The French Revolution and Modern Liberty

Today the French celebrate the 226th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. What should libertarians (or classical liberals) think of the French Revolution?

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another mid-20th-century thinker, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke’s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: “Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

Key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny.

Traditionalist conservatives sometimes long for “the world we have lost” before liberalism and capitalism upended the natural order of the world. The diplomat Talleyrand said, “Those who haven’t lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.” But not everyone found it so sweet. Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds.

The economic causes of the French Revolution are sometimes insufficiently appreciated. In his book The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation, Florin Aftalion outlines some of those causes. The French state engaged in wars throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. To pay for the wars, it employed complex and burdensome taxation, tax farming, borrowing, debt repudiation and forced “disgorgement” from the financiers, and debasement of the currency. Lord Acton wrote that people had been anticipating revolution in France for a century. And revolution came.

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values it represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the fall of the Bastille, enunciated libertarian principles similar to those of the Declaration of Independence:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights… .

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression… .

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights… .

17. [P]roperty is an inviolable and sacred right.

President Obama Announces Drug Sentence Commutations

Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year.  The announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general “controlled substance” violations.  The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences.  In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.  

Chinese Tires Case Latest Abuse of the Trade Remedy Laws

Washington’s protectionism lobby – that conspiracy of interests, which includes certain members of the House and Senate, steel and other import-competing producers, organized labor, and creative trade lawyers existentially determined to broaden the definition of unfair trade both statutorily and in the public’s mind – succeeded in extracting rents from President Obama and congressional Republican leadership in the deal that produced Trade Promotion Authority last month.

In addition to reauthorizing Trade Adjustment Assistance, which after 53 years of failure as economic policy has succeeded only at reinforcing the myth that job loss due to trade is especially problematic, Congress passed and the president enacted the American Trade Enforcement Effectiveness Act, which reduces the burden of proof on domestic industries seeking protection from import competition under the U.S. Antidumping and Countervailing Duty laws.

Hamilton’s Good for the Ten-Spot

I recently objected to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s proposed demotion of Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill. Hamilton was not only the first and most distinguished Treasury Secretary, but was also an accomplished professional in many other fields outside the confines of finance.

During his varied career, Alexander Hamilton was a profound journalist. His most famous journalistic project was a series of 85 opinion pieces that called for the ratification of the Constitution. These essays are called The Federalist Papers, and are the most cited sources by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Federalist Papers were published in 1787 and 1788 in New York City’s Independent Journal. These important essays — written under pseudonyms by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — were of very high quality and set the stage for the Constitutional Convention and the resulting product.

Slate Discovers Rising ObamaCare Premiums

Now that the coast is clear, Slate has an honest assessment of ObamaCare premiums. Helaine Olen writes

Under this assault [from ObamaCare opponents], all too many ACA defenders turned into fanboys and fangirls, dismissing any issue raised against the law as inconsequential and exaggerated…

But this strategy might well come back to bite the Democrats. The bill for the health care expansion is coming due, just as the recipients will be heading to the ballot box to vote in the first primaries for the 2016 election. More than a few are likely to be annoyed.

Last week Oregon’s insurance commissioner, Laura Cali, announced that the state had approved a 25 percent premium increase for the largest health insurer on the state’s exchanges. The second largest insurer did even better: It received permission to boost its monthly charge to consumers by 33 percent…

And that sounds like a relative bargain compared with Minnesota and New Mexico, where the BlueCross BlueShield family is looking for increases of more than 50 percent. Even if the final numbers are lower than the asks, it seems quite likely these states will approve substantive premium increases.

The problem is simple. As Trudy Lieberman reported this month in Harper’s, the ACA made a decent stab at solving the problem of Americans lacking insurance. Unfortunately, the bargain struck to get the bill to a point where lobbyists for the hospital, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries to sign on, or at least not fight it, did not adequately address the issue of overall medical costs.

And that’s where the consumer comes in. Someone is “it,” the party paying the bill. And that “it” is increasingly you, whether you receive insurance on the exchanges or from an employer.

Or as I like to put it, ObamaCare doesn’t make health insurance more affordable. It robs Peter to pay Paul. When selling ObamaCare, supporters told everyone, “Don’t worry, you’re Paul.” But as time goes by, more Americans are realizing they’re not Paul. They’re Peter.

Leon Trotsky on the Weapon of Taxation

“You ought not to forget that the credit system and the tax apparatus remain in the hands of the workers’ state and that this is a very important weapon in the struggle between state industry and private industry….

The pruning knife of taxation is a very important instrument.  With it the workers’ state will be able to clip the young plant of capitalism, lest it thrive too luxuriously.”

–Leon Trotsky, The First 5 Years of the Comintern, Vol 2 (London, New Park, 1945) p. 341

“Deprived” My Foot

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing that Greece is being “deprived of fresh Euros” by the ECB, or by the European Commission, or that those bodies are “moving toward cutting off its money supply.” That’s to say nothing of the Greek government’s suggestion that Greece is being “blackmailed” by these authorities.

Such talk seems to suggest that Eurozone members are like so many helpless hatchlings, their outstretched beaks agape in anticipation of the ECB’s regular and solicitous regurgitations of liquid sustenance.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I’d like to take a stab at putting this misguided metaphor to rest.

Consider for a moment, then, how two other Balkan states — Kosovo and Montenegro — manage to get hold of the euros they need to support their economies. Although the euro is their official currency, neither is part of the Eurozone, and neither has had a formal agreement of any sort with ECB such as could allow it to count on being able to borrow euros from that institution, strings or no strings, in a pinch.

Yet neither territory complains of being “deprived” of euros by European authorities, much less of being “blackmailed” by them. Nor do Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador — all dollarized Latin American nations — complain that the Fed isn’t sufficiently forthcoming with dollars. (Panama did once have reason to complain of blackmail, when the U.S. blocked paper dollar shipments there as part of its effort to topple Manuel Noriega. But that was a special case.) If the ECB and the Fed won’t deal directly with these countries, on any terms, how do they manage to get their hands on the euros or dollars they need to keep their banking systems and their economies functioning, if not thriving?