Topic: Political Philosophy

A Long-Overdue Conversation about How to Replace ObamaCare

With the prospect of a Republican president who could conceivably repeal and replace ObamaCare, it is time for ObamaCare opponents to take a hard look at their “replace” plans. As I have argued elsewhere, expanding health savings accounts – a proposal I call Large HSAs – beats other alternatives like health-insurance tax credits. In short, if opponents succeed in repealing ObamaCare, Large HSAs would take another step in the direction of a market system. Health-insurance tax credits would constitute a step backward, because they would simply resurrect some of ObamaCare’s worst features–including an individual mandate and much of ObamaCare’s government spending and redistribution.

I set off a kerfuffle last week when I wrote that Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) ObamaCare replacement plan contains an individual mandate in the form of tax credits for health insurance. Rubio supporters and others were none too pleased. 

A Libertarian Argument for Bernie Sanders?

Will Wilkinson notes that there is a libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure I buy the precise point Wilkinson is making. Sanders says he wants to make the United States more like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And those countries do indeed rank higher than the United States in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, compiled by my colleagues Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik. But Sanders wants to emulate those countries in the ways they are less free than the United States (i.e., expanding government transfers), not in the ways they are more free (taxes and regulation). I think this powerful Sanders ad featuring Eric Garner’s daughter Erica is a much better libertarian argument for Sanders.

Why We Celebrate Washington’s Birthday

Monday, February 22, will be the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, although the federal government in typical federal government fashion has instructed us to observe Washington’s Birthday (not Presidents’ Day) on a convenient Monday sometime before the actual date. There’s a reason that we should celebrate George Washington rather than a panoply of presidents. 

wrote this several years ago:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power. 

John Trumbull, “General George Washington Resigning His Commission”

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

John Adams said, “He was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” Indeed, Washington was a person very conscious of his reputation, who worked all his life to develop his character and his image.

In our own time Joshua Micah Marshall writes of America’s first president, “It was all a put-on, an act.” Marshall missed the point. Washington understood that character is something you develop. He learned from Aristotle that good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction – “We are what we repeatedly do.” Indeed, the word “ethics” comes from the Greek word for “habit.” We say something is “second nature” because it’s not actually natural; it’s a habit we’ve developed. From reading the Greek philosophers and the Roman statesmen, Washington developed an understanding of character, in particular the character appropriate to a gentleman in a republic of free citizens.

How David Brooks Created Donald Trump

Donald Trump, David Brooks (Credit: AP/John Locher/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”

We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.

Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.


When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

“The Libertarian Mind” in the New York Times

The writer Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, cites The Libertarian Mind in a New York Times column today, about the difficulty of being a “disenfranchised…socially progressive economic conservative.” Shriver writes:

Yet whether it’s “leftist” or “rightist,” my catechism is consistent. The rubric to which those positions hew — we should be free to do whatever doesn’t impinge on the rights of others — forms the conceptual backbone of the United States. The Constitution is libertarian. To the extent that the unamended Constitution was flawed, it was more rigorous application of libertarian principles that would have abolish slavery and granted women’s suffrage. Libertarians were way ahead of the pack on decriminalizing homosexuality.

We can at least thank Rand Paul for nominally refurbishing libertarianism so that it is halfway respectable. But the real mystery is why American libertarianism was ever marginalized (and why they marginalized themselves). David Boaz encapsulates the essential idea in last year’s “The Libertarian Mind”: “You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten: Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.”

Shriver goes on to endorse seatbelt and helmet laws, a higher minimum wage, gun control, and socialized medicine, a useful reminder to us more ideological sorts that even intelligent, well-informed voters don’t always fit into neat categories. But she does complain about being “repeatedly forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” And she says:

Voters like me — who believe that environmental quality, health and safety, and security needn’t be purchased at the cost of our liberty, and who defend the right to make our own mistakes as a crucial aspect of being human — deserve political representation.

Exactly. And that’s a point we’ve been making here at the Cato Institute since our 1981 paper on liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist perspectives right up through our recent work on “the libertarian vote.” It’s gratifying to see this additional confirmation that there are many voters out there who are “socially progressive economic conservatives,” or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or indeed broadly libertarian.

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.