Federal Judge Orders Forest Service to Spend Millions on Nothing

Back in the 1980s, the Forest Service spent well over a billion dollars writing forest plans for each of the 100 or so national forests. Naturally, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took many of these plans to court. After winning many of those challenges, they were stunned when the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the plans made no decisions. With no decisions, they did not constitute an “action,” so the court said no one had the standing to appeal them.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Congress that the plans it had required in 1976 did nothing but spend money, so Congress still requires the agency to revise the plans every ten to fifteen years. But last year, the Bush Administration decided to dispense with about half the paperwork involved in such revisions by not requiring the forests to write separate environmental impact statements for each plan.

Though the plans do nothing, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took this decision to court. Last week, a federal judge in California ruled that, even though the plans themselves were not an “action,” the rules for how the plans were written are an action. So the judge tossed the rules on the ground that the Forest Service had not written an environmental impact statement for them.

So we can expect the Forest Service to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on paper plans that make no decisions and take no actions. Although I consider myself more of an environmentalist than a “timber beast,” I am inclined to agree with a representative of the timber industry who says this is “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.”

Full disclosure: In the 1980s and 1990s, I helped the Sierra Club and other environmental groups challenge forest plans – for what it is worth, the only challenges that were successful were ones that I was involved in. The main lesson I learned was that planning was a waste of time – the Forest Service changed tremendously between 1980 and 2000, but most of those changes were in spite of planning, not because of it.

Welfare for the Wealthy (an Ongoing Series)

An earlier post noted the hot political trend of convincing the upper middle class and the wealthy that they are financially vulnerable and in need of government assistance.

From loan subsidies for McMansions to blue-blood public works, from the doling out of market power and financial support to businessmen, to the offering of government money and tax breaks to (usually well-to-do) people who consume in a government-approved manner, politicians of Red stripes and Blue are all about helping the down-and-out in the (gated) community.

Such welfare-for-the-wealthy is the subtext of Sunday’s NYT story about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP was once intended to help children in families that are low-income but that do not qualify for Medicaid; now Congress is pushing for the state-operated/federally supported program to use its money to cover families up to four times the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning $82,600 a year) — that is, nearly all families in the second-highest income quintile, aka the upper middle class.

The NYT article includes a provocative figure about the effects of CHIP. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of families with income between the poverty level and 200% of the poverty level (i.e., the families whom the program was intended to help) with uninsured children began to decline, falling from 20% in 1998 to about 12% by 2002. However, the percentage of those lower-income families with privately insured children also began to fall over that time, from about 55% to about 45%. Since 2002, the percentage of uninsured children in that income range has roughly plateaued while the percentage of children with private insurance has continued to fall, to about 35 percent by 2006. This suggests (though, by itself, does not prove) that, by 2002, CHIP had gone about as far as it could go in reducing the percentage of uninsured children in poor families; since then, CHIP has simply displaced private insurance — a dubious policy goal.

Given that, it’s no wonder politicians want to mission-creep CHIP into wealthier income brackets. But one must wonder what the next welfare-for-the-wealthy program will be. Perhaps a chicken in every pot and a Lexus in every garage?

Hillary Didn’t Invent Community

In an article on a pleasant suburban community near Washington, Roxanne Sweeney says,  “It’s like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” praising the neighborhood’s friendliness and strong community ties. Later, reporter Rebecca Kahlenberg writes,

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn’t feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

“I can’t even count how many meals were brought to me,” Sweeney said. “I hate this line because I’m not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place.”

No, Ms. Sweeney! Friendship and community were not invented by Hillary Clinton. As the reference to “Leave It to Beaver” suggests, such ties go back long before Senator Clinton put her name on the book “It Takes a Village.” And long before “Leave It to Beaver.” Family, parish, and village are natural connections that predate not just Clinton but government and even formal social organization. They are the first building blocks of civil society. Clinton’s contribution to the topic is to confuse the natural ties of love and neighborliness with the artificial and imposed order of a vast and distant federal government.

As I wrote in a recent article and in Libertarianism: A Primer, Hillary calls for a national consensus and a common vision of what the government should do for families. But there can be no such common consensus in a pluralistic society. People don’t agree about all the values involved in rearing children, helping others, worshiping God, and forming associations. That’s why a successful society leaves such choices to individuals. Even in the little community of River Falls, it isn’t a formal community organization that came to Roxanne Sweeney’s aid. It was her friends.

At so many points in our lives, it takes friends, it takes a village, but it doesn’t take the federal government.

Irish Commissioner Fights EU Tax Harmonization

The former finance minister of Ireland, Charlie McCreevy, is now an EU commissioner. To his credit, he does not appear to have sipped the Kool-Aid in Brussels.

While most EU commissioners push for centralization and tax harmonization, McCreevy is making waves by denouncing the tax harmonization schemes of a fellow commissioner. The Sunday Business Post reports:

Ireland’s European Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, has launched a strong attack on the European Commission’s efforts to introduce a common business tax base across Europe. McCreevy has warned of the danger of a ‘‘bully-boys’ charter’’ which would favour large states over smaller members like Ireland.

…McCreevy said the tax harmonisation issue was being ‘‘aggressively pushed forward by some in Europe’’. …Referring repeatedly to ‘‘tax harmonisation forces’’, McCreevy warned that, were they successful, it would threaten inward investment to the EU, undermine competitiveness and discriminate against smaller EU states.

Despite outright opposition from a number of member states, including Ireland, the commission has continued to lay the groundwork for the adoption of a common tax base, which is feared by many to be a prelude to the harmonisation of tax rates across Europe. Such a move would inevitably lead to considerably higher tax rates in Ireland, which has among the lowest corporate and personal tax rates in Europe. Brussels sources say there is increasing resentment about the success of Ireland’s low-tax strategy — which is seen by many as ‘‘unfair tax competition’’.

Eight Seconds on Health Care

At Cato’s Health policy summit this weekend, Susan Chamberlin kept challenging us to come up with an 8-second sound bite on health care. I had nothing better to do on the plane ride home than to work on the puzzle. Here is what I would propose:

The prescription for better health care is more freedom to innovate, not remote-control surgery from Washington.

I was struck by the fact that some states have sensible policies in some areas. In fact, I can imagine other soundbites along the following lines:

Health insurance costs less in [pick a state, say Kansas or Oklahoma] than in Massachusetts, thanks to fewer dysfunctional regulations.

People who have diabetes or other expensive chronic conditions do not have to worry about health insurance if they live in [pick a state], thanks to the state’s high-risk pool.

Consumers today can find information to help them select the best health insurance plan, the best doctor, and the best treatment alternative, thanks to services available on the Internet.

If you want to see even faster progress on solving problems with our health care system, try more deregulation to encourage more innovation. Try encouraging more competition, not a government monopoly. We need responsible consumers making informed choices, not bureaucratic diktats.

NYT Clueless on Libertarianism

In Sunday’s New York Times, Times economics columnist David Leonhardt reviews Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

It might have made sense to get a libertarian, or someone familiar with the libertarian movement, or a political historian to write the review. Instead, the Times turned to someone who knows something about economics. Since the Times is the most important book review venue in the country, it’s worth taking a close look at Leonhardt’s complaints.

The first half of the review retells the story of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, which is fine. It’s an interesting story, though it’s probably the part of the book most likely to be already familiar to Times readers. After the Randian opening, Leonhardt writes:

The story of the American libertarian movement, like the story of its most famous salon, has been a combination of small numbers and big influence. It has never really emerged from the fringe, for the simple reason that most Americans want their government to educate the young and care for the old. But over the last few decades, they have also grown increasingly skeptical of collectivist policies that go beyond the basics. Libertarian thinkers — Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and others — have helped foment this skepticism and then enthusiastically pointed to the alternative.

Fair enough. Most movements are small, even those that have big effects. “Fringe” is a subjective issue; if a movement produces several Nobel laureates and a chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and plays a role in such policy reforms as the end of the draft, deregulation, sharply reduced taxes, and freer trade, is it still on the fringe?

Moving on:

Libertarianism has its roots in the writings of a pair of major 20th-century Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

That’s not exactly wrong, but it’s a little ahistorical. I’ll stand by what I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer: “Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration.” Key libertarian ideas emerged out of the struggles for religious freedom in the late Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period.

American libertarianism certainly finds its roots in an earlier period than Mises and Hayek: the American Revolution, abolitionism, the fight against imperialism, war, and prohibition. But Mises and Hayek are definitely important, especially as some earlier fights — against monarchy, established religion, mercantilism, and the pre-modern blind reliance on faith and tradition — were largely won.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan would win the presidency by campaigning on laissez-faire rhetoric. The day after his election, he was photographed on an airplane reading The Freeman, the flagship libertarian magazine, while Nancy Reagan rested her head on his shoulder.

I suspect most people familiar with the libertarian movement would identify Reason as its “flagship magazine,” but the Freeman was and is a fine publication, and probably better suited to Reagan’s interests.

Unfortunately, the movement’s steadily increased influence makes up only a small part of the story he tells. Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights.

Some libertarians have also made this complaint: too much reliance on minor figures. In fact, Brian Doherty organizes his book around five major figures: two Nobel laureates, the best-selling novelist of ideas of the 20th century, and two prolific scholars who never got the mainstream recognition they deserved but did influence thousands of libertarians. But look: this is a (freewheeling) history of the American libertarian movement. It’s not a strictly intellectual book, like George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. It’s not a book about trends in American politics. It’s a history of a movement, and so of course it discusses major figures and minor figures and even factional fights — that’s what makes up a movement. But “most”? I count more than 50 pages on Ayn Rand and more than 40 on Murray Rothbard; that seems like sufficient attention to major figures.

Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written “an insider’s history,” but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased.

Well, sloppy is a subjective term. But if this is Leonhardt’s only example, it’s not very convincing. On page 469, at the end of several pages on Friedman, Doherty writes, “Friedman died at age ninety-four in November 2006, just as this book went to press.” Get it? The book was written, edited, typeset, and on its way to the printer when the sad news of Friedman’s death was announced. The publisher managed to squeeze that fact into the book, and Leonhardt pounces. If that sentence had not been included, would Leonhardt have called the book sloppy for not being up-to-the-minute?

And almost everything about “Radicals for Capitalism” is too long: the terms (“Popperian falsificationist”), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages.

There are 127 Google hits for “Popperian falsificationist” and 1,300 for “Popperian falsification” (and at least 10 times that many if you take off the quotation marks), so it seems a reasonable term for a book about ideas. Some of the sentences may be too long, but I don’t think readers are going to be intimidated by them. As for the length of the book — gee, 619 pages (plus endnotes) for a comprehensive history of a political movement? For a short history of the libertarian movement, I heartily recommend chapter 2 of Libertarianism: A Primer — 32 pages on liberalism and libertarianism, only seven of which cover Brian’s topic. But if you want the comprehensive history, one that can serve as a reference on many different topics, from its five key figures to the history of various libertarian institutions, then this is the book. If Andrew Mellon is worth 800 pages in a new biography, I think the entire libertarian movement can warrant 700.

Leonhardt then devotes a long paragraph to criticizing Doherty for not adequately grappling with the mistakes and failings of various libertarian characters. Doherty does mention them — that’s how Leonhardt knows about them — but it’s true he doesn’t make them the central theme of his book.

He relates that Rand “notoriously testified” before the big-brotherly House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, when the committee was investigating Hollywood, where Rand had worked as a screenwriter, but the episode receives only two paragraphs.

This is rich, coming in a review in a newspaper that still to this day proudly touts the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1932 for Walter Duranty’s dispatches from Russia, reports that are now widely acknowledged to have minimized or covered up the horrors of Stalin’s government-created famine in Ukraine. I’m not sure Rand should have agreed to testify for HUAC. But she told them about the ideas that Communist screenwriters were putting into Hollywood movies, and she strongly opposed any effort at government censorship. So it’s hardly a terrible blot on her character, much less on an entire movement.

He skates over other questionable matters, too: for instance, that Friedman advised the murderous Pinochet regime in Chile;

Brian Doherty addressed Friedman’s Chilean connection at length here. Friedman had one meeting, of less than an hour, with Pinochet. He and other Chicago-school economists recommended sound economic policies for Chile, many of which were implemented, and ever since then Chile has had the strongest economy in Latin America. Is that a bad thing? Should Friedman have refused to give sound economic advice to the government of a poor country? Leonhardt doesn’t mention that Friedman spent far more time advising the murderous Communist regime in China. Friedman has noted that “I gave exactly the same lectures in China that I gave in Chile,” but nobody ever demonstrated against him for that. In fact, Friedman made three trips to China and talked to government officials each time. And perhaps he could take some credit for the rapid economic growth there as well.

…that Merwin Hart “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism”;

Despite 30 years in the libertarian movement, and despite having read this book, I had never heard of Merwin Hart. But I found him in the index (not always an easy thing; the best criticism of this book, which Leonhardt missed, is that the index is seriously inadequate; the Rand paragraphs on HUAC, for instance, are on page 188, not 150 as the index indicates). Turns out he ran something called the National Economic Council in the 1950s. And why is he in this book? Because he’s a major libertarian figure? Because he’s a minor libertarian figure? No. He gets one line in this book because movement founding father Leonard Read told people to stay away from Hart because, yes, he “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism” — in other words, he wasn’t one of us.

…and that Rothbard supported Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948 (because, Doherty casually observes, “he admired Thurmond’s states’ rights position”).

Okay, that’s embarrassing. And all those whose friends and forebears did not support the pro-Soviet Henry Wallace that year are entitled to criticize. But look: Rothbard was 22 at the time, raised in a family of actual sho-nuff Communists (except for his father), and still searching for a political home. Over the course of his life he managed to support Robert Taft, Adlai Stevenson, Norman Mailer, Nixon, various Libertarian Party candidates, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and George H. W. Bush. It’s hard out here for a libertarian trying to find a politician to support, and Rothbard grasped at more straws than other libertarians did.

The book fails to ask why people who claim to love freedom have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others.

If that’s the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it’s a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact — not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one — that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travelers. As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I’ll just say: George W. Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power. (Leonhardt, by the way, says that one sign of libertarianism’s waning influence is that Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous.” Talk about cluelessness.)

The libertarians at the Cato Institute, meanwhile, are struggling to persuade people that global warming — the archetypal free-market failure — is a hoax.

Nope. Climatologist Pat Michaels, a scholar at Cato and at the University of Virginia, says that the earth is warming, that human activity is partly responsible, but that the warming is almost certainly not going to be large or disastrous.

Leonhardt concludes that the “purists” who people Radicals for Capitalism might not be happy with “cap-and-trade” energy policies, “libertarian paternalism” in health care and retirement, and other hybrids of capitalism and collectivism, but “they helped to make it possible.” No, Mises and Rand and Read wouldn’t be happy with such outcomes, and neither would I. But those policies are a lot better than fascism or state socialism, which seemed to be the dominant ideas when Mises and Rand started writing. And they’re even better than ever-increasing FDR-style government intervention, which is what Read set out to fight.

Doherty makes the point that most of those people didn’t even dream of actually changing the world. They just thought it was important to speak truth to power, to stand up for freedom even in its darkest days, and to preserve the ancient ideas of liberty and individualism until the world was ready for them. They would never have anticipated the progress that Doherty describes. Even Leonhardt acknowledges that

libertarian arguments have enjoyed a nice run. Tax rates have been reduced; once-regulated industries have been opened to competition; any two consenting adults, including those of the same sex, can now marry in some places. One of today’s most fashionable political labels, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Doherty shrewdly notes, is “the basic libertarian mix.”

Doherty notes that despite the growth of some kinds of taxation, regulation, and government monitoring, “it’s not hard to see a world that is well worth celebrating — perhaps even reveling in — to the extent that it runs on approximately libertarian principles, with a general belief in property rights and the benefits of liberty. This is the ‘neoliberal’ world that has been seen by pundits and politicians all over the West as dominant since the death of communism. For most people living under it, it’s doing a pretty good job of delivering the ‘pursuit of happiness’ part of the Declaration of Independence, at least.”

No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of.

Heartland Insurgency

On Tuesday, it was Nebraska senators Chuck Hagel (R) and Ben Nelson (D) who provided the winning margin for a Senate bill to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Today it’s five-term congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.) deciding that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign.

Pretty soon, the neocons are going to be calling for an invasion of Nebraska.