Topic: Political Philosophy

‘Motorhome Diaries’ Crew Makes a Stop at Cato

Two freedom lovers who bought an old RV to travel across the country and film an online documentary called The Motorhome Diaries stopped by Cato this week to interview Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz.

Boaz chatted with Diaries rider Pete Eyre about libertarianism, Cato’s role in Washington and why he’s optimistic about the future of liberty.

You can follow them on their trek at MotorhomeDiaries.com or on Twitter at @MHDiaries.

Save Free Enterprise—Starting Now

As Dan Mitchell noted below, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a “Campaign for Free Enterprise” to stop the “rapidly growing influence of government over private-sector activity.” Chamber president Thomas Donohue told the Wall Street Journal that an “avalanche of new rules, restrictions, mandates and taxes” could “seriously undermine the wealth- and job-creating capacity of the nation.”

Indeed. Given the scope and extent of the Obama administration’s assaults on private enterprise — national health insurance, energy central planning, pay czars, abrogation of contracts, skyrocketing spending, and so on – free enterprise can use all the help it can get. I welcome the Chamber to the fight.

But it would be nice if the Chamber had joined the fight for economic freedom a bit earlier, say back in February when many of us were trying to stop the administration’s massive “stimulus” spending bill. That bill’s official cost is $787 billion; with interest, it would be about $1.3 trillion; and if you assume that its temporary spending increases will be extended, it will cost taxpayers about $3.27 trillion over 10 years.

Back then, Donohue had a few criticisms of the bill, but

The bottom line is that at the end of the day, we’re going to support the legislation. Why? Because with the markets functioning so poorly, the government is the only game in town capable of jump-starting the economy.

Or they might even have started defending free enterprise last fall, instead of going all-out to push the TARP bailout through Congress.

Converts to the cause of limited government are always welcome. But we might not need a $100 million Campaign for Free Enterprise if American business had opposed big government when the votes were going down in Congress. Still, better late than never.

A Tip of the Hat to Tom Paine

Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of American freedom, died almost unmourned 200 years ago today. Brendan O’Neill remembers him at BBC.com:

In January 1776 he published a short pamphlet that earned him the title The Father of the American Revolution.

Titled simply, Common Sense, the work has been described by the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon S Wood as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire [American] revolutionary period”. It put the case for democracy, against the monarchy, and for American independence from British rule.

Lefties like Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, like to say

He put the case for political democracy AND social democracy, arguing in The Rights of Man that young people and the elderly should be afforded financial security by their governments. These welfare ideals are under attack right now, in our era of recession.

He has a point, though I suspect that Paine would think that the American welfare state has exceeded the sort of minimal provision for the poor that he had in mind. As for me, I rather like the fact that he proposed to execute any legislator who so much as proposed a bill to issue paper money and make it legal tender. A bit too strong, I concede. But a healthy understanding of what fiat money can do to people who work hard and save their money.

Find some of Thomas Paine’s best writings in The Libertarian Reader.

More on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholars on Judge Sotomayor:

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Sotomayor’s record on criminal justice issues put her to the right of David Souter.  Good grief — that would mean that for Sotomayer just about all the barriers on state power come tumbling down: structural safeguards like enumerated powers, non-delegation, separation of powers and the limits pertaining to police and prosecutorial powers.

For more background, go here and here.

Is Obama Making America like Sweden?

If only.

Just as the Obama administration takes over another once-great American company, Sweden is busy privatizing. As the Christian Science Monitor reported recently:

Last week, the country’s center-right government began selling off state-owned pharmacies, one of the country’s few remaining nationalized companies, as part of an ambitious program of liberal economic reforms started in 2006. In the same week, a study by the Swedish Unemployment Insurance Board revealed that almost half of the country’s jobless lacked full unemployment benefits. Many opted out of the state scheme when the cost of membership was raised last year; others were ineligible.

State pensions, schools, healthcare, public transport, and post offices have been fully or partly privatized over the last decade, making Sweden one of the most free market orientated economies in the world, analysts say.

Please, President Obama, send Larry Summers to Sweden to get some new ideas for economic reform.

Chavez Tries to Shut Down Pro-Free Market Educational Conference

The Cato Institute media department sent this press release to media outlets in Latin America, after the Venezuelan government tried to shut down a Cato-sponsored conference this week:

CAUCAGUA, VENEZUELA—A Cato Institute educational seminar fell victim to an attempt by the Venezuelan government to shut it down for expressing ideas critical of the Chavez regime.

Numerous Venezuelan government agencies harassed the Cato Institute event, called Universidad El Cato-CEDICE, or “Cato University,” which took place in Caucagua, Venezuela May 24-26. The event is co-sponsored by the Venezuelan free-market think tank Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico por la Libertad (CEDICE) and was organized to teach and promote the classical liberal principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.

During the course of the event on Monday, the National Guard, state television and a state representative from a ministry of higher education interrupted the seminar, demanding that the seminar be shut down on the grounds that the event organizers did not have permission to establish a university in Venezuela. When the authorities were told that neither Cato nor CEDICE was establishing a university and that the Cato Institute has long sponsored student seminars called Cato Universities, the authorities then insisted that the seminar was in violation of Venezuelan law for false advertising.

After two hours of groundless accusations, the Chavez representatives left but their harassment has continued. One of the speakers at the seminar, Peruvian intellectual Alvaro Vargas Llosa, was detained by airport authorities Monday afternoon for three hours for no apparent reason. He was released and told that he could stay in the country as long as he did not express political opinions in Venezuela.

“The government’s attacks on freedom of speech are part of a worrying pattern of abuse of power in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela,” said Ian Vasquez, director of Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, from Caucagua. “But they have so far not managed to alter the plans of the Cato Institute here, and will hopefully not do so, as we continue to participate in further meetings the rest of this week.”

For more information about Cato programs in Latin America, visit www.ElCato.org.

UPDATE (5/27, 2:30 PM EST) : Cato just received word from scholar Ian Vásquez that “Chavistas are gathering in front of the conference hotel now…Cato is all over state TV.”

Vásquez snapped this photo of people carrying anti-Cato signs and protesting the conference.img00017

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

If you’re unclear what’s wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you’ll be entertained, that’s for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making “dodgy” arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.

The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry’s innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all:  A movement founded on the premise that “ideas have consequences” has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.

Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I don’t endorse every detail of Posner’s bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded – back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as Jerry’s trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional “base.”

Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.

In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to “rational irrationality.” None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.