Archives: 01/2010

Collective Property Rights in Avatar?

In response to my Los Angeles Times op-ed on the movie “Avatar,” in which I claim that conservative critics missed the central conflict over property rights, I’ve received some emails arguing that the Na’vi in the film lacked “well-defined property rights” or simply that a collective group cannot have rights to the property they live on.

So I went to some smarter guys to ask them what they thought about “collective property rights.” The political philosopher Tom G. Palmer (best known as an activist and traveling troubadour of liberty [see pictures in this very large pdf] but also a deep thinker about liberty, as seen in his new book Realizing Freedom) says:

Just because people did not have English freehold property rights is no reason to chase them off land to which they held a clear customary right.  Some people seem to assume that only English freehold counts as property, by which they mean individual property.  But there is family property, village property, and many other forms of property, which are defined by the exclusion of others.  (Elinor Ostrom has written extensively on how common property arrangements are governed and when they are efficient, and when not.)  The critique of “collective property” is certainly not Lockean.  In the Second Treatise’s chapter on property (paragraph 28) he writes (not entirely clearly), “We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use.” Then in paragraph 35, he notes, “It is true, in land that is common in England, or any other country, where there is plenty of people under government, who have money and commerce, no one can inclose or appropriate any part, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners; because this is left common by compact, i. e. by the law of the land, which is not to be violated. And though it be common, in respect of some men, it is not so to all mankind; but is the joint property of this country, or this parish.”

Thus Locke would say that the Na’vi, even if they do not have any separate plots, have a joint property in the land, “And though it be common, in respect of some men, it is not so to all mankind; but is the joint property of this country, or this parish.”

David Henderson, editor of the Concise Encylopedia of Economics, discussed this point about “collective property” in his own essay on “Avatar”:

Now, [Ed] Hudgins could argue that the analogy with the Kelo decision doesn’t make sense because this is tribal property, not individual property. OK. So imagine that some civilization more technologically advanced than ours discovers that there’s a rare mineral below the hills and mountains of Yosemite, which, in a sense, is tribal property. Our government has refused to sell. To get at the mineral, this other “civilization” must blast and bulldoze Yosemite down to nothing. If that more advanced group comes in and uses violence to grab Yosemite, would Hudgins say that was fine? I think not.

As I noted originally, “At least for human beings, private property rights are a much better way to secure property and prosperity. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that the land belongs to the Na’vi, not the Sky People.”

P.S. For a French version of my article, click here. At UnMondeLibre you’ll find many more ideas about liberty, too.

Post-State of the Union Links

  • Time for the SOTU fact check:  Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.
  • During this year’s SOTU, President Obama criticized the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Today’s podcast examines the Court’s ruling.

Obama’s SOTU Export Promise: Bold and Unrealistic

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama vowed to double U.S. exports in five years to (all together now) “create jobs.”

Exports are dandy, and they do support higher-paying jobs, but the president’s pledge was unrealistic and raises false hopes that it will make any dent in the unemployment rate.

U.S. exports have not doubled in dollar terms during a five-year period since the inflation-plagued 1970s, not exactly a golden era for the U.S. economy. In real terms, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, exports have not come close to doubling during any five-year stretch in the past 40 years. The fastest growth in inflation-adjusted exports came in the second half of the 1980s, when they grew by two-thirds from 1985 to 1990. Other periods of robust growth were the mid-1990s, and during the second term of George W. Bush, when five-year export growth approached 50 percent.

Export growth is certainly enhanced by a weaker dollar and lower trade barriers abroad, but the primary driver of export growth is rising GDP and demand abroad, and that is something outside even this president’s direct control. The key to reducing U.S. unemployment is not primarily selling more to growing markets abroad, but selling more in a robustly growing market at home.

Other Obama policies will actually make it more difficult to achieve his export pledge. The president renewed his misguided pledge last night to raise taxes on U.S. multinational companies that “ship jobs overseas.” Yet, as I pointed out in a Free Trade Bulletin last year, U.S.-owned affiliates in other countries sold $4 trillion worth of U.S. branded goods and services in 2006. A large chunk of our exports go to those affiliates to help them make their final products for sale. Forcing U.S. firms to cut back their foreign operations will douse an important source of demand for U.S. exports.

The only major foreign market that has recently doubled its demand for U.S. exports in a five-year span is China. Yet President Obama has needlessly antagonized potential customers in our fourth-largest export market by imposing tariffs on Chinese tire imports and threatening other trade-reducing actions.

We can best promote more open markets abroad by setting a good example ourselves.

How the Washington Post Covers Education

Yesterday, the president proposed yet another big increase in federal education spending. The Washington Post quoted ”senior White House officials” as saying that the spending would boost “the nation’s long-term economic health.”

I sent the story’s authors a blog post laying out the evidence that higher government spending hasn’t raised student achievement, and that if you don’t boost achievement, you don’t accelerate economic growth.

Today, there is an updated version of the original WaPo story. It no longer mentions the stated goal of the spending increase. It doesn’t mention that boosting gov’t spending has failed to raise achievement, and so will fail to help the economy.

But it does cite a single non-government source for comment on the president’s plan: the Committee for Education Funding. The Committee is described by the Post as “prominent education advocates,” and as an organization that “represents dozens of education groups.”

Here’s how the CEF itself measures its accomplishments: “The… Committee [has] been very successful in championing the cause of increasing federal educational investment. Through strong advocacy… [it has] won bipartisan support for over $100 billion in increased federal education investment over the last five years.” Its members, if you haven’t guessed already, include virtually every public school employee organization you can name, including, of course, the national teachers unions.

That’s the source, the one source, the Washington Post asked to weigh in on a new federal education spending gambit.

I asked the author of the revised version of the story to comment for this blog post. At the time of this writing, I’ve received no response.

Campaign Finance Reform? Here Are Some Completely Insane Ideas

Photo by Forest & Kim Starr

Each idea below is totally unwinnable, downright daft, and probably unconstitutional to boot. Some are mutually incompatible. But each would effectively end the corruption that campaign finance “reform” advocates worry about. Each would also show more respect for individual liberty than the usual fare we get from them. And there’s even a method to my madness, which I will explain below.

Life Terms Members of Congress serve for life. Few special interests will throw money at the political process in this system, because the cycle of funding and response won’t exist anymore. Elections will be hard to predict and infrequent, and once the election’s over, the member-elect can vote however he wants till he kicks the bucket. Parties and partisanship will be vastly weaker – also a good thing as reformers see it.

Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment We hear much about the corporate influence in politics, and many worry that it is bought through campaign contributions. The solution to the problem of faction, as our founders understood it, was not to prohibit faction, which would restrict liberty, but to set one faction against another. Let the corporate interests have the House of Representatives. The Senate will once more be elected by state legislatures, which will use their powers to advance interests not necessarily in line with the corporate agenda. Faction will check faction, and free speech will survive.

Election by Lot In ancient Athens, important officers were commonly chosen by lottery among all the citizens. This method, called sortition, may be asking a bit much of our citizens today, but it would certainly end the problem of shady campaign contributions. This measure would be most effective if it came with a life pension for former members, to avoid all fears of bribery and to compensate citizens for their interrupted lives.

The Old Legislators’ Home Much like sortition, ostracism has a fine pedigree in western democracy. Here’s to bringing it back.

We hear a lot about the “revolving door” between lobbying and serving in Congress. Let’s end it once and for all, not by restricting lobbying groups, but by restricting congressmen. Whenever anyone retires from Congress, they aren’t allowed to go back to work in the private sector… as anything. They’re permanently retired.

We’ll send them to the remote, though very pleasant, Hawaiian island of Molokai, where they will be maintained in idleness, with all reasonable expenses paid, for the rest of their lives. (An inducement to early retirement would also do much of the same good work as term limits.)

The symbolism is unbeatable. Molokai is almost as far from DC as you can get while remaining in the country. It’s geographically separated from the rest of the world. It’s even home to a former leper colony. At the Old Legislators’ Home, ex-members of Congress could do whatever they liked, from writing their (uncompensated) memoirs to body surfing. None of us would ever have to watch if we didn’t want to. If the revolving door was still too much of a problem, we could include senior staffers in the deal, too.

The point of mentioning all these silly proposals is not that I favor them. I don’t. The point is that if we are concerned about Congressional incentives, then we should change Congressional incentives. It’s downright bizarre to see 535 people behaving badly – and conclude that we should regulate 300 million people who are not them. It’s even more bizarre, I’d say, than some of the above.

Photo by Forest & Kim Starr

State of the Union Fact Check

Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.


Obama’s claim:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That’s right – the Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Economists on the left and the right say that this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster.

Back in reality: At the outset of the economic downturn, Cato ran an ad in the nation’s largest newspapers in which more than 300 economists (Nobel laureates among them) signed a statement saying a massive government spending package was among the worst available options. Since then, Cato economists have published dozens of op-eds in major news outlets poking holes in big-government solutions to both the financial system crisis and the flagging economy.


Obama’s claim:

Let me repeat: we cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas, and food, and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers.

Back in reality: Cato Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards: “When the president says that he has ‘cut taxes’ for 95 percent of Americans, he fails to note that more than 40 percent of Americans pay no federal incomes taxes and the administration has simply increased subsidy checks to this group. Obama’s refundable tax credits are unearned subsidies, not tax cuts.”

Visit Cato’s Tax Policy Page for much more on this.


Obama’s claim

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.

Back in reality: Edwards: “The president’s proposed spending freeze covers just 13 percent of the total federal budget, and indeed doesn’t limit the fastest growing components such as Medicare.

“A better idea is to cap growth in the entire federal budget including entitlement programs, which was essentially the idea behind the 1980s bipartisan Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. The freeze also doesn’t cover the massive spending under the stimulus bill, most of which hasn’t occurred yet. Now that the economy is returning to growth, the president should both freeze spending and rescind the remainder of the planned stimulus.”

Plus, here’s why these promised freezes have never worked in the past and a chart illustrating the fallacy of Obama’s spending claims.


Obama’s claim:

Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. 200,000 work in construction and clean energy. 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and first responders. And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year.

Back in reality: Cato Policy Analyst Tad Dehaven: “Actually, the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the stimulus passed and 3.4 million total since Obama was elected. How he attributes any jobs gains to the stimulus is the fuzziest of fuzzy math. ‘Nuff said.”

Is Money Fungible?

Recently I spent some time redecorating my office to create room such that there was space for me to work that was physically apart from my computer, because I’ve come to view the internet as a huge time sink.

Apparently this endeavor of mine has failed miserably, however, because here I am blogging about something I saw on Bloggingheads TV:

In the clip above, Heather Hurlburt and Daniel Drezner discuss arguments that involve posing tradeoffs between domestic spending and foreign policy spending.  Drezner sketches out an argument he ties to Obama’s Afghanistan speech: we’re in a big hole at home and we just can’t afford running around throwing hundreds of billions of dollars into places like Afghanistan and Iraq, so part of what we’re trying to do is cash out of those endeavors and keep the money we could spend there at home instead.  Hurlburt describes this as part of the argument Cato’s foreign policy team–Chris Preble in particular–has been making, but that says that this approach is “not going to happen because it would seem like a public admission that there are constraints on what we can do, even though we would agree that there are massive constraints on what we can do.”

Hurlburt goes on to say that “our economy can’t recover unless the global economy recovers” and that “a big part of how quickly and in what directions our economy recovers” has to do with the U.S.-China relationship and the development of green jobs.  Therefore, the “classic isolationist trope” of what Drezner described–doing less abroad so we can do more at home–doesn’t work.

I’m completely lost here.  (If the kind people at would invite me on, I could explain in vivid and expressive detail!)

First, let me register at least my dissent from the view that we can’t maintain an expansionist foreign policy.  I have been a convert for some time to the view of Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth that there is nothing in the foreseeable future that will force the abandonment of a primacy grand strategy.  In fact, I would make this point forcefully, not just that we could maintain an expansionist foreign policy, but that we probably could do so even assuming a costly invasion of Iraq every so often and still manage to skirt any powerful constraint.  Despite the declinism that has come into fashion of late, my view is that we’re still in uncharted waters, still in an international system that is obviously unipolar, and consequently still capable of adopting all sorts of wild and crazy foreign policies.

But the bigger point that’s confusing me is Hurlburt’s argument that something about the economic ties between China and the United States or the alleged need to shift to green jobs necessitates an interventionist foreign policy.  Unless I’m misconstruing her remarks, which is possible, I’m not understanding this argument at all.  We spend lots of money–hundreds of billions per year–on things we call “defense” or “homeland security” that have little to do with defending the United States.  I think what we at Cato have argued is that we should stop spending so much money on these things, and that instead we should dramatically scale back our commitments, cut military spending dramatically, and willfully give up our aggressive grand strategy.  Money is fungible and this isn’t the best use for this money.

To draw what is maybe a poor analogy, Robin Hanson has argued not just that overall spending on health is a poor predictor of aggregate health, but that in fact you could probably cut overall spending on health in half without a significant negative effect on aggregate health.  I’m making a similar argument about defense, with the implicit claim that the excess funds we spend on defense could be better spent elsewhere.

It seems like Hurlburt is disagreeing with this view, but I’m not sure.  I’m emailing her to see whether she cares to expand on this, so perhaps there’ll be more to come.  Until then, it’s time for me to push back from the internet again.