An Unconstitutional Tax Bill in Virginia?

My long-ago colleague Norman Leahy, once a young research assistant at the Cato Institute, has an op-ed in the Washington Post today. I wonder where he got the idea that an act of the legislature is invalid just because it violates the state constitution.

Those praising the Virginia General Assembly’s transportation compromise may not realize that the bill runs afoul of the plain language in the state’s constitution.

Virginia’s constitution is clear that the General Assembly can impose only uniform taxes across the state for similar activities. But the bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee last weekend upsets the historic balance between localities and state government; it contains new provisions about taxation, some of which would effectively set up a two-tier system for residents in certain parts of the state. It’s difficult to see how some of these provisions could survive legal challenge….

As a constitutional matter, these local tax provisions could probably be struck down without affecting the rest of the legislation.

But few should know better than Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) that state legislators don’t have the power to impose a discriminatory local tax. He was the state’s attorney general when his office defended before the state Supreme Court the General Assembly’s previous attempt at a transportation tax package. The court rejected the argument.


Posted on February 26, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Student Essay Contest

Attention high-school and college students: The Moorfield Storey Institute has announced the Vision of Ayn Rand essay contest. Students are invited to submit essays related to issues discussed in the book The Vision of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden.

The book has a fascinating history. For ten years, from 1958 to 1968, Branden delivered lectures on “Basic Principles of Objectivism” at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City and, via tape transcription, to groups in more than 80 cities throughout the United States and abroad. More than 35,000 students attended those lectures. Along with Rand’s books, the lectures helped to create one of the first modern organized libertarian movements. But until 2009, the lectures were never available in printed form. Now they are. Buy the book here.

Back in 2009 I said this in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time! 

Posted on February 26, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Stossel Tonight

Tonight at 9 pm on the Fox Business Network, John Stossel interviews a vast array of characters – Gov. Gary Johnson, Rep. Justin Amash, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko, John Bolton, Ann Coulter, and even me – in front of a cast of thousands. Literally. Some 1400 attendees at the Students for Liberty conference joined in asking the questions. As Stossel’s website says,

This week, Stossel does a special show at the 6th annual “Students for Liberty” conference in Washington….

Fireworks fly when Stossel and the mostly libertarian crowd spar with Ann Coulter about gay marriage and drug laws. Coulter is in rare form, passionately denouncing libertarians, and at one point calling Stossel and the crowd out for focusing on drug laws and gay marriage.

It may not make it into the final version, but Coulter said libertarians should stop spending time on, you know, issues of personal freedom and equality under the law and focus on more important issues. Like privatizing the New York City subways. I kid you not.

9 pm ET tonight. Be there.


Posted on February 21, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses Libertarianism at the Students for Liberty conference on FBN’s Stossel

Posted on February 21, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cato Institute highlight reel featured at the 25th Annual Benefactor Summit

Cato Institute highlight reel featured at the 25th Annual Benefactor Summit.

Posted on February 20, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Readings for Presidents’ Day

As government workers – though only about a third of private-sector office workers – get a day off for Presidents’ Day, I thought I’d offer some reading about presidents.

First, my own tribute to our first president, the man who led America in war and peace and who gave up power to make us a republic:

Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Then, of course, Gene Healy’s book The Cult of the Presidency, which argues that 200 years after Washington, “presidential candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.” Buy it today, at a 50 percent discount!

Gene updated that argument with a short ebook, False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency. As they say, start reading in minutes!

And then you can read my short response to Politico’s question, who were the best and worst presidents? I noted:

Presidential scholars love presidents who expand the size, scope and power of government. Thus they put the Roosevelts at the top of the list. And they rate Woodrow Wilson – the anti-Madisonian president who gave us the entirely unnecessary World War I, which led to communism, National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War –8th. Now there’s a record for President Obama to aspire to! Create a century of war and terrorism, and you can move up from 15th to 8th.

Hmmm, maybe it would be better to just read a biography of George Washington.


Posted on February 18, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Galileo, Gopnik, and Liberalism

Galileo was born 449 years ago, which is reason enough for the publication of several books about him in 2013. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a great review-essay about Galileo, his trial, and the new books. I’m intrigued by the argument he presents that Galileo could have avoided a lot of trouble if he’d been just a little less stubborn and impolitic. Gopnik defends “the originality of the scientific revolution.” He talks about Galileo’s authorship of “the most entertaining classic of science ever published.” He even throws in an apropos Milton Friedman reference. Perhaps most impressively, he does a good job of helping us understand the perspective of the church hierarchy, which seems so foreign to our modern liberal sensibilities.  

If only he would work as hard to understand and present the views of modern market liberals.

Posted on February 11, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

So You Want to Cut Spending

Back in 2011 there was a titanic fight between President Obama and the newly energized House Republicans over the federal budget. The ballyhooed result, which averted the frightening specter of a “government shutdown,” was “the largest annual spending cut in our history,” in the words of President Obama and the national media. I raised some doubts about it at the time, noting that it certainly wasn’t the largest budget cut in history and then pointing to a National Journal story suggesting that the cuts weren’t really there.

Now, in the Sunday Washington Post, David Fahrenthold follows up: What happened to the much-touted $38 billion in cuts (out of a $3,800 billion budget)? Oops. Not so much: 

Nearly two years later, however, these landmark budget cuts have fallen far short of their promises.

In some areas, they did bring significant cutbacks in federal spending. Grants for clean water dried up. Cities got less money for affordable housing.

But the bill also turned out to be an epic kind of Washington illusion. It was stuffed with gimmicks that made the cuts seem far bigger — and the politicians far bolder — than they actually were.

In the real world, in fact, many of their “cuts” cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also “cut” a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

Read it all. It’s just an amazing investigation into what happens in the bureaucracy when Congress announces it’s cut the budget, and the reporters move on.

Which is why I wrote last week that if you really want to cut spending, you should shut down agencies and programs. Then you have some hope that the spending will actually stop.

Posted on February 10, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cato Scholars Speaking at Students for Liberty Conference — Join Us

The 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference, now in its sixth year, will bring over a thousand students and young liberty activists to Washington, D.C. to talk about ideas, hear from leading policy experts, and network with organizations and each other. I’m proud to have been the first speaker at the first ISFLC conference, in New York in 2008.  This year, the conference will be hosted at the Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel, just three blocks from the Cato Institute.

I will be presenting two lectures that weekend, a session with Young Americans for Liberty on “The Ten Ways to Talk about Freedom” and a luncheon keynote in Cato’s Yeager Conference Center on Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics. Plus I’ll be on a special taping of the “Stossel” show.

Other Cato scholars will be speaking on policy issues throughout the conference.  All of the below sessions will be taking place in the Hyatt’s Constitution room B.

Saturday, February 16
10:00-10:45am Restoring Constitutional Liberty Roger Pilon
11:15-12:00pm Privacy Under Attack Jim Harper
12:10–1:20pm Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics *Luncheon @ the Cato Institute* David Boaz
1:30-2:15pm The Clone Wars: Fighting to Educate Free Individuals Neal McCluskey
2:45-3:30pm A Foreign Policy for Advancing Liberty Abroad (without Undermining It at Home) Christopher A. Preble
4:00-4:45pm Economic Growth and the Future of Liberty Brink Lindsey
5:15-6:00pm How the Government Uses “Science” to Take Away Your Stuff Patrick J. Michaels
Sunday, February 17
10:00-10:45am How to Win Every Libertarian Argument Jason Kuznicki
11:15-12:00pm Why Libertarians Should Care Much More about Immigration Alex Nowrasteh

To attend the student luncheon event, please register online or sign up for your ticket at the Cato booth at the conference exhibit hall.

Posted on February 8, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cut Spending. Start Here.

If you want to cut federal spending, which has doubled under Presidents Bush and Obama, you need to eliminate some programs and agencies. At the Orange County Register – and thus on the World Wide Web – I offer some suggestions. Here are a few:

•Farm subsidies. The Department of Agriculture doles out $10 billion to $30 billion in cash subsidies to farmers and owners of farmland each year (depending on crop prices, disaster outlays and other factors). More than 90 percent of agriculture subsidies go to farmers of just five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. Most farms collect no subsidies. Farmers’ income has been booming lately, making this a particularly good time to end the subsidies.

•Head Start. Oh, no! Everyone loves Head Start. It helps poor kids. Who could be against that? But on the Friday before Christmas, the administration released a large-scale study of Head Start’s effectiveness. Its conclusion: “[B]y the end of third grade, there were very few impacts found … in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.” Head Start costs $8 billion a year, and about $200 billion since its inception. Multiple official studies have shown its ineffectiveness.

•Afghanistan. Americans are tired of America’s longest war. It’s costing more than $100 billion a year. Instead of vague plans to reduce the number of troops next year or thereafter, let’s make the decision to end the war, bring the troops home, and save that money.

More on how to cut programs that are unconstitutional, obsolete, mismanaged, or otherwise dysfunctional at

Posted on February 4, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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