Topic: Political Philosophy

Govern a Great Country as You Would Cook a Small Fish

Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide to Ronald Reagan, has died at 82. As the Washington Post puts it, after Reagan’s term as governor ended in 1975, Hannaford “teamed with ex-Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver to handle radio broadcasts, newspaper columns and appearances that kept the presidential aspirant in the public eye” until his election as president in 1980. The Post obituary notes the last time Hannaford recalled sending Reagan an idea, in 1988 near the end of his presidency:

He had come across a saying attributed to a Chinese philosopher: “Govern a great country as you would cook a small fish.” Mr. Hannaford said he knew it would appeal to Reagan’s belief in applying only a light touch to free-market enterprise.

“I knew he would like it,” Mr. Hannaford said. “And sure enough, it was in the State of the Union speech.”

Indeed it was. The ancient Chinese philosopher was Lao-tzu (or Lao-tse, or Laozi). In The Libertarian Mind I write:

The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, who lived around the sixth century B.C. and is best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching. Lao-tzu advised, “Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony.” 

And in The Libertarian Reader I include selections from the Tao. Not chapter 60, which Reagan quoted, but other sections with similar ideas:

19
Exterminate the sage [the ruler] and discard the wisdom [of rule],
And the people will benefit a hundredfold.

32
Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony.

42
All things carry the yin and embrace the yang.
They achieve harmony through their interaction.

57
The more prohibitions there are,
The poorer the people will be.
The more laws are promulgated,
The more thieves and bandits there will be.
Therefore a sage has said:
So long as I “do nothing” the people will of themselves be
transformed.
So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go
straight.
So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves
become prosperous.

75
The people starve because those above them eat too much tax-grain.
That is the only reason why they starve. The people are difficult to
keep in order because those above them interfere. That is the only
reason why they are so difficult to keep in order.

Against Conscience Taxes

In July, Georgetown law professor Michael Seidman and I had parallel op-eds in the Washington Times regarding religious objections to providing services to same-sex weddings. This wasn’t a point-counterpoint–neither of us saw the other’s writing before publication–but the Federalist Society invited us to respond to each other on its new blog. Seidman declined, but here’s my response. 

Professor Seidman fundamentally misunderstands the paradigm here. When people object to Obamacare Robertscare mandates or to facilitating same-sex weddings, they aren’t objecting to society’s basic laws or impeding government. Instead, they’re demonstrating the inherent social clashes that the government itself creates when it expands beyond legitimate bounds.

In other words, Seidman is correct to note that society couldn’t function if people decided they didn’t have to obey criminal laws—whether against murder or illegal left turns—but it can function very well indeed without forcing people to buy pay a “tax” for not buying health insurance. Seidman is likewise absolutely right that the government couldn’t fund itself if people could withhold tax dollars to the extent they object to federal programs, but nobody is hurt if a gay couple has a choice of 99 instead of 100 wedding photographers.

Yet Seidman sees no difference between regulations that ensure public safety and those that ensure politically correct attitudes, between generally applicable laws and those that redistribute income. It seems that in Seidman’s world, people have no rights or liberties other than those which the government deigns grant them.

From that worldview, a statist noblesse oblige could deign allow small deviations to placate eccentric superstitions, indulgences purchased for a token dhimmi tax. What’s a little freedom of conscience between friends?

Big Problems with Anthony Atkinson’s “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”

“The godfather of inequality research,”  is how The Economist describes septuagenarian  British economist Anthony Atkinson. A frequent co-author with Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, Sir Atkinson has written a book about inequality which a  New York Times reviewer described as a “flurry of largely recycled policy proposals.”   Inequality: What can be done? is all about “unapologetic support for aggressive government intervention,” says The Economist, and “a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” 

There is no need to buy the book, because the following summary – “15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ – is more than enough.  Each Proposal is in the author’s own words, but followed by my own view of Problems with those plans.  [I skip Proposals 9-11, which are just inflated versions of policies similar to those in the U.S. – the earned income credit, estate & gift tax, and property tax.]

Republicans Looking for Libertarian Voters?

Recently I got an envelope at home that looked important. It had no return address, just a notice that said “DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT.” Trembling, I tore it open. The reply envelope inside also looked official, with “PROCESS IMMEDIATELY” emblazoned across the top. But since it was addressed to the Republican National Committee, I began to suspect that it wasn’t actually an OFFICIAL DOCUMENT. It did say that I had been specially selected “to represent voters in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District” and that I was receiving documents registered in my name, with tracking code J15PM110. The document must be returned by August, 17, 2015.

So in another words, just another dishonest communication from a political party. The dishonesty didn’t even wait for the letter, it started with the outer envelope.

But I wouldn’t take time to complain about mere political dishonesty. What I actually found interesting was the first question on my 2015 CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT CENSUS. It was a simple question, asking how I describe my political ideology:

1. Do you generally identify yourself as a:

  • Conservative Republican
  • Moderate Republican
  • Independent Voter who leans Republican
  • Liberal Republican
  • Tea Party Member
  • Libertarian
  • Other____________________

So it’s nice to see that at last political professionals are noticing the existence of libertarian voters. My colleague David Kirby and I have been writing about libertarian voters for about nine years now, starting with our paper “The Libertarian Vote.” In that paper we found that some 13 to 15 percent of voters give libertarian answers to three standard questions about political values. (And as Clive Crook wrote in the Atlantic, why do so FEW Americans give such “characteristically American answers” to the questions?) The Gallup Poll, with a slightly easier test, found that 24 percent of respondents could be characterized as libertarians. David Kirby found that some 34 percent of Republicans hold libertarian views, which might just be what the RNC wants to investigate.

However, our studies have also shown that more voters hold libertarian views than know or accept the word “libertarian.” In a followup study done by Zogby International we found that only 9 percent of the voters we identified as libertarian chose the “libertarian” label. (That is, only 9 percent of 15 percent, or about 1.5 percent of the electorate.) Fifty percent chose “conservative” and 31 percent “moderate.” So the RNC survey, even if the results are actually tallied, is likely to underestimate the number of Republicans who hold libertarian views. A better question, which they didn’t ask, might be 

“Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?”

In the Zogby survey 59 percent of respondents answered “yes” to that question. When we made the question a little more provocative, adding the word “libertarian”–

“Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” 

–44 percent of respondents still said “yes.” Now that would be a fun question for the RNC to ask next time! Or indeed the DNC.

#LvCdebate — Is Libertarianism or Conservatism the Superior Political Philosophy?

Libertarians are frequently confused with conservatives in mainstream discourse, and  proponents of “fusionism” see libertarians and conservatives as natural political allies. But, are the two philosophies really as similar as many seem to believe?

For the last several years, the Cato Institute intern coordinators have extended an invitation to the Heritage Foundation to pick among their best and brightest interns to join two of Cato’s in an annual debate on the virtues of libertarianism versus conservatism, and the differences between the two ideologies.

It should be noted that the interns who debate do so in their private capacities and don’t necessarily represent the views of either organization, but the competition to be chosen is nonetheless fierce one, with Cato interns, at least, going through multiple levels of qualification to be picked. The resulting debate is an engaging and fun conversation about the meaning of individual liberty, limited government, free market, and policy that has quickly become a popular social event of the D.C. summer season.

Results from the Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post-Debate Survey

The Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation recently co-hosted a debate in which interns from both organizations debated whether conservatism or libertarianism is the better philosophy. At the conclusion of the debate, the Cato Institute conducted a survey of debate attendees finding important similarities and striking differences between millennial conservative and libertarian attendees.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

The survey finds that libertarian and conservative millennial attendees were similar in skepticism of government economic intervention and regulation but were dramatically different in their stances toward immigration, LGBT inclusion, national security, privacy, foreign policy and perceptions of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

While the survey is not a representative sample, this survey offers a snapshot of engaged conservative and libertarian millennial “elites” who have higher levels of education and political information, and who chose to come to this event. To date, little information exists on young conservative and libertarian elites. Since these attendees are politically engaged millennials, their responses may provide some indication of the direction they may take both movements in the future.

Eighty-percent of millennial respondents self-identified as either conservative (41%) or libertarian (39%): This post will focus on these conservative and libertarian millennial attendees.

Chinese Repression Threatens Economic Dynamism and Political Stability

BEIJING—China’s capital looks like an American big city. Tall office buildings. Large shopping malls. Squat government offices. Horrid traffic jams.

The casual summer uniform is the same: shorts, athletic shoes, skirts, t-shirts, sandals, blouses. Even an occasional baseball cap.

It is a country which the Communist revolutionaries who ruled only four decades ago would not recognize. True believers still exist. One spoke to me reverently of Mao’s rise to power and service to the Chinese people. However, she is the exception, at least among China’s younger professionals.

Indeed, younger educated Chinese could not be further from Communist cadres once determined to create a revolution. The former are socially active, desire the newest technologies, and worry about going to good schools and getting good jobs. Cynicism about corrupt and unelected leaders is pervasive.

If there is one common belief, it is hostility toward government Internet controls. Students have complained to me in class about their inability to get to many websites and readily shared virtual private networks to circumvent state barriers.

But such opinions are not held only by the young. A high school student told me that his father urged him to study in America because of Beijing’s restrictions on freedom.

While Chinese from all walks of life are comfortable telling foreigners what they think, sharing those beliefs with other Chinese is problematic. The media, of course, is closely controlled. Internet sites are blocked, deleted, and revamped. Unofficial intimidation, legal restrictions, and even prison time await those who criticize Communist officialdom on social media and blogs.

But increasingly globalized Chinese are aware of their online disadvantage compared to their peers in the West. Google, YouTube, and Twitter are verboten. Today Bloomberg and the New York Times are beyond reach.

Last week as BBC television began to detail official abuses my TV went black. A couple minutes later BBC was back, after the China report had finished.

While internet and media restrictions have not prevented rapid economic growth, barring the PRC’s best and brightest to a world of information is likely to dampen innovation and entrepreneurship. Moreover, those denied their full freedoms are more likely to leave home. Many of China’s wealthiest citizens have been departing an authoritarian system unbounded by the rule of law.

Repression also stultifies China’s political evolution to a more mature and stable political order. Democracy provides an important safety valve for popular dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party’s control may not be as firm as often presumed. The oppressive establishment which most Chinese have faced for most of their lives is Communist.

Indeed, for many if not most party members, Communism is a means of personal advancement, even enrichment. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is popular, but is widely seen as politically motivated.

Moreover, Xi has abrogated the well-understood “deal” of the last four decades, that rulers can retire and be immune from future prosecution. Will incumbents so readily yield power in the future?

Perhaps even more threatening for the CCP is the potential for an economic slowdown and consequent political unrest. Already protests are common against local governments, which tend to be ostentatiously rapacious. What if that antagonism shifts against the center?

A poorer PRC means a poorer world: China is a major supplier and increasingly important source of global demand. A politically unstable Beijing would have unpredictable effects on its neighbors.

As I wrote for Forbes online: “Since Mao’s death in 1976, the PRC has changed dramatically—and dramatically for the better. But this second revolution has stalled. Economic liberalization remains incomplete. Political reform never started. Individual liberty has regressed.”

The Chinese people deserve to be free. The Chinese nation would benefit from their freedom. The rest of the world would gain from a freer Chinese nation. Everyone desiring a peaceful and prosperous 21st century should hope for the successful conclusion of China’s second revolution.