Topic: Political Philosophy

Washington’s Range of Policy Options

Ezra Klein writes in the Washington Post that congressional Republicans have moved to the right on such issues as health care, stimulus spending, and a carbon tax, forcing Democrats to move to the center to find common ground. And thus:

If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.

His argument is that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich used to support “the basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act,” John McCain (R-AZ) supported a cap-and-trade bill, George W. Bush pushed a stimulus bill in 2008—but now Republicans don’t want to support any of those policies. So, he says, Democrats have moved to the right, away from what they really want, like single-payer health care, command-and-control environmental regulation, and no cuts to entitlements plus massive new spending. He says that leads to center-right policy.

But another way to look at it is this: on his scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents bigger government and 10 represents smaller government, what’s happening? Is government getting bigger or smaller? Take health care: if 1 represents national health care and 10 represents a free market in health care, then surely with income tax preferences for health insurance, Medicare, the prescription drug benefit, and government paying for more than half of all health care, we were at least at 5 by 2009. Everybody from Michael Cannon to Joe Biden thinks Obamacare is a BFD on the road to total government control of medicine. So let’s say it put us at 3 or 4.

You can see the same pattern in the other issues Klein discusses. Carbon tax, cap and trade, stimulus spending—they all make government bigger than it is now. So when Republicans endorse any of those policies, they are playing on bigger-government territory. Now, Republicans say they’re not going to do that any more. So Klein’s complaint is not really that Republicans are insisting on “8, 9, or 10” policies; they’re just no longer proposing policies in the 3 and 4 range, hoping that Democrats will agree to make government only a little bigger, rather than way bigger. Sounds like maybe the debate is moving back toward the 50-yard line, instead of taking place entirely in Democratic territory.

Note: Klein talked only about economic issues, so I’ve done the same. There’s a clear trend in a liberal/libertarian direction on social issues such as marriage and marijuana. And Republicans who propose further restricting immigration or getting involved in yet another Mideast war are hardly advocates of small government. This analysis deals only with fiscal, regulatory, and entitlements issues.

The Art of Persuasion

The newest posting at Libertarianism.org is a 1979 speech by Nathaniel Branden, from the largest-ever convention of the Libertarian Party, titled “What Happens When the Libertarian Movement Begins to Succeed?” Alas, it’s audio-only, unlike all the classic videos at Libertarianism.org. But it’s still vintage Branden, and quite interesting. The site’s multimedia editor, Evan Banks, drew my attention to this part of the speech (starting around 22:22) that I think has a lot of relevance to the work we do at Cato and the attempts at persuasion by libertarians generally:

So it becomes very interesting to ask ourselves – and obviously I don’t wish to imply this applies to all of us, it doesn’t – but these are trends to watch for in ourselves and in our colleagues. So it becomes interesting to ask ourselves: Okay, suppose that I or my friends or my colleagues, while genuinely believing in these ideals, at the same time have this unrecognized negative self-concept of which Branden speaks. That means that my self-sabotaging behavior wouldn’t happen on a conscious level, but it would happen. How would it happen? What kinds of mistakes might we make?
 
Well, for example, suppose that you’re talking with people that don’t already share your views, and yet you believe your views have evidence and reason to support them. Now, if you really believe that you’re in this to win; to see your ideas prevail, then you give a lot of thought to how to become a good communicator, how to reach human minds, how to appeal to human intelligence. What do you do if you’re really in it to keep proving that you’re a heroic–but doomed–martyr? What do you do if your deepest belief [about people that don’t already share your views] is, “You’re never going to get it. You’re hopelessly corrupt. I may be one of the two or three last moral people on Earth. What am I doing at this party anyway?”
[laughter]
 
You engage in a lot of flaming rhetoric – you talk about statists, you talk about looters, you talk about parasites in contexts where you KNOW this language is Greek to your listener. Why should you care, your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway – it’s directed to the spectator – you watching you being a hero. HE knows what you mean – don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t, the show isn’t for them anyway.

Tesla and the Red-State Blues

In red-state America, the free market is king, right? Progressivism, socialism, the nanny state – those are fightin’ words. And what state could be redder than Texas? Well perhaps it’s still true that liquor’s for drinking and water’s for fighting in Texas, but water isn’t the only thing some Texans think worth fighting for. Legally-protected – read “unfree” – markets are another.

It seems that the folks who make these new-fangled electric cars – Tesla Motors, in particular – have a different sales and service model than traditional manufactures have had since the days of the Model T. As CNN Money explains, under the conventional model, manufacturers

sell cars to independently owned and operated dealers or distributors who, in turn, sell them to the public, usually after some negotiation over the final price.

By contrast, Tesla’s showrooms, of which there are already 37 around the country, are owned and operated by Tesla Motors. Most of the showrooms are in shopping malls with only enough cars kept in inventory for display and for test drives. Also, there’s no haggling. Every Tesla car sells at full sticker price. Service on the cars is performed at separate garages, also owned by Tesla.

Now I hold no brief for these cars or that sales and service model. In fact, I rather like my gas-guzzler, to say nothing of haggling. But I also like the free market, and that’s precisely what Bill Wolters, president of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association, seems not to like. If Tesla chief executive Elon Musk “wants to have a showroom in a mall, that’s fine,” Wolters said, “but he can’t own it.” Fearing that the Tesla sales and service model might encourage other automakers to try it, Wolters is fighting to keep in place the Texas law that prohibits automaker-owned dealerships. Under that law, Tesla can’t sell cars in Texas.

Tesla has showrooms there, but employees can only show off and explain the car. They can’t give test drives or take orders. They can’t mention the price at all, even if customers ask. The current law doesn’t stop anyone in Texas from ordering a Tesla Model S online if they want to. Tesla just can’t deliver it to the customer. The buyer has to arrange for delivery through a third-party shipping company.

And if you think Texas is bad, in North Carolina – another traditionally red state, despite the close presidential race in 2012 – dealers are pressing for a law that would make it illegal even to sell cars online in the state, something that’s currently legal in all 50 states.

We’ve seen this movie before, of course, with occupational licensure, consumer products, and so much more. And invariably it comes down to the same thing: the folks in place don’t like competition from the new kids on the block, so they run to the legislature for protection. Come on Texas (and North Carolina), practice what you preach. You’re making the blue states look good, and no self-respecting Texan wants that.

Scandals Keep Eroding Our Faith in Benevolent Government

George Will, Michael Gerson, and our own Gene Healy are among the columnists who reminded us – in the wake of the IRS and AP snooping scandals – of President Obama’s stirring words just two days before the IRS story broke:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity. . . . They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

No road to serfdom here. Just us folks working together, to protect ourselves from sneaky reporters and organized taxpayers.

And now lots of people are noting that a series of scandals in government just might undermine people’s faith in government. John Dickerson of Slate writes:

The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did. Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government….

Conservatives argue that the more government you have, the more opportunities you will have for it to grow out of control.

And Paul Begala, the Bill Clinton operative, notes:

This hurts the Obama Administration more than similar issues hurt the Bush administration because a central underpinning of the progressive philosophy is a belief in the efficacy of government. In the main almost all of the Obama agenda requires expanding folks’ faith in government, and these issues erode that faith.

“Faith in government” indeed. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, putting your faith in government is, like a second marriage, a triumph of hope over experience.

But most particularly this week I’m reminded of Murray Rothbard’s comment in 1975 about what the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation had done to trust in government:

Twenty years ago, the historian Cecelia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” – little faith, that is, in a strong central government. It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today.

Another 38 years later, it should be even more difficult to retain such faith.

Conspiracy Not Required

The recent revelation that the IRS targeted conservative political groups is now moving into the second stage of a DC scandal: the first is finding out what happened; the second is finding out how high up it goes. Although it is important to find out how many, if any, high-level officials are culpable, high-level participation is not necessary for libertarians to have a small “I told you so” moment.

But we should not try to oversell it. Some libertarians have an odd tendency to believe that government is more effective at doing bad things than at doing good things. At the extremes, this manifests as the “libertarian conspiracy theorist”—someone who oddly believes that, while government can’t effectively run health care, schools, or welfare programs, it can successfully orchestrate and cover-up massive conspiracies. But we don’t need high-level conspiracies to point out that abuses of power, even by low-level officials, can be expected. Moreover, as government grows larger it becomes both less accountable and more important to our lives, thus giving government officials both more leverage and more freedom to misbehave.  

In his novel Child 44, a fascinating detective story that takes place in Stalin’s Russia, Tom Rob Smith tells of an encounter between a party-member doctor and the novel’s protagonist, a Muscovite police officer who was once a loyal party member but is slowly losing his faith. The officer is out sick and the doctor visits to see if he is really sick or just trying to avoid work. Shirking work is a grave offense, and the doctor’s judgment could destroy the officer and his wife. A bad report and they will go to the Gulag. A good report and they get to stay in their relatively comfortable apartment in Moscow. Knowing his power, the doctor makes unwanted advances towards the officer’s beautiful wife, telling her that “Ten minutes is hardly a high price to pay for the life of your husband.”

It is a chilling episode, and while I am certainly not comparing the U.S. government to Soviet Russia, there are some lessons to be learned. As much as we might like a sensational story implicating top-level officials, the most common form of government misconduct does not usually involve devious scheming by politicians. Instead, it is often both less insidious and more invidious—the cumulative effects of misconduct by less-accountable, low-level officials who enjoy immense power over small areas of our lives.  

My father, an attorney, once told me he first started having vaguely libertarian thoughts after he began dealing with banking regulators. The regulators were relatively low on the chain of command, yet they held an incredible amount of power over their areas of concern, more than enough to make my father’s job very difficult. And they did. Similar stories happen all over the country, and sometimes they make it to the Supreme Court.

But most don’t usually make it to any court, much less the Supremes. The United States government is the most powerful organization the world has ever seen, and lower-level officials wield a small fraction of that power, which is still more than enough to make most people sit down and shut up.

I’m not saying that most government officials illegitimately use their power. I believe that the vast majority of government officials do not. I am saying, however, that many abuses occur and more can be expected if the government continues to grow larger and more powerful. It is simply too large an organization for anyone to control.

Is Kathleen Sebelius Barack Obama’s Oliver North?

I blogged earlier about how HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is unethically, and possibly illegally, shaking down industries she regulates to get them to fund ObamaCare’s implementation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, says this is “arguably an even bigger issue [than] Iran-Contra,” and ably defends his position against the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff.

Excerpts from Alexander’s comments:

[I]n Iran-Contra, you had $30 million that was spent by Oliver North through private organizations for a purpose congress refused to authorize, in support of the rebels. Here, you’re wanting to spend millions more in support of private organizations to do something that Congress has refused…

The cause in the first case was the cause of rebels in Nicaragua.  And the cause here is to implement Obamacare. Congress has refused to appropriate more for that cause. The administration seems to be making a decision that’s called augmenting an appropriation. Its a constitutional offense that’s the issue…

If you read the report of the Iran-Contra select committee, it said that the executive cannot make an end run around Congress by raising money privately and spending it. That seems to be happening here. That was essentially the problem. There the money came from a different place, but if you look at my statement [the Iran-Contra report said] “a president whose appropriation requests were rejected by Congress could raise money from private sources or third countries for armies, military actions, arms systems, and even domestic programs.” [Emphasis added.] It’s the same kind of offense to the Constitution. It’s the same kind of thumbing your nose at Article 1…

If that’s what they’re saying…that Congress has refused to appropriate the money, then you can’t do it. That’s a curb on the executive.

Alexander has sent a letter to Sebelius requesting information about her extracurricular fundraising activities.

Rothbard in the New Yorker

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A discussion of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism in the New Yorker, in a broader review of books on “anarchism” emerging from the Occupy movement. Author Kelefa Sanneh writes:

In fact, there is one anarchist who could be considered influential in Washington, but he wasn’t among the activists who participated in the Occupy movement—he died nearly twenty years ago. His name is Murray Rothbard, and, among small-government Republicans, he is something of a cult hero. He was Ron Paul’s intellectual mentor, which makes him the godfather of the godfather of the Tea Party. Justin Amash, a young Republican congressman from Michigan and a rising star in the Party, hangs a framed portrait of him on his office wall.

Rothbard was an anarchist, but also a capitalist. “True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism,” he once said, and he sometimes referred to himself by means of a seven-syllable honorific: “anarcho-capitalist.” Graeber thinks that governments treat their citizens “like children,” and that, when governments disappear, people will behave differently. Anarcho-capitalists, on the contrary, believe that, without government, people will behave more or less the same: we will be just as creative or greedy or competent as we are now, only freer. Instead of imagining a world without drastic inequality, anarcho-capitalists imagine a world where people and their property are secured by private defense agencies, which are paid to keep the peace. Graeber doesn’t consider anarcho-capitalists to be true anarchists; no doubt the feeling is mutual.

“Cult hero … among small-government Republicans” seems a real stretch. But maybe among Ron Paul and Justin Amash, which is more congressional fans than most economist-philosophers have. Author Sanneh no doubt learned about Rothbard when he wrote a long and fairly sympathetic profile of Ron Paul on the campaign trail.

At Libertarianism.org Aaron Powell examines the New Yorker’s examination of anarchism, both capitalist and anti-capitalist. Also at Libertarianism.org find out more about Murray Rothbard, including some exclusive videos.