Topic: Political Philosophy

Skim Milk and the Problem with Official Science

A new study, published in the journal Circulation, adds to growing doubts about the benefits of skim or low-fat milk, NPR reports this morning: 

“People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes” compared with people who consumed the least dairy fat, says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who is also an author of the study.

NPR reporter Allison Aubrey notes other recent studies on the possible benefits of dairy fat and then reports:

With all the new evidence that challenges the low-fat-is-best orthodoxy, Mozaffarian says it may be time to reconsider the National School Lunch Program rules, which allow only skim and low-fat milk.

“Our research indicates that the national policy should be neutral about dairy fat, until we learn more,” says Mozaffarian.

And there’s the problem for public policy. Why do we need a national policy on dairy fat? Why do we need national rules on what local schools can serve for lunch? And most specifically, since our understanding of nutrition science is always changing, why should we codify today’s understandings in law and regulation?

As I wrote a few months ago in response to a Washington Post story on the possibility that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error,

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong….

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.

The Distinctiveness of Religion in American Law

That’s the title of a new book by Kathleen Brady of Emory Law School. It’s basically a reinterpretation of the role that religion plays in public life and how it’s treated similarly to and differently than secular belief systems under U.S. law – and it’s fascinating.

The Liberty Fund’s Library of Law & Liberty recently had an online symposium about the book, featuring a lead essay by Prof. Brady and responses by Hillsdale history professor D.G. Hart and myself, and a reply by Brady. Here’s a bit of my essay:

Kathleen Brady’s book The Distinctiveness of American Religion in Law: Rethinking Religion Clause Jurisprudence is a fascinating exposition of the changing role that religion plays in a rapidly secularizing society. What’s so special about religion? Why should courts treat it differently from non-religious belief systems? Why do we still mostly speak of religious free exercise and not so much freedom of conscience or other formulations of broader ideological protections? Why, for example, does an institution like the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School get exempted from employment-discrimination laws but not the Cato Institute (which is just as opposed to government incursions on how it wants to operate)?

The answers are complicated, although impingements on religious liberty increasingly have the same cause as impingements on secular liberty: an overweening state whose regulatory tentacles reach more and more into that part of the public sphere that is non-governmental. The government, especially a federal government liable to be insensitive to state and local contexts, foments clashes of values where none existed previously. At the same time, the culture has shifted in an illiberal way such that certain views and behaviors—which don’t otherwise threaten public order or the state—have to be stamped out with the force of law, rather than tolerated or even celebrated.

… .

Indeed, the reason we’re even “rethinking religion clause jurisprudence,” to quote Brady’s subtitle, is because people’s attitudes toward both religion and government have shifted. The growing enforcement of centralized ideological conformity, as I’ll describe below, is a real innovation in the use of governmental power. The issue isn’t that Congress is taxing, spending, and borrowing more than it ever has—that’s a different problem—but that it’s forcing more mandates into what used to be private decisionmaking. It’s shifting the boundary between the private and public spheres, and the shift tramples individual agency and narrows the choices that people are allowed to make in pursuit of their particular version of the good life.

Read the whole symposium – and the book.

Equality Run Amok—Women’s Soccer Version

The New York Times reports today that five key members of the US women’s national soccer team have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging U.S. Soccer, the private federation that oversees soccer in the United States, with wage discrimination. It seems that, on average (see the article for details), the federation pays women players considerably less than players on the men’s team, and that may be a problem under current law.

If Thomas Jefferson only knew what would follow from writing “All men are created equal.” What he meant, of course, was only that we all have equal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and we’re free to pursue happiness however we think best. Most of us do that through voluntary association with others, which can result in all kinds of inequalities, yet violate the rights of no one. After all, whose rights are violated if Mia Hamm negotiates a salary with the team that is higher than a lesser player negotiates?

Mr. President, the Only Thing We Can Learn from Communism Is that It Doesn’t Work

Over the years, President Obama has made some statements that indicate a rather statist mindset.

Now he may have added to that list during a recent speech in Argentina. Check out this excerpt from a report in the Daily Caller.

President Barack Obama downplayed the differences between capitalism and communism, claiming that they are just “intellectual arguments.” …Obama said…”I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works.”

It’s hard to object to the notion that people should choose “what works,” so perhaps there’s not a specific quote that I can add to my collection. However, the president’s implication that there’s some kind of equivalence between capitalism and communism, which both systems having desirable features, is morally offensive. Sort of like saying that we should “choose from what works” in Hitler’s national socialism. Here’s what we know about the real-world impact of communism.

Communism is a disgusting system that butchered more than 100,000,000 people.

It is a system that leads to starvation and suffering.

Communism produces unspeakable horrors of brutality.

So what exactly “works” in that system? If you watch Obama’s speech, you’ll notice there’s not a lot of substance. There is a bit of praise for Cuba’s decrepit government-run healthcare system (you can click here, here, and here if you want to learn why the system is horrifying and terrible for ordinary citizens). And he also seems to think it’s some sort of achievement that Cuba has schools.

So let’s take a closer look at what Cuba actually has to offer. Natalie Morales is a Cuban-American actor, writer, and filmmaker. Here’s some of what she wrote about her country and her relatives still trapped on the island.

Interview with John Goodman on How to Replace ObamaCare

Last year, the Cato Institute held a forum on John Goodman’s latest book on health reform, A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America (Independent Institute, 2015). Goodman founded and was the longtime president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis. The Wall Street Journal calls him “the father of health savings accounts,” and he is currently president of the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research and a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. Video of the book forum is available here.

I posted a lightly edited transcript of my interview of Goodman, which did a good job of highlighting the differences among ObamaCare opponents, in three parts:

For more on the three schools of ObamaCare opponents, see Cato’s previous book forum on Philip Klein’s Overcoming Obamacare: Three Approaches to Reversing the Government Takeover of Health Care (Washington Examiner, 2015).

Remembering James Madison

James Madison was born 265 years ago today. His greatest essay was Federalist no. 10, a defense of the design of the government created by the new Constitution. Does Federalist no. 10 have anything to teach us today as voters choose the next president?

Madison favored republican government - government by the people - but he also saw its problems. In contrast, we are inclined to think elites, not the people, foster most shortcomings, public and private. Were the people truly empowered, all would be well.

Madison doubted both the people and the elites. Popular governments were threatened when majorities “are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” In turn, majorities are often misled by “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs.” Having gained the support of majority, such men “then betray the interests of the people.”

Both the people and elites could do better. Madison thought some of the flaws of popular government could be mitigated by indirect rule of the people through representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” The sheer size of the country, he thought, would also complicate putting together oppressive majorities. Other aspects of the Constitution - the separation and balancing of powers, the independent judiciary, and the Bill of Rights - would also constrain majorities gone wrong.

Much is different now. Our nation is quite small as measured in media space. Direct accountability to voters trumps indirect representation; the parties now select their presidential nominees through direct voting by their members. Few believe in the wisdom of representatives and sometimes representation itself seems questionable. As the economist Randall Holcombe argues, the nation has moved some way from liberty to democracy.

Madison thought the Constitution set out a kind of republican government that would stand the test of time. But time is long, and the tests do not end, our complacency notwithstanding. On this birthday of “the father of the Constitution” we have more reason than usual to appreciate his efforts to divide and limit political power, thereby frustrating men of factious tempers and sinister designs.

 

If You Want to Pass for Serious in Wonktown

It turns out that Will Wilkinson’s latest anti-libertarian screed is actually worth a look. It’s wickedly funny in places, and you can’t tell me you haven’t heard plenty of the lines that he pins on his hapless interlocutor. Oh the silly things we get up to, whenever we start from first principles! And when the lines do ring false, well, strawmen can be funny too.

I have to wonder, though, about Will’s purportedly realistic, hard-nosed, no-first-principles-here political strategy: Is it really a good idea to scrap libertarian theory altogether, because it’s just not paying off too well in state dismantlement? Should we really work to shore up the welfare state as a means of reining in the regulatory state? Is this the jiu-jitsu we’ve been looking for?

[I]f we patched up the already existing, already very large American welfare state so that it did a better job of preventing people from falling through the cracks, that might make the zero-sum thinking of economic nationalist politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders less attractive, and an agenda of economic liberalization might be more feasible.

Now, the dialogic format means a lot of elision, and as a result, “patch up” could mean nearly anything. This to me seems a bit too carefully calculated to please nonlibertarians, and among them particularly the wonkier sort, who love patching up existing anythings whenever they’re found in the government and leaking. “Take us seriously,” these lines seem to say, “because we’re a whole lot like you are!”

Yet there’s a politically popular reason why (1) the U.S. welfare state is so expensive and (2) so many people fall through the cracks anyway. Both of these can be explained with reference to the U.S. middle class, which receives a very large share of the total benefits, on much flimsier than the usual Rawlsean justifications. But hey, they vote! Every once in a while, a left-leaning pundit will notice this fact, feel ashamed, and be forced to make a discreet retrograde maneuver. Almost nothing ever comes of it, policy-wise.

In layman’s terms, patching up the welfare state – which I charitably take to mean “helping real poor people, instead of pretend poor people” – would require scrapping a whole bunch of middle class tax breaks. Give Bernie Sanders credit for honesty, I suppose, although even he’s understandably reticent about the kinds of taxes that would be necessary for his proposed programs.

Apart from the details of tax policy, it also seems to me that Will’s approach risks growing the U.S. welfare state while leaving the regulatory state completely untouched. If we both agree that the regulatory state is the real problem, then we ought to attack it directly, rather than attacking it in the most oblique way imaginable, by praising an extensive welfare state.

A more modest political strategy might concede that we don’t actually know the consequences of a prominent, welfare-skeptical political faction, like libertarians, collectively changing their minds about welfare policy. It’s not entirely unreasonable to think that it will lead to a larger (but neither juster nor more efficient) welfare state. And that it won’t do anything else at all.

As Will’s own stand-in says, “I believe the social world is too complicated and unpredictable to see more than one or two steps down any path. I think you believe that, too.” And I do believe that!

So let’s attack the regulatory state in one step, shall we? At this point, were it anyone other than Will Wilkinson, and were it any institution other than Cato’s impish kid brother, I would introduce both the author and the institution to… those brave, fire-eating, first-principles libertarians over at the Institute for Justice. IJ works directly to roll back the regulatory state. No mucking about with the welfare state for them! IJ just finds one appalling regulation after another, and it sues the pants off the regulators. Often, IJ wins. (So, for that matter, does Cato’s own legal affairs team.)

Our success in challenging the regulatory state directly is a big part of the reason why I’m not so interested in abandoning first principles. I just don’t see first principles necessarily getting in the way of effective activism. The two can work well together, even if sometimes they don’t, and even if, when they don’t, it can make for some amusing dialogue.

Translating first principles into effective activism is, agreed, actual work. Like, about messaging and priorities and stuff. But I think we can do it, and that it’s likely easier than performing a massive two-step with the welfare state.

And finally, I do agree that first principles can make you seem like a loon at times, even just on their own terms. And that can make for a pretty lonely life, and a frustrating one, in a city that doesn’t much care for first principles of any sort at all.

Still, it’s worth considering how really, truly weird libertarianism is, by the lights of Wonktown, and how much we’d have to give up to fit in here: The establishment adores the surveillance state. It wants to keep the war on drugs, even if it doesn’t quite look to expand it for now (whew). The establishment views eminent domain as just another fun and totally legitimate thing the state can do, for whatever reason it thinks might be good. The establishment doesn’t flinch at imprisoning millions. The establishment wants to spend, by our lights, insanely too much on defense, and it’s now debating whether the solution to all of America’s foreign policy problems is to bomb not-necessarily-identified people whose cell phone usage fits a statistical profile.

I have to wonder how, let alone why, I would choose to be cozy with the defenders of these policies, rather than holding them in a well-regulated and professional disdain (which need not, of course, preclude a working relationship, when such is required).

Do note: Wonktown gives no credit whatsoever for a theoretical willingness to use the state to help poor people: “Can we please,” the Wonks will immediately ask, “can we please keep delivering our help in the inefficient, signal-y, vote-getty ways that we’re used to? I mean, it’s charming that you care about the poor, my dears, but really… Did you think that that’s the reason why we were doing it? And – anyway – enough about helping people: Can we talk about all the ways that you plan to hurt people? Because if you want to pass for serious in Wonktown…”