Belated Thoughts on “Libertarian Democrats”

In early June, Markos Moulitsas roiled the political blogosphere with a provocative post prophesizing the rise of the libertarian Democrat. My Cato colleagues Gene Healy, Will Wilkinson, and Radley Balko offered replies on Cato@Liberty, and the DailyKos logged some 900 responses to the post. Clearly, Kos had struck a nerve.

After a month of ruminating and at the risk of being too late to the party, here are a few additional thoughts:

All good classical liberals would eagerly agree with Kos about the threat that “government and other individuals” pose to liberty. Good libertarians would be captivated by his paean to the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment (and — can we hope? — the Ninth and Tenth). Classical liberals would also join him in rebuking government’s impositions in “our bedrooms and churches” and its ongoing evolution into Big Brother. And good libertarians of all political stripes (not just Blue) would agree with him about the threat that corporations pose to individual liberty, including their pushing externalities onto others. After all, my job at Cato is to manage the institute’s 64-page quarterly criticism of rent-seeking weasels.

Up to this point, all good classical liberals, libertarians, free-market liberals, et al., would be cheering Moulitsas. If there were any hesitation, it would be over his determination to promote libertarian Democrats instead of any office-seeker who is libertarian. If a voter values individual liberty, wouldn’t that person support any candidate who shares that value, and not just candidates who have an “R” or “D” after their names? I assume Kos and all lovers of liberty — and, indeed, all politically thoughtful people — would not be so base as to view candidate party affiliation as either a necessary or sufficient condition for gaining their votes.

But, as Gene and Will both point out, further reading of Kos’s post suggests that his brand of libertarianism may be quite illiberal.

Moulitsas postulates several “rights” that he claims a “Democratic libertarian” would recognize and that government should secure:

  • The right to “roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want.”
  • The right to “make a living without being unduly exploited by employers.”
  • The right to “poverty prevention programs,” so that people will not be “constantly fear[ing] for their lives.”
  • The right to “social safety net programs” and health care, so people can be free of “fear for their health.”

To be sure, the freedom to travel, the freedom from employer exploitation, and the adequate provision of necessities like food, shelter, and health care (not to mention many non-necessities) are highly valued by libertarians and the rest of humankind.

But is government the right instrument with which to secure those things, and can it do so successfully? On both philosophical and empirical grounds, I believe (those are important words) that government routinely fails either the “right instrument” or “successful” test for Kos’s purported “libertarian” government duties that I list above. Concerning transportation, I can name dubious public transportation projects and successful, welfare-boosting private ones; I would also argue that much of transit is not just wasteful but also regressive and dangerous (look at the transit data). Concerning labor issues, I question whether government can successfully identify “undue exploitation” (apart from violation of contract) and whether all workers would accept that identification — what may be exploitation to one worker may just be a hard day’s work to another.

I could make similar criticisms about other government roles that Kos claims a libertarian government should fill. Moulitsas and others would likely disagree with my claims, on both philosophical and empirical grounds. And their arguments would likely have merit — as do mine. A truly impartial observer would probably conclude that both sides seem to have a point, and that neither side could be declared clearly right or clearly wrong.

And that is why real libertarianism is so valuable, and Kos’s brand (if I understand it correctly) is problematic. True libertarianism — and, I take it, the founding principle of the American experiment — holds that society should maximize individual liberty so that different people can choose for themselves what they believe is right. This freedom is granted out of respect for individuals’ right to self determination, recognition of the variation of individual preferences, and appreciation that many issues cannot be definitively decided by political process, even after considerable philosophic and empirical analysis.

If you believe a certain employer behavior is exploitative, join a union or contract with a labor provider (e.g., Kelly, Manpower) that shares your belief and that negotiates labor conditions with employers. If you believe Social Security is a bad deal and not sustainable, opt out and prepare for retirement on your own — if government would only let you.

Perhaps that latter example provides a compromise between Moulitsas libertarianism and the traditional variety: The Kos libertarians could create whatever government programs they believe are necessary to enhance liberty, but people would be free to opt out of those programs and their costs. Kos could have his strict OSHA regulations so long as I could sign a contract saying I give up those protections. He could even have single-payer health care, so long as doctors, patients, and other health care system participants could freely decide not to participate in or pay for the single-payer system.

So Kos, would that be acceptable? You can have your libertarianism, just so long as I have my liberty.

Remembering Japanese Internment

Over the 4th of July, I headed out West to a family reunion in a very remote part of the U.S.: Minidoka County, Idaho–an apocalyptically stark stretch of mile-high lava rock and sagebrush in the heart of the Snake River basin, unfolding like a moonscape from the base of the Albion mountain range at the Utah-Idaho border.

I’d grown up on my dad’s stories about his Idaho childhood. One story that intrigued was his very early memory of working my grandfather’s fields alongside Italian and German World War II POWs, who were held in a prisoner-of-war camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. POWs were used to remedy a shortage of farmhands in agricultural areas throughout the U.S.

Not long ago, I asked my dad if any World War II Japanese internment camps had operated in the Minidoka area. He wasn’t aware of any. Imagine my surprise then when I learned of this memorial service, held today, for the Minidoka internment camp–one of the larger Japanese internment camps operated during World War II.

Its no surprise my dad–otherwise an encyclopedia of information about southern Idaho–was caught short on this question. Virtually nothing of substance remains to memorialize the camp today, although a more substantial memorial is planned.

Minidoka residents–fond of calling their region the “Magic Valley“–shouldn’t get off so easily. Just as the government loaned Axis POWs to some local farmers, it loaned Japanese-Americans to others. Some 2,300 “Nisei” camp residents worked area sugar beet farms on “agricultural leave” from the Minidoka camp–hard, backbreaking work at a time when local farming was undertaken without modern tractors or modern irrigtation technology. To be sure, the camp residents weren’t technically forced to work, as this bit of outrageously upbeat 1943 government propaganda notes–but the Japanese internees had little other choice of employment.

This shameful episode–part of the darker history of communities throughout the West and a telling example of the worst that can happen when courts abdicate oversight of the political branches during wartime–deserves substantial local recognition in Minidoka and other host communities. For more about the location of internment camps, see here and here.

Technology Beats Law for Fixing ‘Technology’ Problems

In late 2004, when Congress passed the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act [.pdf], America breathed a sigh of relief knowing that taking naughty photos was now illegal “in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” That’s just about nowhere as far as thwarting video voyeurism goes, but the symbolism was just too good for Congress to pass up.

Cameras are shrinking in size while improving in quality, and human nature remains unchanged, so video voyeurism is a growing problem. It’s a “technology” problem in the sense that the technology enables carrying a natural human interest to unnatural extremes. Let’s talk about solutions.

Both law and morals are weak tools. You can make it illegal and you can shame the people you catch, but it’s not going to stop. After all, the behavior is carried on in secret already. Legal or illegal, and shameful as it is, video voyeurism is likely to increase.

That’s why I was so happy to read an article this week about a technology to thwart furtive picture-taking. A researcher at Georgia Tech is developing a system that can find and neutralize digital cameras. You see, most digital cameras emit unique visible or invisible beams of light that can be sensed to reveal their whereabouts. Once the sensor identifies a digital camera, it can shine an infrared laser at the camera, overexposing it and rendering it inoperable.

Many people are concerned with RFID and other radio devices. The cure is not to prescriptively regulate, but to empower people with awareness and control over the radio waves around them. I would like to see software radios — and perhaps someone is working on one somewhere — that monitor traffic across the spectrum and observe on our behalf what devices and communications are in our midst. These radios could then give special warnings when RFID readers, unknown cell phones, and other unusual spectrum users are present.

Empowering, pro-technology, non-regulatory.

The First Amendment’s prescription for curing bad speech is to encourage more speech as a counter. A similar principle should be used when technology creates problems: Use more technology to counter them.

Better than Investing

Former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham had a bribe menu for lobbyists who wanted government contracts. Amazingly, it wasn’t just an understanding between friends, or a general concept. He actually wrote it down on his congressional stationery. As Brian Ross reported for ABC News:

The card shows an escalating scale for bribes, starting at $140,000 and a luxury yacht for a $16 million Defense Department contract. Each additional $1 million in contract value required a $50,000 bribe.

The rate dropped to $25,000 per additional million once the contract went above $20 million.

I love the volume discount. And I especially love the fact that Cunningham didn’t think his customers could handle the math involved in “it’s $50,000 for each million.” Instead, he wrote down each increment with “50” next to it. (See the card here.)

Now a Washington Post story ties lobbying fees to specific earmarks. Lobbying fees and earmarks are legal, of course, so this is not an illegal bribe menu. But I was struck by the cost-benefit ratio:

For example, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, affiliated with the Florida University system, received an earmark valued at $2.3 million to conduct research for the Navy after paying Copeland Lowery $60,000 last year, according to House records and a spokeswoman for the institute.

The Rochester Institute of Technology received six earmarks valued at $8.9 million after paying Copeland Lowery $440,000 from 2002 to 2005.

The lobbying prices seem higher than Cunningham’s, but of course there was more overhead involved. And I’m no businessman, but I’m betting that it’s pretty hard to turn $440,000 into $8.9 million in manufacturing or other normal economic activity.

So you can see why, as long as Washington has far too much money to hand out, people will spend money to get a piece of it.

Parental Pawns and Window Dressing

There’s no bigger sham in public schooling than “parental involvement,” a concept that educrats trot out whenever they want to show that they aren’t scared of parents or when they’re trying to curry parental favor. Otherwise,  they avoid it like the plague.

Ordinarily, parental involvement translates into sheer window dressing; feel-good activities that let parents do fun things with their children, but that in no way interfere with a school’s daily operations.

An article in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader discusses just such fluff, profiling a Kentucky program in which teams of parents and teachers run art projects in local schools. Apparently, the initiative has hit its public relations mark:

“It’s a wonderful way to get parents and teachers working together,” one parent gushed. “I think any time parents and teachers are working together, it can only benefit children.”

A less common, but more devilish, type of “parental involvement” is when politicians seeking ever-more authority over schools use parents as pawns to get it. The struggle for power over schools in Los Angeles between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) provides perfect examples of such politicized parental involvement.

Yesterday, for instance, Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, announced the creation of a “parents union” that will lobby to give Villaraigosa more power over the district. Of course, the union will only be composed of activists who support Villaraigosa, not parents in general. But, then again, Barr is only responding to the politicized use of parents by the opposition:

Barr said he became convinced of the need to organize parents after traveling to Sacramento last month to testify in favor of the Los Angeles Unified School District reform bill. He was baffled, he said, when he saw 50 parents who had been bused to the state capital by the LAUSD claiming to represent the views of all district parents.

In the end, the only way for all parents to have meaningful involvement in their children’s education is through school choice. Only when they can remove their kids from bad schools, and put them in good ones, will parents be able to force educators to respond to their needs. Of course, that’s one kind of parental involvement educrats will never support.

Rent-Seeking 101

Mike Munger, chair of Duke University’s political science department and a friend of Cato, has a great essay on the waste of political “rent-seeking,” the attempt to get taxpayer money channeled through government to your favored interest (whether hungry children, municipal governments, corporations, or private individuals).

Here’s an excerpt:

In my classes, I ask students to imagine an experiment that I call a Tullock lottery, after one of the inventors of the concept of rent-seeking, Gordon Tullock.

The lottery works as follows: I offer to auction off $100 to the student who bids the most. The catch is that each bidder must put the bid money in an envelope, and I keep all of the bid money no matter who wins.

So if you put $30 in an envelope and somebody else bids $31, you lose both the prize and the bid. When I run that game with students I can sometimes make $50 or more, even after paying off the prize. In politics, the secret to making money is to announce you are going to give money away.

Take a walk along K Street in Washington, DC. It is lined with tall buildings, full of fine offices and peopled by men and women with excellent educations and a real sense of ambition, a desire to make lots of money and achieve great things. What are those buildings, those people? They are nothing more than bids in the political version of a Tullock lottery. The cost of maintaining a D.C. office with a staff and lights and lobbying professionals is the offer to politicians. If someone else bids more and the firm doesn’t get that tax provision or defense bid or road system contract, it doesn’t get its bid back. The money is gone. It is thrown into the maw of bad political competition.

Who benefits from that system? Is it the contractors, all those companies and organizations with offices on K Street? Not really. Playing a rent-seeking game like that means those firms spend just about all they expect to win. It is true that some firms get large contracts and big checks, but all the players would be better off overall if they could avoid playing the game to begin with.

This is a large part of why I think Jonathan Chait is daffy for saying that Warren Buffett should dump some large fraction of his billions on “slick political operatives” on K Street. The competition for political rents is zero- and often negative-sum. The rent-seeking game has features of both a commons tragedy and an arms race — neither being a good model for a prosperous and peaceful society. But that’s what big-government types, left and right, are asking for when they insist on keeping government money and power on the table.

Chait is no doubt right that if his political tribe had more billionaire patrons, they could win more “auctions.” Unless the other tribe has even more motivated billionaire patrons, that is. He seems not to grasp that this a mug’s game — a low-grade civil war — flatly inconsistent with the general welfare. It’s a huge waste of financial and human resources. And once the game gets started, you often get sucked in, whether or not you’d like to, just to survive. Munger:

My students ask why anyone would play this sort of game. The answer is that the rules of our political system have created that destructive kind of political competition. When so much government money is available to the highest bidder, playing that lottery begins to look very enticing. The current Congress has, to say the least, failed to stem the rising tide of spending on domestic pork-barrel projects. Political competition run amok has increased spending nearly across the board. And sometimes, you have to bid just to keep from having money taken away from you through regulation.

I think once you really grasp the logic behind the tremendous loss of welfare through destructive political competition for rents, it becomes difficult to defend big, relatively unlimited government. Chait notoriously claimed that limited-government, market liberal types (i.e., Cato types) are evidence-immune ideologues, while statist liberals like him are just plain old empiricists, following the evidence where it leads. Well, Jon Chait, open-minded empiricist, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mike Munger.

Mexican Election Outcomes

Felipe Calderon has officially won Mexico’s presidential election, an outcome that will be challenged in the courts by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and in the streets by his supporters.

The election has been a triumph for modernity and democracy. Calderon’s vision of Mexico’s future is a modern one: openness, more competition, and higher growth based on wealth creation. Lopez Obrador’s vision is based on backwardness: more government spending, protection of national industries, and arbitrary rule based on his own notion of “the will of the people.”

The election so far has been a victory for democracy, or perhaps better put, the rule of law. The electoral commission (IFE) has, by all independent accounts, run the elections with the utmost professionalism, transparency, and strict regard to election rules, thus making charges of fraud difficult to sustain. Luis Carlos Ugalde, the head of the IFE, is a sophisticated scholar and public servant and a student of public choice theory who understands well the dynamics of collective decisionmaking and the importance of the rule of law.

In large part because of the IFE’s performance, I expect that the electoral tribunal that will consider Lopez Obrador’s legal challenges will do so fairly and uphold the official outcome. The IFE’s performance and Lopez Obrador’s own antics will also influence the court of public opinion in a way that does not benefit the leftist candidate. Despite all its problems, Mexico really is more modern today than it was 10 or even six years ago. As Mary O’Grady notes in her Wall Street Journal column today, many Mexicans “have moved on” from the way things were done in the past. To add to Lopez Obrador’s difficulties, leading members of his own party, including rival leaders and those elected to governorships and congress, have little interest in seeing an annulment of the election results.

The other headline from the elections is the marginalization at the national level of the PRI party that monopolistically ruled Mexico for 71 years until Vicente Fox’s election in 2000. The PRI received only about 22 percent of the vote — an outcome that was unthinkable as recently as six years ago. The new political landscape — a divided congress reflecting a divided country — means that Calderon will not be able to easily push through the reforms he favors. But he appears to be more politically savvy than President Fox, so the expectations for a growth agenda that Fox promised but did not deliver are running high.