Topic: Political Philosophy

Belated Thoughts on “Libertarian Democrats”

In early June, Markos Moulitsas roiled the political blogosphere with a provocative post prophesizing the rise of the libertarian Democrat. My Cato colleagues Gene Healy, Will Wilkinson, and Radley Balko offered replies on Cato@Liberty, and the DailyKos logged some 900 responses to the post. Clearly, Kos had struck a nerve.

After a month of ruminating and at the risk of being too late to the party, here are a few additional thoughts:

All good classical liberals would eagerly agree with Kos about the threat that “government and other individuals” pose to liberty. Good libertarians would be captivated by his paean to the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment (and — can we hope? — the Ninth and Tenth). Classical liberals would also join him in rebuking government’s impositions in “our bedrooms and churches” and its ongoing evolution into Big Brother. And good libertarians of all political stripes (not just Blue) would agree with him about the threat that corporations pose to individual liberty, including their pushing externalities onto others. After all, my job at Cato is to manage the institute’s 64-page quarterly criticism of rent-seeking weasels.

Up to this point, all good classical liberals, libertarians, free-market liberals, et al., would be cheering Moulitsas. If there were any hesitation, it would be over his determination to promote libertarian Democrats instead of any office-seeker who is libertarian. If a voter values individual liberty, wouldn’t that person support any candidate who shares that value, and not just candidates who have an “R” or “D” after their names? I assume Kos and all lovers of liberty — and, indeed, all politically thoughtful people — would not be so base as to view candidate party affiliation as either a necessary or sufficient condition for gaining their votes.

But, as Gene and Will both point out, further reading of Kos’s post suggests that his brand of libertarianism may be quite illiberal.

Moulitsas postulates several “rights” that he claims a “Democratic libertarian” would recognize and that government should secure:

  • The right to “roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want.”
  • The right to “make a living without being unduly exploited by employers.”
  • The right to “poverty prevention programs,” so that people will not be “constantly fear[ing] for their lives.”
  • The right to “social safety net programs” and health care, so people can be free of “fear for their health.”

To be sure, the freedom to travel, the freedom from employer exploitation, and the adequate provision of necessities like food, shelter, and health care (not to mention many non-necessities) are highly valued by libertarians and the rest of humankind.

But is government the right instrument with which to secure those things, and can it do so successfully? On both philosophical and empirical grounds, I believe (those are important words) that government routinely fails either the “right instrument” or “successful” test for Kos’s purported “libertarian” government duties that I list above. Concerning transportation, I can name dubious public transportation projects and successful, welfare-boosting private ones; I would also argue that much of transit is not just wasteful but also regressive and dangerous (look at the transit data). Concerning labor issues, I question whether government can successfully identify “undue exploitation” (apart from violation of contract) and whether all workers would accept that identification — what may be exploitation to one worker may just be a hard day’s work to another.

I could make similar criticisms about other government roles that Kos claims a libertarian government should fill. Moulitsas and others would likely disagree with my claims, on both philosophical and empirical grounds. And their arguments would likely have merit — as do mine. A truly impartial observer would probably conclude that both sides seem to have a point, and that neither side could be declared clearly right or clearly wrong.

And that is why real libertarianism is so valuable, and Kos’s brand (if I understand it correctly) is problematic. True libertarianism — and, I take it, the founding principle of the American experiment — holds that society should maximize individual liberty so that different people can choose for themselves what they believe is right. This freedom is granted out of respect for individuals’ right to self determination, recognition of the variation of individual preferences, and appreciation that many issues cannot be definitively decided by political process, even after considerable philosophic and empirical analysis.

If you believe a certain employer behavior is exploitative, join a union or contract with a labor provider (e.g., Kelly, Manpower) that shares your belief and that negotiates labor conditions with employers. If you believe Social Security is a bad deal and not sustainable, opt out and prepare for retirement on your own — if government would only let you.

Perhaps that latter example provides a compromise between Moulitsas libertarianism and the traditional variety: The Kos libertarians could create whatever government programs they believe are necessary to enhance liberty, but people would be free to opt out of those programs and their costs. Kos could have his strict OSHA regulations so long as I could sign a contract saying I give up those protections. He could even have single-payer health care, so long as doctors, patients, and other health care system participants could freely decide not to participate in or pay for the single-payer system.

So Kos, would that be acceptable? You can have your libertarianism, just so long as I have my liberty.

Rent-Seeking 101

Mike Munger, chair of Duke University’s political science department and a friend of Cato, has a great essay on the waste of political “rent-seeking,” the attempt to get taxpayer money channeled through government to your favored interest (whether hungry children, municipal governments, corporations, or private individuals).

Here’s an excerpt:

In my classes, I ask students to imagine an experiment that I call a Tullock lottery, after one of the inventors of the concept of rent-seeking, Gordon Tullock.

The lottery works as follows: I offer to auction off $100 to the student who bids the most. The catch is that each bidder must put the bid money in an envelope, and I keep all of the bid money no matter who wins.

So if you put $30 in an envelope and somebody else bids $31, you lose both the prize and the bid. When I run that game with students I can sometimes make $50 or more, even after paying off the prize. In politics, the secret to making money is to announce you are going to give money away.

Take a walk along K Street in Washington, DC. It is lined with tall buildings, full of fine offices and peopled by men and women with excellent educations and a real sense of ambition, a desire to make lots of money and achieve great things. What are those buildings, those people? They are nothing more than bids in the political version of a Tullock lottery. The cost of maintaining a D.C. office with a staff and lights and lobbying professionals is the offer to politicians. If someone else bids more and the firm doesn’t get that tax provision or defense bid or road system contract, it doesn’t get its bid back. The money is gone. It is thrown into the maw of bad political competition.

Who benefits from that system? Is it the contractors, all those companies and organizations with offices on K Street? Not really. Playing a rent-seeking game like that means those firms spend just about all they expect to win. It is true that some firms get large contracts and big checks, but all the players would be better off overall if they could avoid playing the game to begin with.

This is a large part of why I think Jonathan Chait is daffy for saying that Warren Buffett should dump some large fraction of his billions on “slick political operatives” on K Street. The competition for political rents is zero- and often negative-sum. The rent-seeking game has features of both a commons tragedy and an arms race — neither being a good model for a prosperous and peaceful society. But that’s what big-government types, left and right, are asking for when they insist on keeping government money and power on the table.

Chait is no doubt right that if his political tribe had more billionaire patrons, they could win more “auctions.” Unless the other tribe has even more motivated billionaire patrons, that is. He seems not to grasp that this a mug’s game — a low-grade civil war — flatly inconsistent with the general welfare. It’s a huge waste of financial and human resources. And once the game gets started, you often get sucked in, whether or not you’d like to, just to survive. Munger:

My students ask why anyone would play this sort of game. The answer is that the rules of our political system have created that destructive kind of political competition. When so much government money is available to the highest bidder, playing that lottery begins to look very enticing. The current Congress has, to say the least, failed to stem the rising tide of spending on domestic pork-barrel projects. Political competition run amok has increased spending nearly across the board. And sometimes, you have to bid just to keep from having money taken away from you through regulation.

I think once you really grasp the logic behind the tremendous loss of welfare through destructive political competition for rents, it becomes difficult to defend big, relatively unlimited government. Chait notoriously claimed that limited-government, market liberal types (i.e., Cato types) are evidence-immune ideologues, while statist liberals like him are just plain old empiricists, following the evidence where it leads. Well, Jon Chait, open-minded empiricist, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mike Munger.

Jefferson v. Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens recently dissented from the majority opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, the case involving campaign finance restrictions imposed by Vermont. Stevens has long argued that money is not speech, and thus restrictions on money cannot raise First Amendment issues.

Robert Bauer offers a devastating critique of Stevens’ opinion. Bauer justly says Stevens’ dissent will be “cited, for years to come, as a prime example of carelessness, close in nature to fecklessness, in treating the First Amendment issues raised by campaign finance regulation.” Bauer’s blog, his website, and his book, More Soft Money Hard Law, are essential reading for anyone who care about free speech or the future of American politics.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” It’s a pity a long-serving Supreme Court justice thinks government gaining ground in free speech is a good thing and even worse that he projects his own statist sympathies onto the Founders, who were nothing if not defenders of liberty.

Loneliness is Such a Drag

I knew, just knew, there had to be a public policy proposal somewhere in this Sebastian Mallaby column about some new data from the American Sociological Review on loneliness in America. And sure enough, it shows up right at the end of the piece:

But there’s one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

There’s a new frontier in nanny statism. It’s not enough that government at all levels has moved beyond the prosaic tasks of protecting life, liberty, and property toward promoting clean living through sin taxes, fat taxes, and the like. Now it’s going to lean in real close and ask, “Are you happy, buddy? I mean really happy?” — and regulate you further in the hopes that you’ll make some new friends.

Breyer’s Gambit

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in Randall v. Sorrell, six justices agreed that Vermont’s campaign spending and contribution limits violated the First Amendment. That majority split, however, on what made the Vermont law invalid, resulting in what was in essence a plurality ruling.  Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito affirmed Buckley v. Valeo’s finding that spending limits violated the First Amendment. In striking down Vermont’s contribution limits, the plurality sought to break new ground.

In the past, the Supreme Court has said contribution limits should not be so low as to prevent “effective advocacy.” In fact, the “effective advocacy” standard did not constrain legislatures; the Court approved contribution limits deferring to the legislature’s “expertise” in this matter.

Vermont’s contribution limits, however, went too far, according to Justice Breyer, because they harmed “the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.”

For Breyer, the First Amendment is not a constraint on state power expressed as “Congress shall make no law.” Rather, it is a means to realize the value of democratic accountability. That value requires that challengers be able to mount effective campaigns against incumbents. The government can prevent such effective campaigning through contribution limits. Hence, Vermont’s limits must be struck down.

Of course, the Constitution does not demand that Congress advance democratic accountability. But the language of the Constitution has not constrained the Court for some time. Five members of a future Court majority might well explicitly import “democratic accountability” into the First Amendment as a way of enlarging, rather than constraining, state power.

Citing Breyer’s opinion, a future Court might require taxpayers to fund campaigns as way to enable effective challenges against incumbents, thereby increasing democratic accountability. It might also cite democratic accountability as grounds for imposing draconian restrictions on groups that have “undue influence.”

People concerned about free speech welcomed the Randall v. Sorrell decision, but the plurality sought to affirm “democratic accountability” and not the idea of limited government spelled out in the First Amendment. This is not surprising. Justice Breyer is no friend of free speech in campaign finance. That Justices Roberts and Alito signed on to his opinion cannot be a good sign for the future of free speech.

Is Bioethics an Oxymoron?

An emailer forwarded me a copy of an article in The New Republic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, “a bioethicist and oncologist.” Emanuel argues against a recent DC Circuit Court ruling on a suit brought by a group called the Abigail Alliance. The ruling gives dying patients access to experimental drugs after they have passed some minimum safety tests but before they have been proven effective.

It would make it much harder to get people to enroll in research studies and get the data necessary to show whether a drug really was effective or not. Why should people enroll in a randomized, controlled study–where they could be put in the group receiving only conventional treatment–when they could just get their insurance to pay for whatever drug they thought was best?

…Expanded access would also rob the rest of us who may never need a cancer treatment. Individuals and society in general are struggling to pay the nation’s $150 billion-plus drug bill. And that is for medications proven to work. Now add the requirement that insurance companies pay for drugs we don’t know work, and you have a formula for financial disaster. Costs would skyrocket as we pay billions through our insurance premiums and Medicare taxes for worthless drugs.

I agree that it would be wrong to force insurance companies to cover unproven medications–otherwise, there would be no reason to stop individuals from choosing their preferred method of treatment–but the relevant alternative to these patients is not participating in randomized trials. The relevant alternative is death.

Dr. Emanuel describes his approach in a similar case:

Getting Virginia another experimental drug was not going to stop her breast cancer from growing and eventually killing her. I gently explained to her that investing all her energy chasing after another unproven drug was not going to help her and her family. Virginia was disappointed and refused to consider hospice, because she saw it as giving up. Holding her hand, I talked to her about spending time with her husband and daughters and making a videotape for her future grandchildren. We also discussed getting visiting nurses to come to her house. I saw her once more in my office. She was more accepting and found at least some of the activities meaningful. Because of her failing liver, less than three months later, she lapsed into a coma and died with her family present.

If I decide that I want to fight rather than go down graciously with a terminal illness, I will look for a doctor who is not a bioethicist. I found this article so chilling that it leaves me nearly speechless.

“Wing” Nuts

In the latest issue of the American Prospect (subscription), Ezra Klein has a piece saying “good riddance” to NBC’s West Wing. I share the sentiment, if for different reasons than Klein outlines. His complaint is that the show was too nice to Republicans. Mine is that it was too nice to both parties — and to politics as a whole. 

Has there ever been a sweller bunch of folks than Toby, Sam, Donna, Josh and C.J.? A more selfless, high-minded, public-spirited, fundamentally decent pack of, er, political operators? Where in the world did Aaron Sorkin get his ideas about how politics works?

The White House of the West Wing exists in a Bizarro-world where the Oval Office is apparently devoid of office politics. We see almost none of the infighting, backstabbing, and jockeying for position that appear in real-world accounts of White House life. And no one, it seems, is tempted to abuse power. Can you picture a young John Dean in the Bartlett White House, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of “using the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?” A young Bill Moyers demanding that J. Edgar Hoover find homosexuals on Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff? Could even a Dick Morris or a David Addington walk the halls with saintly C.J. and noble Toby? Not likely.

It’s not that every White House staffer should be played as Gollum-with-a-briefcase. But the West Wing writers wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that anybody gets corrupted by proximity to power. 

And then there’s Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett. He’s some sort of Catholic theologian-cum-Nobel-laureate in economics — you know, the sort of guy we usually get for the job. And of course, he’s unbearably decent as well. Even his scandals are noble; no thong-snapping involved. Instead, Bartlett gets diagnosed with MS and chooses not to reveal it to the American people. This is Clinton, plus a spine and a moral compass, minus the libido. It’s Kennedy’s Camelot without the mob connections and the dirty tricks and the Motley-Crue-on-world-tour sex life

The West Wing was, above all, a Valentine to power. And despite the snappy repartee and the often-witty scripts, it was a profoundly silly show. It managed — in 21st century America — to be markedly less cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

And that was by design: Sorkin and the show’s other writers and producers repeatedly spoke of their desire to renew “respect for public service” and to combat a culture of cynicism about politics. But is that really a pressing problem in modern American life? Are we too cynical about politics these days? Or not cynical enough?