Topic: Political Philosophy

Remembering America’s Heritage of Freedom

Two years ago on Presidents’ Day (which is legally Washington’s Birthday) I talked about my book The Libertarian Mind at the National Constitution Center (video). As part of that appearance I wrote about America’s libertarian heritage in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Where better than Philadelphia on Presidents’ Day to talk about liberty and reviving the American tradition of freedom and limited government.

Thomas Jefferson said that when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776, he had no book or pamphlet at hand but simply set down “an expression of the American mind.” With its foundation on the equal and inalienable rights of all people, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration also reflects the libertarian mind.

Indeed, the principles of the Declaration are so closely associated with libertarianism that the Chinese edition of my previous book, Libertarianism: A Primer, features a cover photograph of the famous room in Independence Hall, complete with Windsor chairs and green tablecloths.

Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom. It has, in different form throughout history, inspired people who fought for freedom, dignity, and individual rights — the early advocates of religious tolerance, the opponents of absolute monarchy, the American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, antiwar advocates and anti-imperialists, opponents of National Socialism and communism….

I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution — individual liberty, limited government, and free markets — are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information, a world that Jefferson or Madison could not have imagined. Libertarianism is the essential framework for a future of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank You, John Stossel

Stossel bookSeven years ago tonight John Stossel’s show debuted on Fox Business. This week he announced that the show will end next week.

Some years ago – I’m not sure whether he was still on ABC’s “20/20” then or had moved to Fox – I introduced John at a Cato event as “the most visible, most valuable libertarian in America.” That’s still an accurate assessment.

I first noticed John’s interest in freedom at the end of 1989 when he did a “20/20” piece on “The Positives of Deregulation,” reporting on the new and improved products and services that deregulation had delivered during the 1980s. I remember especially the afterword, when John sat at the anchor desk with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, and Downs said, “That was very interesting. It had never occurred to me that there was anything good about deregulation.” I thought to myself, “Really? I understand why some people favor regulation. You just thought deregulation was delivered by space aliens or Mr. Potter of Potterville?”

Then in 1994 John got to do his first hour-long special on ABC, “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” I had the good fortune to attend a taping of a late-night followup where people with varying views watched the show and then discussed it with John. As the segments were shown, I could hear the gasps in the audience around me. Environmentalists and others had never seen a major network program question their claims. But on ABC and later on Fox, he went on doing hour-long investigations of such topics as “Freeloaders,” “Greed,” “Stupid in America,” “Whose Body Is It Anyway?” and “Is America Number 1?” (featuring Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer).

I was proud to appear on his shows many times, including this 2015 special on spontaneous order.

John Stossel isn’t retiring. Reportedly, he’ll continue appearing on Fox shows and will also work with Reason.tv and other libertarian organizations on video projects. Meanwhile, much of his work is made available to teachers and students by Stossel in the Classroom, and lots of his specials and regular shows can be found online.

From “The Positives on Deregulation” in 1989 through last night’s “Death by Socialism” and no doubt next Friday’s final show, John Stossel has been bringing a needed dose of reality – and a lot of libertarian scholars and activists – to network television.

Revenues from Trump Plan Unfairly Compared to Fanciful CBO Projections

Tax Policy Center estimate of a 10-year $6.2 trillion revenue loss is used to predict higher interest rates, and those higher interest rates prevent the economy from growing faster, which in turn vindicates the static assumption of a $6.2 trillion revenue loss.  

The circularity of this tangled fable is remarkably illogical.  How could interest rates remain higher if private investment is crowded out leaving GDP growth unchanged?

The TPC tells a similar story about the House Republican tax plan.  “Although the House GOP tax plan would improve incentives to save and invest, it would also substantially increase budget deficits unless offset by spending cuts, resulting in higher interest rates that would crowd out investment [emphasis added].”  This too is an unsupported assertion. The TPC analysis predicts more private savings and therefore cannot simply assume deficits “would crowd out investment.”

Nat Hentoff’s Interview with Che Guevara

Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff once had the opportunity to interview Fidel Castro’s henchman, Che Guevara.  As Nat relates in this video clip, Che’s gatekeeper messed up–just assuming that since Nat wrote for the Village Voice, he would be another fawning lefty journalist.  Wrong!

In 2003, Nat wrote: “Having interviewed Cubans who survived Castro’s gulags, I have never understood or respected the parade of American entertainers, politicians and intellectuals who travel to Cuba to be entranced by this ruthless dictator who, for me, has all the charisma of a preening thug.”

And here’s Richard Cohen in today’s Washington Post: “Fidel Castro was a killer. He came to power in a revolution and so violence was probably inescapable. But he followed it with mass executions — the guilty, the innocent, it hardly mattered. He imposed a totalitarian system on Cuba even harsher and more homicidal than the one that preceded it. He persecuted homosexuals, dissidents, critical writers and journalists. He would not tolerate a free press, and his own political party was the only one permitted. In the end, he ruined his country’s economy while at the same time exporting terrorism.”  Read the whole thing.

The Debate Over Voting: Helping Jim Harper Count for Something

On November 2nd, Cato will host a debate over whether libertarians should vote. On the “no” side will be me and my colleague Aaron Ross Powell. On the losing side will be our colleagues Jim Harper and Michael F. Cannon. You should come, that is, of course, unless you’re sensitive to the sight of public executions.

But Jim wants to start the debate early. Yesterday, he criticized the standard economist’s argument for why people (including libertarians) shouldn’t vote. “Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome,” as Jim describes the argument, “the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste.”

This is true under most circumstances: if you’re voting solely to change an election, then your voting is irrational. If you get no pleasure out of voting, if casting a vote gives you no sense of a duty fulfilled, yet you still wake up, stand in line on a cold November morning, and cast your vote merely because you want to change the outcome of the election, then you are behaving irrationally.

In nearly every circumstance, your vote doesn’t matter. It won’t change things. Every election that you’ve ever voted in or not voted in would have come out exactly the same if you had done the opposite. This is not an opinion, it is an inescapable mathematical truth.

Jim argues that this is only half the story. What the standard, voting-is-irrational model “really fails to account for is the effect that margins of victory have on the many, many political and social actors that will consume vote information after election day.” This is still wrong, and for the same reasons.

At the risk of creating a more difficult debate opponent on November 2nd, I must inform Jim that he’s consistently equating two fundamentally different concepts: 1) the trivially true idea that voting, en masse, matters; and 2) the idea that a single vote matters. Aaron and I will not be arguing that voting, en masse, doesn’t matter in the sense that it affects the world. Of course it does. And we will not be arguing that margins of victory, which are just an emergent phenomenon of en masse voting, don’t matter. That would be silly. But, under most circumstances, a single vote doesn’t meaningfully contribute to either an electoral victory or to the margin of victory. No winning politician has ever said, “well, I won by 4.000006 percent, but if I won by 4.000007 percent, that would have really been a mandate for action.”  

Finally, I told Jim in an email that I could refute him in a single sentence. Here it is:

A single vote’s contribution to a margin of victory is nearly as infinitesimal as its contribution to a victory, and, if margins of victory have consumable value as “vote information,” then so does voter turnout, so you’re better off staying home in order to marginally contribute to that data point.

Maybe that’s all Jim needed to soothe his troubled soul: a reason to not vote that will make him feel he is contributing to the system. Apparently Jim has a deep-seated need to be a part of a percentage, to be counted by some egg-head political data consultant. So stay home Jim, but do it with gusto rather than apathy. Know that you’re making a marginal contribution to the voter turnout numbers. On November 8th, stand up—or sit down, or sleep in—and get counted!

Come to the debate, or watch it online. It’ll be fun.

Economics Will Be Our Ruination III, the Votening

(This post is an ad for the upcoming debate: Should Libertarians Vote? It’s sure to rock the world of liberty. Sign up at the link.)

The first and second parts of my “Economics Will Be Our Ruination” series highlighted how putatively neutral economic analysis often subtly embeds non-neutral values. Economists tend to prefer human activity that’s measurable using dollars over non-monetary trade or leisure, for example. An economic model of the Fourth Amendment can easily place group interests ahead of individual rights. In this installment I’ll highlight weaknesses in the practice of economic modeling, using the example of voting.

Creating a theoretical construct to depict common transactions or interactions, then assessing such activity as abstracted, is essential to economics. But it is also a profound weakness of that form of analysis, because failing to model accurately will send one’s economic assessment off the rails.

An example of this is economic assessment of voting. Many economists, both professional and amateur, are ineluctably drawn to modeling voting as a process solely for selecting the officials that will serve in a representative government. Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome, the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste. So economists conclude that voting is irrational.

That model of voting is hugely over-simplified, omitting even down-ballot electoral and initiative races, which somewhat increase the still-small odds of casting a decisive vote. But what the model really fails to account for is the effect that margins of victory have on the many, many political and social actors that will consume vote information after election day. As I wrote a few months ago in a piece called Don’t Not Vote, “Votes are a dazzling roman candle of information supplied to elected officials, their staffs, political parties, journalists, opinion leaders, and future candidates, to name a few. All these witnesses to elections incorporate vote information—not just outcome, but win/loss margins—into their actions and assessments well beyond election and inauguration day.”

From Utopia to Animal Farm

In a society such as ours … is appears crazy at first to want revolution.  For we have whatever we want.  But the aim here is to transform the will itself so that people no longer want what they now want… .The question with which we had to deal … amounts to the question of whether … in order to set free these needs, a dictatorship appears necessary…

–Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia” (1967)

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.  . .  The inhabitants of various [Utopias] are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from passion … .  Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wiser course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.

–George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun” (1943)

If another group tie takes the place of the religious one – and the socialistic tie seems to be succeeding in doing so – then there will be the same intolerance towards outsiders as in the age of the Wars of Religion.

–Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921).


The actual distribution of income or wealth has often been compared with a hypothetical ideal (Utopia) rather than actual experience in any country at any time. 

Many Westerners once believed incomes were nearly equal in the former Soviet Union, for example, but we now know that substantial privileges did exist for a select few – based on political power rather than economic contribution.[i] Even aside from bribery and corruption, special access to health care, education, housing and special shops was often granted to the Communist Party hierarchy and the bureaucratic elite.  Urban people in general were subsidized at the expense of rural areas.

By the late seventies, only a handful of Western leftists continued  to defend such dictatorships as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un feudal dynasty.  

In recent years, the left’s previous romanticism of communism has sometimes been briefly salavaged by relabeling similar authoritarian regimes as “socialist” (Chavez in Venezuela), which sounds nicer but isn’t. Others have switched to romanticizing some golden age of the past.  In the U.S., for example, the Golden Age of greater equality was said to have occurred between 1930 and 1973. Yet the realtively egalitarian (“fair”?) suffering of 1930-39 is difficult to romaticize, for obvious reasons, as is the post-1973 stagflationary collapse of Nixon’s authoritatian price controls.

Vague allusions to social justice are often employed to suggest that a larger fraction of the economy’s benefits (food, housing, health care, etc.) could and should be distributed by government rather than by markets.  In theory, we could turn over all of our income to democratically elected officials and let them decide who gets what. But distribution on the basis of political criteria is not necessarily fairer than distribution on the basis of economic criteria.  Political markets also tend toward one-size-fits-all solutions, with less variety and innovation than in economic markets.

Those currrently expecting politicians to make various goods or services “affordable” or “free” are really just asking government officials to force someone else to pay.  But artificially low prices (e.g., for colleges or physicians) inflate demand and discourage supply, requiring some bureaucrat to use nonprice rationing such as waiting lists, lotteries or preferential treatment for those with the most political clout.

The only alternative to a free market is a politically rigged market, and that invariably turns out to be neither fair nor pleasant. 

The only way to ban markets is to beat them down with force. And since markets are abstractions, the force is used against people. So the alternative to a market-oriented society in which everyone is required to respect everyone else’s rights is a society in which those in power use force on whomever they can get away with using it on.”

–David R. Henderson, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (1997)


[i] David R. Henderson, Robert M. McNab & Tamás Rózsás, “The Hidden Inequality in Socialism,” The Independent Review (Winter 2005)

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