Topic: Political Philosophy

Dick Cheney: Obama’s Enabler

That’s the theme of my Washington Examiner column this week:

Dick Cheney’s “Shut Up and Listen” tour continued last week on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” There, the former veep reiterated his favorite theme: Obama is putting America at risk by “taking down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe.”
 
What in the world is Cheney talking about? Granted, Obama’s anti-terror policies are clouded by rhetorical “Hope” and euphemism, and the new administration is less given to chest-thumping than its predecessor. Otherwise, Obama’s approach to terrorism is virtually identical to Bush/Cheney’s.

 Harvard Law prof and former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith makes a similar point in a New Republic piece out today, though Professor Goldsmith is happier about the continuity than I am.   For more, see Glenn Greenwald.

Happy Hayek’s Birthday

Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, who honored the Cato Institute by serving as a Distinguished Senior Fellow, and in whose honor the F. A. Hayek Auditorium is named. “It is hardly an exaggeration to refer to the twentieth century as the Hayek century,” John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker. If we’re lucky, the 21st century will also be a Hayek century.

Hayek spoke at Cato several times.  Before his 1982 Distinguished Lecture, he sat down for an interview with Cato Policy Report.  Here’s another interview by our late board member Jim Blanchard that appeared in Cato Policy Report. Senior fellows Tom Palmer and Gerald O’Driscoll have offered appreciations of his work. O’Driscoll more recently applied Hayek’s business cycle theory to the current financial crisis.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin ponders Hayek’s continuing relevance in this essay from just before the crisis announced itself last fall. Somin notes that Hayek’s critique of socialism gets most attention from scholars, but his critique of conservatism is also worth pondering.

As the world suffers from the aftereffects of another Federal Reserve-created bubble, it’s a good time to reread Hayek on the boom-and-bust cycle. But it’s also a good day to reflect that Hayek lived just long enough to see the demise of the totalitarian socialist system that he spent his life analyzing and criticizing. The world is freer today, partly because of Hayek’s great work.

Defense Spending and “Global Public Goods”

Matt Yglesias picks up on a discussion between Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath about American conservatives’ curious enthusiasm for providing “global public goods” (GPGs) in the form of enormous military spending to attempt to secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and do other things that are dubbed GPGs.

I think Matt is onto something bigger when he writes that

a considerable portion of American defense spending is genuinely wasteful. If we didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t be done. After all, it’s important to understand that excess capacity in military equipment is about as close as you can get to a real-world example of entirely wasteful public sector activity.

The economists tell us that one of the main properties of public goods is that they ought to be under-provided.  As Matt writes, it seems like we’re over-providing what are being called “public goods” here.  To my mind, this strongly implies that they aren’t public goods.

(Then again, if we’re going to accept that the entire globe is the jurisdiction to which the U.S. government is supposed to be providing public goods, you’re back to public goods – that is, we’re under-supplying the GPG of global security.)

While I’m not sure what my views are on traditional GPGs like a stable monetary or trading order, I’m very skeptical that anything related to security can be dubbed a GPG.  The two key properties of public goods are nonrivalrousness and nonexcludability.  Nonrivalrousness means that my consumption of the good doesn’t conflict with yours.  Nonexcludability refers to the idea that if you’re living within the jurisdiction of the provider of the public good, it’s impossible to opt out of consuming it.

Economists teach defense as the example of the quintessential public good.  For two people living in a country, one’s consumption of defense doesn’t conflict with the other’s and neither can be excluded from its benefits.

But I’m pretty sure you can’t move from the idea of a bounded jurisdiction like that of a state to the entire globe and still have public goods in a meaningful sense.  For example, the Japanese will recall from their experience in the 1930s that the control of SLOCs is very much excludable.  Our inability to supply truly global security means that we have to pick and choose to whom we allocate resources.  Our provision to one country of a formal alliance, for example, is very much rivalrous with neighboring countries’ security.

More generally, in the context of the defense budget at home, I’m more inclined to think that a big chunk of U.S. defense spending constitutes a public bad: transfer payments from taxpayers to defense companies.  Think about it for yourself; what is the marginal benefit to you of an extra F-22?  An extra nuclear warhead?  To whom is the social surplus (or more accurately, rents) allocated?

As is probably clear, my views aren’t terribly well formed here, but the problem is an interesting one.  Chris Preble discusses GPGs in The Power Problem, and a case against the defense budget as a pure public good is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Don Lavoie’s “National Defense and the Public-Goods Problem,” in Robert Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics, and the Economy (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990), pp. 37-60.

Libertarian Wisdom

From Will Saletan at Slate:

the tricky thing about official intervention is that once the state gets its foot in the door, you don’t necessarily get to dictate what it can and can’t do.

He’s talking about how “For the usual incoherent combination of lefty reasons—not enough private discrimination in working conditions, too much private discrimination in family values–” he ”felt the urge to support regulation of the [surrogate motherhood] industry,” but then he read about Chinese police kicking in doors and forcing surrogate mothers to abort their babies, and realized that wasn’t “the kind of policing liberals have in mind when they call for tighter regulation of the fertility industry.”

But the lesson is broader, of course. It applies to health care, education, energy, faith-based organizations, and just about any enterprise you let the state take a role in.

Kaiser vs. “Czar”

kaiser-billJust when you thought you’d seen everything, ol’ Kaiser Bill emerges from the Beyond to castigate the U.S. president:

Mr. President,

Gott im Himmel! Enough with the czars!

You’ve named 18 so far, according to something I read in Foreign Policy. That includes a border czar, a climate czar, an information technology czar and – I don’t think Thomas Jefferson grew enough hemp in his lifetime to dream up this one – the “faith-based czar.” Your car czar, Steve Rattner, was in the news last week, trying to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy.

It took Russia 281 years to accumulate that many czars. Even with hemophilia, repeated assassinations and a level of inbreeding that would gag a Dalmatian breeder. You did it in less than 100 days.

And every one of them hurts. I think I speak for all passed-over Victorian despots when I say that.

[…]

…maybe it’s time for a new autocrat to get some air time. Time for something that will stand out even in a White House with a czar in every cubicle.

President Obama’s archduke of information technology announced today … Pricks up the ears, doesn’t it?

In Detroit, the president’s car sultan … Instant respect. Mainly because those who defy the car sultan might be killed by eunuch assassins.

Or might I humbly suggest the title of an enlightened ruler who – unlike the czars – actually worked well with parliament and the nobility (in your terms, that would be “Congress” and “Oprah”). Somebody whose record is nearly unblemished, except for one invasion of Belgium that everybody’s totally over now.

Today, President Obama congratulated his new climate kaiser

Goosebumps.

Yours in friendship, Wilhelm II

Government Finds New Targets to Regulate

I suppose it should be no surprise that once the Democrats got full control of the federal government, we’d see the feds taking control of every nook and cranny of society, from giving orders to credit card companies to firing automobile company CEOs to demanding a change in the way college football decides its national champion.

Except – wait a minute – it was actually a senior Republican member of the House, one of those right-wing Texans, who issued the most direct threat to the football officials summoned before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection:

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who has introduced legislation that would prevent the NCAA from calling a game a national championship unless it’s the outcome of a playoff, bluntly warned Swofford: “If we don’t see some action in the next two months, on a voluntary switch to a playoff system, then you will see this bill move.”

The federal government is set to spend $3.5 trillion next year, with a deficit expected to hit the unbelievable level of 12 percent of GDP. The president is seeking to impose a “blueprint” for federal takeover of health care, energy, and education. He is acting as a super-CEO for the finance and automobile industries. The country is bogged down in two floundering wars.

And Joe Barton thinks the matter that deserves the attention of the Congress of the United States is how college football designates its “national champion.”

The best thing that can be said for this is that it’s probably actually safer to have Congress screwing around with amateur sports championships than with matters of war, spending, and central planning.

Republicans Tell America: Trust Us with Your National Security Again

The Republican Party hasn’t been doing well as of late.  A botched governing majority, a lost reputation, two lost legislative elections, two lost congressional majorities, a lost presidential election, a lost Pennsylvania senator, and no relief in sight.  So what does the GOP congressional leadership do?  Play the national security card.

Reports the New York Times:

Stymied in so many of their efforts to put President Obama and Democrats on the defensive, Republicans are returning to national security, an issue that has served the purpose well for them in the past.

Trying to raise doubts about Mr. Obama’s ability to protect the nation, they have raised the specter of terror suspects transferred from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to prisons in American communities, issued warnings that the release of memorandums detailing secret interrogation methods has put Americans at risk, and presented a video montage ending with the Pentagon in flames on Sept. 11, 2001, and the question, “Do you feel safer?”

“I think what I’m trying to do here,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said in defending the video he and fellow Republicans have been circulating, “is push the administration to tell us, What is the overarching strategy to take on the terrorists and defeat them and to help keep America safe?”

I have a lot of bad things to say about both parties on foreign as well as domestic policy.  But it’s hard for me to imagine the previous eight years of Republican governance as a golden era for national security.  First there was 9/11.  Perhaps it is too much to expect the Bush administration to have prevented the terrorist atrocity, but the administration did nothing over the Clinton administration to improve American defenses to prevent such attacks.

Then there was diverting troops and attention from Afghanistan before that war was finished, to invade Iraq.  The Iraq debacle occupies a category all its own.  Policy towards North Korea was spectacularly misguided and incompetent:  refusing to talk to the North for years as it generated nuclear materials, before rushing to embrace Pyongyang while offering few immediate benefits to entice the North to change its behavior.  The results of this strategy were, unsurprisingly, negligible.

Refusing to talk to Iran had similar consequences.  Washington refused to engage Syria, even though Israel was willing to talk to Damascus.  The Bush administration further tightened the embargo against Cuba, again achieving nothing.  The administration also continued the Clinton administration’s policy of estranging Russia by expanding NATO ever closer to Moscow, incorporating countries that are security black holes, offering geopolitical conflicts with no corresponding military benefits.

In the midst of all this, the GOP in both the executive and legislative branches led a sustained assault on civil liberties and limited, constitutional government even when doing so did nothing to forestall another terrorist attack.

Given all this, is should surprise no one that the Republicans are no longer in control of government.

The Democrats may prove to be worse on all counts. I’ve long learned not to assume that things could not get worse.  Still, it is hard to take seriously Republican demands that the American people trust them with the nation’s security.  After all, look at what the Republicans did when they actually held power.