The Mysterious Mr. Obama

Yesterday, one minute apart, I received two email messages that sort of sum up the mixed libertarian views on Barack Obama. First, an old friend forwarded an AP story in which Obama promised to repeal any executive orders that “trample on liberty”:

Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that “trample on liberty,” several lawmakers said. . . .

The Illinois senator “talked about how his attorney general is to review every executive order and immediately eliminate those that trample on liberty,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Good stuff! Let’s just hope he realizes that Bush isn’t the first president to issue executive orders that “trample on liberty.” It was President Bill Clinton’s aide, Paul Begala, who drooled at the notion of using executive orders to do what Congress wouldn’t go along with: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.” For a look at some pre-Bush executive orders that might warrant elimination, Obama’s attorney general might consult “Executive Orders and National Emergencies: How Presidents Have Come to ‘Run the Country’ by Usurping Legislative Power,” published by Cato in 1999. There he can find information about Clinton orders that nationalized land, sought to reverse Supreme Court rulings, rewrote the rules of federalism, and waged war in Yugoslavia.

One minute after receiving that story, I received another Obama analysis in my inbox. That one was an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily titled “Barack Obama’s Stealth Socialism.” The editorial noted Obama’s repeated use of the sneaky phrase “economic justice” and cited a laundry list of spending programs and regulations that Obama supports. It’s a pretty scary list for a libertarian, from national health insurance and penalties for companies that do business internationally to huge new federal burdens on employers.

To the extent that some libertarians look favorably on Obama, I think it’s mostly negative: Bush and the Republican Congress have been so bad that any alternative looks good. But occasionally Obama does indeed say something almost libertarian. And then he promises that he’s the guy who can build a consensus to actually implement Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda, and libertarians are reminded of why they rarely vote Democratic. In Obama’s case, of course, the confusion is created by his lack of much public record. He was a senator for only two years before he began running for president full-time. Unlike candidates such as Clinton and John McCain, he doesn’t have decades’ worth of votes and statements to review. So we parse the substantive moments amid his soaring rhetoric and try to determine if he’s “the most liberal member of the Senate,” “more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” a “a pro-growth, free-market guy,” or even a “left libertarian.”

Posted on July 31, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Stevens Scandal

Don Boudreaux of George Mason University sent out the following missive about Ted Stevens’s indictment. I don’t see it posted at Cafe Hayek, though it might yet be. But since I can’t improve on his pithy commentary, I offer it here:

I’m delighted to see Sen. Ted Stevens face jail time for his crimes while in office. To charge him with concealing gifts totaling $250,000, however, is the equivalent of charging a confessed mass murderer with jaywalking. If that’s the only way to bring the criminal to justice, fine. But Sen. Stevens’s most significant misdeeds - ones of which he boasts! - are his decades-long success at directing billions of taxpayer dollars to special-interest groups for no reason other than the fact that he possessed the power and position to buy himself even greater security in office by doing so.

Of course, punishing all the criminals guilty of THAT offense would depopulate Capitol Hill.

Posted on July 30, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Treating Angelenos as Children

A law that would prevent fast-food restaurants from opening in South Los Angeles neighborhoods was unanimously approved by the LA City Council on Tuesday.

Paternalist? You bet. Violation of equal protection? It would seem so. The City Council trusts white people, but not the blacks and Latinos who live in South Los Angeles, to make their own food decisions? Ouch.

But I was particularly struck by this statement from Councilwoman Jan Perry, sponsor of the measure: “I believe this is a victory for the people of South and southeast Los Angeles, for them to have greater food options.”

Greater food options? All the council is doing is banning some restaurants. How will that give residents more options? Maybe — maybe — other restaurants will open in South Los Angeles because fewer fast food restaurants will open over the coming year. But residents will still not have “greater food options,” just different options, courtesy of those who know best.

Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions of the “surprising . . . persistence and scope of the belief that people can be made better off by reducing their options.” Twenty-eight years later, the belief persists. But now people who reduce other people’s options claim they are increasing options. That’s progress, of a sort.

The citizens of South Los Angeles should rebel against the unchosen nannies who think that they can run adults’ lives better than those adults can run their own lives.

Posted on July 30, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Monumental Tribute to Adam Smith

Kudos to the Adam Smith Institute of London, which has succeeded in remarkably short order in commissioning, funding, and erecting a statue of Adam Smith “on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile – right in the heart of Scotland’s capital city, where Adam Smith worked and died.” Appropriately enough, the statue stands on the site of an ancient marketplace.

Adam Smith’s importance as a founder of modern liberal society can hardly be overestimated. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1952,

The ideas that found their classical expression in the two books of Adam Smith demolished the traditional philosophy of mercantilism and opened the way for capitalist mass production for the needs of the masses. Under capitalism the common man is the much-talked-about customer who “is always right.” His buying makes efficient entrepreneurs rich, and his abstention from buying forces inefficient entrepreneurs to go out of business.

Smith’s wisdom might be especially useful in this election season when Republicans and Democrats compete to spend more taxpayer dollars:

“[Governments are] … without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.”

“Great nations are never impoverished by private, though they sometimes are by public prodigality and misconduct…. Those unproductive hands … may consume so great a share of their whole revenue … that all the frugality and good conduct of individuals may not be able to compensate the waste and degradation of produce occasioned by this violent and forced encroachment.”

For a lively and readable introduction to Adam Smith, read P. J. O’Rourke’s On the Wealth of Nations or watch him discuss the book here.

Posted on July 23, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Central Banker with a Sense of Humor ( General ) by David Boaz

The world's worst central banker, Gideon Gono of Zimbabwe, gets a hearty chuckle out of the hyperinflation that has destroyed his country's economy:
Of all the world's central bankers, Zimbabwe's gets the biggest -- or at least the longest -- salary. Mr. Gono won't say how much he earns exactly as head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe but does claim to have "more digits" on his pay slip that any of his peers. He earns trillions of Zimbabwe dollars. It now takes more than 16 billion of these to buy a single U.S. dollar. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke earns only six figures, $191,300.
Ha, ha. Maybe he should be more direct and simply take credit for producing the world's highest inflation. That's something to be remembered for.

Posted on July 9, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Antitrust Follies ( General ) by David Boaz

Missouri politicians are trying to block the purchase of St. Louis beer maker Anheuser-Busch by the Belgian brewer InBev. Sen. Christopher Bond, a senior member of the party of free enterprise, has written to both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, asking them to examine the merger for any possible antitrust problems.  Sen. Claire McCaskill said she would "do everything I could to stop this sale from going through" because "we do not have a ‘For Sale’ sign on our front lawn in America." Of course, nobody's proposing to sell America. The question on the table is whether the people who have invested their money in Anheuser-Busch will choose to sell their shares at the handsome price offered by InBev. And that really should be their decision, not the business of Bond or McCaskill. What really is the concern here? That beer prices might rise? Surely that's something that could be left to a robustly competitive marketplace with lots of new entrants. Or that some people in St. Louis might lose their jobs? That's understandably a concern for Missouri's senators, but there's constant job churn in a dynamic market -- between 1993 and 2002 in the American economy, 327.7 million jobs were added, while 309.9 million jobs were lost -- and there's no good reason for senators to thrust a monkey wrench in a few high-profile cases. At least no good economic reason. Maybe the real concern is that an "iconic" American brand will be owned by foreigners. Anheuser-Busch is indeed a classic piece of Americana, a company founded by German immigrants in a city founded by Frenchmen and named for the French king. And now, in an increasingly globalized world, it might be owned by a Belgian company that has been controlled by Brazilians since a 2005 merger. This sort of globalization is increasingly common. As Robert Reich said as far back as 1991, "It's very hard to separate out any longer who is us and who is them. If you want to buy an American-made car today, you have a better chance buying an American-made car if you buy a Honda than if you buy a Pontiac LeMans, most of which is produced outside of the United States. People forget or they don't understand the extent to which globalization has taken over these corporations  -- foreigners coming here, we're going there. Chrysler owns a big chunk of Mitsubishi, Ford owns 25 percent of Mazda." Have a cold Bud and chill out, senators.

Posted on July 9, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Liberalism in China

The New Yorker reviews Beijing Coma, a novel by Ma Jian, a Chinese exile who was at the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Reviewer Pankaj Mishra says that, like Milan Kundera, Ma knows that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” He wants to make sure that the Chinese don’t forget the Tiananmen protesters and what they were protesting. Even before 1989, Ma Jian had been denounced as an example of ”bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution.”

I was particularly struck by a couple of lines in the review:

Reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to a fellow-writer, he mocked Ginsberg’s angry rejection of America. “He implies his country is not fit for humans to live in. Well, he should live in China for a month, then see what he thinks. Everyone here dreams of the day we can sing out of our windows in despair.”

In his memoir, Red Dust, published in 2002, Ma described his travels through China in the mid-1980s, in the midst of Deng Xiao-ping’s economic liberalization and before the Tiananmen crisis:

Ma Jian not only seems to have relished his own improvised life; he also appears to have embraced some of his country’s entrepreneurial exuberance. In one of the book’s many bracingly unexpected scenes, he finds himself exhorting the residents of an isolated village, “This country is changing, opening up. You can’t just stay here like vegetables. You should travel, broaden your minds. Haven’t you heard about Shenzhen Economic Zone?”

Ma Jian says his next book will be about China’s inhuman family-planning policy. It’s no wonder that his books are banned in China; if only American writers understood the liberating potential of economic freedom and the comforts of life in capitalist society as well as writers who lived under the alternative.

Posted on July 7, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Home Fit for a President

According to the Washington Post, Barack and Michelle Obama

wanted to step up from their $415,000 condo. They chose a house with six bedrooms, four fireplaces, a four-car garage and 5 1/2 baths, including a double steam shower and a marble powder room. It had a wine cellar, a music room, a library, a solarium, beveled glass doors and a granite-floored kitchen.

It sounds — and looks – like a home fit for a Roosevelt. Of course, the old-money Roosevelts had their homes, so they didn’t have to go through the costly and distasteful process of taking out a mortgage to buy them. Fortunately for the Obamas, the Chicago-based Northern Trust made the process a lot less costly than it might have been for other people. (See also a comment here from Clio1, who claims to know that the deal was even better than the Post suggested.)

Posted on July 3, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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