Topic: Political Philosophy

What the Washington Post Gets Wrong about Free Markets

This morning, the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled, “How free markets make us fatter, poorer and less happy.” Actually, the data suggest the exact opposite: free markets make us healthier, richer and happier. 

Free markets make us healthier 

First, the authors argue that free markets result in an abundance of temptations, such as candy and fattening food, and that encourages obesity. Obesity is a problem, but let’s put matters in proper perspective. The best proximate measure of the health of a nation is life expectancy. That is increasing. In fact, Americans have never lived longer. 

Moreover, a ban on fatty foods raises questions about personal freedom and responsibility. We allow people to buy alcohol, but discourage them from drinking and driving. Why not allow for sale of fatty foodstuffs, while discouraging gluttony through, for example, increased medical insurance premiums?   

The free market has been amazingly successful in increasing food production across the globe. In 1962, people in 51 countries consumed fewer than 2,000 calories per person per day. By 2011 that number fell to one (Zambia). All the while, life expectancy around the world has increased. 

Free markets make us richer

How Bernie Sanders Is Like Ron Paul

How Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are alike:

    1. Both ran for president in their 70s, without any encouragement from pundits, politicians, or political operatives.
    2. Both were far more interested in talking about ideas and policies than in criticizing their opponents. (Though I don’t recall Paul taking valuable debate time to defend his chief opponent on her most vulnerable point. Sanders not only drew applause for saying there was no point in talking about Hillary Clinton’s private email server, he raised more than a million dollars during the debate by sending out an email with video of his grant of absolution.)
    3. Both Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders exploded on the internet during an early debate. Google searches for Ron Paul shot up when he and Rudy Giuliani had a heated confrontation over the causes of the 9/11 attacks in the May 15, 2007, Republican debate. Sanders gained three times as many Twitter followers as Clinton during last night’s debate.
    4. Each was the most noninterventionist and least prohibitionist candidate on their respective stages – though that’s a low bar. Sanders sounded pretty noninterventionist, but then continued: “When our country is threatened, or when our allies are threatened, I believe that we need coalitions to come together to address the major crises of this country. I do not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action.” The United States has alliances across the world, so that’s a fairly open-ended commitment. And imprudent intervention is not made much more prudent by having a coalition.

How Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are different:

    1. Capitalism vs. socialism.

Whole Milk and Humility

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Science hasn’t yet advanced as far as Woody Allen imagined in the movie Sleeper. But the Washington Post does report on its front page today, as the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on the government’s official Dietary Guidelines, that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error. 

In fact, research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

By warning people against full-fat dairy foods, the U.S. is “losing a huge opportunity for the prevention of disease,” said Marcia Otto, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas, and the lead author of large studies published in 2012 and 2013, which were funded by government and academic institutions, not the industry. “What we have learned over the last decade is that certain foods that are high in fat seem to be beneficial.”

The Post’s Peter Whoriskey notes that some scientists objected early on that a thin body of research was being turned into dogma:

“The vibrant certainty of scientists claiming to be authorities on these matters is disturbing,” George V. Mann, a biochemist at Vanderbilt’s med school wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine [in 1977].

Ambitious scientists and food companies, he said, had “transformed [a] fragile hypothesis into treatment dogma.”

And not just dogma but also government pressure, official Dietary Guidelines, food labeling regulations, government support for particular lines of research, bans on whole milk in school lunches, taxes and regulations to crack down on saturated fats and then on trans fats and salt. Earlier today Walter Olson noted numerous past examples of bad government advice on nutrition.

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong.

This last point reflects the humility that is an essential part of the libertarian worldview. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind:

Libertarians are sometimes criticized for being too “extreme,” for having a “dogmatic” view of the role of government. In fact, their firm commitment to the full protection of individual rights and a strictly limited government reflects their fundamental humility. One reason to oppose the establishment of religion or any other morality is that we recognize the very real possibility that our own views may be wrong. Libertarians support a free market and widely dispersed property ownership because they know that the odds of a monopolist finding a great new advance for civilization are slim. Hayek stressed the crucial significance of human ignorance throughout his work. In The Constitution of Liberty, he wrote, “The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends…. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable.” The nineteenth-century American libertarian Lillian Harman, rejecting state control of marriage and family, wrote in Liberty in 1895, “If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?” Ignorance, humility, toleration—not exactly a ringing battle cry, but an important argument for limiting the role of coercion in society.

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.

Tired of Poverty? Expand Capitalism

Is capitalism a coercive system that creates poverty, as a recent article in the Washington Post argued, or is it a system of voluntary exchange that has led to the greatest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen?

According to the article, “capitalism is a coercive economic system that creates persistent patterns of economic deprivation,” and should be altered through the introduction of a universal basic income. While a guaranteed income is an interesting policy proposal with pros and cons, the article’s claims that capitalism is coercive and creates economic deprivation are both unfounded.

First, let us consider whether capitalism is “coercive.” The author writes,

The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that [they] have some way to support themselves whether they work or not.

Of course, people already possess the genuine ability to say no to their employers. In the United States alone, around 2 million people voluntarily leave their jobs every month—and that’s despite a lackluster economy. Employees in a capitalist system choose to engage in a relationship of mutually beneficial exchange. Employers recognize this and companies compete to become more attractive as workplaces. According to Gallup, the majority of Americans are satisfied with most aspects of their workplace—particularly with their job security, the flexibility of their schedules, and with their immediate supervisors.

Second, let us examine the article’s claim that capitalism creates economic deprivation. According to the author, capitalism harms both workers and those who cannot work. If that is so, can the author, or anyone else for that matter, point to a time in history when the vulnerable were better off? In many ways, today’s poor live better than the kings of yesteryear.

Over the last few decades, infant and child mortality have been drastically reduced, lifespans are at an all-time high, fewer people are undernourished, educational attainment is growing, gender inequality is decreasing, and access to technology is expanding.

Free enterprise and innovation have done more to uplift humanity from a state of universal poverty than any international aid program or welfare scheme. Capitalism, far from being a cause of poverty, is the reason that there is enough wealth today to even contemplate a proposal like a universal basic income.

The Roberts Court at Ten

Ten years ago today, Judge John Roberts took the oath of office to become the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. Although we speak of “the Roberts Court”—its 10th term now behind it, its 5th under its current composition—it’s somewhat misleading to do so since it seems to imply that the chief justice has more power than in fact he has. To be sure, he leads the Court in a number of administrative respects, including the not inconsiderable power of assigning opinion writing when he’s in the majority in a given case. But at the end of the day, his vote counts for no more than that of any other justice.

Nevertheless, that’s the custom, so with those milestones before us, it’s worth asking how the Roberts Court is doing from a classical liberal perspective—liberty through limited constitutional government—the perspective we at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies have advanced since our inception over a quarter of a century ago. Given Roberts’ 2012 and 2015 opinions upholding Obamacare and his ringing dissent last June in the same-sex marriage case, one is tempted to answer “not well.” Those opinions speak volumes, about which I’ll say a bit more shortly. But on balance, it’s been a fairly good record. There are exceptions, for sure, and many cases are decided on technical grounds having little to do with substantive issues. But the Roberts Court has generally been supportive, for example, of property rights, religious liberty, free speechespecially political speech in the campaign finance contextand the Second Amendment, and it has mostly stood against affirmative action, executive branch overreach, and a number of other governmental intrusions.

Liberty Usually Violated before the “Ban”

It is Banned Books Week, designated by the American Library Association and others as the time for “celebrating the freedom to read.” Of course, having the freedom to read whatever one wants is essential to a free society. But regular abuse of the term “banning,” and the violations of freedom that often occur before any so-called banning is attempted, are just as crucial to recognize if we really care about liberty.

Unfortunately, just about any time a parent or taxpaying citizen challenges the presence of a book in a public library or school, deafening alarm bells are rung that there is an attempted banning underway. But, as this Slate article nicely explains, there is very little actual “banning” being attempted, if by banning we mean “officially or legally prohibiting” someone from accessing a book. Just because you may not be able to get a book at a library does not mean you cannot legally obtain it at all. For the most part, it just means you have to hop onto Amazon and buy the book yourself. Which takes us to the violation that occurs before most “banning” is even tried.

As I explained a few years back, when a public library or school purchases a book with taxpayer dollars, it compels taxpayers to support someone else’s speech – a violation of liberty. This is even more the case if the library decides that it will purchase some books and not others, which it must do unless it has, essentially, infinite funds. Then a government entity not only compels support of speech, but chooses to elevate some speech above others.

Capitalism and Morality: Walter Williams vs. Pope Francis

The biggest mistake of well-meaning leftists is that they place too much value on good intentions and don’t seem to care nearly as much about good results.

Pope Francis is an example of this unfortunate tendency. His concern for the poor presumably is genuine, but he puts ideology above evidence when he argues against capitalism and in favor of coercive government.

Here are some passages from a CNN report on the Pope’s bias.

Pope Francis makes his first official visit to the United States this week. There’s a lot of angst about what he might say, especially when he addresses Congress Thursday morning. …He’ll probably discuss American capitalism’s flaws, a theme he has hit on since the 1990s. Pope Francis wrote a book in 1998 with an entire chapter focused on “the limits of capitalism.” …Francis argued that…capitalism lacks morals and promotes selfish behavior. …He has been especially critical of how capitalism has increased inequality… He’s tweeted: “inequality is the root of all evil.” …he’s a major critic of greed and excessive wealth. …”Capitalism has been the cause of many sufferings…”

Wow, I almost don’t know how to respond. So many bad ideas crammed in so few words.