Political Philosophy

December 5, 2019 12:25PM

Give the Gift of P. J. O’Rourke

The Cato Institute offers lots of great Christmas gifts — Pocket Constitutions (also a good gift for Bill of Rights Day!), books, apparel, even Cato‐​branded Lands’ End merchandise. But I have my own holiday recommendations that I’ve made before.

Media Name: PJ3.jpg

I decided one year to give a young colleague a post‐​graduate course in political science and economics — P. J. O’Rourke’s books Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich. So I went to my local Barnes & Noble to search for them. Not in Current Affairs. Not in Economics. No separate section called Politics. I decided to try Borders (RIP). But first — to avoid yet more driving around — I went online to see if my local Borders stores had them in stock. Sure enough, they did, in a couple of stores just blocks from the Cato Institute. Checking to see where in the store I would find them, I discovered that they would both be shelved under “Humor–Humorous Writing.” Oh, right, I thought, they’re not books on economics or current affairs, they’re humor.

Yes, P.J. is one of the funniest writers around. But what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he is. Parliament of Whores is a very funny book, but it’s also a very perceptive analysis of politics in a modern mixed‐​economy democracy. And if you read Eat the Rich, you’ll learn more about how countries get rich — and why they don’t — than in a whole year of econ at most colleges. In fact, I’ve decided that the best answer to the question “What’s the best book to start learning economics?” is Eat the Rich.

On page 1, P. J. starts with the right question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” Supply‐​and‐​demand curves are all well and good, but what we really want to know is how not to be mired in poverty. He writes that he tried returning to his college economics texts but quickly remembered why he hated them at the time–though he does attempt, for instance, to explain comparative advantage in terms of John Grisham and Courtney Love. Instead he decided to visit economically successful and unsuccessful societies and try to figure out what makes them work or not work. So he headed off to Sweden, Hong Kong, Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, China, and Wall Street.

In Tanzania he gapes at the magnificent natural beauty and the appalling human poverty. Why is Tanzania so poor? he asks people, and he gets a variety of answers. One answer, he notes, is that Tanzania is actually not poor by the standards of human history; it has a life expectancy about that of the United States in 1920, which is a lot better than humans in 1720, or 1220, or 20. But, he finally concludes, the real answer is the collective “ujamaa” policies pursued by the sainted post‐​colonial leader Julius Nyerere. The answer is “ujaama—they planned it. They planned it, and we paid for it. Rich countries underwrote Tanzanian economic idiocy.”

From Tanzania P. J. moves on to Hong Kong, where he finds “the best contemporary example of laissez-faire.…The British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.”

You could do worse than to take a semester‐​long course on political economy where the texts are Eat the Rich and Parliament of Whores. So, bookstore owners, leave them in the Humorous Writing section for sure, but also put copies in the Economics, Politics, and Current Affairs sections.

Still time to buy them for Christmas and educate all your family and friends while they think they’re just being entertained!

November 26, 2019 8:02AM

What to Be Thankful For

Endless war. A $23 trillion national debt. Intrusive regulation. Criminal injustice. Presidents who don’t think the Constitution limits their powers. It’s easy to point to troubling aspects of modern America, and I spend a lot of time doing that. But when a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America, I found it a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history — and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world — and still different from much of the world — a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man — a king, a priest, a communist party boss — take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard‐​earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status — clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmins, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal — or at least that was our promise and our aspiration. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self‐​government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places — Athens, Rome, medieval Germany — there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent. 

Freedom of speech. In a world of Fox and MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China, Russia, Africa, and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings — from the design and construction of airplanes to Bitcoin and Venmo. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to music on our iPhones. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s World magazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

A version of this article was published in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

October 4, 2019 12:30PM

Poll: Democrats Say Seeking Personal Satisfaction Is More Important to Them; Republicans Say Fulfilling Obligation Is More Important

The Cato 2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth National Survey of 1,700 Americans investigated if Americans prioritize seeking personal fulfillment or fulfilling obligation.

A slim majority (52%) say it’s more important for them to “work hard and do what is expected of you,” while 47% say it’s more important for them to do things that “give you personal satisfaction and pleasure.”[1]

Republicans Prioritize Fulfilling Obligation; Democrats Prioritize Seeking
Personal Satisfaction

Liberals prioritize personal fulfillment; conservatives prioritize hard work and obligation

Partisans are starkly divided. Nearly two‐​thirds (65%) of Republicans say it’s more important in their own lives to work hard and do what is expected of them. In contrast, a solid majority (57%) of Democrats say it’s more important for them to pursue things that give them personal satisfaction and pleasure.

Ideological differences are even more pronounced. Two‐​thirds (66%) of strong liberals say it’s more important to pursue pleasure and satisfaction while about two‐​thirds (65%) of strong conservatives say working hard and doing what is expected of them is more important.

Young Americans Seek Personal Fulfillment, Older People Say Hard Work and Fulfilling Obligation Matter More

Younger people, especially those under 45, are more likely to prioritize personal fulfillment while those over 45 say it’s more important to fulfill obligations. Fifty‐​three percent (53%) of Americans ages 18–44 say they prioritize the pursuit of personal satisfaction and pleasure. People ages 45–54 are evenly divided. Sixty‐​percent (60%) of those over 55 say that working hard and doing what’s expected of them matters more.

These results are remarkably similar to a Los Angeles Times survey from 30 years ago.[2]In 1989, most young Americans under 45 said they prioritized personal fulfillment over working hard and obligations (50% vs. 44%). However, a majority of Americans over 55 said working hard and doing what’s expected of them mattered more (57%) than pursuing personal satisfaction and pleasure (35%). Those in the young 1989 cohort who prioritized personal satisfaction then are about 50–75 years old today and now say hard work and fulfilling obligation matter more. This suggests that Americans change their minds about what’s more important as they get older.

Beliefs About Capitalism and Socialism Linked to Attitudes Toward Hard Work and Personal Fulfillment

Capitalists say its more important to work hard and fulfill obligations; socialists say personal fulfillment is more important

Attitudes toward obligation and personal fulfillment are related to views of capitalism and socialism. Americans very favorable to capitalism (65%) say it’s more important to work hard and do what’s expected of them. Conversely, Americans very favorable toward socialism (59%) say it’s more important to seek personal satisfaction and pleasure.

Perhaps some are drawn to capitalism or socialism based on their personal expectations: seeking personal fulfillment or to fulfill obligation. If one prioritizes hard work and obligation, they might be drawn to a capitalist system because that system would reward production and hard work. But if one prioritizes pursuing personal satisfaction, perhaps they are drawn to a socialist system because it would provide for their needs irrespective of what they produce, thereby offering the autonomy to pursue endeavors that provide personal satisfaction.

Full survey results and report found here.

Read more of the survey report here.

The Cato Institute 2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online March 5 to 8, 2019 from a representative national sample of 1,700 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.2 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

Sign up here to receive forthcoming Cato Institute survey reports.


[1]A 1958 survey found that 63% of Americans agreed that “people should place more emphasis on working hard and doing a good job than on what gives them personal satisfaction and pleasure.” About a quarter (23%) disagreed and 15% were unsure, cited in McCloskey and Zaller, The American Ethos, p. 108.

[2]Los Angeles Times, National Survey, 1989, accessed via the iPoll Database at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

September 26, 2019 11:34AM

China Celebrates an Anniversary of a “People’s Democratic Dictatorship”

Next Tuesday the People’s Republic of China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding on October 1, 1949. Quite an extravaganza is planned, even as protesters in Hong Kong plan a counter‐​rally. China’s opposition to democracy in Hong Kong and in China itself is not just the recalcitrance of cranky old men. It’s part of the Chinese Communist state’s founding mission.

Take the speech of Mao Zedong on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia,and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

Tragically, unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning it went terribly wrong, as really should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness” in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.

Fortunately, after Mao died in 1976, China changed rapidly. In far‐​flung parts of the country, villages and communes had already begun recreating markets and individual plots of land. Mao’s old comrade Deng Xiaoping, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, had learned something from the 30 years of calamity. He began to implement policies he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which looked a lot like freer markets—decollectivization and the “responsibility system” in agriculture, privatization of enterprises, international trade, liberalization of residency requirements.

The changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world—more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that has eroded the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. But on its 70th birthday, the CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. President Xi Jinping has become more authoritarian, and has concentrated more power in his own person than any ruler since Mao. Some say China is becoming “the perfect dictatorship.” But there are rumblings of dissent inside the Chinese leadership. Maybe the passion and endurance of the Hong Kong protests, coming on top of the oppression of the Uighurs and the Hui, closures of liberal think tanks, tightening of economic controls, and a general increase in repression, will be a beacon that will help China return to its faltering path toward openness.

September 25, 2019 8:50AM

Poll: Democratic Support for Socialism Rises Under Trump

The Cato 2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth National Survey finds that a growing majority—64%—of Democrats have favorable views of socialism, up from 53% in 2012. Only 45% of Democrats have a positive view of capitalism, down from 55% in 2012. Instead, today a majority (54%) of Democrats have negative views of capitalism.

Democratic views of socialism improve and capitalism decline during Trump era

Full survey results and report found here.

In contrast, majorities of Republicans and independents have favorable views of capitalism and unfavorable views of socialism. But Republicans are considerably more favorable toward capitalism than independents by a margin of 77% to 52% and more unfavorable toward socialism, 85% vs. 58%.

Democrats Turn Against Capitalism and Toward Socialism during the Trump Era

Survey data over time reveals that Democrats began turning against capitalism and toward socialism during the Trump era. Historical Gallup surveys show that Democrats were about equally favorable toward socialism and capitalism in 2010 (53% vs. 53%), 2012 (55% vs. 53%), and 2016 (58% vs. 56%). After the 2016 election, however, Democratic support for capitalism started to lose out to socialism. By 2018, Gallup found 57% of Democrats had a favorable view of socialism while fewer (47%) had a favorable view of capitalism. The Cato survey conducted in 2019 finds the gap widening with 64% of Democrats who have favorable views of socialism and 45% who have favorable views of capitalism. Republicans, on the other hand, have remained resolutely in favor of capitalism and opposed to socialism since at least 2010.

50% of Democrats Say Trump Has Soured Their View of Capitalism

Attitudes toward Donald Trump may have something to do with changing Democratic opinions. Fully 50% of Democrats say that President Trump has made them “like capitalism less,” while 44% say he has had no impact on their perceptions. In contrast, majorities of independents (76%) and Republicans (64%) say Trump has not influenced their views either way.

Given that 90% of Democrats have an unfavorable view of the president, they may have lost confidence in an economic system that seemed to benefit Trump, a billionaire businessman.

Half of Democrats say Trump has soured their views of capitalism

Read more of the survey report here.

The Cato Institute 2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online March 5 to 8, 2019 from a representative national sample of 1,700 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.2 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

August 27, 2019 11:49AM

Pro‐​Market Chinese Think Tank to Close

I was sad to read this news:

BEIJING—An independent Chinese think tank that has served as a rare bastion for liberal economic thought will shut down, citing government pressure as President Xi Jinping ’s campaign to silence dissent rolls on.

This is bad for China and bad for the world.


I feel a particular connection to Unirule because, at Tom Palmer’s suggestion, I once nominated Mao Yushi — one of Unirule’s founders, and a Cato Friedman prize recipient — to receive an honorary degree from Harvard. So far, the committee has not selected him.


Here is that nomination statement (which, true confessions, Tom wrote):

Nomination Mao Yushi


Areas of Expertise


Mao Yushi was originally trained in railroad engineering and developed an interest in the economics of markets in socialist China. He was punished in the 1950s for suggesting that if there is no pork for sale, the price should be allowed to rise. His support for rational economic policies did not waver and he was punished severely during the various waves of economic chaos and repression. In 1981 when working at the China Academy of Railway Sciences he published a paper on the foundations of optimal resource allocation, which laid a mathematical foundation for the use of prices to allocate scarce resources among competing uses. That led to greater work and efforts to institute economic reforms based on sound economics. To continue that work, in 1993 he co‐​founded Unirule Economic Research Institute, which has since published many papers on the Chinese economy, including such sensitive subjects as the reliability of economic data from the government and the unprofitability, when calculating implicit subsidies, of the large state owned enterprises. In addition to pioneering the science of applied economics in China, he has been one of China’s most effective public educators and his book Economics in Everyday Life became a major bestseller in China. He tirelessly explains and applies the fundamental insights of economics to everyday life.


Suggested one‐​sentence degree citation


This degree has been awarded in recognition of Mao Yushi’s contributions to the economics of resource allocation and his pioneering role in applying economic science to illuminate and guide the transition from central planning to market allocation.


An impartial summary of the nominee’s accomplishments


Mao Yushi is widely considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern China. His own writings played an important role, but his establishment of a number of institutions has had far reaching impact. In 1993 he co‐​founded the Unirule Economic Research Institute, which has transformed economic discourse in China and published a vast array of detailed studies on economic transformation, municipal finance, trade policy, state subsidized industries, and many other topics. He has also pioneered non‐​state charitable and mutual aid practices in China, including his work co‐​establishing the Fuping Development Institute, which helps mainly rural and inland Chinese people to acquire skills and training to succeed economically and transform the more remote provinces of China. His work establishing and promoting those institutions led to many others that have proliferated across China. More recently Mao established the Society for Humanistic Economics to spread public education about economics and to promote an open and tolerant society. His widely read essays frequently combine universal economic principles with well known Chinese cultural themes to explain the importance of the prices, economic residuals, and non‐​tuistic economic behavior.


Mao has made a mark on China as an outspoken advocate of intellectual openness. He was an early signer of the Charter 08. Liu Xiabo, who was imprisoned for his role in Charter 08 and later received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, wrote of Mao, his “bravery is worthy of our respect.” He was named one of China’s 50 most distinguished citizens by Southern People’s Weekly in 2004 and is widely considered one of the most influential living intellectuals in China. In 2012 he was awarded the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Freedom by the Cato Institute. His essay “Returning Mao Zedong to Human Form” was published in the influential journal Caixing and set off a major debate in China about Mao’s legacy. It was taken down and later published in a shorter version in the Wall Street Journal. He is known for his public criticism of what he calls “privilege rights” and his insistence that a just and prosperous society requires a strong foundation of legal equality and the rule of law.

I will nudge the honorary degree committee to consider Mao Yushi again!

August 23, 2019 3:01PM

Remembering David Koch

The directors and staff of the Cato Institute, and indeed friends of liberty throughout the world, are saddened by the passing of David Koch.


David’s accomplishments as a businessman and philanthropist are estimable. But we most remember and admire him for his efforts to advance liberty in the United States and around the world, and his steadfast dedication to libertarian principles.


David is a director emeritus of Cato, having joined our board of directors in 1986 and serving for nearly 30 years. Over this time, the Institute, the Cato community, and our work benefited greatly from his service, insight, generosity, and example. We will not forget the many ways in which he contributed to our mission.


Because the quality of our civil discourse has deteriorated in recent years, David’s dedication to our principles often earned him unfair criticism and excoriation in the public arena. But like us, he was motivated by a firm belief that liberty is the means to human flourishing, through which every individual is able to live a prosperous, meaningful life in a country and world at peace. He also believed strongly that the rights granted to us by nature and protected by the Constitution cannot be denied to any American for any reason. That he bore such unwarranted public criticism with dignity, and that it did not deter him from his work in advancing freedom, merits great respect from all of us.


We have no doubt that David’s partnership will be missed by so many of the causes to which he dedicated himself, not least of which is the cause of liberty. But of course, he will be missed most of all by his family, to whom we extend our heartfelt sympathy and to whom we turn our thoughts at this difficult time.

Robert A. Levy
Chairman of the Board of Directors
Cato Institute
Peter N. Goettler
President and Chief Executive Officer
Cato Institute