Topic: Political Philosophy

Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Story

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t like that line “saved a wretch like me.” I don’t think I’m a wretch. Nor are most of my friends.

But once I learned the story behind the song (with a little help from my friends at the Mackinac Center), I became more sympathetic: John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, really was a wretch. Now a new movie is going to bring that story to millions of people.

John Newton was a slave trader and by his own testimony an infidel. He was converted to Christianity but continued in the slave trade. Eventually, however, he renounced that vile life and became an evangelical minister in the Church of England and an abolitionist. “Was blind but now I see,” indeed.

Among the people who heard his preaching was a young member of parliament, William Wilberforce, who was inspired to lead a long campaign for the abolition of slavery – from his maiden speech in 1789 to the final passage of the Abolition Act a month after his death in 1833.

This is one of the greatest stories in history. And now it is the subject of an impressive new movie. I’ve only seen the trailer, but the production values are obviously good, and I’m told that the movie is great. Michael Apted directed. Ioan Gruffudd (best known as Horatio Hornblower) plays Wilberforce. It also features the fine British actors Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. It opens on February 23.

The story of Newton, Wilberforce, abolition, and Amazing Grace is very popular among evangelical Christians. It’s an unambiguous advance for human freedom and dignity in which evangelicals played central roles. And that’s why the movie is produced by Bristol Bay Productions (owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire conservative) which also produced Ray. Anschutz owns another film company which produced The Chronicles of Narnia.

If God’s amazing grace caused John Newton to give up slave trading, then who could object? But you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate what promises to be a well-made movie about this great triumph of liberty.

And for those of us who struggle in the vineyards year after year, trying to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the story reminds us that humanity has made great progress toward freedom, that each battle for freedom can be long and seemingly futile, but that the goal is worth time and money and effort.

I was once challenged by a Chicago School economist, who thinks everything can be measured, to name the most important libertarian accomplishment in history. I said it was the abolition of slavery. OK, name another, he replied. “The bringing of power under the rule of law,” I suggested. He wanted to know how you would measure that. But even without a caliper we can see the importance of that accomplishment. We can also see that neither of these is yet a final victory.

May Amazing Grace inspire us to continue working, as long as it takes, to liberate men and women from the arbitrary rule of others and to constrain power with the chains of law.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.

Friedman or Plato?

As noted earlier, today is Milton Friedman Day.  My modest contribution is this essay.

I call this the Fundamental Problem of Political Economy. How do we limit the power that idiots have over us?

One solution, that might be traced to the expression “philosopher-king” associated with Plato, is to hand the reins of government to the best and the brightest. Since the late 19th-century, the Progressive Movement in American politics has championed this approach…

The other way to avoid having our lives run by idiots is to limit the power that others have over us. This is the approach that was embedded in our Constitution, before it was eviscerated by the Progressives. It is the approach for which Milton Friedman was a passionate advocate.

Milton Friedman Day

Milton FriedmanDr. Milton Friedman, who passed away last November at the age of 94, was perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th Century and a champion of liberty. To honor Dr. Friedman, today has been declared Milton Friedman Day – “a celebration of the economist’s positive impact on American life and business, and the spread of the benefits of free markets to nations around the globe.” At 10pm EST tonight, PBS will premiere “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman,” an exclusive documentary on the remarkable life and free market vision of Milton Friedman. The special, produced for PBS by Free to Choose Media, gives viewers a new understanding of the magnitude of this legendary economist’s influence on the modern world.

The United States Owes Hillary Clinton a Debt

Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her presidential bid has evoked several news stories predicting the demise of the presidential public financing system.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that spending limits violated the First Amendment. The same decision, however, said that the government could impose spending limits in exchange for public financing of a campaign. The presidential system enacted just after Watergate provided public funding for primary campaigns (on a matching basis) and for the general election. The law established equal spending limits and prohibited private fundraising for the general presidential election for the major party candidates.

McCain-Feingold is also part of this story. That 2002 law liberalized contribution limits a bit which made it easier for strong candidates like Hillary Clinton to raise more money privately than she would receive from the public funding scheme. Of course, she could accept public funding and forego the larger sums she might raise privately. However, her competitors for the nomination – say, Barack Obama or John Edwards – might also be able to raise more money privately, and they would do so to gain an edge in the primaries over Sen.Clinton. The same might well be true of the Republican candidate in the general election. If Sen. Clinton took the public funding and its spending limits, she would be outspent by the GOP nominee. Given all these considerations, Sen. Clinton has decided to forego public funding. Any serious candidate for the presidency in 2008 is likely to make the same decision.

Too much political analysis, you might say. After all, didn’t Congress create the public financing system to prevent corruption of candidates or “level the playing field” for outsiders?  The members of Congress who created public funding ascribed such noble and moral ends to their effort. But the actual purposes of the system were rather less noble and more partisan.

From 1960 to 1974 – the year public funding was created – the Democratic presidential candidates fell increasingly behind their Republican opponents in fundraising. Remember, the public funding scheme required equal spending by both major party candidates in the general election. The law was, in short, a good solution to the emerging Democratic presidential fundraising gap. In The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, I looked at how this equalization affected the two parties after 1974, assuming the trend in fundraising from 1960 continued to 1992. The public funding law cut projected Republican fundraising (and campaign spending) by 60 percent while imposing no limit on expected Democratic donations or expenditures.

From the start, the presidential public funding system was a raw partisan ploy obscured by a moralistic rhetoric. It worked in the sense that some analysts believe the equalization of funding gave the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the system has failed otherwise. It has not increased entry into the party primaries compared to the system it replaced. Public funding has forced taxpayers to support candidates they would not support if they had a choice. For that reason, the system has lost 75 percent of its supporters over the years. Now only about 7 percent of taxpayers check off support for the presidential fund. In 1978, 28 percent did so.

That lack of public support means Congress is unlikely to save the system. In any case, Democratic presidential candidates have drawn even with their GOP counterparts in fundraising. The real, partisan reason for the system no longer exists. Soon the system itself will be the first choice of those who finish last. Surely Congress could find a better use for a few hundred million dollars.

Venezuela: Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Hugo Chavez came one step closer to becoming a full-fledged dictator last night, as “Venezuelan lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill granting … [him] the power to rule by decree for 18 months so that he can impose sweeping economic, social and political change.” The vote in the National Assembly was unanimous — as befits a budding communist country.

Not that Chavez’s powers were much constrained prior to yesterday, but his soon-to-be official recognition as Venezuela’s dictator serves as an important reminder that state control of the economy and dictatorship go hand in hand.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, many defenders of socialism have argued that dictators, including Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot, were aberrations; they took Marx’s ideas in the wrong direction. They claim that nationalization of the means of production (call it communism, socialism, or Marxism) and democracy can be compatible. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek showed that it cannot. Some 50 years later, Hayek’s argument holds. Every socialist regime tends toward authoritarianism of some sort.

Chavez reminds us of the anti-democratic nature of socialism. As such, he is turning into a major embarrassment for many on the Left who supported him. Unfortunately, what the proponents of socialism again and again fail to realize is that it is the message, not the messenger, that is embarrassing.

Less Redress, More Grievances

The first bill proposed in the U.S. Senate in the new session of Congress attacks freedom of speech.

Some organizations use direct mail and other means to urge the public to contact members of Congress on a variety of issues. Currently some of those groups do not have to disclose those efforts to prompt public input.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) is not happy with such freedom from regulation. He has proposed that such organizations should be forced to disclose these efforts if they spend more than $25,000 a quarter and do not have a dues-paying membership (see S1, Sec. 220).

According to CQ Today, Lieberman’s spokeswomen said, “There’s nothing in this measure that will stop, deter or inhibit anyone from petitioning the government.” If that were true, no one in Congress would support Lieberman’s proposal. Congress passes restrictions on First Amendment rights primarily to discourage political activity, thereby increasing the discretion of a member while decreasing their accountability.

This particular measure imposes new costs on the groups who exercise their First Amendment rights. It will also expose the groups and their supporters to abuse and attacks in the political arena. Both costs increase the price of petitioning the government for redress of grievances and thereby reduce its likelihood.

Is Lieberman’s bill constitutional? The U.S. Supreme Court has said that mandatory disclosure of activities tied to First Amendment rights (like say, “the right to petition the government for redress of grievances”) may be justified to prevent corruption (or its appearance) and to inform the public better about candidates or legislation. The groups give money to the U.S. Post Office or other direct mailers, not to members of Congress or other policymakers. Hence, quid-pro-quo corruption is not at issue here. The groups are also informing the public about issues and urging them to contact Congress. How any of this constitutes the “appearance of corruption” is anyone’s guess.

I suspect the traditional justifications for mandatory disclosure do not matter much here. No one seriously believes these direct mail campaigns corrupt politics. Members of Congress no doubt believe that these direct mail groups have more influence than they should have. In particular, members of the new majority running the Senate may believe the direct mail efforts to foster contacts with Congress give “undue influence” to their conservative opponents. Hence, Sen. Lieberman comes up with a bill to throw some sand in the gears of the conservative political machine.

If you ever doubt why the First Amendment exists, consider this: the first thing mild-mannered Joe Lieberman did when a new majority took control of the Senate was to attack the constitutional rights of those who disagree with him.

Attention, Legal and Political Thinkers: A New Scholarly Resource

Rediscovering Bruno Leoni

There’s a new resource from Italy’s Instituto Bruno Leoni: a scholarly web resource on the ideas and work of the great legal scholar for whom the Institute is named, “Rediscovering Bruno Leoni.” It has both Italian and English versions and includes mp3 files of some of Leoni’s lectures.

Leoni showed a deep understanding of law and its relationship to voluntary social order. His work on the evolution of law greatly influenced F. A. Hayek and other writers who outlived him. In contrast to prevailing views, he argued that law is not simply an assertion of power, as the legal positivists insist, i.e., a set of “commands of a sovereign,” but traces back to the claims made by individuals and adjudicated through a complex process of interaction. As Leoni argued in “Law as Claim of the Individual,”

The legal process always traces back in the end to individual claim. Individuals make the law, insofar as they make successful claims. They not only make previsions and predictions, but try to have these predictions succeed by their own intervention in the process. Judges, juris-consults, and, above all, legislators are just individuals who find themselves in a particular position to influence the whole process through their own intervention.

The cases we bring to court and the cases we don’t all are part of the law-making process. The role played by elected legislators is important in the creation of a legal order, but it is almost always overrated. Most of the law that governs our everyday lives resulted from relatively decentralized common law (or Roman law) processes, and not from the “commands” of sovereigns.
Additional resources on Bruno Leoni (and on many hundreds of other deep thinkers) can be found at the extensive and brilliantly organized “Online Library of Liberty.”

Other writers with a similar appreciation of law as an evolved body of rules of just conduct include Lon Fuller of Harvard Law School (especially in his classic work The Morality of Law), F. A. Hayek (notably in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. I: Rules and Order; his classic 1945 American Economic Review essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society” is must reading for understanding complex social processes, including the evolution of law), and Randy Barnett of Georgetown University, a Cato Institute senior fellow and author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty and The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law.
So, budding law students and political scientists. Have at it!