“Balancing” and DNA Swabs

My colleagues Ilya, Jim, Roger, and Walter have said most of what needs to be said about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the DNA sampling case Maryland v. King. So let me just hover for a moment on a point Roger makes.  Everyone seems to agree that Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion strains the bounds of language by arguing that the state purpose of “identification” served by DNA sampling arrestees includes establishing a “context” for understanding “who the person really is,” including their “past conduct.” By the same logic, we might justify searching the homes of every drunk driver for evidence of unrelated crimes, since this too would give us a sense of “who they really are,” and whether they have reason to jump bail lest other crimes be discovered. The real argument, disingenuously shoehorned into this rubric of “identification,” is that this is indeed a warrantless search for ordinary investigative purposes, but that once a person has already been legitimately detained, the marginal intrusion involved in a cheek swab is trivial—and the benefit to society of enabling serious crimes to be solved so great—that an exception to the normal Fourth Amendment rules is justifiable.  This is, as Roger suggests, a closer call.

Let’s go further and make the argument that Justice Kennedy, determined to cast this as a matter of “identification,” didn’t bother with.  He could, after all, have cited to the Supreme Court’s major dog-sniff cases, Place and Caballes, in support of the following argument: The limited DNA profile actually entered into the CODIS database is only useful for matching, not for revealing other sensitive facts about medical conditions or genetic predispositions.  In essence, then, this is a search that only reveals whether one is the unidentified perpetrator of a crime—which, like possession of contraband, is a fact in which a person has no “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  So one might argue.

The first point to make is that the narrow “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” argument doesn’t really work.  A murder investigation will naturally involve collection of foreign DNA samples on the victim, which may well belong to persons that had nothing to do with the crime. Thus a search of an innocent arrested persons DNA could easily reveal the existence of, say, an unrelated but secret sexual relationship with the victim, or merely the presence of the searched person at the scene of a crime they had no involvement in. So this is not really a search with no realistic risk of exposing innocent but legitimately private information.

The larger point, though, is that the provisions of the Bill of Rights were meant to avoid precisely this kind of granular case-by-case “balancing” process, to the extent possible. An analogy to the First Amendment may be helpful here. Let’s concede: It is totally plausible that prohibiting Nazis from marching through a community of Holocaust survivors, or the grotesque Westboro Baptist Church from picketing military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags,” would suppress particular instances of speech with no real social value and spare decent people anguish they do not deserve. In a vacuum, probably neither instance of speech would survive a “balancing test.”  But the courts correctly protected both nevertheless, because the First Amendment articulates a meta-balancing judgment that we do not want the government engaged in this kind of specific case-by-case balancing analysis of which speech is valuable enough to be protected. The Framers of the Constitution had already done a balancing test about when it is better not to engage in balancing tests.

So it is, I would argue, with the Fourth Amendment. In the short term, it is easy enough to say that a few cheek swabs are a trivial marginal intrusion, even if they sometimes expose innocent private information, compared with the social benefit of catching murderers and rapists. But especially as DNA testing technology evolves, what are the consequences of establishing a massive repository of genetic information about the one-third of Americans who will be arrested by the age of 23—especially if that database disproportionately encompasses poor minorities, many of whom are never convicted of any crime? (Those who ARE convicted, as Justice Scalia’s dissent in King observed, get sampled anyway—so the policy in  question here only really makes a difference to the innocent.)  How do you “balance” the crimes solved at the margin when samples are taken from people arrested though ultimately acquitted against the creation of an architecture of genetic information-gathering, which may in itself encourage pretextual arrests for trivial offenses to circumvent the need for search warrants for genetic material, whose long-term uses are impossible to foresee? The general attitude of the courts, after all, is that once information or evidence has been legitimately acquired by police, there is no Fourth Amendment barrier to further analysis of that evidence, even if unrelated to the purpose for which it was acquired. (There are, I think, good theoretical reasons to regard this as a mistake, but that’s how things presently stand.)

In this case, then, the Court has invoked the idea of “identification” to obscure what is fundamentally an application of a “balancing test” to a warrantless investigative technique. But the Court is balancing benefits it can see reasonably clearly with costs it cannot.  Perhaps, even in the long run, the benefits will outweigh the costs. But the point of the Fourth Amendment is to provide a basis for limiting governmental information gathering that, to the extent possible, avoids saddling the Court with the responsibility for engaging in this sort of utilitarian calculus. It cannot be avoided entirely, of course—that much is implicit in the inclusion of the normative term “unreasonable” in the text of the Fourth Amendment—but it should not be the ordinary grounds for deciding which particular searches are permissible. Sometimes, as Hayek understood, we stick to simple rules, not because they are truly optimal, but because we are not clever or prescient enough to develop more nuanced rules that do better.

George Smith’s Long-Awaited Book: The System of Liberty

The System of LibertyGeorge H. Smith is one of the best-read, most insightful libertarians living today. He is the author of most of the Cato University Home Study Course, which you should definitely download. He writes a weekly article for Libertarianism.org titled “Excursions into the History of Libertarian Thought.” He is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991), and audio series on “Great Political Thinkers,” “The Meaning of the U.S. Constitution,” and “The Ideas of Liberty.” And finally – finally – he has been persuaded to write down much of what he knows about the history of classical liberal thought in a new book from the Cato Institute and the Cambridge University Press, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism.

It’s a great study of classical liberalism and the relations among such liberal ideas as individualism, natural rights, utilitarianism, self-sovereignty, and what Lord Acton called “the polar star of liberty.” Along the way he answers such criticisms of liberalism as “atomistic individualism” and “social Darwinism.” It’s a college course in political philosophy in just 217 very readable pages. Buy it now for the low low price of $24.95.