Obama’s Definition of Compromise

NPR reports that in an Ohio campaign speech, President Obama praised the post-World War II "era of compromise" and "broad consensus" when both parties worked together for the national interest. He gave some specific examples:
As much as we might associate the GI Bill with Franklin Roosevelt, or Medicare with Lyndon Johnson, it was a Republican---Lincoln---who launched the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences, land-grant colleges. It was a Republican---Eisenhower---who launched the Interstate Highway System and a new era of scientific research. It was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency; Reagan who worked with Democrats to save Social Security---and who, by the way, raised taxes to help pay down an exploding deficit.
That is, President Obama's idea of compromise and consensus is that Republicans support expanded government and higher taxes. He offers no examples of Democrats supporting tax reduction, spending restraint, or deregulation. It seems that in his view, the national interest is entirely and exclusively the expansion of the size, scope, and power of government. Remember that when you hear the president and his allies call for compromise and consensus. Compromise is a one-way street in President Obama's world.

Posted on June 15, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Join Rand Paul and Me at Cato’s Summer Conference

Sen. Rand Paul, recently hailed as “America’s most important anti-war politician,” will join the distinguished list of speakers at this year’s session of Cato University. This year Cato University will be held for the first time in the magnificent new F. A. Hayek Auditorium at the Cato Institute in Washington. From July 29 to August 3, join fellow libertarians from around the country and the world to listen to lectures on economic, political, historical, and philosophical foundations of liberty. Speakers include
  • the widely published economist Steve Landsburg,
  • the scintillating speaker and West Point historian Rob McDonald,
  • the polymath Tom Palmer,
  • Cato scholars Roger Pilon, Bob Levy, Christopher Preble, Malou Innocent, Mark Calabria, Michael Cannon, and even me —
  • plus the special dinner address on Capitol Hill by Senator Paul.
Note that Cato University is not just for students — there will be participants from college age to retirement. Check out Cato University here.

Posted on June 14, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Social Issues

Like Walter Olson, I was struck yesterday by Tim Carney's admonition that “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters” in light of government infringements on religious liberty. Walter did a good job of demonstrating that libertarians, even those who are not themselves religious, have been "on the front lines" in defending religious liberty in such cases as Catholic hospitals' objections to paying for birth control and the wedding photographer in New Mexico who didn't want to photograph a gay wedding. Libertarians don't have to be conservatives to object to "liberal" infringements on personal and religious freedoms. But there's another problem with what Carney wrote. I'm not quite sure what "Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters" means. But perhaps he means that libertarians should stop thinking of themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" and recognize that a lot of infringements on freedom come from the left. In my experience libertarians are well aware that in matters from taxes to gun ownership to Catholic hospitals, liberals don't live up to the ideal of true liberalism. But what about conservatives? Are conservatives really the defenders of freedom? Carney seems to want us to think so, and to line up with conservatives "on social matters." But the real record of conservatives on personal and social freedom is not very good. Consider:
  • Conservatives, like National Review, supported state-imposed racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. (I won't go back and claim that "conservatives" supported slavery or other pre-modern violations of freedom.)
  • Conservatives opposed legal and social equality for women.
  • Conservatives supported laws banning homosexual acts among consenting adults.
  • Conservatives still oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.
  • Conservatives (and plenty of liberals) support the policy of drug prohibition, which results in nearly a million arrests a year for marijuana use.
  • Conservatives support state-imposed prayers and other endorsements of religion in public schools.
Conservatives have a bad record on social freedom. It is, in a word, illiberal. Carney may be right that,
This is how the culture war generally plays out these days: The Left uses government to force religious people and cultural conservatives to violate their consciences, and then cries "theocracy" when conservatives object.
But conservatives earned the skepticism of liberals and libertarians on social issues over long decades during which they supported far greater intrusions on personal freedom than the ones Carney is writing about—which are nevertheless illiberal and should be opposed by all who adhere to the principles of freedom.

Posted on June 12, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Elinor Ostrom, RIP

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics—though that is hardly the most significant aspect of her work—has died at 78. My old friend Mario Rizzo of New York University examined her scholarly accomplishment in 2009 when she won the Prize:
The work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, is not very well-known among economists. In fact, I would venture the guess than most economists had not heard of her before the prize was announced yesterday morning. Two reasons for this are that her degree is in political science and she has written for publications outside of the mainstream economics journals. Additionally, her work, by and large, lacks the high degree of mathematical formalism now so characteristic of economics. Yet the Nobel Prize Committee has done a great service to economics and the greater social-scientific community. When a well-known economist receives the prize little is gained apart from the recognition of a job well done and perhaps some wider public recognition. I do not think that great contributions are made in any discipline because of the incentive effects of an improbable prize. However, in this case the Nobel Committee has brought extraordinary work to the attention of an economics discipline that has become excessively specialized and, perhaps increasingly irrelevant to the real world, as Paul Krugman and others have recently suggested. Professor Ostrom’s work is highly relevant to important issues in economic development, common-pool resources, the development of social norms, and the solution of various collective action problems. Her work is also methodologically diverse. She uses experimental methods, field research, and evolutionary game theory. She is not afraid to draw on various disciplines when appropriate: economics, political science, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology and so forth. She is a very worthy intellectual descendant of Adam Smith who realized that the study of trade based on self-interest needed to be supplemented by a broader view of humankind – individuals capable of the so-called “moral sentiments” like honesty, benevolence, and loyalty, as well as the standard vices. Much of Ostrom’s work centers on developing and applying a broader conception of rationality than economists usually employ. The standard conception of rationality is not the rationality of real human beings but the rationality of cognitively-unlimited lightning-fast calculators. This is a purely imaginary construct. On the other hand, Olstrom’s “thick rationality” is the result of trial and error, use of relatively simple heuristics, employment of rules, and the embodiment of cultural norms. To reject standard, improbable rationality is notto reject rationality. It is rather to develop more sophisticated, and yet more realistic, models of rationality. “Thick rationality” is a bottom-up phenomenon. It recognizes the importance of local knowledge and diverse approaches in the management of resources. For example, many top-down irrigation projects in developing countries have failed because they have concentrated on the physical aspects of water delivery. Ostrom believes that the institutional aspects are more important. Irrigation systems built by farmers themselves are often more efficient. They deliver more water, are better repaired, and result in higher farm productivity than those built by international agencies. Often these agencies take no notice of local customs, knowledge and incentive structures; the knowledge of the bureaucrat is inferior to the knowledge of the individuals on the ground.

The central problem on which her employment of the notion of “thick rationality” can shed light is what she calls “social dilemmas.” These are circumstances in which interacting individuals can easily succumb to maximizing their short-term interests to the detriment of their long term interests. To return to our irrigation example, suppose farmers share the use of a creek for irrigation. They face a collective problem of organizing to clear out the fallen trees and brush from the previous winter. Each farmer would like to have the others do it. There are incentives to free-ride on the “public spiritedness” of others – however, everyone may think this way and nothing will get done. Ostrom finds that cooperation will often take place while the “thin” theory of rationality predicts that it will not. She finds that factors such as face-to-face contact (likely when there are small numbers), the equality of each farmer’s stake in the benefits of irrigation, and the ease of monitoring the farmer’s contribution to brush removal all make the likelihood of cooperation greater.

Elinor Ostrom has and continues to expand the power of a broader conception of rationality – one that Adam Smith would have recognized and been comfortable with – to explain the multifarious forms of human cooperation that conventional economists have been unable to explain. This is a major contribution.
Paul Dragos Aligica and Peter Boettke of George Mason University showed excellent prescience in publishing a book in the summer of 2009, just a few months before the Nobel Prize was awarded, on the work of Ostrom, her husband Vincent, and their colleagues at Indiana University, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School.

Posted on June 12, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall

Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, President Ronald Reagan made his famous speech at the Berlin Wall in which he declaimed:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
On a trip to East Germany in 2006 I talked to a politician who had been involved in the 1989 Leipzig protests that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall. I asked him, “When Reagan said ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ in 1987, did you know that?” He said, yes, not from East German TV but from West German TV, which they could watch. And what did you think, I asked. “We thought it was good, but we thought it was impossible.” And yet just two years later, “peace prayers” in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche turned into protests for liberalization and open borders. The Leipzig politician told me, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.” Then I went to a museum exhibit in Leipzig on the history of the German Democratic Republic. It was very impressive, with a large collection of posters, letters, newspapers, video, and more. Alas, it was all in German, so I had only a dim understanding of what it all said. I did get the impression that it wasn’t a balanced presentation of communism such as might be found in a Western museum; these curators knew that communism had been a nightmare, and they were glad to be out of it. As it happened, the only English words in the entire exhibit came in the collection of audio excerpts that greeted visitors in the entry foyer. And they were a familiar voice proclaiming: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!”

Posted on June 11, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Censoring Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury has died at 91. Far be it from me to try to assess the work of the great author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I'll just quote Gerald Jonas in the New York Times:
By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem.
Like most libertarians -- which in this case probably includes a lot of liberals and conservatives -- I'm a great fan of the anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451. But a story that doesn't get much attention -- it's not in the Times obituary -- is how Fahrenheit 451 itself was censored by people who no doubt thought they had the best of intentions. When Bradbury discovered what had been done, he wrote this Coda to the 1979 Del Rey edition. It's worth reading today. What he said then is still true: "There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people run­ning about with lit matches." In memoriam, Ray Bradbury's Coda:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles? Read more...

Posted on June 6, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama and the Youth Vote

At the Huffington Post I have an article on President Obama's prospects this fall with young voters. I note that:
He's stumped the country promising to keep interest rates low on student loans, and every voter likes free money. And then perhaps more importantly, he re-established his cool by endorsing gay marriage. Hope and change are back. For many young voters, this reconnected them to the hip young Obama of 2008.
But those aren't the only issues. Citing surveys from Gallup and Harvard, I ask what young voters think about his policies on war, the war on drugs, jobs, and the massive debt he's leaving them. Today's dismal unemployment numbers, of course, just reinforce the point that
President Obama's policies have produced the slowest economic recovery in history. An analysis from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that more than half of young college graduates were unemployed or underemployed last year.
Read it all.

Posted on June 1, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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