Topic: Political Philosophy

Obama Administration Rips Off Middle Class and Threatens Elephants

As I’ve written before, the Obama administration plans to effectively ban the sale of all ivory in America, even if purchased or inherited legally years ago. If you can’t prove its age, you can be arrested and have your property confiscated—unless you are well-connected and exempted.

Elephants are being killed for their ivory. Activists unable to protect the animals now are targeting Americans who followed the law in buying and selling legal old ivory objects. 

But as I point out my latest piece in the American Spectator:

advocates of banning antique sales seem more interested in punishing people who bought and sold ivory legally because they bought and sold ivory, not because doing so would prevent poaching.  It is an exercise in moral vanity and political posturing, not practical conservation.

Some ban proponents complain of the difficulty of distinguishing between new and old ivory. Actually, European carving disappeared decades ago. Asian carving continues, but old and new differ in character, subject, wear, age, coloring, quality, and more. 

Nor do collectors of and dealers in antiques seek out poached ivory. Punishing people who followed the law and invested in legal objects might make a few extremists feel good, but won’t save a single elephant today.

Ivory entered America legally until 1989. Antiques with proper certification could be imported after that. But in mid-February the administration announced that if you had followed the law, it planned to render your collection or inventory essentially valueless.

The new guidance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that most every auctioneer, collector, and dealer—and anyone else who has purchased or received something made of ivory—better hire a lawyer before selling their ivory possessions. 

The prospective rules are biased against average folks. If you represent the non-profit cultural establishment, you’ll get around the rules.

Point one, no “commercial” imports even of antiques will be allowed. However, the rules apparently will exempt “museum and educational specimens.” According to the administration’s reasoning, non-profit institutions will have a unique right to continue driving elephants to extinction.

Point two, exports are banned, except antiques in what the government calls “exceptional circumstances.” But “certain noncommercial items” will be allowed, so people with friends in government likely will be able to hurdle any new burdens in a single bound. Everyone else better hire a lawyer or lobbyist.

Freedom on Film

It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.

As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):

Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)

War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.

Political Poster Week Continues: “I Need Smokes”

U.S. World War I Poster, "I Need Smokes"As I noted in my book The Rule of Lawyers, it’s not by happenstance that the sharpest increases in Americans’ smoking rates have come in wartime. Nicotine staves off the boredom, fear, and loneliness of life on the front lines, and the smoking habit encourages socialization among troops. Years later, the federal government was at pains to downplay its vigorous promotion of tobacco use as part of both the WWI and WWII war effort. (It had a sideline in promoting some other important forms of substance abuse as well, notably amphetamine-munching.)

This poster, of World War I vintage, would have made a good illustration for the article I wrote in Reason a while back on government contributions to product-related risk. For some other tobacco-related war poster themes, check the Hoover Institution political poster database

Political Poster Week Continues: “Come On, Dad!”

1929 British poster for Liberal Party

Yes, it’s political poster week at Cato at Liberty. (Yesterday’s “Inspectors All Round” poster for the Conservative Party is here). This poster also appeared during the 1929 British general election and although by that point the rapidly declining Liberal Party had, alas, abandoned its one-time allegiance to principles of economic non-intervention, it was still an important locus of support for some good causes such as free trade.

Tomorrow: be patriotic and supply all the tobacco you can.

Save Elephants by Selling Ivory

For many people free markets seem cold and calculating.  Maybe it’s the best way to sell, say, automobiles and soap.  But we shouldn’t like the process.  And we certainly shouldn’t base our behavior on markets when basic concepts of right and wrong are at stake.

Of course, markets are no substitute for understanding what the good life is all about.  However, markets offer a powerful tool to reinforce underlying moral values.

One of the great tragedies of the modern age is the slaughter of elephants.  Ivory long has been a widely desired decorative material.

Unfortunately, these days most new ivory comes from poachers.  The killing of elephants has sparked a new form of prohibition, with steadily tighter controls over ivory sales. 

As I note in my new Freeman article:

As a result, elephants have turned into modern day bison—simultaneously owned by no one and more valuable dead than alive.  The result has been devastating for elephant populations in many African states, with upwards of 40,000 elephants being killed annually.

In fact, about the only advocates of the giant creatures are Westerners who see the animals in zoos or on carefully controlled safaris.  In contrast, struggling developing nations must manage wildlife reserves and deter poachers while facing what they see as far more pressing human needs. 

Worse is the situation facing villagers and farmers.  Residents of the industrialized West wax eloquent when talking of faraway elephants, but to locals the creatures are giant rats, threatening and destructive. 

Thus, despite much effort, activists and governments have not been able to stop the massacre of elephants.  Yet faced with the failure of prohibition, the usual suspects only propose more of the same. 

They are pushing countries to destroy existing ivory stockpiles, acquired from elephants which died naturally or were culled, as well as seized from poachers.  Groups also are pressing to ban even the sale of antique ivory, as if outlawing ancient objects could bring back long-dead elephants.  Even more improbable have even been proposals that Western nations deploy military

Without a change of tactics, elephants could disappear from some African countries.  Yet some in the West favor morality lectures rather than practical innovations. 

Moral suasion always is worth a try.  But what happens after preaching fails?

Use markets to reinforce the moral message.  Observed the international conference covering endangered species (CITES):  “provided that their full value (i.e. both intrinsic and extrinsic) is fully realized by the landholders involved, not only will elephants be conserved but so will the accompanying range of biodiversity existing on such land.” 

It’s not a jump into the unknown.  Before 1989 Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe allowed legal sales.  The same countries generally enjoyed expanding elephant populations, in contrast to the shrinking herds evident elsewhere in Africa.

Even today, after closure of these ivory markets, some governments sell licenses to hunt elephants when the population exceeds the land’s capacity.  Where the money is shared locally, noted analyst Peter Fitzmaurice, “Damaged land and crop losses are not only being tolerated, but villages are doing their best to guard against poachers.”

More needs to be done.  Observed CITES:  “A legal trade in ivory, elephant hide and meat could change current disincentives to elephant conservation into incentives to landholders and countries to conserve them.” 

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants (speciesism lives!).  But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species, such as vicunas, tigers, and crocodiles.

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead.  Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive. 

If asked, elephants likely would prefer the second policy.  So should we.

Friedman and Hanke on Bitcoin

In 2008, Bitcoin was mysteriously introduced to the world in an obscure, technical paper written under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. By late 2013, the financial press was filled with reportage on Bitcoin and its dramatic price increase.

Well ahead of Satoshi Nakamoto, Nobelist Milton Friedman, champion of free market economics and noted expert on money and banking, anticipated the coming of digital currencies, and foresaw the potential impacts that they would have on finance and economics.

In a 1999 interview, Prof. Friedman concluded:

I think that the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A. The way I can take a $20 bill hand it over to you and then there’s no record of where it came from.

You may get that without knowing who I am. That kind of thing will develop on the Internet and that will make it even easier for people using the Internet. Of course, it has its negative side. It means the gangsters, the people who are engaged in illegal transactions, will also have an easier way to carry on their business.

Prof. Friedman’s anticipation of Bitcoin is truly remarkable. He even understood the concept well enough to anticipate something like the Silk Road scandal involving illegal Bitcoin transactions.

In April 2013, Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times reported on Bitcoin in an article titled “Digital Money is Gaining Champions in the Real World”. In his reportage, Popper asked me if I thought Bitcoin had the makings of a speculative mania like the 17th century Dutch tulip bulb frenzy. My response was clear and unambiguous: “To say highly speculative would be the understatement of the century.”

Subsequently, the price action in Bitcoin confirms my diagnosis (see the following chart). In January 2013, one could buy a Bitcoin for about $13. By late November, one Bitcoin would have set a buyer back over $1100. And what about Bitcoin’s price volatility? As shown in the chart, Bitcoin’s volatility is truly fantastic.

While the price currently fluctuates around $600, Bitcoin remains far from secure. Serious discrepancies in price exist even between exchanges. For example, the price of a Bitcoin on the Mt. Gox exchange has fallen by over 50% in the past week, while the price of the exact same Bitcoin on the BitStamp exchange has fallen by only 3% in the same time period.