Adam Smith Goes to Somalia: “Competition Keeps Prices Low”

Many people would agree that modern-day Somalia represents a Hobbesian state of nature. But could anarchy strengthen Somalia’s private sector? This article is certainly very old, but I came across it yesterday and thought the argument would be of interest to political theorists and classical liberals:

…local businesspeople find it easier to do business in a country where there is no government. “There is no need to obtain licences and, in contrast with many other parts of Africa, there is no state-run monopoly that prevents new competitors setting up. Keeping price low is helped by the absence of any need to pay taxes.”

Of course, the absence of a stable and legitimate political and judicial system, compounded by unyielding internecine violence, means individual and private property rights can never be fully protected and we aren’t likely to see foreign businesses flocking to this chaotic country in the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, the proper role of government is to protect individual rights. But the proper role of our government – abroad – should be limited to instances when our national sovereignty or territorial integrity is at risk.  As exemplified in Somalia, America’s attempts to stabilize failed states or pacify foreign populations usually fail, exacerbate already disastrous situations, and are, in principle, gratuitous abuses of American power [See: the calamitous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia].

How Protectionism Crashed the World Economy…and How to Stop It This Time Around

A coalition of more than 70 groups around the world, from Canada to Brazil to Kyrgyzstan to Germany to China to Japan to Kenya, has joined together to stop the dangerous stirrings of protectionism.  The FreedomToTrade.org coalition (coordinated internationally by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the International Policy Network) has circulated a petition (signed by over 1,000 economists and thousands of others) and is now producing documentaries to alert the public to the dangers posed by protectionism.  This one is on the role the Smoot-Hawley Tariff played in turning a serious recession into the Great Depression.

The mini-documentary is also being made available in 12 other languages.  The Spanish version will be available on Cato’s Spanish-language project, ElCato.org. Others are available on YouTube.

This information is important and needs to be widely shared.  Pass it on…

Will Specter Turn Left?

I offer some evidence in today’s Chicago Tribune:

Last week, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate. Today, he’s the most conservative Democrat….

But party-switchers often change their votes as well as their labels.

The day after Republicans won control of the Senate in 1994, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama switched to the Republican Party. He had been a relatively conservative Democrat and had high-profile conflicts with President Bill Clinton, so the switch wasn’t a great surprise. But observers might be surprised to look back at what happened to Shelby’s voting record. According to the American Conservative Union, for eight years Shelby’s conservative voting percentage had ranged between 43 and 76. Even in 1994, as Shelby often found himself opposing the Clinton administration, the ACU gave him only a 55. But from 1995 to 2000, his ACU rating only once dipped below 90, and he scored a perfectly conservative 100 in 2000 and 2001….

In 2001, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party and became an independent. Conservatives said he was actually voting like a liberal Democrat. But that wasn’t quite right. Since he entered the Senate in 1989, his average ACU rating had been 27 – definitely the most liberal Republican, but not Ted Kennedy country. His ADA average was 58 – liberal for a Republican, but a long way from Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy. After the switch, Jeffords’ ACU rating started falling like GOP approval ratings: from 40 in 1999 to 29 in the year of the switch to 6, 10, 4, 8 and 4 during the rest of his tenure.

Specter says he won’t become a party-line Democrat, any more than he’s been a reliable Republican vote. But the evidence from previous party-switchers is that his votes will end up much more in line with his new party.

Love the Cards, Hate the Card Issuers

God hates the sin but loves the sinner, we are told.  Americans have a similar attitude towards credit cards.  They love the cards but hate the card issuers.

Naturally, President Barack Obama has picked up on this sentiment and wants the credit card companies to be “fair.”  Reports the Washington Post:

The Obama administration yesterday called for an end to unfair credit card industry practices such as retroactive interest rate increases for any reason, late-fee traps that penalize borrowers with weekend or middle-of-the-day deadlines and teaser rates that last less than six months.

In a written statement released by the Treasury Department, the administration outlined practices it would like Congress to reform as it considers two bills that would crack down on the industry. One proposal would force card companies to apply payments above the minimum amount to the highest interest rate debt. To crack down on over-limit fees, the administration would also like Congress to require card companies to get customers’ permission to set up accounts so transactions over the limit can still be processed.

There are lots of reasons to criticize the practices of  credit card companies, but many of the rules are simply mechanisms to charge riskier borrowers more.  If you pay off your bill every month, you don’t pay the extra fees and interest.  If you are more disorganized, short on cash, or both, you pay more. 

Higher charges make it possible to provide more credit to more people.  Of course, politicians believe in the latter but not the former.  Banks should provide credit cards, make loans, and issue mortgages to everyone, irrespective of credit standing, at rates akin to those charged Bill Gates.  Anything more is viewed as a variant of “predatory” lending deserving condemnation.

Maybe it would be best for some people not to buy so much on credit, but that isn’t – at least so far – the government’s decision.  However, it would be more honest if government branded people with the Scarlet C and banned them from borrowing than prohibiting companies from charging higher rates and fees to reflect higher credit risks.

The credit card debate is stranger than most in Washington.  Listening to critics you’d think that the card companies were dragooning people off the streets, forcing them at gunpoint to sign up for cards, and demanding that they spend money else their children will be kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Precisely who was forced to accept and use these terrible cards with their terrible terms?  No one.

Instead of posturing as defenders of the body politic, crusading politicians should, as my friend Don Boudreaux of George Mason University suggested,  give up their day jobs and start credit card companies.   These entrepreneurs then could offer consumers better cards with less onerous terms, making everyone better off.

Any takers?

New at Cato

New articles, videos and Podcasts today:

  • Ilya Shapiro asks the Supreme Court to review a medical law case with First Amendment issues in a new legal brief.
  • At National Review online, Edward Crane discusses Obama’s 100-day record.
  • Also at National Review online, James Tooley tells the story of black-market schools in impoverished countries.
  • Appearing on Fox Business Network, Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. discusses the Federal Reserve’s current meeting.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podast, Aaron Yelowitz discusses the problems with employer health care mandates.

Not Everyone Needs to Go to College

William F. Buckley famously said that he’d ”rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” That was, of course, a swipe at the practical wisdom of those people who spend their lives teaching in ivory towers, and a deserved one. But score one for the egg heads when it comes to identifying the practical reality of modern higher education.

According to a new report from Public Agenda, while college presidents blather on about their impoverished schools and what a tremendous public good higher education is, the professors (at least those that Public Agenda interviewed) are pretty darn realistic about the real problems in academia. This quote, echoed in professorial statements throughout the report, captures exactly what a lot of us libertarian types have been saying for years:

I think a big problem facing higher education is the idea that everybody should get into college. I don’t think everybody is designed to go to college. Not everybody needs to go to college. I know that’s shooting ourselves in the foot, because that’s where our jobs are. The more people show up at our schools, the more jobs we get. Not everybody needs to go to college. Not everybody should. Not everybody’s prepared.

Public Agenda doesn’t identify who the speakers are in its report, but whoever said the bit above – or any of the similar statements about too many people going to college or being pushed to go to college – actually deserves to get tenure.