The Libertarian Surge

Libertarianism — the political philosophy that says limited government is the best kind of government — is having its moment. Unfortunately, that’s mostly because government has been expanding in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the financial crisis. Somehow government failures lead to even more government.

When the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, the politicians in Washington had one response: start printing money and bailing out big businesses. First it was Bear Stearns, then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then most of Wall Street. But voters had a different response. Polls showed widespread opposition to the bailouts. When Congress prepared to vote on President George W. Bush’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, Americans made their opinions known in no uncertain terms. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown reported, “Like my colleagues, my phones have been ringing off the hook. The sentiment from Ohioans about this proposal is universally negative.”

In the end, though, Congress took another vote, and the lobbyists won. Wall Street got its bailout. And we can date the birth of the tea party movement to that very week.

Meanwhile, the government’s response to the financial crisis sent people looking for answers. Sales of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” soared. The Cato Institute’s pocket edition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution even hit The Washington Post best-seller list.

Distrust of government is in America’s DNA.”

Libertarian ideas often cross left-right boundaries. Lots of libertarians were involved in the tea party and the opposition to the bailouts, the car company takeovers, the 2009 stimulus bill and the quasi-nationalization of health care. But libertarians were also involved in the movement for gay marriage. Indeed, John Podesta, a top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, noted in 2011 that you probably had to have been a libertarian to have supported gay marriage 15 years earlier. Or take marijuana legalization, which is just now becoming a majority position: Libertarians have been leaders in the opposition to the drug war for many years.

Libertarians have played a key role in the defense of the right to keep and bear arms over the years, notably in the two recent Supreme Court cases that affirmed that the Second Amendment means what it says: Individuals have a right to own guns. Support for stricter gun control has been declining for years.

Much of the libertarian energy in the past few years was generated by the presidential campaigns of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and then by the leadership of his son Rand Paul representing Kentucky in the Senate. When Ron Paul began his campaign in 2007, he didn’t attract much attention. But then, in a nationally televised debate, he clashed with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The confrontation became the cable TV moment of the night.

The next day, the conservative magazine National Review declared it a victory for Giuliani. But his campaign never got off the ground, while Ron Paul’s took off. “Ron Paul” briefly even became one of the most popular search terms on Google News. Paul’s support, especially online and among young voters, was intense, but it wasn’t broad enough to win any primaries.

Paul ran again in 2012, and he found even more success. He hadn’t changed much; indeed, his themes sounded like what he’d been saying since he entered Congress in 1976: The federal government is spending too much, printing too much money and launching too many wars. But the country, and the issues, had changed.

In 2007, Ron Paul warned that an economy based on debt and cheap money from the Federal Reserve was not sustainable, but the economy was booming and nobody wanted to listen. After the crash of 2008, they started listening.

In 2007, Paul criticized excessive federal spending, but with a Republican in the White House Republicans weren’t much interested. When Obama opened taxpayers’ wallets, they listened.

In 2007, Paul criticized endless military intervention, but most Republicans were content to repeat, “The surge is working.” By 2012, even Republicans were getting weary of 10 years of war. They listened.

In 2007, Ron Paul said that Congress and the president should not act outside their powers under the Constitution, but Republicans didn’t want to hear about unconstitutional acts by a Republican president. After the bailouts and the health care takeover and Obama’s unauthorized war in Libya, they listened.

And in 2010, a hitherto unknown ophthalmologist in my home state of Kentucky got elected to the U.S. Senate, helped by being the son of Ron Paul and by the energy of the tea party. Rand Paul upset the Republican establishment candidate in the primary, then comfortably defeated the Democratic attorney general in November.

Rand Paul, like his father, doesn’t agree with libertarians on everything. But in the Senate he’s been a strong voice for freedom on a wide range of issues. He introduced a bill to cut spending and actually balance the federal budget. He spoke out against President Obama’s intervention in Libya. He managed to kill a particularly bad piece of indefinite detainment legislation just by demanding that the Senate vote on it in public view. He fought “government bullies” from the EPA to the TSA, and even managed to get detained by the TSA when he objected to a full-body patdown.

Most memorably, in 2013 he stood like Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” at a desk in the Senate for 13 straight hours to force the country’s attention on the issue of unmanned drone strikes.

Shortly after Paul’s filibuster, America’s libertarian soul was pricked again by a series of revelations about government surveillance, overreach and abuse of power. First came the reports suggesting that the IRS had targeted tea party groups and those engaged in “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” for extra scrutiny and delays in confirming their tax-exempt status. Then we learned that the Justice Department had been looking at the telephone records of as many as 20 reporters and editors at The Associated Press as well as Fox News reporter James Rosen. Both those efforts were part of the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers.

Then came the stunning revelations about the massive surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails by the National Security Agency. We learned that in more than a dozen secret rulings, the secret surveillance court has created a secret body of law authorizing the NSA to amass vast collections of data on Americans. The NSA broke privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times a year.

Americans were shocked. Members of Congress expressed outrage. President Obama defended the surveillance programs and assured us that the people with access to all this data “take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution.”

But distrust of government is in America’s DNA. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts: “Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”

This time it wasn’t “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Road to Serfdom” that shot up on the best-seller lists, it was another libertarian classic: George Orwell’s “1984,”known for its warning that “Big Brother is watching.”

Posted on April 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz gives a speech on “Socialism vs Capitalism” in a joint project of The Future of Freedom Foundation and the George Mason University Economics Society.

Posted on April 1, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Authoritarian Governments Use Old Smears to Tear Down Their Opponents

Anne Applebaum reports on how old smears are still used to support illiberal ideas and authoritarian government:

Halfway through an otherwise coherent conversation with a Georgian lawyer here — the topics included judges, the court system, the police — I was startled by a comment he made about his country’s former government, led by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. “They were LGBT,” he said, conspiratorially.

What did that mean, I asked, surprised. Were they for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights? For gay marriage? Were they actually gay? He couldn’t really define it, though the conversation meandered in that direction for a few more minutes, also touching on the subject of the former president’s alleged marital infidelity, his promotion of female politicians, his lack of respect for the church.

Afterward, I worked it out. The lawyer meant to say that Saakashvili — who drove his country hard in the direction of Europe, pulled Georgia as close to NATO as possible and used rough tactics to fight the ­post-Soviet mafia that dominated his country — was “too Western.” Not conservative enough. Not traditional enough. Too much of a modernizer, a reformer, a European. In the past, such a critic might have called Saakashvili a “rootless cosmopolitan.” But today the insulting code word for that sort of person in the former Soviet space — regardless of what he or she thinks about homosexuals — is LGBT.

None of this is new, as Applebaum notes. We’ve seen it recently in Venezuela. In 2012, as soon as Henrique Capriles won a primary to become the candidate of the democratic opposition against Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the Wall Street Journal reported that he

was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela’s state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent.

Homosexual and Jewish, I thought. When they attack him for being rich, they’ll have the trifecta of populist prejudices.

And sure enough, they did. Chavez himself declared:

The bourgeoisie have their candidate – the candidate of the anti-fatherland, of capitalism, of the Yankees. We are going to thrash that bourgeoisie.

Chavez, of course, also threw in “the candidate of the Yankees,” that is, the Americans. German democrats used to say that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” Now in many countries we could say that anti-Americanism is the new anti-semitism. They’re often found in tandem.

The authoritarian government of Malaysia calls its chief opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, a homosexual and a gay propagandist, and has even prosecuted and jailed him on trumped-up sodomy charges.

All of these epithets – homosexual, Jewish, bourgeoisie, and more recently, “American” – have been staples of illiberal rhetoric for centuries. Liberals – advocates of democracy, free speech, religious freedom, and market freedoms – have been tarred as “cosmopolitan” and somehow alien to the people, the Volk, the faithful, the fatherland, the heartland.

Authoritarians such as Putin and Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro also like to denounce their opponents as “fascists,” even though they themselves fit most of the textbook definition of fascism – nationalism, anti-liberalism, a charismatic leader as the embodiment of the nation, and an economy controlled indirectly by the state, typically through nominally private owners

Liberals should denounce these sorts of vile and illiberal attacks, whether they stem from the American far right or far left, Vladimir Putin, the ruling party in Malaysia, or the Venezuelan socialists. 

Posted on March 31, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses libertarianism on FBN’s The Independents

Posted on March 25, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them. 

Posted on March 22, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Frank Underwood Wants a Subsidy

House of Cards is a Netflix television series about a powerful, manipulative politician who gets what he wants with little regard for the public good. Here’s an example:

“House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey is booked to appear in Annapolis on Friday night as the fate of a tax credit that has benefited the production of his Netflix series hangs in the balance.

Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for the show, has invited the entire Maryland General Assembly to a local wine bar to meet the two-time Academy Award winner who plays the scheming Vice President Frank Underwood in the series. An invitation describes the event as “an evening of Annapolis, D.C. and Hollywood.”…

The visit is scheduled just a few days after the Senate voted to increase the amount the state can spend next year, to $18.5 million, on a tax credit that rewards movie and television production companies that choose to film in Maryland. “House of Cards” has been the biggest beneficiary in recent years.

The House of Delegates has yet to act on the bill, with about two and a half weeks remaining in this year’s 90-day legislative session in Maryland. Evans said he has been encouraged by recent meetings with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and other key delegates.

A few weeks before the second season of “House of Cards” debuted online, the show’s production company sent letters to Busch and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) making clear they could film elsewhere if the debate over the tax credit didn’t end well.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers. A perfect House of Cards story.

The Tax Foundation has been covering film tax credits in general and the House of Cards saga in particular. The Mackinac Center has been campaigning against Michigan’s film tax credits, and Gov. Rick Snyder has tried to rein in the program. But it’s hard to beat Frank Underwood.

 

Posted on March 21, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

RIP Tonie Nathan, the First Woman to Receive an Electoral Vote

Tonie NathanTheodora (Tonie) Nathan, the 1972 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee who became the first woman in American history to receive an electoral vote, died Thursday at 91.

Tonie Nathan was a radio-television producer in Eugene, Ore., when she attended the first presidential nominating convention of the Libertarian Party in 1972. She was selected to run for vice president with presidential candidate and philosophy professor John Hospers. Although the ticket received only 3,671 official votes, Virginia elector Roger L. MacBride chose to vote for Hospers and Nathan rather than Nixon and Agnew, thus making Nathan the first woman in American history to receive an electoral vote. MacBride, an author and former legislator, had been elected on the Republican slate. As I wrote in Liberty magazine when he died in 1995, “MacBride became a ‘faithless elector’—faithless to Nixon and Agnew, anyway, but faithful to the constitutional principles Rose [Wilder] Lane had instilled in him.”

Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, writes:

It is a shame that her historical status for the advancement of woman’s role in what had been entirely a man’s world has been little noted or long remembered, mostly I suspect because the Libertarian Party is not much respected by institutional feminism (though it should be).

Hospers-Nathan buttonNathan was also the first Jewish person to receive an electoral vote.

After her vice-presidential run, she ran for office as a Libertarian candidate during the 1970s through the 1990s for numerous offices, vigorously though never successfully. In the 1980 U.S. Senate election in Oregon, Nathan participated in three statewide television debates with incumbebt Bob Packwood (R) and then–state senator Ted Kulongoski (D). She served as national vice-chair of the Libertarian Party, and at the 2012 Libertarian National Convention she announced former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as the presidential nominee. She founded the Association of Libertarian Feminists in 1973 and served as its chair.

Note: Premiering tonight on Showtime is a new documentary about Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee, whom many people would likely identify as the first woman to receive an electoral vote.

Posted on March 21, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cambridge Resists a Changing World

The noted biographer Justin Kaplan, who won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for his biographies of Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens, and Walt Whitman, has died at the age of 88. He had a long and distinguished career in American letters, not just with his biographies but as an editor of such writers as Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Nikos Kazantzakis, and C. Wright Mills.

He also edited the 16th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, published in 1992. I wrote a review of that book. I can’t recall where it appeared, nor can I find it on the web. But along with praise for many of the changes he made, notably in making it fresher and more multicultural, I did note one concern with his selections, which I suggested was common among East Coast intellectuals:

The dozen years since the fifteenth edition have been marked by a worldwide turn toward markets, from Reagan and Thatcher to the New Zealand Labor Party’s free-market reforms to the fall of Soviet communism.  This historical trend seems to have escaped editor Kaplan, of Cambridge, Mass., who has given us more quotations from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Robert Heilbroner, while virtually eliminating F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, the intellectual gurus of the free-market revolution.  A bust of Hayek now sits in the Kremlin, but Cambridge is holding out against the tide.

Hayek has been reduced to two quotations, neither of which reflects his particular contributions to social thought.  Friedman is represented by three, including the wrongly attributed aphorism, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Meanwhile, the towering figure of John Kenneth Galbraith receives 11 citations.  (William F. Buckley, Jr., is unrepresented.)

As in 1980, the Bible is second only to Shakespeare in the number of quotations included.  But Ayn Rand, who came in second to the Bible in a 1991 Gallup survey on most influential authors, gets only three citations.  Margaret Thatcher likewise is represented with three quotations, none of which captures her free-market radicalism.

Quotations from recent presidents offer a similar surprise.  John F. Kennedy leads the pack with 28 quotations, followed by Richard Nixon with 10, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter with 6, George Bush with 4, and Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan with 3.  Again, Reagan’s impact on the world, not to mention his reputation as the Great Communicator, seems to have bypassed Cambridge.  However, when one tries to remember which Reagan phrases ought to be included, one is struck by how many of them are derivative: “city on a hill,” “Evil Empire,” “rendezvous with destiny,” “Where’s the Rest of Me?”  (Surely John G. Magee’s “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth” was added to this edition because Peggy Noonan used those lines in the remarks she wrote for Reagan after the Challenger disaster, yet there is no reference to Reagan.)

Still, one would think that a few of his off-the-cuff remarks–“There you go again” or “We begin bombing in five minutes”–might warrant inclusion, along with some Reaganesque phrases about politics and government, such as “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or “the ant heap of totalitarianism” or “The nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth is a temporary government agency.”

Which reminds me, where is Barry Goldwater’s “A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away”?  (For that, you’ll need Bruce Bohle’s Home Book of American Quotations.)

One might assume that these curiosities don’t represent any conscious bias on Kaplan’s part, just a blindness to the political and economic changes going on in the world.  Dictionaries of quotations are perforce behind the times; they represent the distilled wisdom, or at least memorabilia, of centuries.  As market liberalism sweeps the world in the 21st century, its architects will get their due.  Still, it’s disappointing to see a 1992 edition offering fewer selections from thinkers such as Friedman and Hayek.  And Kaplan’s response to an earlier criticism about the lack of Reagan quotations suggests a determined refusal to grant Reagan an important place in the world.  Presumably the same animus is in fact reflected in the lack of quotations from Hayek, Friedman, and so on.

I should note that some of these criticisms were remedied in the 2002 edition, which Kaplan also edited, and in the most recent revision. Reagan, Thatcher, and Rand (though not Hayek) are better represented. And certainly these omissions in a massive reference work don’t detract from Kaplan’s great contributions to literature and biography. RIP.

 

Posted on March 5, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Freedom on Film

It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.

As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):

Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)

War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.

Lawyers play an important role in two other fine libertarian films. The Castle was produced in Australia in 1997 but reached the United States in 1999. It’s a very funny film about a character who thinks that living near the airport is just great. He even likes looking up at the massive power lines near his house because they remind him of what man can accomplish. Shades of Ayn Rand! Anyway, a man’s home is his castle, and the protagonist is shocked when the airport decides to seize his property to extend its runway. He fights the system to no avail until a smooth, well-dressed lawyer — way out of the lead character’s league — shows up and offers to take his case. Again we see powerful interests forced to defend themselves in a law-governed society. A nice defense of private property, and very funny to boot.

That same season in 1999 I also enjoyed The Winslow Boy, a David Mamet remake of a Terrence Rattigan play/movie from 1948. Despite a very different atmosphere — a stuffy, bourgeois family in Victorian England vs. a comic contemporary Australian family — it has two things in common with The Castle: a proud father who will do anything to defend his home and family, and a distinguished British lawyer who comes to the family’s aid. Mr. Winslow’s teenage son is expelled from the Naval Academy. Convinced his son is innocent, Winslow challenges the expulsion. When the Academy refuses any sort of due process, Winslow exhausts his life savings in a fight through the courts. The theme is the right of every person in a decent society to justice.

So Big (1953) stars Jane Wyman as a wealthy young woman suddenly delivered into poverty. She becomes a teacher, marries a farmer, has a son, loses her husband, and must run the farm on her own, at a time when women didn’t do that. It’s an inspiring story of self-reliance, and the disappointment she feels when her son chooses money and society over the architecture he loves. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, the screenplay sounds almost Randian at times. Don’t see the 1932 version starring Barbara Stanwyck; it’s flat and boring. The difference is unbelievable.

The Palermo Connection (1990) is an odd Italian-made movie (but in English) cowritten by Gore Vidal. New York city councilman Jim Belushi runs for mayor on a platform to legalize drugs and take the profits out of the drug trade. The Mafia isn’t happy. His life is threatened. So he decides to go on a honeymoon, in the middle of his campaign — to Sicily. I said it was odd. But interesting, and very pointed.

Pacific Heights (1990) is a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law. A young couple buys a big house in San Francisco and rents an apartment to a young man. He never pays them, and they can’t get him out, and then things get really scary. The lawyer lectures the couple — and the audience — on how “of course you’re right, but you’ll never win.” I just knew this happened to someone — maybe the screenwriter or someone he knew. Sure enough, when Cato published William Tucker’s book Rent Control, Zoning, and Affordable Housing, and I asked Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger for a jacket blurb, he readily offered “If you thought Pacific Heights was fiction, you need to read this book”; and he told me that the screenwriter had a relative who had gone through a tenant nightmare.

Finally, I’ll mention My Beautiful Laundrette, made for British television in 1985. What’s interesting about this film is that novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi thought he was making a savage indictment of Thatcherite capitalism. But to me, the good characters in the movie — white and Pakistani, gay and straight — are the ones who work for a living, and the bad characters are clearly the whining socialist immigrant intellectual, who doesn’t like his son opening a small business, and the British thugs who try to intimidate the young Pakistani businessman. My favorite line: The enterprising brother of the layabout intellectual takes a young working-class Briton (Daniel Day-Lewis) with him to evict some deadbeat tenants. The young Brit suggests that it’s surprising the Pakistani businessman would be evicting people of color. And the businessman says, “I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani. There is no question of race in the new enterprise culture.” I think Kureishi thinks that’s a bad attitude. The joke’s on him.

If you’d like more film recommendations, I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. It offers more than 250 short reviews of movies with libertarian themes.

Posted on February 27, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Lobbying the Taxpayers — with Taxpayers’ Money

Some people say innovation is dead in America, but NASA is always looking for innovative ways to extract more money from the taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal reports on some of their innovations in using our tax dollars to persuade us to give them even more of those tax dollars:

In William Forstchen’s new science fiction novel, “Pillar to the Sky,” there are no evil cyborgs, alien invasions or time travel calamities. The threat to humanity is far more pedestrian: tightfisted bureaucrats who have slashed NASA’s budget.

The novel is the first in a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” which grew out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.

The plot of Mr. Forstchen’s novel hinges on a multibillion-dollar effort to build a 23,000-mile-high space elevator—a quest threatened by budget cuts and stingy congressmen….

It isn’t the first time NASA has ventured into pop culture. NASA has commissioned art work celebrating its accomplishments from luminaries like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. …

Some see NASA’s involvement in movies, music and books as an attempt to subtly shape public opinion about its programs.

“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds,” says Charles Seife, author of “Decoding the Universe,” who has written about NASA’s efforts to rebrand itself. “It makes me worry about propaganda.”

Lobbying with taxpayers’ money isn’t new. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” To compel him to furnish contributions of money to petition his elected officials to demand more contributions from him just adds insult to injury.

Posted on February 12, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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