Topic: Political Philosophy

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…”

New: Spanish-language Library of Liberty

Today we are pleased to launch the Spanish-language Library of Liberty, a project of the Cato Institute—through our website in Spanish, Elcato.org—and Liberty Fund. The library will allow people in Latin America, Spain and beyond to have access to classic works on liberty in Spanish and in various online formats covering a range of topics including economics, law, history, philosophy and political theory.

The first books in the collection include:

  • Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic by Juan Bautista Alberdi
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek
  • Essay on the Nature of Trade in General by Richard Cantillon
  • Essays on Freedom and Power by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others
  • Freedom and the Law by Bruno Leoni
  • Selected Works by Frédéric Bastiat
  • Planning for Freedom by Ludwig von Mises
  • On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel
  • Theory of the Cortes or the Great National Congresses of the Kingdoms of Leon and Castile by Francisco Martínez Marina

This project is especially important in the Spanish-speaking world, where the predominant texts on the market and in academia promote ideas and interpretations of history that are hostile to free societies. The vast majority of students and lay persons in Latin America or Spain, for example, have never been exposed to classics such as The Road to Serfdom by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek, much less had the ability to access the book. Indeed, even if one knew and wished to read these books, it is typically hard to find them in a Spanish-language bookstore. 

It should be no surprise that Spain and its former colonies, burdened with a centuries-long legacy of mercantilism and absolutism, would prove a difficult terrain for the dissemination of classic works on liberty. This is the case, for example, of the Essay on the Nature of Trade in General by Richard Cantillon and of many other texts that demolished arguments for mercantilism. Even the writings of many Latin American founding fathers are still unknown within the Spanish-speaking world, like those by the Argentinean Juan Bautista Alberdi. In his book Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic, Alberdi states:

“The Spanish colonies were formed for the Treasury, not the Treasury for the colonies. Their legislation was consistent with their fate: they were created to increase tax revenues. In the face of the fiscal interest, the interest of the individual was non-existent. Upon beginning the revolution, we wrote the inviolability of private law into our constitutions; but we left the enduring presence of the ancient cult of the fiscal interest. So, despite the revolution and independence, we have continued to be republics made for the Treasury.”

That text and others in this collection examine the challenge of liberty against power. As David Boaz states in his introduction to Libertarianism: A Primer:

“In a sense there have always been but two political philosophies: liberty and power. Either people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they respect the equal rights of others, or some people should be able to use force to make other people act in ways they wouldn’t choose.” 

We hope that this Library of Liberty, to which we will continue to add works, will contribute to the spread of the ideas of liberty in the Spanish-speaking world so that societies pursue, in words of Lord Acton, freedom as “the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.”  

The Spanish-language Library of Liberty can be accessed through Elcato.org and LibertyFund.org.

A Long-Overdue Conversation about How to Replace ObamaCare

With the prospect of a Republican president who could conceivably repeal and replace ObamaCare, it is time for ObamaCare opponents to take a hard look at their “replace” plans. As I have argued elsewhere, expanding health savings accounts – a proposal I call Large HSAs – beats other alternatives like health-insurance tax credits. In short, if opponents succeed in repealing ObamaCare, Large HSAs would take another step in the direction of a market system. Health-insurance tax credits would constitute a step backward, because they would simply resurrect some of ObamaCare’s worst features–including an individual mandate and much of ObamaCare’s government spending and redistribution.

I set off a kerfuffle last week when I wrote that Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) ObamaCare replacement plan contains an individual mandate in the form of tax credits for health insurance. Rubio supporters and others were none too pleased. 

A Libertarian Argument for Bernie Sanders?

Will Wilkinson notes that there is a libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure I buy the precise point Wilkinson is making. Sanders says he wants to make the United States more like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And those countries do indeed rank higher than the United States in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, compiled by my colleagues Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik. But Sanders wants to emulate those countries in the ways they are less free than the United States (i.e., expanding government transfers), not in the ways they are more free (taxes and regulation). I think this powerful Sanders ad featuring Eric Garner’s daughter Erica is a much better libertarian argument for Sanders.

Why We Celebrate Washington’s Birthday

Monday, February 22, will be the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, although the federal government in typical federal government fashion has instructed us to observe Washington’s Birthday (not Presidents’ Day) on a convenient Monday sometime before the actual date. There’s a reason that we should celebrate George Washington rather than a panoply of presidents. 

wrote this several years ago:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power. 

John Trumbull, “General George Washington Resigning His Commission”

John Trumbull, “General George Washington Resigning His Commission”

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

John Adams said, “He was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” Indeed, Washington was a person very conscious of his reputation, who worked all his life to develop his character and his image.

In our own time Joshua Micah Marshall writes of America’s first president, “It was all a put-on, an act.” Marshall missed the point. Washington understood that character is something you develop. He learned from Aristotle that good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction – “We are what we repeatedly do.” Indeed, the word “ethics” comes from the Greek word for “habit.” We say something is “second nature” because it’s not actually natural; it’s a habit we’ve developed. From reading the Greek philosophers and the Roman statesmen, Washington developed an understanding of character, in particular the character appropriate to a gentleman in a republic of free citizens.

How David Brooks Created Donald Trump

Donald Trump, David Brooks (Credit: AP/John Locher/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”

We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.

Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.


When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”