Topic: Political Philosophy

Cato Scholars Speaking at Students for Liberty Conference — Join Us

The 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference, now in its sixth year, will bring over a thousand students and young liberty activists to Washington, D.C. to talk about ideas, hear from leading policy experts, and network with organizations and each other. I’m proud to have been the first speaker at the first ISFLC conference, in New York in 2008.  This year, the conference will be hosted at the Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel, just three blocks from the Cato Institute.

I will be presenting two lectures that weekend, a session with Young Americans for Liberty on “The Ten Ways to Talk about Freedom” and a luncheon keynote in Cato’s Yeager Conference Center on Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics. Plus I’ll be on a special taping of the “Stossel” show.

Other Cato scholars will be speaking on policy issues throughout the conference.  All of the below sessions will be taking place in the Hyatt’s Constitution room B.

Saturday, February 16
10:00-10:45am Restoring Constitutional Liberty Roger Pilon
11:15-12:00pm Privacy Under Attack Jim Harper
12:10–1:20pm Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics *Luncheon @ the Cato Institute* David Boaz
1:30-2:15pm The Clone Wars: Fighting to Educate Free Individuals Neal McCluskey
2:45-3:30pm A Foreign Policy for Advancing Liberty Abroad (without Undermining It at Home) Christopher A. Preble
4:00-4:45pm Economic Growth and the Future of Liberty Brink Lindsey
5:15-6:00pm How the Government Uses “Science” to Take Away Your Stuff Patrick J. Michaels
Sunday, February 17
10:00-10:45am How to Win Every Libertarian Argument Jason Kuznicki
11:15-12:00pm Why Libertarians Should Care Much More about Immigration Alex Nowrasteh

To attend the student luncheon event, please register online or sign up for your ticket at the Cato booth at the conference exhibit hall.

Is Government a Threat to Our Freedom?

My book Libertarianism: A Primer, published in 1997, begins with this paragraph:

In 1995 Gallup pollsters found that 39 percent of Americans said that “the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”  Pollsters couldn’t believe it, so they tried again, taking out the word “immediate.”  This time 52 percent of Americans agreed.

Well, the Pew Research Center has been polling on a similar question, and they’ve just found the highest number ever. They ask a slightly different question – “Do you think the federal government threatens your own personal rights and freedoms, or not?” – and of course pollsters’ methods and samples may vary. Pew’s numbers seem to have been somewhat lower than Gallup’s over the past two decades. But today they report:

Pew Poll on Threat to Rights

As Barack Obama begins his second term in office, trust in the federal government remains mired near a historic low, while frustration with government remains high. And for the first time, a majority of the public says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 adults, finds that 53% think that the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms while 43% disagree.

Gallup’s polling found that the level of fear had fallen dramatically in the early 2000s, as did Pew, but that by late 2011 it had risen back to 49 percent. Gallup also, alas, reports a partisan divide in answers to the question:

Americans’ sense that the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms is also at a new high, 49%, since Gallup began asking the question using this wording in 2003. This view is much more pronounced among Republicans (61%) and independents (57%) than among Democrats (28%), although when George W. Bush was president, Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to view government as a threat.

Dan Mitchell noted that divide back in 2010 and suggested that, with a Republican administration spending us into bankruptcy and a Democratic administration continuing the wars and the Patriot Act, partisans ought to start recognizing the threats from their own respective parties. Indeed.

The bottom line, though, is that when a government is viewed as a threat to “your own personal rights and freedoms” by a majority of its citizens, it should probably take a critical look at its policies.

Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, Cont’d

Like my colleague Michael, I found “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” the best moment in President Obama’s address. It was unifying: by going far enough back in time, it summoned up (as a recitation of current controversies would not) a sense that in historical perspective, nearly all present-day Americans have come to agree on crucial fundamentals about not using the law to mistreat each other. I especially liked the touch of geographical obscurity. It makes me imagine a million explanatory conversations going on this week from Kalamazoo to Karachi: “Okay, so *that’s* why Americans still talk about Selma and Stonewall. Now what was Seneca Falls about?” That could be time well spent.

Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall

I recently blogged that for me, the one (and perhaps only) bright spot of President Obama’s second inaugural address was this gem:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

A reader responds:

Just a little feedback for your post below. I think you are being a bit too “highbrow” by not explaining what the three place names signify. I had to look up two of them to realize what they signified. They may all be top-of-mind to Obama Democrats, but this long-time libertarian (30+ years) and previous to that conservative republican really knew not of the references. With Wikipedia & Google search, it does not take much to look them up, but still….

I think a lot about why more women and minorities don’t show an interest in libertarianism, especially when libertarian ideas should be particularly appealing to groups that have suffered at the hands of the state. I think my correspondent exhibits one reason. Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall represent seminal moments in the movements to liberate three groups who had suffered (and at least one of which is still suffering) state-sponsored repression right here in the United States. Yet this 30-year libertarian had to look up two of those references. I had to look up one. We didn’t know all three because libertarians do not routinely talk about these incredibly important moments and movements in the history of American freedom. Sure, we are glad they happened (and are ongoing). But we don’t celebrate them. Which we should. Barack Obama is ahead of us on this one.

Suppose you or a close family member had been in Selma. If you met a libertarian, and mentioned Selma, and he drew a blank – what would you think?

President Obama Falls for a Fallacy

In his second inaugural address, President Obama made a series of direct and indirect references to the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents to make his case for collective (read: state) action. In doing so, he fell into the fallacy of argument ad antiquitatem – an illegitimate appeal to ages past in order to justify present and future actions.

Most people, including most Americans, would be surprised to learn that the word “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Constitution of the United States of America (1789). They would also be shocked to learn the reason for the absence of the word democracy in the founding documents of the U.S.A.  Contrary to what propaganda has led the public to believe, America’s Founding Fathers were skeptical and anxious about democracy.  They were aware of the evils that accompany a tyranny of the majority.  The Framers of the Constitution went to great lengths to ensure that the federal government was not based on the will of the majority and was not, therefore, democratic.

If the Framers of the Constitution did not embrace democracy, what did they adhere to?  To a man, the Framers agreed that the purpose of government was to secure citizens in John Locke’s trilogy of the rights to life, liberty and property.

The Constitution was designed to further the cause of liberty, not democracy.  To do that, the Constitution protected individuals’ rights from the government, as well as from their fellow citizens.  To that end, the Constitution laid down clear, unequivocal and enforceable rules to protect individuals’ rights. In consequence, the government’s scope and scale were strictly limited.  Economic liberty, which is a precondition for growth and prosperity, was enshrined in the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights establishes the rights of the people against infringements by the State.  The only thing that the citizens can demand from the State, under the Bill of Rights, is for a trial by a jury. The rest of the citizens’ rights are protections from the State.

While invoking America’s founding documents and predecessors to justify collective action might appear as cleverness on the part of the President, it is a brazenly overused rhetorical instrument: an argument ad antiquitatem.

How NPR Lets You Know Which Political Philosophies Are Acceptable

NPR asked libertarian, vegan, author, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey whether ObamaCare is a form of socialism. Mackey responded, thoughtfully:

Technically speaking, it’s more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it — and that’s what’s happening with our health care programs and these reforms.

Mackey then discussed how Whole Foods is working with Michelle Obama to improve Americans’ diets. The story on NPR’s web site closes with this paragraph:

So our question to you, dear readers, is this: How big a role does a business leader’s personal philosophy play in your decision to buy products from his or her company? Tell us in the comments section below.

That’s funny. NPR didn’t ask its dear readers to comment on the politics of health insurance giant CIGNA’s CEO after he praised the Supreme Court’s decision not to strike down the law, or said, “I don’t believe focusing on repeal right now is in anybody’s best interest.” Or on Aetna’s CEO after he advocated tax increases and gobbling up as many ObamaCare subsidies as his company could. Hmm.

M. Hollande Sends Troops to War

A top headline in today’s Washington Post reads (in the print version)

France’s Hollande intervenes in Mali

An odd headlne, I thought. I’m sure Hollande himself isn’t picking up a gun and heading for Mali. And if he’s simply sending troops (as the online version says), don’t we usually just say “France sends troops”? But in fact, of course, some person or persons actually send troops to war. It isn’t done by a whole country collectively. And in the case of France, apparently one person has the authority to launch military interventions. (Thank God we don’t live in such a country!)

The headline in my morning paper put me in mind of one of Tom Palmer’s favorite quotations in discussions of statism and individualism. It comes from the historian Parker T. Moon of Columbia University in his study of 19th-century European imperialism, Imperialism and World Politics

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country—when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”—we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead—thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?

I guess the Post has avoided the obfuscation of which Moon complained by stating frankly: “Hollande sends troops to Mali.”