Archives: 09/2012

Economic Conservatives and Traditional Conservatives Are – or Should Be – Natural Allies in the Fight against a Bloated Federal Government

It’s not uncommon for there to be debate and discussion about the degree to which libertarians and social conservatives are allies and enemies.

I think they’re mostly allies, in part because there is wide and deep agreement on the principle of individual responsibility. They may focus on different ill effects, but both camps understand that big government is a threat to a virtuous and productive citizenry.

That being said, I also realize that a libertarian who thinks drug legalization is the most important issue in the world is probably not going to feel much kinship with a social conservative who focuses on spiritual treatment of drug addiction (even though I would argue they should share policy views).

I’m contemplating this topic because of a recent New York Times column by David Brooks. He is concerned that traditional conservatives (which I think would overlap with, but not be identical to, social conservatives) have lost influence in the conservative movement and Republican Party. Let’s start with this excerpt.

…the conservative movement…was a fusion of two different mentalities. On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. …there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government. …they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

So far, so good. As a self-described libertarian, I like these concepts. Indeed, I support liberty in part because I think it will both enable and encourage people to experience good lives in the kind of ecosystem David describes.

But then he has a sentence that rubs me the wrong way.

Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism.

Let me first stipulate that it’s unfair to equate “compassionate conservatism” with “big government conservatism.” That may have been the end result, but the goal – as was explained to me on several occasions – was to reform the way government did things, not to make it bigger.

But even if we accept that goal, I think Reagan and Bush represented different strains of conservatism. Reagan wanted to shrink the federal governmentbecause he viewed Washington as a threat to David’s “harmonious ecosystem.” In other words, Reagan-style conservatism is (was?) based on the notion that Washington could only make things worse, not better.

The Bush people, by contrast, had a more optimistic view of the federal government’s capabilities.

Indeed, Brooks is explicitly willing to make government bigger in hopes of achieving certain goals.

There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels. The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. …The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.

Here’s where I think he lets hope triumph over experience. What makes him think that the federal government is capable of successfully creating and operating “mobility programs”? It’s been operating dozens of such programs and they’ve all failed.

Or why does he think the federal government can reduce out-of-wedlock births when the evidence suggests that the welfare state has played a non-trivial role in enabling such misguided behavior?

Brooks also makes a ridiculous claim about what’s happened to domestic discretionary outlays. Here’s the data, adjusted for inflation, from the Historical Tables of the Budget.

Granted, David is talking about the plans in the Republican budget, not what’s actually happened. But the most the GOP wants to achieve is to put domestic discretionary spending back at 2008 levels. That’s not exactly an “absurdly low level,” particularly compared to existing post-stimulus outlays.

The more relevant question is why he thinks federal spending is associated with good results. There’s certainly no positive evidence from Obama’s stimulus. We also know the War on Poverty backfired. And entitlements are a ticking time bomb in the absence of reform.

By the way, this doesn’t negate what Brooks says about the GOP’s inability to articulate a message that resonates with (as he calls them) the “less educated half of this country.”

All I’m arguing is that results should matter. If we care about making life better for these people and we want the “harmonious ecosystem” David mentions, then we should be making government smaller rather than larger.

Buying Reelection on the Taxpayer’s Dime

Washington Post reporters Jerry Markon and Alice Crites deserve kudos for turning the spotlight on the Obama administration’s use of taxpayer funds to curry voter favor in the critical battleground state of Ohio. Markon and Crites cite a laundry list of largess that has poured into the state in recent years:

[T]he state’s portion of the $2.3 billion in clean-energy manufacturing tax credits was tens of millions of dollars more than the slices that went to other swing states…

In high-speed rail, another administration priority, Ohio also fared well. The White House in 2010 awarded the state $400 million to resume passenger train service between Cincinnati, Cleveland and other cities, a service that had ended four decades earlier…

When Obama visited Mansfield in August, media outlets and Republicans in the state pointed out that he would be flying into an Air National Guard base where his budget had proposed cutting a fleet of aircraft and about 800 positions. By day’s end — after base officials vowed to position the threatened planes so Obama could see them from Air Force One — the White House said it would “find a mission” for the guard unit. A White House spokesman said Monday that Obama remains “absolutely” committed to finding that mission…

During his first visit to Ohio as president in March 2009, Obama brought more than $1 billion in stimulus money. With Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., he showed up for Columbus police graduation ceremonies and highlighted funding for everything from law enforcement to roads…

When it came to Obama’s proposal to invest $1 billion to create a network of ‘manufacturing ­innovation institutes,’ Congress declined to approve the funding. The administration forged ahead, funding a pilot program that will focus on digital-based manufacturing. The winner of the $30 million pilot grant was a consortium that said it would base the operation in Youngstown, Ohio…

Ohio has been a big winner in Race to the Top, the administration’s signature education reform initiative, taking home the fourth-highest total in federal grants of any state.

Then there are the Small Business Administration subsidies to Ohio businesses:

Brian Reis, who runs a company making potato chips and other snack food about 100 miles from Cleveland, says he is grateful for the attention. Reis, a Republican, has received three Small Business Administration loans totaling $3.9 million since Obama took office, along with a $2 million loan during the Bush administration. In August, the agency’s head, Karen Mills, toured his facility for the launch of a kit that allows people to flavor their own gourmet potato chips. Last year, Biden singled him out in a speech near Cleveland…

Then there was Joe Miceli, head of Miceli Dairy Products in Cleveland, which makes ricotta and other cheeses. He was the first to benefit from a new law that raised the limit for SBA loans for manufacturing from $2.5 million to $5.5 million, winning $5.49 million in December 2010. Two months later, Obama cited the loan at an event with small-business leaders in Cleveland. This year, the agency has approved 2,726 loans for Ohio businesses. That is nearly 500 more than Florida, a state with 7.3 million more people.

Uh-oh. Does Mrs. Obama know that the federal government is subsidizing companies that produce potato chips and fatty cheeses? Did the SBA not get the message from the First Lady’s office that the plebs are to be consuming leafy greens? But wisecracks aside, is entrepreneurship in this country so hard up that Uncle Sam needs to backstop loans to potato chip manufacturers?

Of course, the administration’s spokespeople all swear that the flow of federal funds into Ohio had nothing to do with politics. And perhaps little or none of the money was directly earmarked by the White House. But anyone who has ever spent more than a month working for the chief executive of a governmental unit knows that the king’s high servants earn their keep by making sure to maximize the political benefits of taxpayer handouts.

I would know.

Poll Shows Romney Winning High Water Mark for Libertarian Vote

In a recent article on TheBlaze, Reason’s Matt Welch, FreedomWork’s Matt Kibbe, and David Boaz, speculated whether Romney can win over libertarians. As we’ve shown in previous studies, libertarians represent a key swing vote that decides elections.

Well, Emily Ekins and our friends at Reason shared with us data from a recent Reason-Rupe poll by which we can measure the libertarian vote. This is the best data point yet on where libertarians stand in the 2012 election.

The Reason-Rupe September 2012 poll includes our favorite ideological questions to differentiate libertarians from liberals and conservatives. Using three questions, we can define libertarians as respondents who believe “the less government the better,” who prefer the “free market” to handle problems, and who want government to “favor no particular set of values.” These fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters represent 20% of the public in the Reason-Rupe poll, in line with previous estimates.

Among these likely libertarian voters, the presidential horserace currently stands:

Romney 77%
Obama 20%
Other 3%

Romney’s share of the libertarian vote represents a high water mark for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections.

As the chart below shows, George W. Bush won 72 percent of libertarians in 2000, but lost many libertarians by 2004, as the wars, spending, and growth of government weighed on many libertarians. John McCain matched Bush’s 2000 vote share, winning 71 percent. Many libertarians seem to have preferred McCain’s independent streak to Obama’s soaring promises. But if the election were held today, the Romney/Ryan ticket would get more libertarian votes than any candidate since 1980.


Romney’s vote share may be more a libertarian vote against Obama than for Romney. Few libertarians were excited about Romney in the Republican primary. Indeed, Romney’s deficit among libertarian voters may well have been part of the campaign’s strategic calculation of adding Paul Ryan to the ticket. If so, it seems to be working.

One other interesting data point from the Reason-Rupe poll. We’ve previously noted libertarians’ penchant to support third party candidates. For instance, 17 percent of libertarians supported John Anderson in 1980 and 33 percent supported Perot in 1996. What happens if you ask libertarians their vote preference and include Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson among the choices?

Romney 70%
Obama 13%
Johnson 14%
Other 3%

Of course, Gary Johnson has an uphill battle to be even listed among the top-tier candidates. But media stories have nonetheless asked whether Johnson will play the role of a “spoiler,” drawing enough libertarian votes from Romney to hand the election to Obama. The data show this to be unlikely. When Johnson is listed, he pulls votes equally from Romney and Obama, drawing 7 percentage points from each. Adding Johnson to the mix is a wash for Romney, at least among libertarian voters nationally.

See more analysis on the Reason-Rupe poll here. And keep an eye out for our upcoming e-Book, The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Partiers, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center.

The First Amendment and Zombies

I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist. I know that’s an epithet, but to me it’s kind of like being an arithmetic absolutist: There are right and wrong answers. Emotional attachment to the right answers might be kooky – but it sure beats being attached to the wrong ones.

In Slate, Eric Posner reminds us that the rest of the world doesn’t love the First Amendment. Even Americans weren’t always free speech absolutists, Posner notes; for much of our history, the state blithely ignored the First Amendment whenever it became inconvenient. American governments cheerfully arrested anarchists, communists, pacifists, and purveyors of birth control literature. They prosecuted publishers of works by James Joyce and William S. Burroughs.

It might be better, Posner suggests, if we went back to the good old days.

That’s what we call an argument from authority. Arguments from authority are like placeholders. They say, “Someone else made this argument for me.” As a result, an argument from authority can only ever be as good as the argument that the authority has actually made. It can’t be any better. If it’s a placeholder for a good argument, that’s sometimes allowed. If it’s trying to hide a bad argument, that’s a problem.

So what’s the real argument here? Posner is vague. He just says a whole lot of people have made one.

That’s true. But it’s also a tricky move on his part, because it’s hard for me, or for anyone, to refute all of the anti–free speech arguments that billions of different people have made all over the world during the last several centuries. To say nothing of the arguments that people might make in the future.

In cases like this, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to argue for a restriction in liberty: It’s what philosophers, notably Anthony de Jasay, refer to as the presumption of liberty.

Some arguments for restricting liberty might be plausible, even convincing. But if they are, then surely they can and should be made explicitly. Bear in mind that some liberty-restricting arguments are going to be fallacious, and we need to sort these out before we can act with any justification. Until we do, liberty is what we have to go on. Those who wish to restrict will need to meet the burden of proof.

Digging a little deeper, Posner offers what might be called half an argument:

A totem that is sacred to one religion can become an object of devotion in another, even as the two theologies vest it with different meanings. That is what happened with the First Amendment. In the last few decades, conservatives have discovered in its uncompromising text— “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”—support for their own causes. These include unregulated campaign speech, unregulated commercial speech, and limited government. Most of all, conservatives have invoked the First Amendment to oppose efforts to make everyone, in universities and elsewhere, speak “civilly” about women and minorities. I’m talking of course about the “political correctness” movement beginning in the 1980s, which often merged into attempts to enforce a leftist position on race relations and gender politics.

Let’s grant for the sake of discussion that the freedom of speech is just another totemic religion. (It’s absurd to say so, for reasons I’ll soon explain. But bear with me.) Granting Posner’s claim, I might very well ask: Why should my religion – the bare, unmitigated, absolute freedom of speech – yield to someone else’s religion, which has at best an equal (and not a greater) moral force? That is, even if we admit Posner to be correct, all we have is an irresolvable dilemma. In cases of irresolvable dilemma, the tie goes to my bliss. Why not?

But Posner does have a bit of a point here. Sometimes defending free speech is a little too easy. To get personal here: I’m a gay atheist who loves bacon, martinis, and compound interest. Hooray for capitalism! I also think women’s hair is awesome, and they should be able to wear it however they please. I’m not exactly going to be sympathetic to the Muslim religion, and if The Innocence of Muslims had any wit or cleverness about it, I’d be laughing my ass off. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)

In other words, this particular film isn’t such a great test for me. A better one, both for me and for lots of others, might be the building of a mosque in downtown Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. Or the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church. Or Slate publishing an odious article suggesting that we capitulate to violent thugs on the other side of the world.

Any of those might do. In each, I’ve got some serious disagreements with the message. And I support free expression anyway. If you do too, then congratulations. You’re probably a free speech absolutist.

But is free speech absolutism a religion? No. It’s not. It’s not even an ordinary aspect of public policy. It’s a meta-political commitment.

I’m sorry for the fancy term. Sometimes they’re actually helpful. Free speech is a thing that we do because we trust that, by doing it, we get better politics (and better religion, and better art, and better science, and…). The airing of different ideas, even of bad ideas, is not something that we hold as a revelation from God, or from the mystical Founders, or from the high authority of the Supreme Court in the era of Earl Warren. We support free speech because we believe it conduces to all sorts of other good things – including good public policy.

Posner has to deny that, and he does:

Suddenly, the disparagement of other people and their beliefs is not an unfortunate fact but a positive good. It contributes to the “marketplace of ideas,” as though we would seriously admit that Nazis or terrorist fanatics might turn out to be right after all. Salman Rushdie recently claimed that bad ideas, “like vampires … die in the sunlight” rather than persist in a glamorized underground existence. But bad ideas never die: They are zombies, not vampires. Bad ideas like fascism, Communism, and white supremacy have roamed the countryside of many an open society.

This is some weak argument. The point of free speech is not and has never been that Naziism is a “positive good.” That would be a bare self-contradiction, because Naziism entails censorship. Nor do we necessarily admit that Nazis can be talked out of their beliefs (although, on the margins, some certainly were).

We air odious beliefs so that each of us – who are not Nazis or otherwise fanatics – may learn to argue properly against them. Are they zombies? Yes! Do you remember how every single fantasy video game used to start with killing, like, a whole bunch of zombies? That’s political education in a free society. You kill zombies until you acquire the skills to do more interesting things.

Posner ends with a nod to the protesters in Cairo and Islamabad, whose grievances, he implies, must go beyond a stray YouTube video. What would we say to them?

In some cases, I would protest the very same things. Like them, I too am concerned about American drone strikes. I don’t like how they are changing international relations. I don’t like what they are doing to American civil liberties. I certainly don’t approve of killing innocent bystanders in Pakistan.

I protest these things. Peacefully. Can they peacefully protest as well? Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes. Well then. Come, let us reason together.

Slow and Steady Progress on TSA Strip-Search Policy

Having pled before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that doing a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its strip-search machine policy is difficult and expensive, the Transportation Security Administration is dropping a cool quarter-billion dollars on new strip-search machines. That’s quite a fixation the TSA has, putting spending on new gadgets ahead of following the law.

But the writing is on the wall for the practice of putting travelers through strip-search machines and prison-style pat-downs at the government checkpoints in American airports.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit ruled against a petition to have the court force TSA to move forward with taking public comments as required by law. The language of the order signals the court’s expectation, though, that the TSA will get this done, quoting the TSA’s language and, well, saying as much.

ORDERED that the petition for writ of mandamus be denied in light of the Government’s representation that “the process of finalizing the AIT Rulemaking documents so that the NPRM may be published is expected to be complete by or before the end of February 2013.” Accordingly, we expect that the NPRM will be published before the end of March 2013.

Generous court — it gave the TSA an extra month.

I imagine the folks at EPIC are preparing a filing for April 1st. No foolin’, there will be a public push to go along with it, as large or larger than the most recent.

The TSA knows it can only carry on so long in contempt of the law and the court. I expect the rulemaking documents will issue by midnight on March 31st, even if a special Sunday edition of the Federal Register has to be published to do it.

The court’s ruling is technically adverse to the petitioners, but it is better than a flat denial. The court was not going to cancel a policy that is arguably an important security measure. The best outcome was some kind of date certain with consequences for failure to act. The TSA delivered a date certain, which the court has adopted. Leaving the consequences unstated could embolden TSA to more contumacy, but I doubt it.

Once the rulemaking is in place, the strategy I laid out a year ago kicks in.

The TSA will have to exhibit how its risk management supports the installation and use of strip-search machines. How did the TSA do its asset characterization (summarizing the things it is protecting)? What are the vulnerabilities it assessed? How did it model threats and hazards (actors or things animated to do harm)? What are the likelihoods and consequences of various attacks? Risk assessment questions like these are all essential inputs into decisions about what to prioritize and how to respond.

When the insufficiency of its policymaking is shown, the policy will be ripe for review under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard and there will be a record sufficient to justify a Fourth Amendment challenge to the policy of prison-style searches of all American travelers.

Yes, the challenge to this policy is taking a long time, but pressing back on all fronts against the invasive, unneeded security state is a joy even when it requires patience.

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency’s efficiency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.

Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So I suggest a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

Many of the jitneys serve Atlanta’s Hispanic communities. One curiosity: according to one report, most MARTA drivers speak only English while most jitney drivers speak only Spanish.

Given that private operators provide transit service without subsidies, how can MARTA justify spending $400 million a year in taxpayer funds on transit? One reason is that MARTA spent $4 billion building a 52-mile rail system that serves a tiny fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. When counting amortized capital costs, this rail system costs about 50 percent more to operate, per vehicle mile, than MARTA buses, which themselves cost far more than private buses.

Construction of the rail system aimed to attract middle-class commuters out of their cars, but was done at the expense of limiting bus service to working-class neighborhoods. Although greater Atlanta’s population has grown by more than 150 percent since it started building rail transit, MARTA has done very little to expand bus service. As a result, transit’s share of Atlanta-area commuting declined from 11.0 percent in 1970 to 4.1 percent in 2010, which is hardly an endorsement of rail transit.

Contracting out and the other actions proposed in the KPMG audit can save a little money, but that savings will probably just be wasted on some other part of the transit system. In the long run, such reforms do little more than rearrange the deck chairs as the boat is sinking. Complete privatization would save Atlanta-area taxpayers more than a billion dollars every four years and still result in decent transit service to Atlanta neighborhoods that want and need it.

North Korea’s Hyperinflation Legacy

North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly met on Tuesday. The failed communist state failed to deliver on its advertised economic reforms. The big change introduced by the all-knowing Assembly was in the area of food and fuel rations. Teachers will have their rations increased. Fine. But, I wonder whose bowl those bumped-up rations will come from. Never mind.

North Korea’s communist economic legacy—in addition to starvation—is hyperinflation. North Korea is one of only 40 countries in the world that have experienced hyperinflation. In our recent Cato Working Paper, Nicholas Krus and I concluded that a North Korean episode of hyperinflation occurred from December 2009 to mid-January 2011, with an estimated peak monthly inflation rate of 496 percent, in March 2010. At this rate, prices were doubling every 14.1 days. Alas, the horrors of hyperinflation will linger, generation after generation. What a legacy.