Bee Naturals

A home schooler, 13-year-old Evan O’Dorney, is once again the winner of the Scripps National [sic] Spelling Bee. In fact, home schoolers took fully one third of the top 15 spots in the Bee, utterly out of proportion with their share (about 1/40th) of the U.S. student population. Another two spots were taken by private school students, and three were taken by Canadian public school students (hence the “sic,” above — we’ve yet to anschluss the Canucks so far as I can recall).

That left five spots for U.S. public school students — the same number taken by home schoolers whom they outnumber by 50 million or so kids. And it isn’t as though the homeschoolers are fabulously wealthy and able to hire special tutors. The winner’s father is a subway train operator and his mother oversees his education.

Homeschoolers excel in such competitions because they enjoy more educational freedom than any other category of learner. They can pursue their interests and competitive drives (spelling isn’t even O’Dorney’s favorite subject) without being constrained by the pace of a classroom targeted at the “average” student — a pace that must be, by definition, too fast or too slow for the majority.

Private school students — whose showing was also disproportionately good for their share of the population — also have more educational freedom than those in public schools because they and their parents have chosen their schools from a minimally regulated, though currently small, private sector.

Public school students have the least educational freedom because public schools are explicitly or implicitly constrained to offer a uniform education to their charges. Even when parents “choose” a public school by choosing the neighborhood in which they live, their educational “choices” are artificially homogenized.

Imagine what heights America could achieve if every family had the freedom to choose from among homeschooling, public schooling, independent schooling, or some combination of the three, without facing a financial penalty for doing so. It would be an easy thing to accomplish through a program of personal use and scholarship donation tax credits.

Insight and Insult from National Journal

This week’s National Journal has a story (not available online) that is at once insightful and insulting. In “The Coming Storm,” Shane Harris reviews the difficulties that are anctipated when the Department of Homeland Security transitions to new leadership under a new administration. There are lots of “politicals” at DHS and not a very deep bench of talent.

Here’s the insightful: “Al Qaeda has launched attacks on the West during moments of governmental weakness: at elections and during transitions to new administrations.

The evidence for this is pretty good (if not rock solid), and it jibes with the strategy of terrorism, which is to goad a stronger opponent into self-injurious missteps. Attacking at a time of vulnerability for the political administration is more likely to induce overreaction and error.

Here’s the insulting: “A mass exodus of Homeland Security officials in late 2008 and early 2009 could leave the country vulnerable.”

This must play like the sweetest lullaby to bureaucrats in Washington — “you’re important; you’re really, really important” — but it is a bald insult to the ordinary citizens, police, firefighters, and investigators who would actually detect and prevent any attack or suffer its brunt and deal with the consequences.

The bureaucrats in Washington have very, very little to do with actual protection of the country from terrorist attack or with response to it. They are the mouthpieces who will rush to the cameras and microphones to foment hysteria. They are the FEMA directors who will bungle the response and the officials who will actively undermine restoration of services. They are not our protection, and their departure does not make us vulnerable.

In fact, their presence adds to our vulnerability. The terrorism strategy succeeds by knocking the political regime off balance. Having a large, prominent, federal protective agency gives terrorists a ripe target. If there were no prominent federal apparatus attached closely to the president — no homeland security secretary to embarass, challenge, and frighten — the strategy of terrorism would be less attractive and harder to execute.

George Will and the Ideological Switcheroo

George Will has a thoughtful column titled (in the Washington Post, at least) “The Case for Conservatism.” You might say that it demonstrates that George Will has accepted modernity, because his definitions of liberalism and conservatism are thoroughly modern, not historical. Consider:

Today conservatives tend to favor freedom…. Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.

Traditionally, of course, it was liberals who favored freedom and minimal government. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as a ”political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government.” Wikipedia is similar: “Liberalism refers to a broad array of related doctrines, ideologies, philosophical views, and political traditions which advocate individual liberty…. Broadly speaking, liberalism emphasizes individual rights.”

Conservatism, on the other hand, according to Britannica, is a “political philosophy that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” In many societies, of course, freedom is not a traditional practice. George Will may be talking strictly about American conservatism, in which case it is plausible to say that a conservative should want to preserve the traditional American institutions and practice of liberty and limited government. I have often wondered, what does it mean to be a conservative in a nation founded in libertarian revolution? If it means preserving the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then a conservative is a libertarian — or what used to be called a liberal.

But what if one wants to conserve something else? Who’s to say that the principles of 1776 are the right thing to conserve? What if you wanted to conserve Southern plantation society? Or the rights and privileges of the British monarchy? Or the institutions of the Dark Ages? Or the traditional Indian practice of suttee, in which widows are expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre?

That is why Hayek said that he was not a conservative — because conservatism is essentially a philosophy of “opposition to drastic change,” but without any fundamental principles of its own other than serving as a brake on change.

But that’s not the conservatism that Will describes. In his view, conservatism is about freedom and a sober recognition of the limits of power. “Liberalism’s core conviction [is] that government’s duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Conservatism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.”

If that’s the case, then there’s been almost a complete switch of the philosophies of liberalism and conservatism. Indeed, it’s intriguing to switch the words in Will’s article. Try the quotation above with the words reversed: “Conservatism’s core conviction [is] that government’s duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Liberalism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.” It still works, right? That’s the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and F. A. Hayek. And if it’s not the conservatism of Maistre or Shelley — who wanted government to resist change, not drive it — it might be the conservatism of those in contemporary society who want government to actively instill virtue in the citizens.

One might alternatively try substituting “liberalism” for “conservatism” in Will’s essay, and “illiberalism” for “liberalism.” Then we might get, for instance, “liberals tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Illiberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome.” Or:

This reasoning is congruent with liberalism’s argument that excessively benevolent government is not a benefactor, and that capitalism does not merely make people better off, it makes them better. Illiberalism once argued that large corporate entities of industrial capitalism degraded individuals by breeding dependence, passivity and servility. Liberalism challenges illiberalism’s blindness about the comparable dangers from the biggest social entity, government.

Liberalism argues, as did the Founders, that self-interestedness is universal among individuals, but the dignity of individuals is bound up with the exercise of self-reliance and personal responsibility in pursuing one’s interests. Illiberalism argues that equal dependence on government minimizes social conflicts. Liberalism’s rejoinder is that the entitlement culture subverts social peace by the proliferation of rival dependencies.

Maybe I’m dreaming of a golden age of liberalism that no longer exists, an age when liberals stood for freedom and limited government, for, in the words of Wikipedia, “a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power (especially of government and religion), the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports free private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens are protected.” Maybe.

But then, maybe George Will is dreaming of a Platonic vision of conservatism, a conservatism committed to freedom and limited government, a conservatism that certainly isn’t classical conservatism and isn’t the conservatism of the contemporary conservative movement. But it was the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and of Ronald Reagan’s speeches, and often of William F. Buckley, Jr. And maybe, just maybe, if George Will and a few of his conservative soulmates prevail, the conservatism of the future. If I can dream of a liberalism that once again seeks to liberate the individual from the constraints of power, then Will can dream of a conservatism that actually favors freedom.

Also posted at the Britannica Blog.

The Authoritarian Giuliani

Surprising as it is to me, I’ve run into a number of libertarians and libertarian-leaning Republicans recently who think the tax-cutting, pro-choice Rudy Giuliani would make a good president. To those people I recommend my recent op-ed in the New York Daily News:

Throughout his career, Giuliani has displayed an authoritarian streak that would be all the more problematic in a man who would assume executive powers vastly expanded by President Bush.

As a U.S. attorney in the 1980s, Giuliani conducted what University of Chicago Law Prof. Daniel Fischel called a “reign of terror” against Wall Street. He pioneered the use of the midday, televised “perp walk” for white-collar defendants who posed no threat to the community….

As a presidential hopeful, Giuliani’s authoritarian streak is as strong as ever. He defends the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program. He endorses the President’s power to arrest American citizens, declare them enemy combatants and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. He thinks the President has “the inherent authority to support the troops” even if Congress were to cut off war funding, a claim of presidential authority so sweeping that even Bush and his supporters have not tried to make it.

Giuliani’s view of power would be dangerous at any time, but especially after two terms of relentless Bush efforts to weaken the constitutional checks and balances that safeguard our liberty.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater declared it “the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power.” George W. Bush has forgotten that; Rudy Giuliani rejects it.

More Irish Resistance to Corporate Tax Harmonization

Tax-news.com reports that the Irish Taxation Institute is urging united opposition to the European Commission scheme to create a harmonized corporate tax base.  

Some in the business community mistakenly think a harmonized corporate base would mean lower compliance costs because they could file one tax return for all EU nations, but this naive view fails to recognize that curtailing tax competition will make it easier for politicians to increase the overall tax burden:

The Irish Taxation Institute (ITI) has called for political, business and representative groups to unite against moves to harmonise European taxes. ITI made the call on a day when the German Presidency of the EU hosted a meeting in Berlin on the subject of the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB.

Commenting on the issue, Mark Redmond, CEO of the ITI said moves towards a common means of paying corporate taxes in the EU is bad for Ireland and bad for Europe. “The more you harmonise taxes, the more tax rates will rise, the more compliance costs will rise and the more unemployment will rise. The proposals put forward to date remain vague. They fail to come clean on the burden they will bring on both domestic and international businesses and they fail to address the widely held belief that it will mean higher corporate tax rates by the backdoor,” he warned.

High Tax Rates Contributing to German ‘Brain Drain’

The UK-based Independent reports that German emigration levels have reached record levels, in large part because the highly skilled are escaping the country’s onerous tax burden. Switzerland is the top destination, especially since a move across the border can yield a 40 percent reduction in the tax burden:

For a nation that invented the term “guest worker” for its immigrant labourers, Germany is facing the sobering fact that record numbers of its own often highly-qualified citizens are fleeing the country to work abroad in the biggest mass exodus for 60 years. Figures released by Germany’s Federal Statistics Office showed that the number of Germans emigrating rose to 155,290 last year — the highest number since the country’s reunification in 1990 — which equalled levels last experienced in the 1940s during the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War.

…Leading economists and employers say the trend is alarming. They note that many among Germany’s new breed of home-grown “guest workers” are highly-educated management consultants, doctors, dentists, scientists and lawyers. …Fed up with comparatively poor job prospects at home — where unemployment is as high as 17 per cent in some regions — as well as high taxes and bureaucracy, thousands of Germans have upped sticks for Austria and Switzerland, or emigrated to the United States. …More than 18,000 Germans moved to Switzerland last year. The US was the second most popular destination with 13,245, followed by Austria with 9,309. Switzerland already has a resident German population of 170,000.

…Claus Boche, a 32-year-old executive, left the west German city of Paderborn two-and-a-half years ago to take up a job with a Swiss management consulting firm. He now lives in Zurich. “Nearly everything is less bureaucratic and more go ahead than in Germany,” he said. “I also pay about 40 per cent less tax. I have no plans to go back.”

…Thomas Bauer, a labour economist from Essen, was scathing about Germany’s employment conditions. “Germany is certainly not attractive when compared to other countries in Europe,” he said. “The taxes are too high, the wages are too low and feelings of jealousy towards high-income earners is widespread. This is a special deterrent to the highly qualified.”

Is Europe Dying?

A Wall Street Journal review of “The Last Days of Europe” warns that the continent’s economic rebound (2.5 percent growth, tepid by American standards) is hardly proof that Europe’s troubles are going away.

The author is worried about Muslim immigration and integration, but the book also focuses on the punitive fiscal system that discourages productive behavior and encourages sloth:

Is it possible, then, that the writers who have spent the past few years predicting Europe’s collapse could be wrong? The short answer is: no. Even a corpse has been known to twitch once or twice before the rigor mortis sets in. The longer answer is provided by Walter Laqueur in “The Last Days of Europe,” one of the more persuasive in a long line of volumes by authors on both sides of the Atlantic chronicling Europe’s decline and foretelling its collapse.

…In the economic field, Europe is celebrating a growth rate of 2.5% annually; in the U.S. a similar pace is regarded as a crisis. Meanwhile unemployment remains brutally high and productivity stagnant. Mr. Laqueur notes that Europeans sometimes embrace their economic sluggishness as part of their “soft power” appeal: all those 35-hour weeks, long vacations and generous social benefits. But the long-term cost of their welfare states — and their confiscatory tax rates — may eventually make such luxuries unaffordable.

…[A]s Mr. Laqueur observes, museums are filled with the remnants of vanished civilizations. Abroad, the U.S. has long surpassed Europe in power, influence and economic dynamism; Asia may do so before long. At home, a profound demoralization has set in, induced in part by the continent’s ruinous past century.