Topic: Political Philosophy

Libertarian Hedges

A headline over a Washington Post editorial reads:

Hands Off Hedge Funds

Sometimes libertarians deserve to win an argument.

Gee, thanks. I’m glad libertarian arguments against over-regulation made sense to the editorial writer in this case. But I’m disappointed in the suggestion that this is a rare occasion.

Indeed, I’ll bet the editorial writer agrees with most of the basic ideas that libertarians advocate: private property, markets, the rule of law, limited constitutional government, religious toleration, equality under the law, a society based on merit and contract not status, free speech, free trade, individual rights, peace.

In the West we live in a liberal world, and in the United States we call liberalism “libertarianism.” (When Americans say “liberalism,” they mean the welfare state.) The Post’s disagreements with libertarianism are really less rare than the headline suggests; they involve how often and how much national policy should deviate from the basic principles we already agree on.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.

Not as Easy as Right and Wrong

Over at The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias takes issue with the assertion I made yesterday that if Kansas is ever going to have peace over creationism and evolution, parents must be given the right to take their public education dollars and choose their children’s schools. Instead of forcing parents to support – and constantly fight to control – one school system, why not let them choose the institutions they want?

Yglesias argues that whether it’s parents or government that decides what children will be taught, kids will have no choice in the matter. The question to him, then, is “who is likely to teach most children the right stuff?” If it’s government, then there’s no need for choice.

That sounds reasonable enough. That is, until you consider how incredibly hard it often is to know, and to get people to agree on, what constitutes “the right stuff.” Creationists, after all, are just as sure that they are right about Darwin as evolutionists think themselves to be.

Of course, in education, Darwin is just the beginning: Is phonics-based instruction the right or wrong way to teach reading? Should American history be taught in a “traditional” way that focuses on the nation’s great achievements, or is it right to focus on the country’s flaws? What amount of time should students spend studying fine art instead of, say, physics?  Is it wrong for a student newspaper to run an article critical of the school’s principal? And so on…

Clearly, when it comes to countless disputes in education, what is truly right or truly wrong is very difficult to know. With that in mind, we must answer the question: Is it better that government impose one idea of what’s right on all children, or that parents be able to seek freely what they think is right for their own kids?

At the risk of contradicting myself, I think the latter is the obvious right answer.

Republicans for Big Brother

The Cato Institute has noted for some time that conservatives and Republicans have abandoned their limited-government principles when it comes to health policy.  Examples can be found here, here, here, here, and here

The New America Foundation just made our job a little easier, by producing a paper titled, “Growing Support for Shared Responsibility in Health Care.”  In this context, “shared responsibility” means allowing the government to force all Americans to purchase health insurance – a power the Left has craved but no government had dared assume until Massachusetts did so this year.

The paper helpfully compiles a list of comments that Republicans and Democrats have made in support of this new expansion of government power.  The Republicans included:

  • Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (no surpise there)
  • Former Bush HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson
  • California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

One might add to that list the Heritage Foundation (whose health policy scholars wrote the Massachusetts mandate) and Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine. 

Next to those, Schwarzenegger is probably the biggest disappointment, having once bragged that Milton & Rose Friedman’s PBS series Free to Choosehas changed my life,” and that “Being free to choose for me means being free to make your own decisions, free to live your own life, pursue your own goals…without the government breathing down on your neck or standing on your shoes.”  Now that he’s governor, “being free to choose” presumably means being free to choose for you.

This new expansion of state power would be less frightening if it delivered more affordable or higher-quality health care.  But as Mike Tanner demonstrates in two papers on the idea (here and here), it will do neither of those things. 

Unfortunately, there has been too little debate within the limited-government camp over this idea.  This is in part because Heritage Foundation scholars have repeatedly declined to debate Cato scholars or other free-market critics of their proposal.

Until we’re able to have that fuller debate, here’s a helpful algorithm for judging this and other health care proposals:

  1. Does it limit government power?
  2. If not, move on to the next proposal.

Hollywood for Ugly People

With the weather hotter than Hell here in Washington, and partisan warfare ramping up for the ‘06 elections, there are two pieces today that help remind us what a weird, perverse place Capitol Hill, in particular, has become.

First, in this morning’s New York Times, Mark Leibovich wedges his tongue firmly into his cheek and explores the phenomenon of the “Senators Only” elevators in the Senate.

The basic rule is this: nonsenators are allowed to ride only if asked by a senator. Such invitations typically occur when a reporter is in mid-interview with a senator walking off the Senate floor.

Lobbyists have been known to park themselves outside elevators with attractive young women, the better to win invitations. To be sure, such tactics took place only in earlier eras, when senators held a less enlightened view of women.

(In 1994, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was said to have engaged in excessive touching of his then-freshman colleague Patty Murray of Washington. Ms. Murray later asked for and received an apology from Mr. Thurmond, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Murray declined to comment.)

[Former Louisiana senator John] Breaux concluded the matter with a nod to the public good: “I think the elevators are designed to keep members of the public from having to ride with senators,” he said.

Then, the New Republic runs a piece on the phenomenon of ostensibly pro-“traditional values” congresscritters jettisoning the ol’ ball and chain back home and taking up with nubile young Washington groupies. The piece could perhaps best be summed up by invoking

Susan LaTourette’s remarks in late 2003, after her husband of 21 years, Representative Steve LaTourette, revealed that he was having an affair with a lobbyist and wanted a divorce. “I think Washington corrupts people,” a furious Susan announced. “He was a wonderful husband and father, the best I ever saw, until he went there. … Now he’s one of them. All they care about is getting reelected. I hate them all.”

What can we do about the inflated egos, insularity, even cults of personality on the Hill? There’s a clear enough solution.

The Happiest Zombies

In the same vein as David’s fascinating post below, here is a refreshingly accurate article on the relationship between wealth and self-reported happiness around the world from the New Scientist titled “Wealthy Nations Hold the Keys to Happiness.” The occasion of the article is the publication of a world map by Adrian White, a Ph.D. psychology student at the University of Leicester, that vividly pictures self-reported life satisfaction around the world. The relationship between wealth and the percentage of people who say they are happy leaps out pretty clearly.

According to the analysis, a country’s happiness is closely related to its wealth, along with the health and education levels of its people. It is no surprise that people spending heavily on healthcare, such as US citizens, rank highly, says White, as this investment increases life expectancy and general wellbeing.

“There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people,” he says. “However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher [earnings] per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.”

[…]

Large industrialised countries fared well in the new analysis, with the US and UK coming in at 23 and 41, respectively, out of 178 nations.

This stands in contrast with the recently released “Happy Planet Index” from the New Economics Foundation think tank, which placed Columbia and Honduras high up. The Happy Planet Index ranked each country according to the reported happiness level of its people divided by the amount of the world’s resources they consume.

“In the west we have the tendency to be the ‘worried well’,” White says. Too true.

I like to emphasize that self-reported subjective life satisfaction is a far cry from objective well-being, which includes non-subjective factors like health, longevity, the development of basic human capacities, and more. Complaining about the misery of life under capitalism is a sport for privileged people who, thanks to capitalism, are doing so objectively well that they can spend their days doing things like, say, getting a Ph.D. in American Studies from Berkeley and writing books about how Zombie movies reflect the horror of capitalism.

Now, I think most of us can agree that even if capitalism does give us boneheaded essays on the anti-capitalist implications of shambling, undead brain-eaters, all this health, wealth, and happiness probably makes it a good deal anyway.

Capitalism Saves

The Sunday New York Times has a great article — the first of a series on aging — titled “So Big and Healthy Nowadays That Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You.” Reporter Gina Kolata begins with this 19th-century biography:

Valentin Keller enlisted in an all-German unit of the Union Army in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1862. He was 26, a small, slender man, 5 feet 4 inches tall, who had just become a naturalized citizen. He listed his occupation as tailor.

A year later, Keller was honorably discharged, sick and broken. He had a lung ailment and was so crippled from arthritis in his hips that he could barely walk.

His pension record tells of his suffering. “His rheumatism is so that he is unable to walk without the aid of crutches and then only with great pain,” it says. His lungs and his joints never got better, and Keller never worked again.

He died at age 41 of “dropsy,” which probably meant that he had congestive heart failure, a condition not associated with his time in the Army. His 39-year-old wife, Otilia, died a month before him of what her death certificate said was “exhaustion.”

But his modern-day descendant, living in the same town of Hamilton, is healthy and going strong at 45. Kolata interviews doctors, economists, and gerontologists to find out why Americans are taller, heavier, healthier, and living longer. Describing the research of Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel and his colleagues on Union Army veterans, she notes:

They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said….

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

Much of this research has surprised scholars:

Life expectancy, for example, has been a real surprise, says Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology and demographic research at the University of Southern California. “When I came of age as a professional, 25 years ago, basically the idea was three score years and 10 is what you get,” Dr. Crimmins said. Life span was “this rock, and you can’t touch it.”

“But,” she added, “then we started noticing that in fact mortality is plummeting.”

So why? Why has this epochal change — what Fogel calls “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth” — happened? Kolata discusses the benefits of better nutrition, cheaper food, vaccines, and antibiotics. But still:

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said David M. Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. “Maybe it’s the trillion-dollar question. And there is not a received answer that everybody agrees with.”

Kolata is a science reporter, so she’s looking for a scientific answer, and she’s found several that contribute to our health and longevity. But she’s missed the forest. What is it that started changing in the United States and northern Europe in the past few centuries? (Fogel’s book on the general trend is The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.) Technology, yes. Nutrition and antibiotics and a better understanding of diet and exercise, absolutely. But what caused those things to appear after, as Fogel says, 7,000 generations?

Capitalism.

The introduction of the institutions of economic freedom in the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and then the rest of the world beginning around 1700 caused what historian Steven Davies calls a “wealth explosion.” A great part of the unprecedented wealth creation went into sanitation and more abundant food and later into the research necessary to produce vaccines and antibiotics. Those institutions include secure private property, the rule of law, open markets, and economic freedom generally — or what Adam Smith called “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Capitalism has made the West rich and thus healthier and longer-lived. It could do the same for Africa, Asia, and the Arab world.

Kolata overlooked this point. Her article never mentions capitalism, freedom, or even wealth as an answer to the trillion-dollar question. But it’s still a great report on just how much better off we are. For more data on such trends, check out It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon.

Fusionism Gone Cold?

Here’s a piece from the Washington Times covering last week’s America’s Future Foundation–sponsored debate between Reason’s Nick Gillespie and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. The debate’s topic was the state of the libertarian/conservative alliance (Or, as the ad copy put it, libertarians and conservatives: “are we best friends forever?”). I missed the debate, but in my view, the answer is emphatically ”no.” 

The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias provided one of the best short explanations for why the answer is ”no” on his blog a while back. As a guy on the center-left, Yglesias stands well outside the conservative-libertarian alliance and thus may be in a better position than the rest of us to see what’s going on. 

Matt points out that the Right is made up of two kinds of people, those who are ”motivated primarily by a distrust of the state” and those who ”are motivated more by a distrust of leftwingers.” This is not quite the same as saying “the libertarian-conservative alliance is made up of libertarians and conservatives,” since there are conservatives who are consistent opponents of statism and self-identified libertarians whose main focus is opposing the Left. 

From the New Deal to the 1990s, political conditions in America favored an anti-left/anti-state alliance, since the Left, for the most part, controlled the state:

Liberals gave birth to the vast majority of the federal apparatus, and the government was usually controlled by — and always populated by — leftwingers. If you were concerned about the state, you had to be concerned about the left, because the state was full of leftwingers. If you were concerned about the left, you had to be concerned about the state, because the state was the most important institution the left controlled.

By the turn of the 21st century, with the increasing political success of the Republican Party, that was no longer really the case, and you began to see hints of a fusionist crack-up. You may have gotten a sense of this in the last few years if, like me, you’ve found yourself in conversations with conservative friends who seem far more exercised by George Clooney’s latest antics than they are about, say, galloping socialism in the health care sector, or the president’s war on federalism, or — or, you know, his war. 

But from an anti-left perspective, giving the GOP a pass (after a few requisite grumbles about Bridges to Nowhere) makes perfect sense. As Matt notes, the Left’s influence today

stems primarily from Turtle Bay, Hollywood, academia, Brussles, or elsewhere. The important thing [for mainstream conservatives] is hounding the leftwingers out of their spider-holes, or destroying the credibility of the institutions where they still have some influence. Curbing the long arm of the state would be nice, but the most important thing, state-wise, is to maintain the right’s control over it….

In some ways, it was “ever thus,” which helps explain past tensions — and fractures — over foreign policy and civil liberties issues:  

Most rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to “bureaucrats” or public school teachers. Not coincidentally, the security establishment was the exception, even during the high tide of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, to the general rule that the state was run by and for leftwingers. With conservatives running the show everywhere, that same sort of attitude is [now] extended by most of the right’s constituents to the whole project.

If Matt’s right, then the conditions that made fusionism viable have eroded significantly. Libertarians motivated by a healthy distrust of state power (if that’s not redundant) will find no permanent home on the Right. That’s not to say that the answer lies with the as-yet-mythical “Libertarian Democrats.” Classical liberals and modern liberals may have more to cooperate on in the coming years, but it’s unlikely that there will ever be enough common ground to make us permanent allies.   

But habits of the mind developed during the long conservative-libertarian alliance may cloud libertarian thinking about how much common ground there is to our right. That a conservative stands with you on free trade or tax cuts — that he shares your enthusiasm for Kennedy jokes and your rage over McCain-Feingold — none of that means he’s a reliable, principled opponent of overweening state power. Or that he doesn’t support policies far worse than a minimum wage hike. Many of the greatest threats to liberty today come from the Right, whether it’s the “pre-1776” view of absolute executive power or the apocalyptic urge to turn a limited, containable conflict into World War III.  

Friends? Yes. On some issues, good friends. But “best friends forever?” Not a chance.