The Quintessential Washington Post Sentence

[T]he president is recommending only $5 billion in new spending.

From David Broder’s column on the SCHIP debate.

Posted on July 31, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Anarchists vs. Statists

A book reviewer in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal discusses the assassination of Italy’s King Umberto I in 1900 by an anarchist and writes:

Murderous anarchists would plague Europe and America for more than a decade.

And murderous statists for the rest of the century, with rather more effect.

Posted on July 29, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Still No Consensus

A headline in the Washington Post (the actual newspaper, not the online version) reads:

Montgomery Still Lacking Consensus on Growth Policy

The article explains that officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are having trouble agreeing on rules for limiting economic growth while leaving room for development. “I don’t think there is consensus on much of anything at this point,” said County Council member Nancy Floreen.

One reason that there’s no consensus, of course, is that there’s no consensus. The county’s 900,000 residents don’t all agree on who should be allowed to build new homes and businesses, who should have their property rights limited, who should pay the bills, and so on. This is why Hayek said that planning was not compatible with liberal values. The only values we can agree on in a big diverse society, he wrote, are “common abstract rules of conduct that secured the constant maintenance of an equally abstract order which merely assured to the individual better prospects of achieving his individual ends but gave him no claims to particular things.” That is, you set up property rights and the rule of law, and you let people run their own lives without being allowed to run other people’s lives. Try to go beyond that, and you’re going to infringe on freedom.

As I wrote a few months ago, another newspaper story reported

“As a consensus builds that the Washington region needs to concentrate job growth, there are signs that the exact opposite is happening.

Over the past five years, the number of new jobs in the region’s outer suburbs exceeded those created in the District and inner suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties … contradicting planners’ ’smart growth’ visions of communities where people live, work and play without having to drive long distances.”

Maybe if tens - hundreds - of thousands of people aren’t abiding by the “consensus,” there is no consensus: there is just a bunch of government-funded planners attending conferences and deciding where people ought to live. It’s like, “Our community doesn’t want Wal-Mart.” Hey, if the community really doesn’t Wal-Mart, then a Wal-Mart store will fail. What that sentence means is: “Some organised interests in our community don’t want Wal-Mart here because we know our neighbours will shop there (and so will we).”

In her book It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton calls for “a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do today, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.” But there can be no such collective consensus. In any free society, millions of people will have different ideas about how to form families, how to rear children, and how to associate voluntarily with others. Those differences are not just a result of a lack of understanding each other; no matter how many Harvard seminars and National Conversations funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities we have, we will never come to a national consensus on such intimate moral matters. Clinton implicitly recognizes that when she insists that there will be times when “the village itself [read: the federal government] must act in place of parents” and accept “those responsibilities in all our names through the authority we vest in government.”

Governments would do better to set a few rules of the game and let market enterprises respond to what people really rather than try to push people into conforming to planners’ visions and phony consensuses.

Posted on July 24, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Media’s Snapshot View

An AP story on the minimum wage begins, all too typically:

The nation’s lowest-paid workers will soon find extra money in their pockets as the minimum wage rises 70 cents to $5.85 an hour today, the first increase in a decade.

Some versions of the AP story, though not the ones that ran in the Washington Post and the New York Times, did acknowledge the possibility that some low-paid jobs might disappear. But most of the news stories this week focus more on criticism of the increase for being too low than on the consensus of economists that minimum wage laws reduce employment for low-skilled workers. It’s enough to make you think Bryan Caplan’s right about the irrationality of the political process. But it’s really just an example of the tendency to look at market processes with a “snapshot view” rather than a dynamic understanding of costs and consequences.

On an unrelated note, unions are outsourcing the arduous job of picket lines to non-union workers. Apparently the carpenters and construction workers are too busy working in our booming economy to have time to picket non-union contractors. The picketers aren’t paid union wages, but they are paid above the minimum wage.

Posted on July 24, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power

Eight British Cabinet ministers have admitted that they smoked marijuana in their youth, most of them “only once or twice” in college, which would be an atypical pattern. The revelations began with Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary, the equivalent of the attorney general. They also include the police minister and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs. The eight have been dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in acknowledgment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On Wednesday Brown announced that Smith would lead a government review of the laws on marijuana, specifically with reference to whether simple possession should be again grounds for arrest. (The law was eased in 2002.) Several leading Conservatives in the Shadow Cabinet have also acknowledged using drugs, and party leader David Cameron has emulated President Bush in saying that he’s not obligated to discuss every detail of his private life before he entered politics.

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

And the same question applies to Sen. David Vitter, who has acknowledged employing the services provided by the “D.C. Madam.” Many people have compared Vitter to other politicians who engaged in adultery, or have mocked his commitment to “family values”–he has said that no issue is more important than protecting the institution of marriage from the threat of gay couples getting married. But the other politicians usually cited were not breaking the law when they had affairs, and Vitter’s hostility to gay marriage while cheating on his own is a matter of simple political hypocrisy. The more specific issue, as with the pot-smoking drug warriors, is that Vitter (presumably) supports the laws against prostitution. Yet he himself, while a member of the United States Congress, has broken those laws and solicited other people to break them.

Vitter should be asked: Do you think prostitution should be illegal? If so, will you turn yourself in? Or will you testify for the defense in the D.C. Madam case, asking the court not to punish Deborah Jeane Palfrey if it’s not punishing you?

I hope that Jacqui Smith, Barack Obama, and David Vitter will engage in some introspection and conclude that if they didn’t deserve to go to jail, then neither do other pot smokers, prostitutes, and their customers. They might decide that not every sin or mistake should be a crime. But they should not sit in the halls of power, imposing on others the penalties they don’t think should apply to them.

Posted on July 22, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Sarkozy, France’s Busy CEO

It must be exhausting to be the chairman and CEO of a nation-state-firm that runs everything from retirement plans to universities to energy firms. Steven Pearlstein reports on France’s “hyperactive new president, Nicholas Sarkozy”:

There he is lunching with student leaders at a local bistro to win their support for reform of the nation’s under-funded and under-performing university system.

Here he is on the phone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, sealing the deal for the French oil company, Total, for a 25 percent stake in the management of the giant Shtokman gas field.

Now he is in Toulouse, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, announcing a new governance structure for Airbus that puts a loyal French technocrat in charge.

And there’s Sarko in Brussels, criticizing the European Central Bank for keeping the euro too high and demanding more leeway for France’s ballooning budget deficit.

Rupert Murdoch probably delegates more than this. But Sarko is determined to prove that he can singlehandedly reform the operations of a production-and-distribution entity far larger and more complex than the notorious business conglomerates that eventually displayed significant diseconomies of scale. He’s like a real-life version of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch of a hard-charging President Reagan driving his aides to exhaustion as he masterminds international financial transactions around the clock and around the world.

But as many of the conglomerates found, it might be easier to focus on the French state’s core business — protecting the life, liberty, and property of French citizens — if it sold off some of its peripheral lines, like universities, gas fields, health insurance, airlines, telephones, gambling….

Posted on July 20, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bush Waxes Philosophical on Health Care

People sick of the big-government conservatism practiced by the Bush administration might be excited at the headline in today’s Washington Post: “Bush: No Deal On Children’s Health Plan/President Says He Objects On Philosophical Grounds.” But President Bush’s philosophical objection to the proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program is in no way a reversal from his stance that big spending is okay as long as Republicans can take credit.

What philosophy does Bush subscribe to?  Apparently, it’s the philosophy that says the federal government should only expand the welfare state by billions of dollars, instead of tens of billions of dollars: “The president said he objects on philosophical grounds to a bipartisan Senate proposal to boost the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years. Bush has proposed $5 billion in increased funding and has threatened to veto the Senate compromise and a more costly expansion being contemplated in the House.” 

Later in the article Bush is quoted as saying, “I think it’s going to be very important for our allies on Capitol Hill to hear a strong, clear message from me that expansion of government in lieu of making the necessary changes to encourage a consumer-based system is not acceptable.”

He also said, “I’m worried that there will be a strong incentive for people to switch from the private sector to the government.” 

If only the president had adopted a similar attitude when he approved a $1.2 trillion expansion of Medicare in 2003 in lieu of consumer-based approaches.

Posted on July 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bias at the BBC

The BBC has admitted that recent programs have included faked scenes and rigged competitions.

Who knew that you couldn’t trust the BBC?

Posted on July 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Taxpayers Lose Again

In Maryland, as in many other states, legislators have to wait a year before becoming lobbyists.  The idea is to put some distance between being a member of the legislature and turning around and immediately lobbying your colleagues. Maybe it helps to reduce the impression that some legislators are thinking about their next job as they make legislative decisions.

So how can Sen. P. J. Hogan go directly from the State Senate to a cushy job as the chief lobbyist for Maryland’s university system? Because “the one-year prohibition on legislators lobbying state officials does not apply to someone moving from one state post to another.”

So if you want to lobby for the private sector, for businesses or unions or environmentalists, you have to wait a year to alleviate any appearance of impropriety. But if you want to lobby on behalf of the government itself, you can use your contacts immediately, before they get cold and distant. Indeed, you’d have to wait a year to lobby on behalf of a taxpayers group, but you can start lobbying against the taxpayers the next day. Just another way that government stacks the deck against taxpayer interests.

Posted on July 17, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Hillary the Neocon

Don’t miss Ed Crane in today’s Financial Times: “Is Hillary Clinton a neocon?” (Subscribers only, alas; you may have to run out and buy a copy.) Here’s a taste:

“You know, when I ask people, ‘What do you think the goals of America are today?’ people don’t have any idea. We don’t know what we’re trying to achieve. And I think that in a life or in a country you’ve got to have some goals.” Senator Hillary Clinton, MSNBC, May 11 2007

Senator Hillary Clinton’s worldview, as formulated above, is starkly at odds with that of America’s founders. The idea that the American nation had “goals”, just as individuals do, would have been wholly alien to them. For them the whole undertaking of government was to protect our “self-evident” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This emphasis on the primacy of the individual is the essence of true American exceptionalism.

National goals are a euphemism for concentrated national political power. The “Old World” was full of nations with goals, almost all pernicious. The concept of national goals is not so much un-American as it is non-American. But Mrs Clinton persists in promoting the concept, saying at a recent campaign speech in New Hampshire that rather than an “ownership society” she would “prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society”. She frequently invokes the notion that Americans want “to be part of something bigger than themselves”.

She has an unusual ally in this. The one other powerful political force in the US today that shares her frustration over the lack of national goals is neoconservatism. Neocons call it “national greatness”. Their theorists Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan called President George W. Bush’s willingness to “engage wherever necessary around the world” a recognition of “an essential part of national greatness”.

Perhaps its most articulate proponent, however, is David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. Mr Brooks wrings his hands in a Weekly Standard article that “Americans have discarded their pursuit of national greatness in just about every particular”. And how would he describe that goal? “Individual ambition and willpower are channelled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.” “Ultimately,” he continues, “American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.”  …

Posted on July 11, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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