Topic: Political Philosophy

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?


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.          

The New Social Engineering

Apparently I’m behind the times. I’ve always understood the term “social engineering” to mean what the American Heritage Dictionary calls “the practical application of sociological principles to particular social problems,” or what Mises called “treat[ing] human beings in the same way in which the engineer treats the stuff out of which he builds bridges, roads, and machines.”

But in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal I discover that “social engineering” now means “tactics that try to fool users into giving up sensitive financial data that criminals can use to steal their money and even their identities.” It includes “phishing” and other online scam tactics. If you Google “social engineering,” you can wade through pages and pages before you find any links to the older meaning.

I guess there is a connection between the two kinds of social engineering. One online tech dictionary says, “Social engineering is manipulating people into doing what you want, in much the same way that electrical engineering is manipulating electronics into doing what you want.”

That definition would probably embrace the kind of social engineering that libertarian scholar Wendy McElroy criticizes here, or the wide variety of schemes — from Mao to McNamara, from urban renewal to rural resettlement — that James C. Scott discussed in his book Seeing Like a State.

Perhaps the classic critique of social engineering, before the term was invented, comes from Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Getting People to Love Welfare for Politicians

The lobbying campaign to reconstruct the presidential public financing program continues apace. Its authors have designed the bill to appeal to marginal presidential candidates of both parties; it will be less favored by incumbent presidents and skilled fundraisers like Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Congress,  not third-tier candidates, have the authority to enact the bill into law. 

Members of Congress know the public rejects the presidential system. The number of households checking off the box on the tax form has dropped from 28 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 2002. It is probably under 10 percent today. Why should Congress pour more money into a program that the public has seen in action and rejected so completely?

Well, if public opinion is a problem for “reform,” coercion is the solution.

The new bill “requires the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations to ensure that electronic software used in the preparation or filing of individual tax returns not automatically accept or decline a check-off of taxpayer funds to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.” The authors of the bill think this will get rid of a lot of refusals to contribute to the system. The bill also authorizes the Federal Election Commission to spend $10 million “to conduct a public education program to inform the public about the Fund and its purposes.” In other words, Congress will earmark tax dollars to persuade voters that the program is a good thing.

In a liberal democracy, public opinion should be a cause rather than an effect of laws. The new presidential taxpayer funding bill flips democracy on its head: support for the program is intended to be an effect of the law, not a cause of it.

“Reformers” have long sought to control the speech of others. It is disturbing but hardly surprising that they now seek to control public opinion when it frustrates their ambition.

The Campaign Finance Institute Study II

Two days ago, Brad Smith, Robert Bauer and I criticized a recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute.

The head of CFI, Michael Malbin, has now responded to our criticism. Bauer and Smith have in turn continued the debate in posts well worth your time.

Before turning to Malbin’s reply, I might note that he did not respond to a couple of my earlier points. I argued that the sample used in the CFI working paper was biased and a poor foundation for policymaking. I also suggested that the bias in the CFI sample was interesting: it concerned organizations–on both sides of the partisan and ideological divide–that were heavily involved in national politics and elections. The CFI sample is almost certainly not representive of the entire population of nonfprofits, 527s and interest groups. It might, however, be a workable sample of groups of primary interest to members of Congress, i.e. groups that bear on a member’s primary interest in being re-elected. In that respect, the CFI study might be a poor guide to policymaking but persuasive to policymakers. That should be troubling to the rest of us.

Malbin also does not mention a political point I made in my post. Why should the Democrats give up 527s which they used to spend substantial sums in 2004 in exchange for Republicans forsaking 501c groups that appear to have laid out only a small portion of the Democratic 527 expenditures? If I were a Democrat, I would read that “compromise option” as a ”bad deal.”

Malbin states that we have misunderstood the CFI study. It does not advocate a policy, it merely points out “uncomfortable facts” to foster a needed debate. Of course, you could say that Michael Malbin might know best what the study sought to do (he heads the organization that sponsored it), and we should leave it at that. I’m not interested in questioning Malbin’s integrity so the reader is welcome to that conclusion.

But Mike doesn’t have a monopoly on the correct interpretation of this text. To see why I (reasonably) believed the study was a policy proposal, we need to head on over to the IRS website (of course!).

The Campaign Finance Institute is a nonprofit organized under section 501c(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. That means CFI can educate the public but not propose legislation. Here is the relevant advice from your friendly taxman:

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying)…Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items…An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation. Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

So for legal purposes I went to an education meeting at the National Press Club and received educational materials prepared by CFI.

However, the CFI authors urge us to think about campaign finance matters in light of their context (that is, the political facts) rather than “legal pigeonholes.” (CFI study, p. 33) In my original post I set out the political context of the CFI study: legislation on 527s had stalled in Congress because of partisan opposition by Democrats. I could have added to the earlier post: Louise Slaughter, the ranking member on the House Rules committee, suggested in early April that Congress should broaden the 527 debate to include 501c groups which she saw as potential loopholes to current and planned campaign finance regulation. A study then appears that argues both parties use non-regulated entities to fight elections, that such spending probably corrupts representation, and that adumbrates “possible compromise” options for policymakers. (CFI study, p. 33) Given that context and this text, what is a reader to make of the CFI study? It is educational material (it fits the legal pigeonhole) that in context looks a lot like an announcement of the next item on “the reform community’s” agenda for restricting political speech.

There is also a larger legal context here that should be kept in mind. The main justification for regulating campaign finance remains preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. However, legislative actions to prevent circumvention of laws that address corruption may also justify constitutionally restrictions on campaign finance. The CFI study argues that powerful interest groups use 527s and 501c groups along with regulated spending in elections. Its authors then ask whether those alternatives, taken as a whole, corrupt legislators on the theory mentioned in my earlier post: policymakers do not distinguish among legal categories, which is to say that disclosed spending acts like a contribution. Given that, the use of 527s and 501c groups are both corrupting and a circumvention of campaign finance law. The CFI study thus justifies extending campaign finance regulation to entities that spend money on politics but do not contribute to candidates. That is why I wrote earlier that the CFI study sought to end the distinction between politics and elections in current law and thus constituted a radical break with the past. I would be glad to know that CFI does not support ending that distinction or making that radical break. A fair reading of this study, however, suggests otherwise.


The Future of Campaign Finance Restrictions?

Last week the Campaign Finance Institute published a working paper on nonprofits and campaign finance. CFI styles itself as the moderate to conservative wing of the “reform community.” This paper, however, makes a radical proposal.

First, here’s some political context for the paper:

McCain-Feingold largely outlawed soft money contributions to the political parties. In the 2004 election, erstwhile Democratic soft money contributors used 527s as a vehicle for their political efforts. The Republican party by and large did not use 527s. So after the election, the GOP has naturally tried to eliminate the 527 vehicle. Democrats (and a few Republicans) have resisted that effort, and Congress seems unlikely to do anything about 527s this year. The effort to restrict political activities (i.e. “campaign finance reform”) has gotten bogged down for the moment.

The CFI paper tries to broaden the thinking of Congress and thereby the power of the government over free speech. It studies how 12 interest groups used political action committees, 527s, and nonprofit groups in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections. (The federal tax code puts nonprofits in the 501c section; they are allowed to engage in education efforts that involve political advocacy).

The sample relied on by the study should give pause. The study seeks to influence public policy, and campaign finance policy covers everyone involved in elections. Ideally, a study of interest groups in elections should be representative of all groups involved in elections. The CFI study does not try to show that their sample is broadly representative. That’s not surprising. It is highly unlikely that the CFI sample can be generalized. The interest groups chosen for the study will be familiar to students of American elections and policymaking; they are well-funded and highly organized. They are outliers and not a good foundation for making public policy that covers everyone.

The sample does have some interesting characteristics. It is evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Since the study looks at well-funded and highly organized groups, it thus examines potent threats to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

However, if Congress restricts only 527 spending, Democrats would be harmed more than Republicans. The CFI authors say that Republicans use the 501c groups more than the Democrats. The CFI study thus intimates that new restrictions on the political activities of 527s and nonprofits could be a good bipartisan compromise: Republicans would be rid of the 527 threat while Democrats would gain relief from the GOP nonprofits.

Yet upon further examination, the deal looks like more of a hit to the Democrats. The CFI data show that Democratic 527s spent many times what the GOP nonprofits expended in 2004. (The CFI authors contend public data underestimates spending by nonprofits because of inaccurate reporting to the IRS). So the CFI authors are essentially asking the Democrats to sign on to a bad deal.

Politics aside, the CFI study poses larger and more disturbing questions, too.
Preventing corruption has long been the primary legal justification for regulating campaign spending. To prevent corruption courts have allowed Congress to regulate campaign contributions and to treat spending at the behest of candidates as a contribution. The interest groups studied by CFI abide by these laws by using their political action committees to contribute to campaigns.

The focus on corruption also erected a wall between elections and politics. If you give money to a candidate, the thinking goes, you might bribe him and hence, your contribution should be regulated. If you didn’t give money to a candidate but wanted to spend whatever sums advancing your ideas independent of his campaign, that fell under free speech and enjoyed constitutional protection.

527s and nonprofits, on the other hand, spend money on elections and politics but cannot give to candidates. As they CFI study shows, much of this spending involves groups communicating with their members or trying to persuade the public in general. The 527 and nonprofit spending thus falls under free speech.

The CFI authors suggest otherwise. They argue that 527 and nonprofit spending could corrupt representatives. Members of Congress, they say, do not distinguish spending by legal category; PAC contributions, 527 efforts, and nonprofit work are all understood to be payments to a candidate, presumably prompting legislative favors in response.

If such spending risks “corruption,” it may legally be brought under the restrictions of campaign finance law, primarily mandatory disclosure of sources and limits on donations. Those strictures would eliminate all significant 527 spending and many small nonprofits.

The CFI authors provide no evidence that representatives see spending by 527s and nonprofits as quid pro quo contributions. They are also strikingly indifferent to the consequences of their proposal for the rights of their fellow citizens.

For CFI, the distinction between elections and politics and between contributions and free speech has outlived its usefulness. Not surprisingly, the CFI authors do not mention an unmistakable implication of their proposal: in the future, all spending on political advocacy sooner or later will be subject to campaign finance laws. The CFI authors do not mention how this extension of state power comports with the freedom to engage in politics promised by the U.S. Constitution.

Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t.

The Unseen Sighted in Western Maryland

For supporters of limited government, Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen summarizes our fundamental lament:

When a government official spends on his own behalf one hundred sous more, this implies that a taxpayer spends on his own behalf one hundred sous the less. But the spending of the government official is seen, because it is done; while that of the taxpayer is not seen, because—alas!—he is prevented from doing it.

This difference leads to bigger government because the electorate is lulled into believing that big government offers great benefits to society while limited government and private decisionmaking offer little. If it were not for government, the thinking goes, people could not respond to emergencies, or the poor and unfortunate would have no protection and assistance, or there would be no economic development and community life.

But once in awhile, we can see what usually goes unseen. Credit my hometown of Washington County, Maryland, for a recent example.

Rising tax receipts resulted in a budget surplus for FY 2006, and the county’s commissioners decided to refund some of that surplus to taxpayers. The local newspaper asked readers to write in, describing what they did with the money. Today’s edition included those letters. Among the uses:

  • Pay for home repairs required after recent flooding.
  • Contribute to the medical fund for an area child with a heart defect.
  • Purchase a bicycle, movie tickets, a dinner and show, and the various goods and services of a local festival.

How about that? People will make sensible and altruistic decisions with their money, without the orchestrations of government