What Austrian Economics Is

...and what it is not. That's Steve Horwitz's topic in this post at Coordination Problem. He notes a recent post at FrumForum about "the Austrian school’s disdain for American foreign policy and willingness to call Lincoln a tyrant." No, Horwitz says. Austrian economics is "an approach to the study of human action and the social world, not a set of policy conclusions." Austrian economics is not the same thing as libertarianism, natural rights, or any perspective on American wars past or present.

Posted on November 29, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Conservatives, Liberals, and the TSA

Libertarians often debate whether conservatives or liberals are more friendly to liberty. We often fall back on the idea that conservatives tend to support economic liberties but not civil liberties, while liberals support civil liberties but not economic liberties -- though this old bromide hardly accounts for the economic policies of President Bush or the war-on-drugs-and-terror-and-Iraq policies of President Obama. Score one for the conservatives in the surging outrage over the Transportation Security Administration's new policy of body scanners and intimate pat-downs. You gotta figure you've gone too far in the violation of civil liberties when you've lost Rick Santorum, George Will, Kathleen Parker, and Charles Krauthammer. (Gene Healy points out that conservatives are reaping what they sowed.) Meanwhile, where are the liberals outraged at this government intrusiveness? Where is Paul Krugman? Where is Arianna? Where is Frank Rich? Where is the New Republic? Oh sure, civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have criticized TSA excesses. But mainstream liberals have rallied around the Department of Homeland Security and its naked pictures: Dana Milbank channels John ("phantoms of lost liberty") Ashcroft: "Republicans are providing the comfort [to our enemies]. They are objecting loudly to new airport security measures." Ruth Marcus: "Don't touch my junk? Grow up, America." Eugene Robinson: "Be patient with the TSA." Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic: "In defense of the 'virtual strip-search.'" And finally, the editors of the New York Times: "attacks are purely partisan and ideological." Could this just be a matter of viewing everything through a partisan lens? Liberals rally around the DHS of President Obama and Secretary Napolitano, while conservatives criticize it? Maybe. And although Slate refers to the opponents of body-scanning as "paranoid zealots," that term would certainly seem to apply to apply to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine of the Nation, who stomp their feet, get red in the face, and declare every privacy advocate from John Tyner ("don't touch my junk") on to be "astroturf" tools of "Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians." (Glenn Greenwald took the article apart line by line.) Most Americans want to be protected from terrorism and also to avoid unnecessary intrusions on liberty, privacy, and commerce. Security issues can be complex. A case can be made for the TSA's new procedures. But it's striking to see how many conservatives think the TSA has gone too far, and how dismissive -- even contemptuous -- liberals are of rising concerns about liberty and privacy.

Posted on November 24, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

More Good News for Thanksgiving

In the Wall Street Journal just before Thanksgiving last year, Melinda Beck detailed some of the health care advances that we should continue to give thanks for this Thanksgiving Day:
• Fewer Americans died in traffic fatalities in 2008 than in any year since 1961, and fewer were injured than in any year since 1988, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting injury data. One possible reason: Seat-belt use hit a record high of 84% nationally. • Life expectancy in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 77.9 years in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, continuing a long upward trend. (That’s 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women.) • Death rates dropped significantly for eight of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., including cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, accidents, diabetes, homicides and pneumonia, from 2006 to 2007. (Of the top 15, only deaths from chronic lower respiratory disease increased significantly.) The overall age-adjusted death rate dropped to a new low of 760.3 deaths per 100,000 people—half of what it was 60 years ago…. • Around the world, 27% fewer children died before their fifth birthday in 2007 than in 1990, due to greater use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, better rehydration for diarrhea, and better access to clean water, sanitation and vaccines.… • Twenty-seven countries reported a reduction of up to 50% in the number of malaria cases between 1990 and 2006.
Read it all. (I should note that Beck attributes more of this good news to government action than I would, and she counts the mere existence of smoking bans as a “health care advance,” despite the lack of evidence that they actually have any health effects. But that’s an argument we can save for next week. Today and tomorrow let’s just celebrate the good news.) I wrote a couple of years ago about the good news of falling cancer death rates and falling heart disease death rates. Cancer death rates have continued to fall, as have motor vehicle deaths. In his book The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany examined, as the subtitle put it, Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

Posted on November 24, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Things to Be Thankful For

Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we're losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history -- and why immigrants still flock here. If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world -- and still  different from much of the world -- a few key elements come to mind. Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man -- a king, a priest, a communist party boss -- take another person's life or property at the ruler's whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won't be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won't be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is. Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status -- clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared "that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but "I'm as good as you" is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us. Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men. Self-government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that "governments are instituted" to secure the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and that those governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God's will and passed along from father to son. In a few places -- Athens, Rome, medieval Germany -- there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America's example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent. Freedom of speech. In a world of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and cable pornography, it's hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China and Africa and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we've realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we're all better off for it. Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom. Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings--from the design and construction of airplanes to worldwide computer networks and ATM systems. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don't have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to MP3 players. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent. A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman's World magazine that America is "heaven." Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day. This article originally appeared in the Washington Times in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

Posted on November 23, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Secrecy or Privacy? The Power of Language

My friend Kelly Young notes (on Facebook) this Washington Post article on guns used in crimes:
I am awed again by the power of language. The Washingt0n Post today claims that government protection of the identity of lawful purchasers of legal weapons is "secrecy" to be "penetrated" for the sake of the paper's reporting. It is not "privacy" that is "violated," as with release of airport scans of travelers, gathering names of minors seeking abortions, and warrantless searches of homes. And how about those secret journalistic sources?
(Language cleaned up slightly, as the original was typed Blackberry-style.) He's right. The word "privacy" doesn't appear in the article. Maybe a cynics' dictionary would read, "Privacy is the ability to keep facts about myself hidden from you. Secrecy is your keeping facts about yourself hidden from me."

Posted on November 23, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Why I Took an Anti-Depressant

Musing on the latest abuses of the Transportation Security Administration, George F. Will recalls a column by the late William F. Buckley Jr. Faced with disastrous service on a commuter railroad, Buckley wrote, "In a more virile age, I thought, the passengers would have seized the conductor and strapped him down on a seat over the radiator to share the fate of his patrons." But he had "nonchalantly walked down the gauntlet of eighty sweating American freemen, and not one of them had asked him to explain why the passengers in that car had been consigned to suffer." Buckley went on:
Every year, whether the Republican or the Democratic Party is in office, more and more power drains away from the individual to feed vast reservoirs in far-off places; and we have less and less say about the shape of events which shape our future. From this alienation of personal power comes the sense of resignation with which we accept the political dispensations of a powerful government whose hold upon us continues to increase.
And here's the part that sent me looking for the anti-depressants: Buckley wrote this jeremiad in 1961.

Posted on November 22, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Progressives Push Palin for President

Talk about Sarah Palin running for president continues to mount -- in the liberal media. Conservatives smile and look away when the topic is raised. They want to watch her on TV, they want to turn out for her lively speeches, but they don't see her as a president. Liberals, on the other hand, are jumping up and down at the prospect of a Palin candidacy. She could win! they urgently insist to skeptical Republicans; you should get behind her. Don't throw us Democrats in that Palin briar patch! The latest example is the star columnist of the New York Times, Frank Rich. His Sunday column is titled "Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha." Palin's got a huge television presence, Rich says -- 5 million viewers for her new TLC series. Which is slightly less than the 65 million it would take to win a presidential election. She's running, he says; her upcoming book tour "disproportionately dotes on the primary states of Iowa and South Carolina." Well, yes, she's going to both those states, along with 14 others. But the link that Rich generously provides -- a citation, like an old-fashioned footnote -- indicates that she will not go to New Hampshire. If I were advising her putative presidential campaign (bargain rates, Governor!), I would tell her that New Hampshire is kind of important in the Republican primary process. So is Florida, which she's also not visiting. You could almost get the impression that Frank Rich is seeing what he wants to see -- a Sarah Palin presidential campaign. He's not the only one. On Huffington Post just before the election, Jeffrey Feldman told Democrats, "The key to busting through election rhetoric gone stark raving mad might well turn out to be two words so simple that they have eluded the usual Democratic Party language consultants: 'President Palin.'" Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrings his hands over her potential. New York magazine's cover blares "PRESIDENT PALIN." NPR jumps on the bandwagon, as does Mark Halperin in Time. Meanwhile, as Rich acknowledges, Republicans know as well as he does what a Palin nomination would do:
Politico reported just before Election Day that unnamed “party elders” were nearly united in wanting to stop her, out of fear that she’d win the nomination and then be crushed by Obama. Their complaints are seconded daily by Bush White House alumni like Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and Mark McKinnon, who said recently that Palin’s “stock is falling and pretty rapidly now” and that “if she’s smart, she does not run.”
Peggy Noonan spoke for a lot of Reaganites when she responded to Palin's suggestion that being a Fox-TLC celebrity was a reasonable platform for seeking the presidency, since after all "Ronald Reagan was an actor":
Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I'll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president. The point is not "He was a great man and you are a nincompoop," though that is true. The point is that Reagan's career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him.
I made a similar point back in February when David Broder was pushing Palin's prospects. And two months before that I noted that the Washington Post had run two op-eds "by" Sarah Palin in the space of five months, so that one "might almost think the Post wanted Palin to be seen as a leader of Republicans." In the coming months, watch for it: Democrats, liberal journalists, and red-state bloggers will talk up Palin's chances. Republicans and conservatives who want to defeat President Obama in 2012 will try to change the subject.

Posted on November 21, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The ‘Public Health’ Confusion Again

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on states to require motorcycle riders to wear federally approved helmets.
"Too many lives are lost in motorcycle accidents," Christopher A. Hart, NTSB vice chairman, said in announcing that helmets had been added to the board's annual "most-wanted list" of safety improvements. "It's a public health issue."
No, it's not. Motorcycle deaths are not a public health problem. If motorcyclist A doesn't wear a helmet, that has no impact on cyclist B. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet may be a bad idea, but it is an individual and non-contagious problem. The meaning of "public health" has sprawled out lazily over the decades. Once, it referred to the project of securing health benefits that were public: clean water, improved sanitation, and the control of epidemics through treatment, quarantine, and immunization. Public health officials worked to drain swamps that might breed mosquitoes and thus spread malaria. They strove to ensure that water supplies were not contaminated with cholera, typhoid, or other diseases. The U.S. Public Health Service began as the Marine Hospital Service, and one of its primary functions was ensuring that sailors didn't expose domestic populations to new and virulent illnesses from overseas. Those were legitimate public health issues because they involved consumption of a collective good (air or water) and/or the communication of disease to parties who had not consented to put themselves at risk. It is difficult for individuals to protect themselves against illnesses found in air, water, or food. A breeding ground for disease-carrying insects poses a risk to entire communities. The concern back in 2007 over a tuberculosis patient on an airplane raised public-health issues. You might unknowingly find yourself in an enclosed space with a TB carrier. But nobody accidentally rides a motorcycle without a helmet. And your helmetless ride doesn't threaten me. That's why riding a motorcycle without a helmet is not a public health issue, even though it may be a bad choice for an individual. As I wrote before,
Language matters. Calling something a "public health problem" suggests that it is different from a personal health problem in ways that demand collective action. And while it doesn't strictly follow, either in principle or historically, that "collective action" must be state action, that distinction is easily elided in the face of a "public health crisis." If smoking and obesity are called public health problems, then it seems that we need a public health bureaucracy to solve them — and the Public Health Service and all its sister agencies don't get to close up shop with the satisfaction of a job well done. So let's start using honest language: Smoking and obesity are health problems. In fact, they are widespread health problems. But they are not public health problems.
UPDATE: An astute reader asks: But what about the costs to the taxpayer if an uninsured, helmetless motorcyclist is injured? That's still not a public health problem, and it's not the claim NTSB is making. It might be a public finance problem, but libertarians have generally argued that a free market in health insurance is a better response to that problem than a smothering nanny state that bans all dangerous behavior on the grounds of socialized medical costs.

Posted on November 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Mao’s Last Dancer

The movie "Mao's Last Dancer" is a sleeper hit, says the Los Angeles Times:
It features no big-name stars, drew mediocre reviews and traffics in the esoterica of Chinese ballet. And yet "Mao's Last Dancer," the true story of a ballet performer who defected to the United States in 1981, has become one of the season's biggest art-house hits. Bruce Beresford's Australian-produced film tells of Li Cunxin, an 11-year-old Chinese boy plucked from his rural village in 1972 under the reign of Mao Zedong to dance for the Beijing Ballet. While in residence at the Houston Ballet a decade later, he defected to the United States after a politically charged standoff that involved the FBI and diplomats from China and the U.S.
It's been in theaters for three months, and I finally saw it this weekend. You can't usually wait that long to see an indie film, but this one's been hanging on under the radar. It's a great story about Chinese communism, politically controlled art, and one individual who chooses freedom. In a climactic scene, the Chinese consul tells Li "the Party knows what's best for you" and Li responds, "I know what's best for me." (The language is a little different in Li's autobiography.) The New York Times dismisses the movie as "nothing more than an old-fashioned tear-jerker," complaining that it is
stuck in an earlier era of heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience. The juxtaposition of wide-eyed villagers and labored aphorisms with shopping malls and casual sex may accurately reflect Mr. Li’s book, but on screen it feels absurdly outdated.
Um, yes. The movie is set between 1972 and 1981. That was Mao's China, even the China of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, and then the very earliest days of the liberalization under Deng Xiao-ping. Today it looks dated, as do most movies set 30 or more years in the past. Anyone who has visited China recently might not realize just how stunning the Houston skyline would have looked to Li in 1981. But I saw the Shanghai skyline seven years later, in 1981, and I know that Houston would have seemed a different world to Li at that time. No doubt the Times reviewer also disliked the scenes in Chinese schools where students are told that China has the highest standard of living in the world, while the "capitalist and imperialist nations" live in unimaginable horror. And maybe the scene of Madame Mao visiting the Beijing ballet academy and demanding that the students perform only revolutionary ballet. But that was the reality of Maoist China. I've written before about the remarkable dearth of anti-communist movies in Hollywood, especially when you consider that communism lasted far longer and killed far more people than national socialism, about which there have been many movies. Of course, this movie wasn't produced in Hollywood; it was produced in Australia by the Australian director Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant," "Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy"). And "Mao's Last Dancer" is as much a story of individualism and breaking out of a world that would hold you down (not unlike "Billy Elliott" or "October Sky") as it is a political movie. The fact that Li was allowed to visit the Houston Ballet temporarily in 1981 was a sign of the changes that were happening in China, and the country has made much more progress since then. But China is still not comfortable with this story, and the producers were forced to shoot some scenes in secret after being denied permission to film in China. With Christmas movies coming, "Mao's Last Dancer" won't be in theaters much longer. See it now.

Posted on November 15, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama: "I Want to Make Sure That Taxes Don’t Go Up"

Much of the media discussion of the massive tax increase that looms on January 1 uses terms like "extending the Bush tax cuts" or "tax breaks for the wealthy." In fact, American taxpayers have faced a particular range of personal income tax rates for the past eight years. If the 2001 and 2003 tax laws are allowed to expire, then Americans will see increased tax rates on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates. So the issue is not "tax cuts" or "tax breaks," it's whether we should increase taxes in 2011. It's good to see that President Obama understands this. At a news conference at the end of the G-20 Summit on Friday, he said:
I want to make sure that taxes don't go up for middle class families starting on January 1st.
That's the right way to understand it. Taxes are about to go up. Of course, the problem is that President Obama does want taxes to go up for business owners, corporate executives, and investors on January 1, the very people whose decisions have the most immediate impact on economic growth and job creation. And that's the issue we should be debating: Is it a good idea, especially in a time of continuing high unemployment and slow growth, to raise taxes on investors and entrepreneurs?

Posted on November 13, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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