Topic: Political Philosophy

Can You Spell L-A-F-F-E-R C-U-R-V-E?

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way my game will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts his pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes—in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

Can Egyptian Democracy Arrive on the Back of Tanks?

U.S. foreign policy has resulted in many grand failures. Egypt has joined the pantheon.

That nation long has been a national wreck. Washington emphasized “stability” since Cairo backed U.S. policy and preserved peace with Israel. 

Two years ago the people of Egypt finally had enough. Unfortunately, Hosni Mubarak’s fall loosed Islamist forces. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president and won approval of an Islamist-oriented constitution. 

But President Morsi failed politically and economically. After just one year, millions of demonstrators demanded his ouster. Neither side was much interested in compromise, so the generals staged a coup.

The Obama administration stands helplessly in the middle, denounced by the Brotherhood and anti-Morsi protestors. Yet the administration still refuses to follow the law, which mandates an end to foreign aid in the event of a coup.

Although Morsi was responsible for his failures, he was obstructed at many turns. The opposition behaved little better, failing to organize effective political parties and develop political leaders. 

As I write in my latest American Spectator article:

The military’s coup cannot be disguised as something else.  Imagine U.S. army units invading the Oval Office, arresting President Barack Obama and his senior aides, detaining hundreds of top Democratic Party officials, closing down MSNBC and other Democratic-leaning media, appointing Chief Justice John Roberts as caretaker president, and shooting pro-Obama protestors.  Americans would call it a coup.  Even conservatives would call it a coup. 

Unfortunately, coups rarely yield democratic results, especially when staged against freely elected officials.  A coup is by definition force and necessarily relies on repression.  The result is more often extended dictatorship—Spain 1936, Iran 1953, Chile 1973, and Greece 1967, for instance—than renewed democracy.

Electoral defeat would have discredited the Brotherhood, but political martyrdom may revive the organization. And if the Brotherhood does not receive credible assurances that it will be allowed to fairly compete in the future, political Islam in Egypt and elsewhere may turn sharply against democracy. The nightmare scenario is Algeria, where a decade of civil war followed the suppression of Islamists who were poised to win a parliamentary election.

In any case, the military is no friend of secular liberals and the freedoms they hold dear.  Nor are the generals likely to slink into the background after having been handed the keys to the kingdom. Indeed, the coup precedent will remain, ready for use against the next president who expands his powers, fails to fix the economy, and offends well-organized groups.

There is no good answer. Egypt likely faces more short-term violence and certainly faces long-term instability. Washington can do little. The administration should follow the law and cut off aid. Then, having long underwritten autocracy, the U.S. government should get out of the way.

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.