Political Philosophy

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
August 19, 2019 2:55PM

Why 1619 Matters in 2019

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The New York Times Magazine recently released its "1619 Project," an initiative marking the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in North America. The project is ambitious, aiming to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding." A collection of pundits have framed this project as an attempt to "delegitimize" the United States. Such commentary provides an opportunity to consider the state of American race relations and the role of slavery in American history. 

Whether or not the foundation of the United States was legitimate is an interesting political, moral,  and historical question. You can spend a career considering questions about when political violence is justified, what fair representation in a democracy looks like, how to measure and secure the consent of the governed, and what political system best secures natural rights. But these aren't the kinds of questions many 1619 Project critics have in mind when they accuse it of "delegimitizing" the United States. They're concerned that highlighting America's brutal history of slavery and its role in forming the United States undermines the American project; an experiment in self-government. 

The relationship between black people and the white institutions that oppressed them is one of the most consequential features of American history. The most prominent of America's contradictions is that its Founding documents were written by white men who owned black human beings as farm equipment, yet they expressed a commitment to liberty. 

Thomas Jefferson, the man who believed that it was "self-evident" that all men are created equal owned slaves. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and author of many of The Federalist Papers, also owned slaves and was skeptical of free African Americans being a part of the American polity. After leaving the White House Madison served as the president of the American Colonization Society, which urged freed black people to move to Africa. 

During the Revolutionary War, the British frigate HMS Savage sailed up the Potomac River, its troops burning houses in Maryland in view of Mt. Vernon, George Washington's Virginia estate. The Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray had earlier issued a proclamation, offering freedom to slaves who fought for Britain. A wartime necessity rather an endorsement of full-throated emancipation to be sure, but it's nonetheless telling that seventeen of Washington's slaves fled Mt. Vernon and boarded HMS Savage. To a Virginia slave, housing in a British warship was preferable to the slave quarters belonging to the man who would become the first president of the United States.  

Bewilderment at slave owners proclaiming a devotion to liberty is hardly reserved to 21st century. In a 1775 essay on the American colonies the English writer Samuel Johnson asked not unreasonably, "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The Founding Father John Adams never owned slaves and opposed slavery, though favored gradual erosion of the institution rather than outright and immediate abolition. His wife Abigail understood the contradiction of the American Founding:

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us. . . .

That the Founding generation included moral hypocrites is hardly surprising. Every collection of human beings has included flawed people. Anyone scouring history books in search of moral perfection will be left disappointed. 

It's not clear that the moral hypocrisy of some of America's founders delegitimizes the United States per se. At worst such hypocrisy makes the founding of the United States far from perfect. Even those who think that it's a stretch to say that the United States was founded "on" racism can hardly deny that it was founded with racist institutions explicitly protected. The evils of slavery don't in and of themselves negate the colonists' complaints about a lack of representation in Parliament or the fact that British officials had subjected colonists to needless, intrusive searches and other abuses against their civil rights. But they shouldn’t be overlooked. 

What is clear is that the United States has yet to fully come to terms with its history of racial violence and oppression. In large part this is because we're accustomed to measuring our race relations progress through the lenses of military, political, and legislative victories. 

Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the wake of an illegitimate attempt at secession predicated on the preservation of slavery. The Civil War amendments to the Constitution certainly improved the document, but they hardly erased a culture of violence and racism that made them a necessity. 

The North won the Civil War, the South won Reconstruction. The explicit exemption of blacks from civil rights and political participation in the South as well as the emergence of a racist domestic terrorist organization are all evidence that wars and Constitutional amendments hardly erase cultures that took centuries to develop. A century after Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, racists were murdering civil rights activists in the Jim Crow South. Thousands of black people had been lynched during those hundred years. Others were subjected to medical experiments. Segregation, bans on interracial marriage, and many other indignities were imposed by white-majority legislatures. 

We can and should applaud the progress that the U.S. has made since its founding while accepting that there is much work to be done. Such work requires an honest look at history that treats the Founding Fathers and America's founding documents as men and historical writings, not prophets and religious texts. 

Although decades have passed since the civil rights movement American institutions continue to reflect America's racist history. Law enforcement and criminal justice are perhaps the most prominent and obvious examples, but we shouldn't ignore the impact racism has had on housing policy, education, and economic regulations. This history of course doesn't imply that everyone who works in law enforcement, housing, and education or advocates for minimum wage increases is a racist, but it should be considered when discussing the ongoing impact of race relations on American society.  

We should also consider modern moral hypocrisies and racial language. Today, many people who claim to support "liberty" protest the removal of statues of Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery. More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, a city worker in New Orleans wore body armor and a face covering while removing a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. 

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a member of the "Freedom Caucus," won re-election despite saying that President Obama should be sent "back home to Kenya or wherever" (he has since disowned the comments). The whole Obama presidency is full of examples of thinly veiled racial language being used against the president and his family. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has used racist language and adorned his desk with a Confederate flag, which he displayed without any hint of irony alongside the American flag.

If initiatives like The 1619 Project can help Americans better understand their history and institutions then they should be applauded. I've yet to read the 1619 essay collection in full, and I'm sure that I'll have some disagreements with some of its contributors. The essay on the link between slavery and the "brutality of American capitalism" looks ripe for educated criticism.

It's important for an honest look at American institutions and history because the United States - unlike France and Greece - was founded on a set of principles. French and Greek identities have endured despite Greece and France being governed by a wide range of political regimes (republics, parliaments, monarchies, occupations, etc.). Yet there's a sense in which American identity is tied to the political commitment outlined in the Declaration: a government tasked to securing rights endowed to all people. 

I am bound to that commitment. I took an oath to the Constitution when I became an American citizen ten years ago. I did so gladly, knowing that the document and the men who ratified it were imperfect. But such imperfections didn't dent my budding patriotism. Anyone with a family and friends knows that you can love something that isn't perfect. My relationship with my country is like my relationship with anyone: it improves with increased honesty, reflection, and candor. 

August 16, 2019 10:15AM

On Oren Cass and Industrial Policy

A lot of “national conservatives” and those sympathetic to their economic goals have been pushing for the federal government to adopt an explicit “industrial policy.” Chief among them has been Oren Cass, a thoughtful scholar at the Manhattan Institute, whose writings on the dignity of work I’ve written briefly about before.

Though a lot of his arguments echo those heard historically or in other countries, his specific case is worth addressing directly, as it seems to be resonating in conservative circles. So today I’ve published an extensive critique of his recent speech at the National Conservatism conference as a Cato commentary.

In short, I’m disappointed by the lack of empirical grounding to his arguments. And I think he makes a fundamental mistake in assuming that, even if an industrial policy was feasible and could be faithfully executed, it would generate both “stable employment” for low-skilled workers and high productivity growth.

I conclude:

Oren Cass asserts that markets cannot generally allocate resources efficiently by industry. Yet he provides no meaningful metrics to show this is the case, nor shows why his policies would deliver better outcomes. His two main claims about the benefits of a manufacturing sector — “stable employment” and “strong productivity growth” — are directly contradictory. A plethora of evidence suggests as countries’ get richer due to automation and technological improvements, they demand relatively more services, and so the industrial sector declines in employment terms.

It would hurt, not improve, general economic performance to try to create stable employment in manufacturing industries given these trends, and would be particularly foolish given the likely rising demand for high-end manufacturing and services (healthcare, education, insurance, finance, etc.) as the global middle-class develops.

You can read the whole piece here.

August 7, 2019 10:44AM

Why Public Schools Can’t Have Nice Values

It’s nearing back-to-school time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we’ll be seeing the annual spate of education polls. The first one just came out—the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll—and it furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it's so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just don’t agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.

This edition of the survey—PDK, by the way, is an organization of professional educators—has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values-based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived “biggest problems.” Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement about what values specifically, and the possible consequences of teaching them. It’s what we see play out in districts nationwide on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and no doubt in many places not on the Map because conflicts and concerns don’t make it onto reporters’ radars.

Start with civics. A central promise since the earliest days of American public schooling advocacy was that “common” schools would form good citizens. But to the extent that involves things like teaching how government works, it’s not happening. One reason may be that while those who are supposed to govern public schools—“the people”—overwhelmingly agree that civics should be taught, they don’t think it is nearly as important as other things. When asked what “the main goal of a public school education” should be, only 25 percent of respondents replied “to prepare students to be good citizens.” 21 percent said “to prepare students for work” and 53 percent “to prepare students academically.” The results specifically for parents, in the chart below, were similar.

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The next problem is, if you do teach civics, what do you include? 27 percent of respondents, and 29 percent of parents, were at least “somewhat” concerned that “civics classes might include political content” with which they would disagree, with 35 percent of Republicans feeling that way. That’s less stark than one might expect if one thinks of such heated showdowns as those in Michigan and Texas over the core word “democracy,” but having more than one in four people fearing political bias means there’s a good chance of polarizing disagreement in lots of schools, making even basic civics something of a minefield to avoid.

Even more precarious is religion, but many Americans are religious, and we have seen several states pushing to include religious content, especially on the Bible, in schools. The PDK poll shows that while almost everyone thinks civics should be taught, if not prioritized, feelings are more mixed on religion. On whether comparative religion classes should be in public schools, only 7 percent of respondents said they should be required, 70 percent supported them as electives, and 23 percent did not want them at all. Bible classes were more polarizing, with 6 percent wanting them to be mandatory, 58 percent electives, and 36 percent nowhere in the schools. (Again, as the chart below shows, parents were similar to the general public.) Tracking with this, about one in four respondents feared comparative religion classes would cause students to question their families’ beliefs or change their faith, and more than one in three feared Bible classes “might improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.”

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Again, those numbers may feel a little low, but having any sizable share of families potentially object to what is taught is a powerful deterrent against presenting the material. Indeed, while the pollsters found nearly unanimous approval for teaching generic “honesty” and “civility,” nearly 40 percent of respondents said it would not be possible to get people in their community “to agree on a set of basic values.”

All of this points to an inherent problem for public schools in a diverse society: It is very difficult get diverse people to agree on what to teach, especially on highly personal matters such as religion, or highly volatile such as politics. The result is that public schools often spark social conflict, downplay anything potentially controversial, or first do one and then the other, harming social cohesion and academic rigor. Of course, there is an educational arrangement that avoids the zero-sum nature of public schooling, fostering peace and rigor: school choice. This year, PDK did not ask about that.

July 26, 2019 11:40AM

The Other Problem with Trump’s Tweet

Before the distraction of Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony and its inconsequence, the nation had been roiling over President Trump’s tweet that four progressive, minority congresswomen should “go back” to the countries “they originally came from.” The president's critics condemned the tweet as racist and xenophobic. He and his supporters responded that it was a justified demand that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY), Ilhan Omar (D, MN), Ayanna Pressley (D, MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D, MI) stop criticizing the nation and its government's policies.

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This post focuses on a different problem with the tweet, one that has gotten overlooked: it was a direct attack on representative government and the U.S. Constitution. And the attack has been repeated in Trump and his supporters’ subsequent comments.

In their 2018 election campaigns, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib were explicit about what messages and ideas they would take to Washington. Agree with them or not, the legislators are now in Congress doing what their constituents elected them to do. Because the four are following their voters’ will, Trump and his supporters say the congresswomen should leave the Capitol and/or the country.

Trump and his supporters may consider this a patriotic defense of the United States. But the demand to “Send them back!”—even if just campaign rhetoric—strikes at the nation’s founding principles. It is as much a violation of America’s ideals as celebrating the country’s independence with a display of military might rather than a tribute to individual liberty and democratic representative government.

July 25, 2019 11:25AM

What Senator Hawley Gets Wrong about American Identity

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) thinks America has an identity problem. Or, more accurately, that the nation suffers from a lack of an identity problem. In a speech last week at the National Conservatism Conference, he blamed the nation’s ills on an elite “political consensus [that] shows little interest in our shared way of life.” He excoriates cosmopolitans who, he says, reject the idea of Americanness in favor of being “citizens of the world.” According to Hawley, progressives, classical liberals, and libertarians “distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forebearers.” For the nation to prosper, it needs to re-embrace shared identity, which for Hawley means small towns, “traditional” values, recognizing the centrality of Christian faith to the American project, and returning to an economy built on manufacturing “the kinds of things a normal person without a fancy degree can build with his hands.”

I fear the senator from Missouri is confused about identity, and his confusion has led him to see a lack where there is instead mere difference. America is not operating without an identity or a shared way of life. Rather, America simply stands for something other than what Hawley and his fellow nationalist, populist conservatives wish it would. We have a shared way of life. It’s just one Hawley doesn’t much like. And where conservatives of his sort blame this shift on oppression and suppression--by Big Tech or Big Media or elites controlling governing institutions--the more likely story, or at least the greater portion of it, is that his preferred values and tastes have lost in America’s liberal and tolerant marketplace. When given the opportunity to vote with their feet and their wallets, the majority of Americans don’t much care for Hawley’s halcyon days.

When Hawley gripes that “the cosmopolitan elite look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith,” we can clearly see his mistake. The culture of pluralism, openness, globalism, and, yes, cosmopolitanism, isn’t about rejecting the idea of America or of America as a place. Rather it’s about recognizing that America is great because of our pluralism and openness and our capacity to welcome any and all who want to partake in this grand and ongoing experiment in liberty. That’s what sets this country apart from so many others. Our identity isn’t about soil or ethnicity, as it largely is in Europe. Rather, it’s about the idea of America, and so anyone can become an American just by coming here and embracing that idea. 

That American idea, that “national feeling,” is widely shared, but it happens to be one of openness and pluralism and an enthusiastic embrace of diverse ways of life. That’s why Trump lost the popular vote, why he remains historically unpopular, and why his party last year suffered the worst congressional electoral shellacking since Watergate. It’s why 64% of Americans want to see immigration levels increased or at least kept the same, while only 35% would like to keep more people out. And America is still a deeply religious place. But it’s one that recognizes and celebrates people of all faiths, even those traditionally sneered at or feared by so many of the people Hawley sees as embodiments of America’s true values.

That’s the America we celebrate and the one we feel patriotism for. America has a strong identity and a common culture, evidenced in the polls and ballot box, in revealed preference and behavior, in protests at ICE detention centers and the majorities who view the president’s rhetoric as conflicting with American values. Maybe Senator Hawley can some day better understand this great nation and come to appreciate what makes it great.