Heck, Why Not Just Burn Him At The Stake?

Just when you thought partisan idiocy in Washington couldn’t get any worse, the House voted last night to cut off the salary of Andrew Biggs, the new Deputy Commissioner of Social Security. No one doubts Biggs’ qualifications for this position. But his sin is having supported proposals to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through individual accounts. Apparently holding a position that Democrats disagree with is now so abhorrent that it disqualifies you from public office.

Randy Barnett and the Iraq War

I’m a great admirer of Randy Barnett’s work. I can think of few libertarians and few legal scholars from whom I’ve learned more. And I agree with Professor Barnett that foreign policy issues are harder to sort out from libertarian first principles than, say, the question of minimum wage laws. But his op-ed on “Libertarians and the Iraq War” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal raises many more questions than it answers. Among them:

Is libertarianism really a political philosophy that tells you what to think about mandatory recycling and restrictions on the interstate shipment of wine, but has virtually nothing of interest to say about when it might be morally permissible to use daisy cutters and thermobaric bombs?

If even the nightwatchman state is, as Barnett has argued, extraordinarily hard to justify, isn’t it harder still to justify a government with a half-a-trillion dollar defense budget, a government that has described its national security strategy as one designed to “make the world not just safer but better”?

Is “self-defense” such a blob of a concept that one can mold it to cover invading a country that had nothing to do with September 11th, no significant connection with Al Qaeda, and no apparent intention to attack us?

Is “electrifying” really the best adjective for the sensation one feels upon discovering that Rudy Giuliani is either (a) ignorant of the most basic historical facts about Al Qaeda, or (b) couldn’t care less so long as he gets appreciative hoots from the cheap seats?

Is there a hypothetical set of facts that would convince Randy Barnett that the Iraq War has turned out to be a very bad idea indeed for life, liberty, and property at home and abroad? If so, how would that set of facts differ from 3,600 American dead, thousands more horribly maimed, Iraqi civilian casualties at least in the tens of thousands, and two million refugees?

But since this subject has been done to death over the past several years, I’ll provide some links rather than take up more space. Here’s one on not getting into Iraq; here’s one on why we should get out; here’s one on a prior attempt by Barnett to justify interventionist foreign policy on libertarian grounds, and here are three on why Wilsonianism and libertarianism don’t mix.

Just one final question, though. Can we please declare a moratorium on the use of phrases like “rooting for success in Iraq” to distinguish libertarian hawks from doves? If, God forbid, single-payer health care ever comes to the United States, I’ll be “rooting” for the success of our new National Health Service, because I’m not the sort of person who wants to see people suffer and die just so I can enjoy a sense of intellectual vindication. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if I also start looking for a quick exit strategy.

Hagel on Iraq, Iran and U.S. Domestic Politics

I had the pleasure of introducing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at a Cato-sponsored event earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

The event was promoted as “America’s Next Steps in Iraq,” and the senator shared his insights from the very latest happenings in the Senate, including the pseudo all-night debate, and the failure to achieve cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment. Sen. Hagel also had some choice comments about the Bush White House’s bizarre attitudes with respect to Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy, and he admitted that he wasn’t comfortable with the foreign policy views of the leading GOP presidential candidates. He deftly parried a question pertaining to his own political plans, other than to say that he will make a decision about his future in the next few weeks.

I was most struck, however, by his comments regarding Iran. Hagel stressed the need for engagement with Iran, along the lines of what was put forward by the Iraq Study Group late last year, and generally consistent with what Cato scholars have argued (e.g. here and here).

In a general sense, he pointed out that the problems of the Middle East will not be resolved by pushing Iran to the sidelines. They are a major power in the region. We might wish it otherwise, but that is the reality. And while our interests often diverge, they have converged in the past (as in when Tehran assisted us in deposing their bitter enemy the Taliban in the fall of 2001) and they are likely to converge in the future. For example, one could certainly argue that they are the one country in the region that is at peace with the current composition of the Iraqi government. Diplomacy is about capitalizing on common interests; focusing on areas of potential cooperation while at the same time not losing sight of the important differences. Hagel noted that Ronald Reagan, after all, was not above negotiating with the leaders of the country he deemed “the evil empire.”

Hagel’s thoughtfulness, integrity and courage are needed in the Congress. They would be of equal or greater value on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

What’s The Big Idea?

Other than the History Channel and the Simpsons, I’m not much of a TV person. But there is one intelligent weeknight show in the general wasteland of network programming.

Donny Deutsch’s The Big Idea on CNBC is a celebration of entrepreneurship. His guests have included Bill Gates and other icons, but far more interesting are the small-time entrepreneurs you’ve never heard of. Last night one women struck it big with the invention of a mundane toilet paper product. 

Just about every entrepreneur tells a story of an initial idea, a struggle to find financing and distributors, and the overcoming of naysayer friends and established businesses. Many of the stories also reveal that economic growth has less to do with formal education than with a citizenry infused with a can-do spirit.  

Kudos to CNBC and Donny Deutsch, and thank god for American entrepreneurs.    

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Get Rid of the Surgeon General’s Office

The Surgeons General have been in the news recently, complaining that they are forced to follow the policies of the Presidents who give them their appointments (gee, what a radical notion). But the real question is why this national-nanny position still exists. As argued in a column for National Review Online, the office of Surgeon General should be retired:

When the position of surgeon general, then called supervising surgeon, was first created in 1781, the appointee actually had something tangible to do. … Since then, the duties of the surgeon general have been demoted so many times he’d barely be a buck private if his title kept up with the changes. In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson took away the responsibility of overseeing the PHS and made the position of surgeon general into one of a glorified adviser who is answerable to the assistant secretary to the secretary of Health and Human Services. … The position of surgeon general today has become mostly one of a bully pulpit to serve as a federally funded advocate for various health causes… Today, the office has a budget of $3 million and the surgeon general is paid close to $200,000 annually. However they have little or no authority to coordinate the federal government’s public health activities. This coordination is already being done by more than 50 different federal offices. …to save the taxpayers’ money, to eliminate yet another unneeded voice in the health-care cacophony, to free up a uniform for the local high school’s Pirates of Penzance performance and to save C-SPAN viewers from any more surgeon-general alumni reunion tours like last week’s hearings — eliminate the Office of Surgeon General today.

Taxpayers Lose Again

In Maryland, as in many other states, legislators have to wait a year before becoming lobbyists.  The idea is to put some distance between being a member of the legislature and turning around and immediately lobbying your colleagues. Maybe it helps to reduce the impression that some legislators are thinking about their next job as they make legislative decisions.

So how can Sen. P. J. Hogan go directly from the State Senate to a cushy job as the chief lobbyist for Maryland’s university system? Because “the one-year prohibition on legislators lobbying state officials does not apply to someone moving from one state post to another.”

So if you want to lobby for the private sector, for businesses or unions or environmentalists, you have to wait a year to alleviate any appearance of impropriety. But if you want to lobby on behalf of the government itself, you can use your contacts immediately, before they get cold and distant. Indeed, you’d have to wait a year to lobby on behalf of a taxpayers group, but you can start lobbying against the taxpayers the next day. Just another way that government stacks the deck against taxpayer interests.