Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors? by David Boaz

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the "profound egalitarian insights" and "radical oneness" of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):
"I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education's power to reverse generational poverty," Rhee wrote. "But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today's problems in urban education. 'Make private schools illegal,' he said, 'and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.' "
Milloy's not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren't doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he's attracted to the "radical concept" of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way. I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would "solve the problems of urban education . . . and reverse generational poverty"? Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy's column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his "Kafkaesque" five-hour visit to the state of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration:
I was at the MVA. I was in Hell. I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don't care. You don't know what it was like. You weren't there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time.... I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn't every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn't management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.
The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there -- CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers' license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools. It's the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don't have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you'll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn't last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries -- because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don't expect real improvement.

Posted on September 14, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The ‘Tea Party’ Smear by David Boaz

One sign of the tea party movement's success is that the term "tea party" is becoming an all-purpose smear term for any more-or-less right-wing person or activity that the writer doesn't like. In fact, I think "Tea Party" is replacing "neocon" as an all-purpose word for "the people I hate." Take a look at this article, teased on the cover of Newsweek as "France's Tea Party" and online as "What a Tea Party Looks Like in Europe." When I saw the cover on the newsstand, I thought, "A tax revolt in France? Cool! And about time!" But what is the article actually about? It's about the National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who
for decades has played on the inchoate fears, xenophobia, knee-jerk racism, and ill-disguised anti-Semitism of many of his supporters.
Is that Newsweek's view of the "tea party"? The article went on to explain that at 82 Le Pen is yielding party leadership to his daughter, who is "a passionate advocate of its core message: strong French nationalism, relentless Euro-skepticism, and a lot of hard-nosed talk about fighting crime and immigration." And lest that you think that such culturally conservative and unsavory attitudes simply go hand in hand with a belief in lower taxes and smaller government, the authors point out that
she’s also a big believer in the state’s ability and obligation to help its people. “We feel the state should have the means to intervene,” she says. “We are very attached to public services à la française as a way to limit the inequalities among regions and among the French,” including “access for all to the same level of health care.”
That combination of nativism and welfare statism seems very different from the mission of the tea party movement. The Tea Party Patriots website, the closest thing to a central focus for tea party activists, lists their values as "Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market."  In fact, I note that writers Tracy McNicoll, Christopher Dickey, and Barbie Nadeau never use the term "tea party" in the body of the article. So maybe we should only blame Newsweek's headline writers and front-page editor. In another example, the Guardian newspaper of London wrote sensationally about "Lobbyists behind the rightwing Tea Party group in the US" arriving in London for "an event organised by the UK's controversial Taxpayers' Alliance." (Why is it controversial? Apparently because it agitates for lower taxes.) These groups, it is said, have "close links to the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch" and "have lobbied . . . to maintain tax breaks for the rich" -- and for everyone else, a point that author Phillip Inman inadvertently omitted. And, contrary to the article, Cato didn't sponsor a taxpayers' conference in London; we cosponsored the venerable European Resource Bank, a networking conference for free-market think tanks across Europe. Inman writes, "The Cato Institute, which promotes its views on Fox News and other rightwing media, is one of the Tea Party's main backers." That's sort of true, except for the point that our scholars have appeared more often on CNBC than on Fox. And that we don't back any political or grass-roots movements, though many of our scholars have written generous -- and sometimes more cautious -- articles about the tea party movement. My colleague Aaron Powell suggests that that many left-liberals, including many journalists, have a Manichean worldview that posits a fundamental conflict between corporations and government. And so if you dislike corporations, you perforce stand on the side of government. And when it's energy corporations, like the Kochs, then anything they touch becomes The Enemy. And "Tea Party" is now, to some people, the generic name for The Enemy. For more sensible views of the tea party movement from journalists, see this John Judis article that I praised before and a new analysis from Jonathan Rauch in National Journal.

Posted on September 13, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Serving Minority Tastes by David Boaz

In a Washington Post obituary for billionaire John Kluge, Terence McArdle explains how he made his fortune by creating Metromedia, the nation's largest chain of independent television stations:
Metromedia stations relied on a mix of local programs, old movies and syndicated reruns that often ran counter to what the big three network affiliates had in the same time slot.
Kluge's key insight was:
Mr. Kluge believed that if the networks had an 80 percent share in a major market, 20 percent of the market wanted to watch something else.
And that's a key difference between the market and government, one that's so obvious we may fail to notice it. Kluge figured he could make money by offering a product that only 20 percent of consumers wanted. Many television networks these days make money by attracting 1 percent or less of the market. But in the political world, it's usually one-size-fits-all. Politicians decide, and then that's what we all get -- phonics in the schools or not, prayer or not, instead of a market of schools from which parents could choose. Health insurance with 99 mandated coverages whether you want them or not. I made a similar point in Libertarianism: A Primer (p. 189), on politics as a package deal:
Sesame Street recently gave us an example of what that means.  In an election special, the Muppets and their human friends have $3 to spend, and they learn about voting by deciding whether to buy crayons or juice. "Rosita:  You count the people who want crayons.  Then you count the people who want juice.  If more people want juice, it's juice for everyone.  If more people want crayons, it's crayons. "Telly:  Sounds crazy but it might just work!" But why not let each child buy what he wants?  Who needs democracy for such decisions?  There may be some public goods, but surely juice and crayons don't count.  In the real world, one candidate offers higher taxes, legalized abortion, and getting out of the War in Vietnam, another promises a balanced budget, school prayer, and escalation of the war.  What if you want a balanced budget and withdrawal from Vietnam?  In the marketplace you get lots of choices; politics forces you to choose among only a few.

Posted on September 9, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Review Now Online by David Boaz

Many issues of the late, great libertarian magazine Libertarian Review are now available online. The magazine was published from 1972 to 1981, first as a newsletter of book reviews and then as a glossy monthly magazine edited by Roy A. Childs, Jr. It made quite a splash during those years, and Childs became one of the most visible and controversial libertarian intellectuals. After the magazine folded, as so many intellectual magazines do, he spent almost a decade as editorial director and chief book reviewer for Laissez Faire Books. He had read everything, and he knew everyone in the libertarian movement. He got lots of prominent people -- including Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Thomas Szasz, Roger Lea MacBride, and Charles Koch -- to write for the magazine. And he discovered and nurtured plenty of younger writers. Libertarian Review featured
  • news coverage and analysis of inflation, the energy crisis, economic reform in China, the 1979 Libertarian Party convention and the subsequent Clark for President campaign, the Proposition 13 tax-slashing victory, the rise of the religious right, the emergence of Solidarity, Jerry Brown, Three Mile Island, and the return of draft registration.
  • classic essays like Jeff Riggenbach on "The Politics of Aquarius" and "In Praise of Decadence," Joan Kennedy Taylor on Betty Friedan, Rothbard on "Carter's Energy Fascism."
  • interviews with F. A. Hayek, Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann, Henry Hazlitt, John Holt, and Robert Nozick.
  • and especially Roy Childs: on William Simon's A Time for Truth, on Irving Kristol, on the rise of Reagan, on drugs and crime, on the hot spots of Iran, Afghanistan, and El Salvador.
As Tom G. Palmer put it in a letter published in The New Republic of August 3, 1992, just after Roy died, "Roy Childs was one of the finer members of a generation of radical thinkers who worked successfully to revive the tradition of classical liberalism -- or libertarianism -- after its long dormancy, and who dared to launch a frontal challenge to the twentieth-century welfare state. An autodidact who knew more about the subjects on which he wrote than most so-called 'experts', his writings exercised a powerful influence on a generation of young classical liberal thinkers." Check it out.

Posted on September 9, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Born-Again Budget Hawks (D-BS) by David Boaz

"Now on Democrats' agenda: Budget cuts," proclaims a front-page headline in Saturday's Washington Post. The online headline reads, "Democrats add fiscal austerity as a campaign issue." Good news, huh? Let's check it out:
The candidate was outraged -- just outraged -- at the country's sorry fiscal state. "We have managed to acquire $13 trillion of debt on our balance sheet," he fumed to a roomful of voters. "In my view, we have nothing to show for it." And that was a Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who voted "yes" on the stimulus, the health-care overhaul, increased education funding and other costly bills Congress approved under his party's control.
Paul Hodes, the Democratic Senate candidate in New Hampshire, recently proposed $3 billion in spending cuts that would slice airport, railroad and housing funds. Elected to the House four years ago as an anti-war progressive, Hodes lamented that "for too long, both parties have willfully spent with no regard for our nation's debt."
So Senator Bennet is outraged at the national debt -- for which we have "nothing to show" -- but he has voted, apparently, for every one of the spending bills in his time in the Senate that have created today's $13 trillion debt. The National Taxpayers Union says his overall voting record on spending bills rates an F. And Representative Hodes is calling for a $3 billion spending cut. Sounds big, eh? Front-page news indeed. But of course, it's less than 0.1 percent of the 2011 federal budget -- and that's assuming that all these cuts would come out of this year's budget. Hodes's press release doesn't make that clear; they might be cuts over 5 years or so. And his very next press release said he was fighting for federal funds for local New Hampshire services. Both Republicans and Democrats want voters to think that they're getting tough on spending, deficits, and debts. But their statements are at wide variance with their actual records and actions. We didn't pile up $13 trillion in debt while no one was looking; members of Congress, of both parties, voted for these bills. Voters need to watch what they do, not what they say. My colleague Chris Edwards, quoted by reporter Shailagh Murray, is a little more polite:
"The problem from a fiscal conservative voter's point of view is that every member or wannabe member claims to be a fiscal conservative these days, so it's more difficult than usual to separate the wheat from the chaff," said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

Posted on September 4, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Born-Again Budget Hawks (R-BS) by David Boaz

"Three top Republican House members have written a book that repeatedly criticizes former GOP leaders as well as President Obama," reports the Washington Post. "In 'Young Guns,' scheduled for release Sept. 14, Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) cast the Republican congressional leaders who preceded them as a group that "betrayed its principles" and was plagued by 'failures from high-profile ethics lapses to the inability to rein in spending or even slow the growth of government.'" Good point! And one we've made several times at Cato. But how credible are the messengers? Once you ruin a brand, it can take a long time to restore it. And part of the solution is owning up to your own errors, not just pointing the fingers. In this case, I'm sorry to discover that Reps. Cantor and Ryan both voted for the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, expanding federal control over education. They both voted for the costly Iraq war in 2002. They both voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003, which was projected to add more than $700 billion to Medicare costs over the following decade. They both voted for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which included the $700 billion TARP bailout. (Rep. McCarthy, who joined the House in 2007, voted against TARP.) To be fair, all three of the authors get A's and B's in the annual ratings of Congress by the National Taxpayers Union, which means they have better records on spending than most of their colleagues. But I'll be curious to see if the book admits that any of the near-trillion-dollar votes discussed above were mistakes -- not just by the departed Bush, Hastert, and DeLay but by many Republican members of Congress.

Posted on September 4, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Friedman: The Machinery of Criminal Defense by David Boaz

I once went to another Washington think tank to hear an advertised lecture by David Friedman, "author and professor of law and economics at Santa Clara University." The great libertarian author of The Machinery of Freedom, speaking at a liberal-establishment Washington think tank? Cool. So I showed up early, took a seat by the wall, and was crushingly disappointed to discover that the speaker was in fact some other David Friedman, who was decidedly no libertarian, and I was pinned in and couldn't leave. They told me later that an intern got the wrong bio off the web. Always blame the intern. So anyway, I just wanted Cato-at-Liberty readers to notice that our new paper "Reforming Indigent Defense: How Free Market Principles Can Help to Fix a Broken System," which Tim Lynch wrote about here, is in fact co-written by "the real David Friedman," the son of Milton Friedman, the professor of law and economics with a Ph.D. in physics, the author of the early libertarian classic The Machinery of Freedom as well as such other books as Hidden Order, Law's Order, and Future Imperfect -- yes, that David Friedman. So even if you didn't think you were interested in the topic of voucherizing legal aid for indigent defendants, just consider that David Friedman is always interesting.

Posted on September 2, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

Click here to learn more.