Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

IRS Chief, Who Defended Illegal ‘ObamaCare’ Taxes, also Denied Targeting of Tea-Party Groups

In 2011, members of Congress began criticizing a proposed IRS rule implementing ObamaCare’s health insurance tax credits. They claimed that the proposed rule violated the clear language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as congressional intent, by issuing those tax credits in states that declined to establish a health insurance “exchange.” In effect, they claimed the proposed rule would result in the federal government taxing, borrowing, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars without congressional authorization. 

At the time, then–IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman leapt to his agency’s defense. He wrote that various provisions of the statute “support” the rule. He wrote that the “relevant” legislative history doesn’t show that Congress didn’t want the IRS to tax, borrow, and spend those hundreds of billions of dollars. He wrote that the proposed rule is “consistent with the language, purpose, and structure” of the law. The only thing he didn’t do was cite a provision of the law authorizing the rule, or even creating any ambiguity about the rule’s illegality.

The IRS finalized that illegal rule in May 2012. You can read all about it in my article with Jonathan Adler, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”

It is worth noting that Shulman also leapt to the IRS’s defense against another charge that the agency was abusing its power. In 2012, conservative groups complained that the IRS was targeting them for audits. Shulman issued a forceful and categorical denial:

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting groups based on their political views.

“There’s absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people” who apply for tax-exempt status, Shulman told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

Shulman was wrong. Today, the IRS admitted it has been targeting conservative groups for audits

Perhaps some Friday afternoon hence we will be treated to an IRS admission that their tax-credit rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the PPACA, as two lawsuits now allege. I won’t hold my breath.

Shades of Nixon: ‘IRS Apologizes for Targeting Conservative Groups’

From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service is apologizing for inappropriately flagging conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.

Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, said organizations that included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status were singled out for additional reviews.

Lerner said the practice, initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati, was wrong and she apologized while speaking at a conference in Washington.

Many conservative groups complained during the election that they were being harassed by the IRS. They said the agency asked them an inordinate number of questions to justify their tax-exempt status.

Certain tax-exempt charitable groups can conduct political activities but it cannot be their primary activity.

Let’s all recall what President Obama told Ohio State University graduates just days ago:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny [is] always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems. We shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us, it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

“Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” says Barney Frank. Like persecute our political enemies.

President Ashcroft

President Obama has drawn some fire for telling Ohio State University graduates, among other things:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

His critics included my colleagues Roger Pilon in the Wall Street Journal, who deplored Obama’s conflation of the family and the federal government, and Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner, who noted the president’s attempt “to reframe skepticism toward overweening federal power as “cynicism.’”

I was reminded of another political official’s warning back in 2001:

To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.

That was attorney general John Ashcroft testifying before Congress on the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s exercise of power after 9/11. It’s a standard theme of those in power: If you question our actions, if you protest the expansion of government and the loss of freedom, you’re aiding the enemy. You’re undermining our faith in government.

The Founders of this nation had a different view. James Madison warned us that since men are not angels, we can’t entrust them with unlimited power. And Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Kentucky Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts, 

that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism–free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go….In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

That’s the spirit of freedom and self-government: Jealous of our rights and liberties, confident in our Constitution, and skeptical about power and about the men and women who seek it.

As for the president’s much-quoted attack on “individual ambition,” I addressed that in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008 when he made a similar argument to Wesleyan grads.

This Month at Cato Unbound: The Future of Right-Libertarian Fusionism

This month our online ideas journal Cato Unbound boasts an all-new design, with new software to make reading and navigating a whole lot more intuitive.

Our latest issue tackles the topic of fusionism – the old-new idea that libertarians belong on the right side of the political aisle.

Fusionism has a long history. But will it play to millennials? That could be one of the most important questions in American politics.

Young voters are a lot less conservative on social issues like gay marriage and drug policy. In this, they echo previous generational trends on questions like interracial marriage and pornography, neither of which are live political issues anymore. Younger Americans also seem more skeptical of corporate influences in politics. That fact may tilt them to the left, but it could also pave the way for a less corporatist free-market movement, if only we can make the case to them. And some millennials might not even remember a time when America was at peace – a thing we can’t say about any previous generation.

How does the old right-libertarian alliance fare in this new environment? We decided to ask some young activists who’ve given some thought to the question.

Making the case for fusionism is Jacqueline Otto of the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism Project. Economic liberty unites us, she says – and we ought not to let the rest divide us.

And contra, we have Jeremy Kolassa, a writer for United Liberty. He argues that libertarians haven’t gotten much from their old alliance with the right, and it’s time to stand on our own. Libertarians should offer good ideas to whoever will listen and form coalitions wherever specific issues allow it.

Over the next few days we’ll also have essays from Clark Ruper of Students for Liberty and Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute. Also be sure to stop by our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter as the conversation develops.