Dusty Bookshelves and Long-Dead Writers

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike generated a lot of spit-takes in the blogosphere when she wrote on October 2 about how Tea Party activists are reading "once-obscure texts by dead writers":
The Tea Party is a thoroughly modern movement, organizing on Twitter and Facebook to become the most dynamic force of the midterm elections. But when it comes to ideology, it has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas. It has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon. Recommended by Tea Party icons like Ron Paul and Glenn Beck, the texts are being quoted everywhere from protest signs to Republican Party platforms. Pamphlets in the Tea Party bid for a Second American Revolution, the works include Frédéric Bastiat’s “The Law,” published in 1850, which proclaimed that taxing people to pay for schools or roads was government-sanctioned theft, and Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” (1944), which argued that a government that intervened in the economy would inevitably intervene in every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
So that's, you know, "long-dormant ideas" like those of F. A. Hayek, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, who met with President Reagan at the White House, whose book The Constitution of Liberty was declared by Margaret Thatcher "This is what we believe," who was described by Milton Friedman as "the most important social thinker of the 20th century" and by White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers as the author of "the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today," who is the hero of The Commanding Heights, the book and PBS series by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, and whose book The Road to Serfdom has never gone out of print and has sold 100,000 copies this year. So that's Kate Zernike's idea of an obscure, long-dormant thinker. Meanwhile, over the next few weeks after that article ran, the following headlines appeared in the New York Times: Apparently the Times isn't always opposed to looking in the dusty books of long-dead writers. By the way, Keynes died in 1946, Hayek in 1992.

Posted on October 29, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Libertarian Trend

There's been lots of talk lately about a turn to the right in American politics. President Obama's declining poll numbers, the sharp rise in opposition to his health-care plan during 2009, the growth of the grass-roots Tea Party movement, and the polls predicting a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives all point to a resurgence of conservatism in the electorate. But as I noted last year, there are also trends in the direction of social tolerance these days. Some indeed have described current political trends as a libertarian resurgence. California voters are getting ready to vote on a marijuana legalization initiative, and polls show rising support. The New York Times points to other signs of change on the marijuana front: Pot has already become essentially legal for anyone in California who can tell a medical marijuana clinic that it would make him feel better. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government would back off its attempt to enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized medical use. The threats to prosecute Michael Phelps for a bong hit were widely ridiculed. Those developments have led Andrew Sullivan, Jacob Weisberg, and CBS News to speculate about a “tipping point” for change — at last — in marijuana prohibition. Meanwhile, TPM and AOL’s PoliticsDaily also see a tipping point for marriage equality. A majority of New Yorkers now join Gov. David Paterson in supporting same-sex marriage. That same ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that “in 2004, just 32 percent of Americans favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. Now 49 percent support it versus 46 percent opposed — the first time in ABC/Post polls that supporters have outnumbered opponents.” Since the passage of California's Proposition 8 in 2008, several states and the District of Columbia have granted marriage rights to same-sex couples. This chart, prepared for me by Garrett Reim, shows recent trends in public opinion polls on several issues -- support for smaller government, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization along with opposition to President Obama's health care plan and to the job the president is doing. The latter two have moved more sharply, but all five lines move at least marginally in a libertarian direction: Longer-term charts would show more of a trend on marijuana and marriage. See Nate Silver's chart on rising support for marijuana legalization over the past 20 years. And here are three depictions of rising support for marriage equality over the past 15 to 20 years. As some analysts have noticed, what's going on in American politics is a shift in a libertarian direction. This chart provides some more evidence.

Posted on October 28, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

P. J. O’Rourke — in Print, on the Radio, and in Person

P. J. O’Rourke, Cato’s H. L. Mencken Research Fellow, is touring the country to talk about his new book, Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards. Today he has a commentary on NPR. And the day after the election, he'll be discussing the book and no doubt the election results at a Cato Book Forum. You can find more book signings and media appearances at www.pjourke.com.

Posted on October 25, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Marijuana and Freedom

Looking to election day and California's vote on a marijuana legalization initiative, I have some comments on "the right to control your body" at Britannica Blog:
People have rights that governments may not violate. Thomas Jefferson defined them as the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I’m asked what libertarianism is, I often say that it is the idea that adult individuals have the right and the responsibility to make the important decisions about their own lives. More categorically, I would say that people have the right to live their lives in any way they choose so long as they don’t violate the equal rights of others. What right could be more basic, more inherent in human nature, than the right to choose what substances to put in one’s own body? Whether we’re talking about alcohol, tobacco, herbal cures, saturated fat, or marijuana, this is a decision that should be made by the individual, not the government. If government can tell us what we can put into our own bodies, what can it not tell us? What limits on government action are there?
It's part of a symposium on Proposition 19 and marijuana.

Posted on October 25, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Tea Party Continues to Freak Out Intellectuals

Peter Baker reports in the New York Times:
To better understand history, and his role in it, Obama invited a group of presidential scholars to dinner in May in the living quarters of the White House.* Obama was curious about, among other things, the Tea Party movement. Were there precedents for this sort of backlash against the establishment? What sparked them and how did they shape American politics? The historians recalled the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, the Populists in the 1890s and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s.
I'm struck by the historians' choices (or maybe President Obama's recollection of their choices)? Who are the Tea Partiers like? The Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin's left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-semitic Union for Social Justice. (And the Populists, which is a more interesting comparison, being a mass movement that arose mostly spontaneously. But it was primarily a political party, which reflects the confusion that the term "Tea Party" seems to generate.) Nobody thought of, say, the antiwar movement of the 60s or the tax revolt of the 70s? Or even the counterculture and feminist movements, both of which pioneered the cultural-reform style that Jonathan Rauch finds in the Tea Party:
Raise consciousness. Change hearts, not just votes. Attack corruption in society, not just on Capitol Hill.
With a few rare exceptions like Rauch and John Judis, non-conservative intellectuals are just freaked out by a mass movement against big government. Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, E. J. Dionne, Frank Rich -- they just can't imagine that real middle-class Americans could honestly oppose President Obama's tax-and-spend agenda and march in the streets against it -- just like, you know, they did against the war and stuff. It's got to be racism, billionaires, extreme libertarianism, extreme authoritarianism, the John Birch Society, something. And so they tell the president that the Tea Party is reminiscent of "the Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin." Why oh why can't we have better historians? *It's not clear if this dinner is different from the widely reported July 2009 dinner with historians.

Posted on October 19, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The ‘Every Economist’ Myth

Just days after we rapped Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) for claiming that "every economist from the far left to the far right was saying the government needs to step in because there was absolutely no private sector investment," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) tells the Washington Post,
You're darn right I voted for the stimulus. Every economist, including [some] Republican economists . . . said, for God's sake, don't let it go off the cliff.
This is the myth that just won't die. Markey and Connolly are echoing similar claims by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and even the notoriously unreliable Robert Reich. When Biden said it, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw asked if he was "disingenuous or misinformed" and pointed out:
That statement is clearly false. As I have documented on this blog in recent weeks, skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto AlesinaRobert BarroGary BeckerJohn CochraneEugene FamaRobert LucasGreg MankiwKevin MurphyThomas SargentHarald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales--and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.
When Robert Reich tried to claim that “economic advisers across the political spectrum support Obama’s plan," I pointed out that that claim depended on exactly two names and that the Washington Post had demonstrated that neither of them was in fact a Republican supporter of the $787 billion stimulus bill. In fact, of course, hundreds of economists went on record against the stimulus bill. The Cato Institute’s full-page ad with their names appeared in all the nation’s major newspapers. The ad and the economists were featured on dozens of television programs. Which brings us back to the question that Mankiw asked of Biden and that I asked of Markey. Is Representative Connolly really unaware that there was vigorous debate among economists about the so-called stimulus bill, and that hundreds of economists expressed their opposition in every major newspaper? Connolly has lived in Washington his entire adult life. He spent 19 years on a Senate committee staff. He served for 14 years on the Fairfax County Board. He worked as vice president at two large government contractors. Is it possible that he doesn't read the Washington Post -- or the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill? If so, then maybe he really believes that "every economist, including Republican economists" endorsed the stimulus. Someone should ask him: misinformed or disingenuous?

Posted on October 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Jack Conway’s Ugly Campaign

Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway's Senate campaign, previously chided here for a TV ad's "dishonest twisting of [Rand] Paul’s statements," has released another one that is so bigoted it caused even liberal partisan Jonathan Chait of the New Republic to blanch. Chait writes,
The trouble with Conway's ad is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office. That's a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign. [Not that Rand Paul has in fact demonstrated any non-belief in Christianity, but Conway is dredging up allegations from Paul's college days.]
Here's the ad: It puts one in mind of Bob Schieffer's stunned question to David Axelrod: Is that the best you can do? Rand Paul is not a perfect libertarian, as Cato colleagues and others have noted. And surely Jack Conway could engage him in robust debate on legitimate issues from Obamacare to the national debt and the Iraq war. But looking at the actual ads Conway has chosen to run, I'll repeat what I said about the previous ad: "the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky should be embarrassed."

Posted on October 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Importance of Incentives

NPR reports on more doctors giving up private practices and going to work for hospitals. Hospitals think they can manage care better and get more patients, and doctors like being relieved of administrative headaches. But it isn't a perfect solution. Reporter Jenny Gold notes one of the problems:
GOLD: This isn't the first time hospitals have gone doctor shopping. In the 1990s, hospitals bought up as many practices as possible. Dr. Bill Jessee is the president of the Medical Group Management Association. He remembers the '90s as something of a disaster. Dr. BILL JESSEE (President, Medical Group Management Association): The first thing a lot of physicians did was took a vacation. And when they came back, they weren't working as hard as they were before their practice was acquired.
Indeed. This is a standard insight of economics. People work harder when they have something to gain. There are real benefits to the division of labor, including corporations where salaried employees contribute to a joint product, but there are also risks that employees won't work as hard when their compensation isn't directly tied to their output. Managers and economists have searched for solutions to the "shirking" problem. In this case the hospitals are experimenting with bonus systems based on how many patients the doctors see. The problem is much more significant, of course, in government, which is far more restricted in its ability to use merit pay, bonuses, or other performance-related pay systems. Thus the widespread impression that government employees don't work as hard as private-sector employees -- and one reason that it's a good idea to leave as many services as possible in the private sector. The NPR story also reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article on Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Gladwell dismisses the romantic notion of the lone inventor and says that Farnsworth would have been better off working for a big corporation, where other people would have worried about raising capital, fending off lawsuits, and all the little details of management and left Farnsworth free to invent:
Farnsworth was forced to work in a state of chronic insecurity. He never had enough money....he did not understand how to raise money or run a business or organize his life. All he really knew how to do was invent, which was something that, as a solo operator, he too seldom had time for. This is the reason that so many of us work for big companies, of course: in a big company, there is always someone to do what we do not want to do or do not do well--someone to answer the phone, and set up our computer, and arrange our health insurance, and clean our office at night, and make sure the building is insured. In a famous 1937 essay, "The Nature of the Firm," the economist Ronald Coase said that the reason we have corporations is to reduce the everyday transaction costs of doing business: a company puts an accountant on the staff so that if a staffer needs to check the books all he has to do is walk down the hall. It's an obvious point, but one that is consistently overlooked, particularly by those who periodically rail, in the name of efficiency, against corporate bloat and superfluous middle managers. Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line. But he does contribute to those who contribute to the bottom line, and only an absurdly truncated account of human productivity--one that assumes real work to be somehow possible when phones are ringing, computers are crashing, and health insurance is expiring--does not see that secondary contribution as valuable.... Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man.

Posted on October 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Law Professors Say: Yes on 19

A number of Cato friends -- including senior fellow Randy Barnett, former tech policy director Tom W. Bell, David Friedman, Nadine Strossen, and Erik Luna (Lindsay Lohan's favorite law prof) -- have endorsed California's Proposition 19, which would decriminalize and regulate marijuana. Also among the 65 signers of the petition are some professors with whom we have disagreed, such as Erwin Chemerinsky. It remains to be seen whether a group of the country's smartest legal scholars will be any match for the combined weight of the Obama administration, the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for office in California, and almost all the major newspapers in the state. Reason editor Matt Welch, who has been monitoring newspaper editorials, tells me that all of the 21 largest papers that have editorialized on Proposition 19 have opposed it. That's about as overwhelming as the editorial opposition to Proposition 13 back in 1978. All major papers except the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner opposed the granddaddy of tax-cutting initiatives, but it passed with 65 percent of the vote. Perhaps Proposition 19 will be equally successful as a way for voters to thumb their noses as the political establishment. As Welch says:
I'll reiterate and update my previous pitch: If Dianne Feinstein, Meg Whitman, Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer, Dan Lungren, Steve Cooley, Lee Baca, 49 California congresspeople, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Dean Singleton's MediaNews empire are against it, the vote-yes commercials write themselves.

Posted on October 16, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Saturday Wall Street Journal

Roger Pilon mentions two interesting articles on the tea party movement in today's Wall Street Journal. I have a feeling lots of people don't read the Saturday Wall Street Journal, even though the Journal has made great efforts to promote it, including promising to deliver it to your home or country estate or private island if you normally get the Journal at your office. As my weekend Washington Posts get thinner and thinner, I can't help noticing that the weekend Journal is getting bigger. If you didn't read today's Journal, you missed -- in addition to Haidt and Berkowitz on the tea parties -- Judy Shelton's interview with Robert Mundell, Theodore Dalrymple's atheist take on the value of religion in the Chilean mine, a brave article by a Chinese activist already under "residential surveillance" about growing agitation for democracy, Matt Ridley on Fibonacci, Larry Miller on the Marx Brothers, Amity Shlaes on American capitalism, and more college football analysis than the Washington Post.

Posted on October 16, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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