May 23, 2006 5:10PM

Libertarians and Liberals

Last week I looked at a Pew Research Center analysis of libertarians and other ideological groups in the United States. Using the Pew results, let’s compare libertarians to liberals as way of speculating about the upcoming election. 

The two groups have a lot in common demographically. Both libertarians and liberals are more likely than other groups to be found in the highest income groups and to have a college education (though liberals are by far the most educated group). Strikingly, both groups are the least likely among the Pew respondents to be supported by African‐​Americans.

Libertarians and liberals are the least religiously observant among the Pew groups. Both are much more likely than others to say they are “secular” and to state that they “seldom or never” attend church. This secular tendency showed up when Pew looked at responses by groups to some questions about issues. Libertarians and liberals were about as likely to believe homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem cell research, and to oppose more restrictions on abortion. (Liberals more so on each issue). In each case, the two groups oppose positions endorsed by Roman Catholicism or evangelical Protestant groups. Judged only by these issues, libertarians and liberals should be quite similar politically. 

But they are not, and you can guess why. The two differ over the scope of government power over economic life. The Pew data defines liberals in part by their faith that government regulation is needed to protect the public interest. Liberals also oppose tax cuts much more than any other group and to think businesses make too much profit. Liberals are about as likely as any American to believe free trade is good for the nation, their only significant departure from what you might expect on the economic front.

This difference on economic policies translates into partisan differences. Exactly half of libertarians in the Pew survey identified themselves as Republicans or leaning that way. 57 percent voted for President Bush in 2004. When forced to choose, these voters seem to assign more weight to the economic aspects of liberty than the social side.

On the other hand, 41 percent of the Pew libertarians identify with, or lean toward, the Democratic party. Could that number rise?

Here’s one guess, popular with libertarians angry with the GOP. Libertarians are close to liberals demographically and on social issues, and liberals are overwhelmingly Democratic. If Republicans support economic policies similar to liberal positions, libertarians have little reason to vote Republican. The only difference between the parties would concern social questions, and on those issues, the Democrats are more often if not always more libertarian than Republicans.

Here’s the problem with this guess about the future. Libertarians have to consider what Republicans and Democrats will do in the future, and rationally, they need not simply extrapolate from the recent past to do that.

It is true that Republicans have expanded government rapidly to maintain control of Congress (among other reasons). But that does not mean Democrats in power would not expand government even more rapidly for reasons of ideology and interest. Democrats complained that the Medicare prescription drug benefit was not generous enough, not that it expanded government too much. More generally, the American National Election Survey found in 2004 that two‐​thirds of self‐​identified liberals and 56 percent of Democrats believed “it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending.” This support for expanding government, by the way, is the highest ever reported for both liberals and Democrats. It is almost 40 percent higher for liberals and 47 percent more for Democrats than it was in 1996 when Bill Clinton declared the end of big government. If Democrats in power listen to their base in 2007 (or 2009 with the presidency in hand), they will not be responding to the moderates at the Democratic Leadership Council. 

Given all that, I don’t think many libertarians who have been voting Republican are likely to start voting Democratic. As bad as the Republicans have been on limiting government, libertarians primarily concerned with economic liberty have reason to think the Democrats would be worse. So they will continue doing what they have been doing unless the Democrats start looking better or the Republicans become even worse.

May 23, 2006 4:52PM

The Other War

The media has focused great attention on the news that the Iraqi prime minister had finally managed to assemble a cabinet, albeit with the three most important posts (those of interior, defense and national security) having been filled by interim appointees. Still, Americans are anxious for good news from Iraq, and they are likely to be heartened by Prime Minister Nouri al‐​Maliki’s stated goal that Iraqis will have control of security in most of the country by the end of this year. In a related story, President Bush told an audience in Chicago that the United States had “reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.”

Meanwhile, on the pessimism front, the war in Afghanistan has taken an ugly turn. The front page of today’s Washington Post features a story of heavy fighting in Kandahar province. Reuters is reporting that Taliban fighters ambushed a squadron of Afghan police in southern Afghanistan. The AP on Sunday described heavy fighting in Helmand province, the country’s main opium‐​producing region, and also violent clashes in Zabol, and today is reporting still more violence in and around Kandahar. 

The good news appears to be that Taliban loyalists and insurgents are bearing the brunt of these attacks. Among the estimated 305 people killed in the last week, the AP determined (somehow) that “most of the dead were militants.” Still, as the United States plans to turn over security responsibilities in southern Afghanistan to NATO by the end of July, the question must be asked: If, after nearly four and a half years of fighting resistance remains strong and the Karzai government dangerously weak, is it time to question our strategy in the country that played host to the 9/11 plotters, and where, it is believed, a number of Al Qaeda and Taliban officials continue to operate? Or, more to the point, if the goal of operations in Afghanistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies, are we, to quote the immortal words of Secretary Rumsfeld, “capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

If the answer were yes, then the number of attacks should be declining. Alas, the answer appears to be no. Seth Jones, a security analyst at the RAND Corporation, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

We’ve seen since 2002 the level of violence has gone up each year. The number of attacks by insurgents and the number of deaths caused by them has gone up every single year.

For most of the last few years what we’ve seen is small numbers of Taliban insurgents. Now we’re seeing growing numbers.

This is actually a disturbing trend, more of a conventional rather than an unconventional war.

Those seeking a new approach might turn to two papers published by Cato on the subject: Ted Galen Carpenter’s “How the Drug War in Afghanistan Undermines America’s War on Terror” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 84, November 10, 2004); and Subodh Atal’s “At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States Be Involved in Nation Building?” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 81, September 24, 2003).

The war in Afghanistan is, and always should have been, the true central front in the war on terrorism. We cannot undo the decision to divert intelligence and military assets away from the fight there, and toward the fight in Iraq. But we can refocus our attention back to Afghanistan and we must be prepared to alter our strategy if the current course is not leading in a positive direction.

May 23, 2006 3:07PM

When is Market Power Not Market Power?

… When it’s online!

Google is the dominant search engine. Everybody knows that. As such, it’s an important bottleneck. If you can’t get your stuff out on Google, you’ll have a hard time getting your stuff out. Right?

Rumors are swirling that Google News has declined to treat certain news sources as news sources because of allegedly “hateful” content. Are sites critical of Islam being “disappeared” from Google News? If it’s true, that’s a bad thing. I don’t agree with hatred of Islam, but I want the fullest airing of people’s views on those issues.

So, if it’s true, something should be done. But what? Sue? Seek public‐​utility‐​style regulation for search, as is being done with broadband?

Or maybe what needs to be done is already being done.

I just said that rumors are swirling. How much of a bottleneck can Google be when its alleged censoriousness is broadcast by popular blogger Instapundit? This has probably already given more ‘ink’ to these marginal sites than being ranked on Google would.

Take a look again at the NewsBusters site I linked to above where I said “Rumors are swirling”. The discussion includes lots of people swearing off Google, arguing about Google’s search algorithms, comparing Google searches to Yahoo! searches, and yapping about other, dumber stuff.

In other words, based on the rumor that Google is treating certain sites badly, the people that disagree with that are talking about it, changing their search habits, and encouraging others to do so. In precise proportion to the importance of this issue to people in society, Google is losing business. This is what we call a self‐​correcting market. Google’s market power is feeble. Consumers are in the driver’s seat.

(N.B. Haters of Islam are but a small part of the overall market. If Google chooses not to make those sites available and the majority of consumers accept that, that is by definition what serves the greatest number in the best way. Opponents of that freedom should be clear that they want consumers not to get what they want. They want to force disagreeable speech on an unwelcoming public using government power. Now that would be a bad thing.)

 (Cross‐​posted from TechLiberationFront)

May 23, 2006 2:16PM

News from A Region of Hot Spots

My Azeri friends have brought to my attention two interesting news items from Azerbaijan and the large Azeri community in northern Iran. First is that the editor of a leading opposition paper, Bizim Yol (“Our Path”) (and formerly deputy editor of Azadlig [“Freedom”], which ran a story on my visit to Baku earlier this year), was savagely beaten on May 18 and that opposition leaders (such as Ali Kerimli), have pointed the finger at the authorities. (This is not the first time that journalists from the opposition side have been attacked.)

One email from an Azeri news group described the attack thus:

Bahaddin Haziyev, one of the best Azerbaijani journalists and one of the brillian minds of our country, was kidnapped, taken to Masazir lake, severely beaten and left to die almost to death last night by some people. He was deputy editor of Azadlig newspaper and since recently became a editor in chief of Bizim Yol newspaper. His newspaper an himself are very critical of Aliyev’s regime, the most recent series dedicated to caviar/​fish mafia of Azerbaijan, portraying that Aliyev senior sacrificed lifes for monopoly in this sector.

Haziyev is in Intensive Therapy in the Emergency hospital. Doctor said that it is miracle that he survived. His leg is broken in five places, he has trauma of head, ribs are broken.

That is what happens to journalists in this country.

It takes real bravery to continue to speak up for freedom when under threat of such violence.

The other is a news story that was reported in the Washington Post about protests against Persian chauvinism among the very large Azeri minority in Iran. Photos are available here (on an Azeri nationalist website).

The cartoon that has caused the furor was published in Iran’s official newspaper (not, as in the Danish cartoons, in a private paper in a country with a free press):

The cartoon, which appeared in Friday’s edition of the official Iran newspaper, showed a boy repeating the Persian word for cockroach in different ways, while a cockroach in front of the boy asked “What?” in Azeri.

The Iranian mullahs may be creating difficult conditions for themselves by alienating, not only many young people (who yearn for what the Eastern Europeans used to call “a normal country”), but major ethnic minorities, as well.

May 23, 2006 1:42PM

Scapegoating Milberg Weiss

Saul Levmore is asking the right questions about the Milberg Weiss prosecution here. “Milberg, who?,” you ask. 

(Warning: boring lawyer‐​talk follows.) 

Milberg is the titanic plaintiffs class action firm that was just indicted for paying professional plaintiffs to serve as figureheads for the firm’s class action suits. Those who love to hate class actions tend to love this prosecution. But as Levmore asks, what, exactly, is so bad about lawyers paying professional plaintiffs to act as figureheads, anyway?

Hundreds of lawyers hate the firm and they are quick to say that plaintiffs are paid to lie, to agree to settlements that are not in the interest of other class members, to lie about having been consulted about conflict of interest questions, and so forth. Some of these possibilities seem implausible, or at least somewhat puzzling, in a world in which named plaintiffs are rarely consulted at all, and in which judges must approve settlements (for better or worse) but are hardly accused of paying too much attention to the wishes of the named, nominal plaintiffs. 

Let’s not kid ourselves: class actions are bounty‐​hunting enforcement actions designed to deter wrongdoing, rather than compensate victims. Named plaintiffs play a negligible role in these lawsuits, because the suits aren’t brought for their parochial benefit. The suits are brought to punish the target, not to remedy individual injuries. The “named plaintiff” is a virtual legal fiction – a stubby appendage of an older system of corrective justice and individual rights which our legal system has, for all intents and purposes, thrown over the side.

Now, I happen to like that old, lost, fundamentally liberal view of the law, in which state coercion is limited to aiding individuals, rather than promoting collective (i.e. state) interests. But the incentive system set up under our current class action system simply isn’t designed to promote attention to individual remedial interests. And prosecuting Milberg Weiss for paying kickbacks to figurehead plaintiffs isn’t going to change that fact. 

Radical, systemic solutions are necessary. One is to force lawyers to recruit not just named plaintiffs, but class members, by requiring absent class members to affirmatively “opt in” to the class litigation – thereby forcing lawyers to sell their representation to entire class. By making class actions fully contractual, lawyers may act less as self‐​interested regulatory bounty‐​hunters and more like the advocates‐​for‐​hire of old. See this piece for further discussion. 

But this is a solution that our political system can’t stomach. And so we’re left, instead, with the Milberg prosecution: a symbolic, ineffectual fit of pique.

May 23, 2006 1:40PM

The Greatest Deliberative Body?

Columnist Robyn Blumner has nice things to say about our new study, Power Surge, and she takes Congress to task for doing nothing: 

The Republican leadership in Congress is standing by while its house is being pillaged. The power to write federal laws is Congress’ alone. The president’s duty, as expressly stated in the Constitution, is to faithfully execute the laws he signs, not to add asterisks on parts he intends to ignore.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are joining in their own emasculation when they utter not a peep during this bloodless coup. I don’t know why Republicans have a reputation for strength. When blindly supporting a president from your own party takes precedence over guarding Congress’ historic role, “Republican leadership” becomes an oxymoron.

It is not just liberals who have recognized the danger. I challenge anyone to read an important new report by the libertarian Cato Institute (www​.cato​.org) and not be chilled. “Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush” is an unblinking 28‐​page analysis of our slow devolution into autocracy. Its message can be summed up with this quote: “Under (the president’s) sweeping theory of executive power, the liberty of every American rests on nothing more than the grace of the White House.”

A meek and pliant Congress is allowing this new paradigm to take root.

One can almost hear Speaker Hastert trying to defend himself: “Look, I said something about executive branch overreaching just this morning. Ya know, I’ve signed off on some extraordinary police powers over the years, but there’s gotta be a limit to those powers. The Constitution is clear: The right of members of Congress to be secure in their offices and homes shall not be violated!”

May 23, 2006 11:15AM

Requiem for 5 – 4 Supreme Court Decisions

Chief Justice Roberts gave an address at Georgetown in which he lauds the virtues of deciding cases, where possible, narrowly and unanimously:

“If it is not necessary to decide more to a case, then in my view it is necessary not to decide more to a case,” Roberts said. “Division should not be artificially suppressed, but the rule of law benefits from a broader agreement. The broader the agreement among the justices, the more likely it is a decision on the narrowest possible grounds.”

Its not clear that Roberts’ prediction (that consensus on the Court yields clarity, precision, and narrowness) is right. Consensus‐​building in Congress, another multi‐​member voting body, is purchased at the price of legal fuzziness. The more amorphous and open‐​ended the statute – the more the statute defers tough questions – the more members of Congress agree to add their names to it. 

While consensus building on the Supreme Court is a simpler prospect, there’s no reason to think the same basic dynamic won’t apply here too: Supreme Court justices will purchase broad agreement at the price of clarity, harming the rule of law. 

Indeed, as I discuss at the end of this online debate, this may be the lesson of one of Roberts’ earliest opinions (in Rumsfeld v. FAIR). There, the Court was asked to decide whether Congress violated law schools’ free speech rights by threatening to withdraw federal funding unless the schools sponsored JAG recruiters on campus. The Court unanimously rejected the law schools’ First Amendment claims. But in the course of doing so, it reached a question it didn’t have to reach: the scope of deference owed to Congress when it regulates “military affairs.” Worse, the Court’s cursory discussion of military affairs deference is exceedingly unclear and could be read to mean that judicial enforcement of the Bill of Rights is at a vanishingly low ebb when Congress raises and supports armies. 

As even the National Review admits, this aside is troubling and deserves clarification. But it may also be a by‐​product of Roberts’ drive for consensus: Some justices may have joined the Court’s ruling on the First Amendment only if there was some hedge that allowed them to distinguish the First Amendment ruling in a later, different case. Adding in a bit about military deference may have been the hedge that brought those justices on board, allowing them to rule differently in a case that didn’t involve national security. But other justices may have been wary about the scope of deference in this area. Therefore it was necessary to discuss military deference in a vague way in order to belay these fears. The result: an opinion that inadvertently muddies the scope of civil liberties in the shadow of military‐​related legislation, inviting envelope pushing by Congress and the President.

The lesson: Sometimes being narrow requires hedging. And sometimes consensus requires wishy‐​washiness. Hedging and wishy‐​washiness in turn make the law less clear. That may give government officials more discretion to boss us around, while leaving the rest of us in the dark about the scope of our rights.