More on Libertarians and Democrats

In a blog post yesterday, my colleague John Samples tried to pour cold water on my idea of libertarian outreach to the left. Specifically, he cites depressing polling data that show strong support among Democratic voters for increased government spending. Alas, the appetite for free ice cream from Washington isn’t restricted to Democrats, as I point out in an essay for this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. I’ll concede, though, that Democratic voters are especially unlikely to pressure their representatives to show spending restraint.

Does that mean libertarians have no business seeking common ground with liberals? Let me make just a couple of quick points.

First, polls aren’t everything. After all, as Cato’s Stephen Slivinski has written, real federal spending increased at an annual rate of only 1.5 percent under Bill Clinton, as compared to a 5.6 percent rate of growth during George W. Bush’s first term. So Democratic politicians can run and win on a record of fiscal prudence. Yes, it’s true that Clinton’s good spending record was due in significant part to the fact that he faced a GOP Congress for most of his time in office. But this just shows that people who care about controlling spending would do better to rely on divided government than on Republicans’ small-government rhetoric. And you can’t have divided government without electing some Democrats!

Second, spending isn’t everything. The cause of limited government has many other dimensions besides the degree of budget bloat. How, I wonder, do Democratic voters compare to Republicans in their attitudes on getting out of Iraq? Getting into Iran? Torture? Warrantless wiretapping? Immigration? The drug war? Whatever voters tell pollsters, it’s clear that Democratic politicians are more likely than their GOP counterparts to resist government overreaching in these vital areas.

The sad fact is that libertarians have few allies today in either political party. Why on earth then should we refuse to seek common ground with those Democrats who hold relatively pro-market attitudes?

Just like Ohio’s Children, Gov. Strickland Needs a Good Education

Ryan Boots over at Edspresso hits Ohio’s new Governor Ted Strickland  for claiming that vouchers are “inherently undemocratic.”  Strickland thinks that vouchers are “inherently undemocratic” because “they allow public dollars to be used in ways and in settings where the public has little or no oversight,” and “those who are paying those tax dollars have no ability to vote for a board of education or to make determinations regarding curriculum, or discipline or admission policies or a whole range of things.”

As Ryan points out, this just isn’t the case with the highly (over)regulated EdChoice program, which encumbers participating schools with an array of restrictions that ensure no real market in education services will arise to serve the needs of the neediest children.

Even if Strickland’s fantasy voucher program did exist, however, the current system of government schooling is less democratic and more prone to corruption.  The profligate spending, waste and outright fraud that characterize the government education system hardly suggest that it is subject to effective public oversight.

And for good reason … it is controlled by the education-industrial complex, aka “Big Ed,” which short-circuits all political attempts to direct it for the public good.  Big Ed controls board of education elections as well as “determinations regarding curriculum, or discipline or admission policies or a whole range of things.”  That’s why exasperated policy experts with no love of the free market are calling for parental choice in education and why parents are desperate to escape a system they pay for but can’t control.

But Strickland does hit on one good point, buried though it may be beneath a pile of misconceptions and delusions.  “Those who are paying those tax dollars” for education should be able to direct their money to the kind of education that they support.  Agreed.

Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for kids to learn about condoms in the 3rd grade or abstinence-only in the 12th grade. Forcing all parents to educate their children in the same way is a recipe for irresolvable value conflicts and civic strife.   Disbursing general revenues for education forces some people to pay for education with which they disagree.

Education tax credits allow every taxpayer to support the kind of education they want to and force no one to pay for education to which they object.  Tax credits create a public education system where schools are accountable to the parents who choose them and the people who pay for them … not through a corrupt political process beholden to Big Ed, but directly accountable to the people themselves.

That is true oversight. That is a democratic system of education.  If Strickland can’t support vouchers, he certainly has no reason to oppose education tax credits.  Other than fealty to Big Ed over our children.

REAL ID News and Views

An interesting report says that at least one member of the Carter-Baker Commission would not have signed on to its recommendation to use REAL ID as a voter ID card had she known more about it.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe editorializes against REAL ID, calling it “unrealistic.”

Greater safety is imperative. But given its flaws, the Real ID law should be scrapped. The country needs to invest more thought, time, debate, and money into how best to upgrade driver’s licenses.

Health Insurance Do-Nots

Kate Bundorf and Mark Pauly examine the issue of the affordability of health insurance.

health insurance is unaffordable for 10.5 percent of adults aged 25-64. For the whole sample, using the poverty line as a benchmark, 71 percent of the currently uninsured population could afford health insurance coverage. Increasing the definition of affordability to family income exceeding three times the poverty threshold, the proportion of “uninsured afforders” declines to 28 percent.

Bundorf and Pauly also present a number of estimates defining affordability thresholds according to the proportion of individuals with similar characteristics who purchase insurance. Using a definition of health insurance as affordable if the majority of people in similar circumstances purchase coverage, the authors find that health coverage was affordable to between 59 and 66 percent of the [un]insured, depending on the characteristics used to define individuals as similar. Using the threshold that 80 percent of similar households purchase insurance, they find that around 25 percent of the uninsured could afford coverage based on peer comparisons.

This is empirical support for the phenomenon that I once described as health insurance do-nots.

The State Department’s Misguided Money-Laundering Wish List

A couple of decades ago, there were no laws against money laundering. Instead, governments fought crime by…well…fighting crime. Then politicians came up with the idea of making it illegal to use the proceeds of crime. This was not necessarily a bad idea. After all, crime theoretically will be reduced by polices that either increase the expected punishment or lower the expected rewards. Unfortunately, anti-money laundering laws have been an expensive failure. They costs billions of dollars yet there is no peer-reviewed literature showing that they have any impact on crime. Heck, they don’t even stop crooks from laundering funds. Yet the myopic bureaucrats at the State Department publish an annual report hectoring other nations to make their anti-money laundering laws more intrusive and burdensome. Richard Rahn’s Washington Times op-ed reviews some of the sillier suggestions:

This month, the State Department has set a new record by managing to insult the citizens of 123 different lands at one time in the “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes.” The 450-page report discusses what other countries are doing to reduce money laundering and financial crimes, which is fine. But then the authors go on gratuitously lecturing each of the countries by name about how they could do things “better.” To understand the total hypocrisy of the State Department nags, it is important to remember that more money laundering goes on in the United States than anywhere else, and that the U.S. is the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs. The Report…is filled with endless demands that other countries do a better job enforcing their laws, pass more laws, sign more international treaties and engage in some practices that would be illegal and unconstitutional in the U.S. Many of the demands would not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test… Some examples: The Belgians “should strengthen the adherence to reporting requirements by some nonfinancial entities, such as lawyers and notaries,” so says State, while completely ignoring the importance of lawyer client confidentiality. …To the Germans they say, “Amend legislation to waive the asset-freezing restrictions in the EU Clearinghouse for financial crime and terrorism financing, so that the freezing process does not require a criminal investigation.” Perhaps, the folks at State Department forgot there are certain historical reasons why the Germans now insist on strong legal protections against a potentially abusive state. The Greeks (and others) are told, “Abolish company-issued bearer shares, so that all bearer shares are legally prohibited.” Maybe the State Department gurus were unaware that bearer shares are perfectly legal in some states in the U.S., such as Nevada, and can serve a sound economic and personal privacy purpose. The authors say the government of Dominica “should eliminate its program of economic citizenship.” But then again, maybe they were unaware that many, if not most, countries allow permanent residency and/or citizenship (including the U.S.) to noncitizens who invest a certain amount in their adopted homeland. …Singapore is told that it “should add tax and fiscal offenses to its schedule of serious offenses.” Perhaps again, it did not occur to the folks in State that the highly educated and prosperous citizens of Singapore are quite capable of figuring out for themselves which laws ought to be “serious offenses.”

Reefer Madness Again

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett writes in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about the latest court decision on medical marijuana. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the application of the Controlled Substances Act to personal medical use of marijuana did not exceed the federal government’s constitutional authority, Angel Raich went back to court to argue that the ban violated her fundamental right to preserve her life. Alas, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that claim, too.

But as Barnett notes, the court did seem unhappy with the decision it was forced to reach:

For now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental. Although that day has not yet dawned, considering that during the last 10 years 11 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, that day may be upon us sooner than expected. Until that day arrives, federal law does not recognize a fundamental right to use medical marijuana prescribed by a licensed physician to alleviate excruciating pain and human suffering.

Pity a panel of judges forced to tell that to a suffering plaintiff.

The Washington Post on the Iraq War, Four Years Later

As the Iraq war entered its fifth year, with no end in sight, the editors of the Washington Post offered a mea culpa, of sorts, in yesterday’s Outlook section. Where they admit fault with their analysis of the Iraq war, it is largely in the ”questions not asked” category. These unasked questions pertained to the likelihood that Saddam Hussein would develop “a dangerous arsenal.” They were too accepting of the conventional wisdom on a host of issues. “Clearly, ”they explain, “we were insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports.”

Their greatest error, however, was in underestimating the challenge of reconstructing Iraq.

The question that Gen. David H. Petraeus posed (as recounted in Rick Atkinson’s history, “In the Company of Soldiers”) as he led the troops of his 101st Airborne Division from Kuwait across the Iraq border, “Tell me how this ends?” – that question must be the first to be asked, not the last. The answer won’t always be knowable. But the discussion must never lose sight of the inevitable horrors of war. It must not be left to the generals in the field. And it must assume, based on experience from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, that a U.S. commitment, once embarked upon, will not soon be over.

We raised such issues in our prewar editorials but with insufficient force. In February 2003, for example, we wrote that “the president [must] finally address, squarely and in public, the question of how Iraq will be secured and governed after a war that removes Saddam Hussein, and what the U.S. commitment to that effort will be… . Who will rule Iraq, and how? Who will provide security? How long will U.S. troops remain? … Many of these questions appear not to have been answered even inside the administration… .” They were still unanswered when the war, which we nevertheless supported, began. That should never happen again. (Emphasis mine)

No, it should not. And I take the Post editors at their word that they will strive to prevent that from happening again. In practical terms, however, does this mean that the Post would withhold support for military action against, say, Iran, if these questions are not answered to their satisfaction? I’m not sure.

But I can’t help but feel that their failure in early 2003 to ask such questions about war with Iraq derived not so much from sloppy analysis and insufficient curiosity (though those conditions certainly existed), but rather out of an inchoate concern that honest answers to such questions would have eroded support for a war that the Post editors believed – then and somehow still – to have been not merely justified but necessary. 

My suspicions are largely confirmed by the lessons that they have drawn, so far, from the Iraq experience. These include a conviction that preventive war is still a legitimate counter-proliferation strategy. (Jeffrey Record convincingly argues otherwise here). They have learned that democracy promotion is a difficult business, but they contend that the public demands that it remain a core object of U.S. foreign policy. (The latest polling data, as reported by the Post’s own David Broder last week, refutes this claim.) The Post editors have learned that multilateralism is preferable to unilateralism (who disagrees?) but that “international law and multinational organizations” cannot “always be counted upon.” In which case, what? They don’t say. Instead they concede, “Unfortunately, none of this provides bright guidelines to make the next decisions easier…”

But there is and should be a bright guideline for future military interventions, and it is nicely encapsulated in the final line of Ted Carpenter’s latest Policy Analysis: “Launching an elective war in pursuit of a nationbuilding chimera was an act of folly. It is a folly [U.S. policymakers] should vow never to repeat in any other country.”

It is clear that millions of Americans who supported the war in March 2003 on the erroneous belief that the war would be cheap, easy, and decisive, have since changed their mind. Knowing what they do now, most Americans believe that the war was a tragic mistake, a bad idea at the outset, made worse by the many errors committed by the Bush administration along the way.

The editors of the Post, apparently, have not learned this central lesson. And they, therefore, can be expected to support more elective wars in the future.