Libertarianism — the political philosophy that says limited government is the best kind of government — is having its moment. Unfortunately, that’s mostly because government has been expanding in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the financial crisis. Somehow government failures lead to even more government.
When the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, the politicians in Washington had one response: start printing money and bailing out big businesses. First it was Bear Stearns, then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then most of Wall Street. But voters had a different response. Polls showed widespread opposition to the bailouts. When Congress prepared to vote on President George W. Bush’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, Americans made their opinions known in no uncertain terms. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown reported, “Like my colleagues, my phones have been ringing off the hook. The sentiment from Ohioans about this proposal is universally negative.”
In the end, though, Congress took another vote, and the lobbyists won. Wall Street got its bailout. And we can date the birth of the tea party movement to that very week.
Meanwhile, the government’s response to the financial crisis sent people looking for answers. Sales of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” soared. The Cato Institute’s pocket edition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution even hit The Washington Post best-seller list.
“Distrust of government is in America’s DNA.”
Libertarian ideas often cross left-right boundaries. Lots of libertarians were involved in the tea party and the opposition to the bailouts, the car company takeovers, the 2009 stimulus bill and the quasi-nationalization of health care. But libertarians were also involved in the movement for gay marriage. Indeed, John Podesta, a top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, noted in 2011 that you probably had to have been a libertarian to have supported gay marriage 15 years earlier. Or take marijuana legalization, which is just now becoming a majority position: Libertarians have been leaders in the opposition to the drug war for many years.
Libertarians have played a key role in the defense of the right to keep and bear arms over the years, notably in the two recent Supreme Court cases that affirmed that the Second Amendment means what it says: Individuals have a right to own guns. Support for stricter gun control has been declining for years.
Much of the libertarian energy in the past few years was generated by the presidential campaigns of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and then by the leadership of his son Rand Paul representing Kentucky in the Senate. When Ron Paul began his campaign in 2007, he didn’t attract much attention. But then, in a nationally televised debate, he clashed with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The confrontation became the cable TV moment of the night.
The next day, the conservative magazine National Review declared it a victory for Giuliani. But his campaign never got off the ground, while Ron Paul’s took off. “Ron Paul” briefly even became one of the most popular search terms on Google News. Paul’s support, especially online and among young voters, was intense, but it wasn’t broad enough to win any primaries.
Paul ran again in 2012, and he found even more success. He hadn’t changed much; indeed, his themes sounded like what he’d been saying since he entered Congress in 1976: The federal government is spending too much, printing too much money and launching too many wars. But the country, and the issues, had changed.
In 2007, Ron Paul warned that an economy based on debt and cheap money from the Federal Reserve was not sustainable, but the economy was booming and nobody wanted to listen. After the crash of 2008, they started listening.
In 2007, Paul criticized excessive federal spending, but with a Republican in the White House Republicans weren’t much interested. When Obama opened taxpayers’ wallets, they listened.
In 2007, Paul criticized endless military intervention, but most Republicans were content to repeat, “The surge is working.” By 2012, even Republicans were getting weary of 10 years of war. They listened.
In 2007, Ron Paul said that Congress and the president should not act outside their powers under the Constitution, but Republicans didn’t want to hear about unconstitutional acts by a Republican president. After the bailouts and the health care takeover and Obama’s unauthorized war in Libya, they listened.
And in 2010, a hitherto unknown ophthalmologist in my home state of Kentucky got elected to the U.S. Senate, helped by being the son of Ron Paul and by the energy of the tea party. Rand Paul upset the Republican establishment candidate in the primary, then comfortably defeated the Democratic attorney general in November.
Rand Paul, like his father, doesn’t agree with libertarians on everything. But in the Senate he’s been a strong voice for freedom on a wide range of issues. He introduced a bill to cut spending and actually balance the federal budget. He spoke out against President Obama’s intervention in Libya. He managed to kill a particularly bad piece of indefinite detainment legislation just by demanding that the Senate vote on it in public view. He fought “government bullies” from the EPA to the TSA, and even managed to get detained by the TSA when he objected to a full-body patdown.
Most memorably, in 2013 he stood like Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” at a desk in the Senate for 13 straight hours to force the country’s attention on the issue of unmanned drone strikes.
Shortly after Paul’s filibuster, America’s libertarian soul was pricked again by a series of revelations about government surveillance, overreach and abuse of power. First came the reports suggesting that the IRS had targeted tea party groups and those engaged in “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” for extra scrutiny and delays in confirming their tax-exempt status. Then we learned that the Justice Department had been looking at the telephone records of as many as 20 reporters and editors at The Associated Press as well as Fox News reporter James Rosen. Both those efforts were part of the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers.
Then came the stunning revelations about the massive surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails by the National Security Agency. We learned that in more than a dozen secret rulings, the secret surveillance court has created a secret body of law authorizing the NSA to amass vast collections of data on Americans. The NSA broke privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times a year.
Americans were shocked. Members of Congress expressed outrage. President Obama defended the surveillance programs and assured us that the people with access to all this data “take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution.”
But distrust of government is in America’s DNA. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts: “Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”
This time it wasn’t “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Road to Serfdom” that shot up on the best-seller lists, it was another libertarian classic: George Orwell’s “1984,”known for its warning that “Big Brother is watching.”
Posted on April 7, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
David Boaz gives a speech on “Socialism vs Capitalism” in a joint project of The Future of Freedom Foundation and the George Mason University Economics Society.
Posted on April 1, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Anne Applebaum reports on how old smears are still used to support illiberal ideas and authoritarian government:
Halfway through an otherwise coherent conversation with a Georgian lawyer here — the topics included judges, the court system, the police — I was startled by a comment he made about his country’s former government, led by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. “They were LGBT,” he said, conspiratorially.
What did that mean, I asked, surprised. Were they for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights? For gay marriage? Were they actually gay? He couldn’t really define it, though the conversation meandered in that direction for a few more minutes, also touching on the subject of the former president’s alleged marital infidelity, his promotion of female politicians, his lack of respect for the church.
Afterward, I worked it out. The lawyer meant to say that Saakashvili — who drove his country hard in the direction of Europe, pulled Georgia as close to NATO as possible and used rough tactics to fight the post-Soviet mafia that dominated his country — was “too Western.” Not conservative enough. Not traditional enough. Too much of a modernizer, a reformer, a European. In the past, such a critic might have called Saakashvili a “rootless cosmopolitan.” But today the insulting code word for that sort of person in the former Soviet space — regardless of what he or she thinks about homosexuals — is LGBT.
None of this is new, as Applebaum notes. We’ve seen it recently in Venezuela. In 2012, as soon as Henrique Capriles won a primary to become the candidate of the democratic opposition against Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the Wall Street Journal reported that he
was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela’s state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent.
Homosexual and Jewish, I thought. When they attack him for being rich, they’ll have the trifecta of populist prejudices.
And sure enough, they did. Chavez himself declared:
The bourgeoisie have their candidate – the candidate of the anti-fatherland, of capitalism, of the Yankees. We are going to thrash that bourgeoisie.
Chavez, of course, also threw in “the candidate of the Yankees,” that is, the Americans. German democrats used to say that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” Now in many countries we could say that anti-Americanism is the new anti-semitism. They’re often found in tandem.
All of these epithets – homosexual, Jewish, bourgeoisie, and more recently, “American” – have been staples of illiberal rhetoric for centuries. Liberals – advocates of democracy, free speech, religious freedom, and market freedoms – have been tarred as “cosmopolitan” and somehow alien to the people, the Volk, the faithful, the fatherland, the heartland.
Authoritarians such as Putin and Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro also like to denounce their opponents as “fascists,” even though they themselves fit most of the textbook definition of fascism – nationalism, anti-liberalism, a charismatic leader as the embodiment of the nation, and an economy controlled indirectly by the state, typically through nominally private owners.
Liberals should denounce these sorts of vile and illiberal attacks, whether they stem from the American far right or far left, Vladimir Putin, the ruling party in Malaysia, or the Venezuelan socialists.
Posted on March 31, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
On Sunday the New York Times ran a remarkably ill-informed reviewof Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.
Over at Cato@Liberty, I responded in great detail. Noting reviewer David Leonhardt's litany of embarrassing moments in libertarian history, I argued:
If that's the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it's a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact - not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one - that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travellers.
As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I'll just say: George W Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power.
More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.
In a way he personalises Mikhail Gorbachev's accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn't contain. Once people were allowed to criticise the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly - partly because of Yeltsin's unexpectedly radical leadership.
His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent "Yugoslav scenario" and allow the Soviet Union's 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.
On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.
David Boaz is the executive vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute, a non-profit-making public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington DC. He is a leading authority on US domestic issues such as education choice, drug legalisation, the growth of government, and the rise of libertarianism.
He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, described by the Los Angeles Times as "a well-researched manifesto of libertarian ideas", the editor of The Libertarian Reader, and coeditor of the Cato Handbook on Policy. His latest book is The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties.
Posted on March 28, 2014 Posted to The Guardian
We Americans know that the head of state in a monarchy is an inherited position. But we rebelled against that system and created a republic, in which men (and later women) would be chosen to lead the republic on the basis of their own accomplishments, not their family ties. Sure, we had the Adamses, and we may well be fortunate that neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson had a son. And there are other dynasties, often combined to one state, like the Longs of Louisiana and the Breckinridges of Kentucky. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen is the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating back to the 18th century. One of his ancestors inspired the classic campaign song, "Hurrah, hurrah, the country's risin'/For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!"
And today, of course, we face the prospect of replacing the son of a president in the White House with the wife of a president. We may have 24 or more years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. One leading Republican strategist has recommended that Florida governor Jeb Bush run for president this year, on the grounds in this of all years he won't lose points for being a dynastic candidate: what are they going to say, "don't vote for the president's brother, vote for the other president's wife instead"?
Lynne Cheney, whose husband served as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming vice president; state house majority floor leader Colin Simpson, the son of former senator Alan Simpson; and two of Thomas's three sons, Greg and Patrick.
Several years ago newspapers reported that a study of DNA proved that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Now some African-Americans want a genetic history to prove that they are descended from James Madison, the father of the US constitution. But DNA can't prove what they want.
The Washington Post reports that Bettye Kearse, an African-American physician, wants to confirm her family's oral tradition that they are direct descendants of Madison. This past weekend she attended the Montpelier slave descendants reunion at the fourth president's mansion. "Working with Bruce Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories," Kearse wants to:
compare the Y chromosomes - which are identical across generations - of male descendants in Madison's family to the Y chromosomes of some of Kearse's male cousins. Jackson and Kearse have been searching for Madison relatives in England but recently located a descendant of one of Madison's brothers in North Carolina.
begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse says was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father. The child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison's child, whom she named James Madison.
Jackson, speaking to attendees Saturday about how genetic research is conducted, noted that if Kearse's claim proves correct, it would mean Madison's only living direct descendants are African American.
A more accurate headline, of course, would have been "A Jefferson - not necessarily Thomas Jefferson - fathered" Sally Hemings' youngest child.) The article on the DNA test results was accompanied by an article "Founding father," co-authored by Professor [Joseph] Ellis, which proclaimed that the DNA analysis "confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children."
Jefferson's place in American history - his central role in our nation's founding and the evolution of its system of government - justly derives from his ideas. As I see it, genealogy is irrelevant: the true "children" of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His lasting legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government.
Marxism is a bore in China, but tie-dyed American socialists are trying to revive it. Apparently it's easier to believe in socialism if you haven't actually tried to live under it.
It isn't easy teaching Marxism in China these days.
"It's a big challenge," acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than "Das Kapital." The students say he isn't the problem.
"It's not the teacher," said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. "No matter who teaches this class, it's always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts."
Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: "In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution."
China's communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party "has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers," she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world's largest country back on the track toward socialism.
Talking over tea at the Education Ministry's modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today's students.
"They don't believe in God or communism," he said. "They're practical. They only worship the money."
In the Washington Post, Anita Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I've thought a lot about in discussions of our growing "nanny state":
But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines... . It is true that in 1960 US automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under "blue laws," most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.
Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. "People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed." Plus, "the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves."