Topic: Political Philosophy

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quotes Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele on how Congress should go about reforming health care:

Having Congress reshape health care puts “the wrong people at the table,” Steele said. He said stakeholders — “doctors, lawyers, health care employees, insurance companies” — should develop a solution and present it to Congress, rather than the other way around.

Steele needs to brush up on his Adam Smith:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Like I said, Jonathan Chait was on to something.

Soaring Sales for “Road to Serfdom”

Cato’s new staff writer, Aaron Powell, told me he had recently seen two people on the Washington Metro reading The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek. That prompted me to check the sales figures for Road to Serfdom at Nielsen’s Bookscan. And whattaya know? Sales have increased this year at an even faster pace than sales of Atlas Shrugged. (Atlas sells 10 times as many copies, but the percentage increase over last year is less.)

So far this year the most popular edition of Road to Serfdom has sold 11,000 copies. That compares with 3,000 copies at the same point last year. That’s a 263 percent increase for those of you keeping score at home.

Why? Well, no doubt huge new government spending programs and attempts to massively expand the welfare state send people looking for classic literature that makes the case for liberty and limited government. But what the Marxists call the “objective conditions” can always use a bit of help. And indeed, just as I found in investigating the sales bump for Atlas Shrugged, it looks like an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was instrumental in boosting the sales of The Road to Serfdom.

On February 4, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now chairman of Freedomworks, published an op-ed in the Journal titled “Washington Could Use Less Keynes and More Hayek.” Sales of Road to Serfdom, which were in the low hundreds each week since the beginning of 2009, more than doubled over the next four weeks. It seems likely that Armey’s op-ed caused the new interest.

Armey didn’t actually mention The Road to Serfdom – he just talked about Hayek and his ideas generally – but when you go looking for Hayek, you’re going to find his most popular book. So maybe we could attribute the sales bump instead to David Henderson’s review of The Road to Serfdom – titled “Still Relevant–Perhaps More So” – in the Spring issue of Regulation. But the Wall Street Journal does have a larger circulation.

Update: This item has been edited to remove proprietary information.

The Politicians and the Founders

Both President Obama and Sen. John McCain cited the Founders in their weekly radio addresses today, as they made the case for government actions that would have appalled those Founders. Obama invoked “the indomitable spirit of the first American citizens who made [independence] day possible” in arguing for a federal takeover of education, energy, and health care.

He might have trouble explaining how his policies reflect the spirit of the men who left us such words as these:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must be happy.

Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread.

A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.

Meanwhile, McCain called for the American government to more vigorously support the protesters in Iran. What would the Founders say to him?

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible….Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.

Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.

[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. …Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Maybe each week there should be three national radio broadcasts: one from the incumbent president, one from the other big-government party, and one reflecting the views of the Founders.

The Importance of Just Saying No

George Will:

Conservatives are accused of being a party of “no.” Fine. That is an indispensable word in politics because most new ideas are false and mischievous. Furthermore, the First Amendment’s lovely first five words (“Congress shall make no law”) set the negative tone of the Bill of Rights, which is a list of government behaviors, from establishing religion to conducting unreasonable searches, to which the Constitution says: No.

Michael Lind’s Economic Philistinism

In a recently published article for the journal Democracy, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation lays out “The Case for Goliath” (registration required) – i.e., for returning to the good old days of price-and-entry regulation and cartelized industries. No, seriously.

I’ll give Lind credit for daring to go where his fellow devotees of “nostalgianomics” fear to tread.  Many on the left these days look back fondly at the ’50s and ’60s when activist government and strong unions coincided with a narrowing income distribution. What they fail to recognize, or at least admit, is that the political economy of that supposed golden age rested on a systematic muting of competition, both by circumstance and deliberate policy.  The devastation of Europe and Japan in World War II, price-and-entry controls, high trade barriers, and the threat of antitrust enforcement against industry leaders all combined to make heavy unionization and above-market wages for union workers economically viable.

This glaring oversight is understandable. There is, after all, overwhelming economic evidence that competition beats cartelization of industry hands down. When government restricts entry by new firms, the predictable result is a stifling of innovation. For example, consider this admission by former FCC chairman Michael Powell: “Because the history of the FCC is, when something happens that it doesn’t understand, kill it. We tried to kill cable. We tried to kill long-distance. When [MCI founder] Bill McGowan starting stringing out microwave towers that threatened AT&T, the FCC tried to stop him. The FCC tried to kill cable because it was going to threaten broadcasting.” (For more details on the the FCC’s lamentable track record, see here.)

The upshot is that progressive fantasies of a return to the good old days are just that – fantasies. Private-sector unions have withered and shrunk not because of changes in labor law, but because unionized firms haven’t been able to hack it in the new, more competitive marketplace (see “Auto industry, U.S.”). So the only way to get back to the days of Big Labor is by throttling the main engine of innovation and productivity: competition. And, well, that just doesn’t sound very progressive, does it?

Lind, though, grasps the nettle and chooses cartels and unions over economic progress. He does try to argue that we can have our cake and eat it too, but his case boils down to a crude post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the big move toward cartelization in the ’30s was followed by good times in the ’50s and ’60s (let’s not talk about the ’70s), so therefore cartelization was good for the economy!  Yes, and the Union won the Civil War with inferior generals, so perhaps poor military leadership is a key to victory. The fact is, the strong economic performance of the early postwar decades occurred in spite of, not because of, widespread restrictions on competition.

Though the anticompetitive nostrums Lind peddles are pure poison, he nonetheless deserves commendation. By identifying correctly the link between cartelization and strong unions, Lind highlights the essentially reactionary nature of progressives’ infatuation with Big Labor. He has therefore, however unwittingly, performed a public service.

Mises on Obama

I was rereading George Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, and I found this ever-more-timely and surprisingly pithy quotation from Ludwig von Mises in his book Bureaucracy:

They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office.

(Meanwhile, thanks to the continuing progress made by the non-state sector of society, what a wonderful world in which both these brilliant books can be read either in hard copy or on line!)

“United States”: Singular Noun, or Plural?

Paul Starobin, the author of an informative primer on foreign policy realism, had an interesting piece in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of breaking up the United States.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

[…]

Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.

The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”

Bonus points to Starobin for pointing to the same passage from George Kennan that I’ve taken to quoting.  Kennan worried whether “ ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself.”  As a result, he wondered “how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

The most obvious objection with which Starobin doesn’t deal is that you’d have a hell of a time selling this scheme on Washington, which happens to have–how to put this politely?–the means to ensure it gets what it wants.

A related objection would be the eternal political question “who gets the guns?”  What sort of armed forces would a decentralized United States possess?  Under whose control would they be?  Would we distribute nuclear weapons to each of the States in order to ensure none of them would get too skittish?

People smarter than me have argued that size isn’t an obstacle to republican government in the case of the United States.  Note, though, the first of the four premises on which the pro-size argument rests:

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.  Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any…

If the case for centralism rests on premises like these that are artifacts of a long-since-squandered legacy, we probably ought to reconsider the arguments against centralism.  At the very least, those of us who want a very small government ought to think hard about the viability of a situation in which a small, weak federal government administers a giant, powerful nation.