How Strong Is the Case for Big Government?

The movement for smaller government must really be doing well, considering all the attacks it has generated of late. Journalists decry “austerity” and “slashed” government spending from Athens to Albany. President Obama seems to think he’s running against people who wish that (as he put it) “everybody had their own fire service.”
That's how my book review in the November 2012 issue of Reason begins. I take a look at two new books from impressive authors making the case for big government: To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by Steven Conn with a lot of distinguished professors, and Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. The professors tell a tale of a “Dickensian America” languishing in “semi-barbarism” (seriously) until the federal government took responsibility for dragging us out of the swamps and into civilized life. And Dionne frets that we are falling back into an era of “free-market fundamentalism” and a “radical form of individualism that … denigrates the role of government.” So what's my response? Read the review. But here's a precis:
The case for big government should be cross-examined by looking at costs as well as benefits, risks as well as achievements, what is not seen along with what is seen, and the repeated horrors that have stemmed from leaving state power unconstrained.

Posted on October 19, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Romney Derangement Syndrome Begins

Back in 2003 psychiatrist-turned-columnist Charles Krauthammer "discovered" a new psychiatric syndrome:
Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency -- nay -- the very existence of George W. Bush.
I myself identified -- but sadly, never in print -- Bush Derangement Syndrome-II, the onset of unfounded enthusiasm for George W. Bush in people who otherwise supported smaller government. BDS-II manifested itself most publicly on February 8, 2008, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when after seven disastrous years of overspending, federal intrusion, entitlement expansion, civil liberties abuses, and foundering wars -- and indeed the day after Bush's Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 passed Congress -- President Bush spoke at CPAC, and the assembled conservatives greeted him with chants of "Four More Years!" Really? Four more years of that? And of course I hardly have to mention Obama Derangement Syndrome, which found many people convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan, a Muslim, the son of Malcolm X, or some other wild fantasy. Now, even before the current election, while Mitt Romney remains a 64-36 underdog on Intrade, I'm seeing the first signs of Romney Derangement Syndrome. Take this item on NPR this morning:
A woman in the audience named Mary Ann ... says she's not impressed by Governor Romney's claim that he recruited women to serve in his Cabinet in Massachusetts. "Yes, he hired women, and I'm thinking to myself yeah, because he could get them at a lower rate. That's the only reason Mitt Romney hired women."
He hired women to serve in the state Cabinet, where I'm sure the salaries are set by law. And he wasn't all that frugal with taxpayers' dollars anyway. And yet Mary Ann just can't imagine that Romney would hire women for top positions -- positions that would play an important role in his success as governor -- unless "he could get them at a lower rate." Romney Derangement Syndrome. You read it here first.

Posted on October 18, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cronyism in the Energy Industry — from Enron to Al Gore

Tomorrow, Robert L. Bradley Jr. will discuss "Give Me Regulation: From Samuel Insull to James E. Rogers in the Electric Power Industry" at a Cato Policy Forum. The talk draws upon Bradley's most recent book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies, the second volume in his trilogy on political capitalism in the energy industry. Maybe he should call it, "From Samuel Insull [who organized Commonwealth Edison back around 1900] to Al Gore." The Washington Post reports today that former vice president Gore's "clean energy" companies have received $2.5 billion in taxpayers' money from the Obama administration. Which is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that "[j]ust before leaving public office in 2001, Gore reported assets of less than $2 million; today, his wealth is estimated at $100 million." I suppose it could be worse---Gore's companies didn't get all the $90 billion that the Obama administration doled out to uneconomic energy firms. Attend the forum or watch it online at noon Friday.

Posted on October 11, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Gay Marriage in the Swing States

Many Republicans believed after the 2004 election that 11 ballot measures to ban gay marriage brought conservative voters to the polls and helped to increase President Bush's vote over 2000. There's good reason to doubt the 2004 story, notably the fact that the increase in Bush's share of the vote rose just slightly less in the marriage-ban states than in the other states. But now there's new evidence that this isn't going to be a winning issue for Republicans. The Washington Post reports:
In February, a poll by the [Des Moines Register] newspaper found that 56 percent of Iowans were opposed to legislative efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That is consistent with other swing states: Voters back gay marriage by 21 points in Florida, 15 points in Ohio and nine in Virginia, new Washington Post polls found.
Read that again: "Voters back gay marriage by 21 points in Florida, 15 points in Ohio and nine in Virginia." The poll also found that nationally 63 percent of the tiny number of genuine swing voters support gay marriage. No wonder Romney isn't talking about it. Another Post article gave more details on the swing-state polls:
In Florida, 54 percent of voters think same-sex marriage should be legal, while 33 percent say it should be illegal. In Ohio, 52 percent say it should be legal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal....In Virginia, the nine-point gap between those who support and oppose same-sex marriage — 49 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed — represents a significant gain in support compared with a Post poll in May, when 46 thought it should be legal and 43 percent said it should be illegal.
And then there's this, which is perhaps more important for the future than for next month's election:
Age is an important factor: About two-thirds or more of those younger than 40 support legalizing gay marriage in each state. Among voters ages 40 to 49, the figure in Florida is 58 percent, but that dips to under half in Ohio and Virginia. Those ages 50 to 64 appear more divided, with a majority of seniors in Ohio and Virginia opposed to gay marriage.
Whatever happens in this year's elections, in the long run Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue. And some Republicans are noticing.

Posted on October 11, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Camille Paglia on Art and Capitalism

The Wall Street Journal's Saturday "Review" section is one of the best weekly magazines around, because of articles like this one from Camille Paglia:
Capitalism has its weaknesses. But it is capitalism that ended the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracies, raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women. The routine defamation of capitalism by armchair leftists in academe and the mainstream media has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authentic cultural energies of our time.

Posted on October 8, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Economic Ignorance Accelerates

Just when you thought economic ignorance couldn't sink any lower, a letter in the Washington Post criticizes Mitt Romney for repairing a brick walkway at his house rather than hiring a contractor -- and thus "cheating people out of jobs." Uh-oh. I just made myself a sandwich, thus cheating a deli employee out of a job. I drive myself to work instead of using a chauffeur, thus putting chauffeurs out of work. I do my own laundry -- well, this could go on all day. Of course, the writer's argument isn't really any different from the usual complaints about trade, outsourcing, and shutting down unprofitable businesses. Everyone seeks to produce as much output for as little expenditure as possible. That's why we trade with each other, so as to improve our standard of living.  Lord Keynes himself, encountering a stack of towels in a men's room, is said to have "swept the whole pile of towels on the floor and crumpled them up, explaining that his way of using towels did more to stimulate employment among restaurant workers." I would like to have seen the look of gratitude on the face of the restaurant worker who saw Lord Keynes creating jobs. Economic progress happens when people find more efficient ways of doing things. Sometimes that means "outsourcing" a task, whether it's a business's payroll function or taking your laundry to a service. Sometimes it means "insourcing," as when word processors made it easier for writers and executives to do their own typing, or the price of shipping rises and a company finds it cheaper to manufacture in an American plant rather than in China, or when a homeowner decides he could repair his own walkway for less than the cost of hiring a contractor. And as long as we allow markets to function, billions of people will make tens of billions of decisions every day that will push toward the optimal use of resources to satisfy as many human wants as possible.

Posted on October 6, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Romney and Obama on the Role of Government

President Obama and Mitt Romney effectively delivered clashing statements on the role of government last night. That's an issue I discuss in the latest issue of Reason, in a review of two new books, To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by Steven Conn, and Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, by E. J. Dionne, Jr. It's not online yet, so you'll have to go to the newsstand to buy a copy! Obama seemed to be channeling the Conn book, with its endless repetition of "things the government did for us":
I also believe that government has the capacity -- the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed. Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system, and freedom, and the fact that people can go out there and start a business, work on an idea, make their own decisions. But as Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together. So in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let’s help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad. Let’s start the National Academy of Sciences. Let’s start land grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we’re all going to be better off. That doesn’t restrict people’s freedom; that enhances it. And so what I’ve tried to do as president is to apply those same principles.
Romney had a different view:
The role of government -- look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military. Second, in that line that says, we are endowed by our Creator with our rights -- I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by -- by one another. We’re a nation that believes we’re all children of the same God. And we care for those that have difficulties -- those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that disabled, we care for them. And we look for discovery and innovation, all these thing desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens. But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a -- a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.
His rhetoric was certainly more appealing to libertarian voters. But when Romney waxes eloquent about freedom, the rubber rarely meets the road. He's the father of the health care mandate. His view of liberty, above, is a strong military. His closing argument, about the candidates' "two very different paths," ended with a promise not to cut Medicare or the military. He promised to deliver "energy independence" and to crack down on countries that sell us goods. More on why libertarians are skeptical about big government here -- and in Reason!

Posted on October 4, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Welfare, College, and Golf

Here's a story from the sports pages with relevance to current debates on welfare, dependency, and whether college is good for you. After the European win in the Ryder Cup, sports reporter Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal wonders why "the best European golfers are better than the best Americans now." His tentative answer:
One difference is that the 12 Americans on the Ryder Cup team all attended college. Just two members of Europe's team, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald, spent those crucial, formative years of development playing collegiate golf.... Here's what happens when top golfers, tennis and soccer players attend college: They subject themselves to rules about how often they can compete and practice. They throw themselves at the mercy of coaching that is not always world-class. They live in housing filled with...let's call them distractions. And in order to play, they have to pass classes in biology and political science. Compared with the experience of Rory McIlroy or other European golfers, who turn pro as teenagers, then do little else but practice and compete (sometimes for their next meal or train ticket), the college life is pretty appealing.
And why is that a problem?
...the college life is pretty appealing. But it's also a safety net. It's not crazy to think that the European approach creates athletes who work a bit harder and perhaps become just a wee bit tougher.
And that insight might apply to more than golf and tennis. As Peter Thiel suggests, smart young people might do better to leave college and "dedicate themselves to their work."  "Safety net" programs might trap people in long-term welfare dependency, unemployment benefits might prolong unemployment, and  establishing religion might make the established church lazy.

Posted on October 3, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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