Today is a great day for freedom. On this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, thus repealing Prohibition. My former colleague Brandon Arnold wrote about it a few years ago:
Prohibition isn’t a subject that should be studied by historians alone, as this failed experiment continues to have a significant impact on our nation.
Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a key force in the passage of Prohibition, survive to this day and continue to insist that Prohibition was a success and advocate for dry laws.
Prohibition-era state laws, many of which are still on the books today, created government-protected monopolies for alcohol distributors. These laws have survived for three-quarters of a century because of powerful, rent-seeking interest groups, despite the fact that they significantly raise costs and limit consumer options. And because of these distribution laws, it is illegal for millions of Americans to have wine shipped directly to their door.
The website RepealDay.org urges celebrations of the “return to the rich traditions of craft fermentation and distillation, the legitimacy of the American bartender as a contributor to the culinary arts, and the responsible enjoyment of alcohol as a sacred social custom.” It’s easy! You don’t have to hold a party. Just go to a bar or liquor store and have a drink.
RepealDay.org says that “No other holiday celebrates the laws that guarantee our rights.” I think that’s going too far. Constitution Day and Bill of Rights Day do exactly that. And in my view, so does Independence Day. But that’s quibbling. Today we celebrate the repeal of a bad law. A toast to that!
Cato celebrated the 75th anniversary of repeal with this policy forum featuring Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City; Glen Whitman, author of Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly; Asheesh Agarwal, Former Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning; and Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason.
Posted on December 5, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Fareed Zakaria’s new column is titled (at least on the Washington Post website) “Why Americans Hate Their Government” or (in the paper) “Why We Hate our Government.” But some of the points he makes might better be seen as reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.
Washington is having one of its odd debates as to whether the Obama administration’s rollout of HealthCare.gov was worse than the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But whatever the answer, if there is one, the real story is that both are examples of a major, and depressing, trend: the declining competence of the federal government. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been saying for years that most Americans believe their government can no longer act effectively and that this erosion of competence, and hence confidence, is a profound problem.
“The federal service is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded in the first moments of the republic,” scholar Paul Light writes in his book “A Government Ill Executed.”
Over the past decade, the federal government has had several major challenges: Iraq, Afghanistan, a new homeland security system, Katrina and Obamacare. In almost every case, its performance has been plagued with mismanagement, massive cost overruns and long delays.
Zakaria argues that this was not always the case: “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal agencies were often lean, well managed and surprisingly effective.” Maybe so, depending on your metric. But of course in those decades the federal government had not yet undertaken cradle-to-grave responsibilities. Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.
On the other hand,
If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer $3.6 trillion a year, if you want it to build housing for the poor and give special benefits to Alaska Natives, if you want it to supply Americans with health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste.
In that case, this is the business you have chosen.
Posted on November 22, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Tim Lynch was right. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. Matthew McConaughey, almost unrecognizable after losing 40 pounds, plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic electrician in 1985 who learns he has AIDS and has 30 days to live. There’s lots of strong language in his denunciation of the kinds of people who get AIDS, which he certainly is not. But after doing some research, he asks his doctor for AZT, the only drug for HIV/AIDS then available, but he wasn’t eligible for the trials then in process. He turns to the black market, finds his way to Mexico, encounters a doctor who tells him that AZT is toxic and that there are better vitamins and drugs, and beats his original prognosis. As it occurs to him that there are plenty of other people in Dallas who could use these drugs, he sees an opportunity to make some money – if he can only learn to deal with gay people.
Soon he’s setting up a “buyers club,” in an attempt to evade FDA regulations on selling illegal or non-approved drugs. He’s got customers – oops, potential members – lining up. He’s on planes to Japan and Amsterdam to get drugs not available in the United States. And at every turn he’s impeded and harassed by the FDA, which insists that people with terminal illnesses just accept their fate. Can’t have them taking drugs that might be dangerous! You’ll be surprised to see how many armed FDA agents it takes to raid a storefront clinic operated by two dying men.
Go see Dallas Buyers Club.
Posted on November 12, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Whether the recent election was good news for tea party Republicans, establishment Republicans, or activist Democrats, the Washington Post notes that
Obama’s larger project of redefining what government should do has been stymied by steady Republican opposition and public disenchantment with political leaders….While Obama has framed the question in different ways over the past five years, he has consistently sought to convince Americans that well-run government is uniquely positioned to help secure their economic prosperity.
A sidebar graphic reminds us that
Majorities have consistently preferred a smaller government with fewer services to a larger one with more services.
Here’s the chart accompanying the article:
The “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–“more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. With that in mind, I’ve adjusted the Post’s poll numbers by four points in each direction, to approximate what the numbers would look like if the Post included “higher taxes” in its question. The revised figure makes even more clear why presidents have difficulty persuading people to increase the size of government:
Posted on November 11, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on November 11, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on October 27, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on October 18, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on October 15, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Once again the media are full of talk about dysfunction and default, as the partial government shutdown threatens to linger until the federal government hits the limit of its borrowing capacity, possibly on Oct. 17. The parties in Congress are still far apart on passing a budget bill to keep the government running, and Republicans are also promising not to raise the debt ceiling without some spending reforms.
If in fact Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling by mid-October—or by November 1 or so, when the real crunch might come—then the federal government would be forbidden to borrow any more money beyond the legal limit of $16.699 trillion. But it would still have enough money to pay its creditors as bonds come due. The government will take in something like $225 billion in October, but it wants to spend about $108 billion more than that. You see the problem. If it can’t borrow that $108 billion—to cover its bills for one month—then it will have to delay some checks.
Now the U.S. Treasury isn’t full of stupid people. Back in 2011, when the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion was about to be reached, the Washington Post reported:
The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.
You can bet they’re making similar plans today.
Back in that summer of discontent I talked to a journalist who was very concerned about the “dysfunction” in Washington. So am I. But I told her then what’s still true today: that the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. Congress and the president will work out the debt ceiling issue, if not by October 17 then a few days later. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that doubled in 10 years, unprecedented deficits as far as the eye can see, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $16.699 trillion and heading toward 100 percent of GDP.
We’ve become so used to these unfathomable levels of deficits and debt—and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars—that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1981, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 33 years later, it’s headed past $17 trillion. Traditionally, the national debt as a percentage of GDP rose during major wars and the Great Depression. But there’s been no major war or depression in the past 33 years; we’ve just run up $16 trillion more in spending than the country was willing to pay for. That’s why our debt as a percentage of GDP is now higher than at any point except World War II. Here’s a graphic representation of the real dysfunction in Washington:
Those are the kind of numbers that caused the Tea Party movement and the Republican victories of 2010. And many Tea Partiers continue to remind their representatives that they were sent to Washington to fix this problem. That’s why there’s a real argument over raising the debt ceiling. It’s going to get raised, but many of the younger Republicans are determined to set a new course for federal spending in the same bill that authorizes another yet more profligate borrowing.
And where did all this debt come from? As the Tea Partiers know, it came from the rapid increase in federal spending over the past decade:
Annual federal spending rose by a trillion dollars when Republicans controlled the government from 2001 to 2007. It rose another trillion during the Bush-Obama response to the financial crisis. So spending every year is now twice what it was when Bill Clinton left office a dozen years ago, and the national debt is almost three times as high.
Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find wasteful, extravagant, and unnecessary programs to cut back or eliminate. And yet many voters, especially Tea Partiers, know that both parties have been responsible for the increased spending. Most Republicans, including today’s House leaders, voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, the Iraq war, the prescription drug entitlement, and the TARP bailout during the Bush years. That’s why fiscal conservatives have become very skeptical of bills that promise to cut spending some day—not this year, not next year, but swear to God some time in the next ten years. As the White Queen said to Alice, “Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” Cuts tomorrow and cuts in the out-years—but never cuts today.
If the “dysfunctional” fight that has sent the establishment into hysterics finally results in some constraint on out-of-control spending, then it will have been well worth all the hand-wringing headlines. The problem is not a temporary mess on Capitol Hill and not a mythical default, it’s spending, deficits, and debt.
Posted on October 7, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on October 4, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty