Greek Anarchists Provide Services the State Doesn’t

In the New York Times, Niki Kitsantonis writes, “It may seem paradoxical, but Greece’s anarchists are organizing like never before.”

No. Anarchists – the sensible ones, at least – are not against organization. They are against rule – against ruling and against being ruled. Merriam-Webster explains the derivation of the word: “Medieval Latin anarchia, from Greek, from anarchos having no ruler, from an- + archos ruler.” True, as the dictionary editors note, “anarchy” and “anarchism” are sometimes used to mean something like “absence or denial of any authority or established order” or simply “absence of order.” But rational political theorists and even activists don’t advocate pure disorder; they advocate the absence of rule, which they define as the absence of government

So what is it that these Greek anarchists are organizing for? Well, in fact, the focus of the article is on how anarchists are supplying the services that the Greek state is not providing:

Seven years of austerity policies and a more recent refugee crisis have left the government with fewer and fewer resources, offering citizens less and less. Many have lost faith. Some who never had faith in the first place are taking matters into their own hands, to the chagrin of the authorities….

Whatever the means, since 2008 scores of “self-managing social centers” have mushroomed across Greece, financed by private donations and the proceeds from regularly scheduled concerts, exhibitions and on-site bars, most of which are open to the public. There are now around 250 nationwide.

Some activists have focused on food and medicine handouts as poverty has deepened and public services have collapsed.

In recent months, anarchists and leftist groups have trained special energy on housing refugees who flooded into Greece in 2015 and who have been bottled up in the country since the European Union and Balkan nations tightened their borders. Some 3,000 of these refugees now live in 15 abandoned buildings that have been taken over by anarchists in the capital.

One part of Athens seems to have been a self-governing, but not state-governed, territory for some time. Some sources say Exarchia has existed since as early as 1870. The name presumably comes from “ex-,” out of, away from, and of course “archos,” ruler.

In Athens, the anarchists’ epicenter remains the bohemian neighborhood of Exarchia, where the killing of a teenager by a police officer in 2008 set off two weeks of rioting, helped reinvigorate the movement and produced several guerrilla groups that led to a revival of domestic terrorism in Greece.

The police and the authorities tread lightly in the area.

The police have recently raided some buildings illegally occupied by anarchists, called squats, in Athens, in the northern city of Thessaloniki and on the island of Lesbos, a gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants over the past two years….

The anarchists say their squats are a humane alternative to the state-run camps now filled with more than 60,000 migrants and asylum seekers. Human rights groups have broadly condemned the camps as squalid and unsafe.

In Exarchia, one of the squats includes a former state secondary school that was abandoned because of structural problems. Established last spring with the help of anarchists, the squat is now home to some 250 refugees, mostly from Syria, who have set up a chicken coop on the roof. Many more refugees are on a “waiting list” for other occupied buildings.

The squats function as self-organized communities, independent from the state and nongovernmental organizations, said Lauren Lapidge, 28, a British social activist who came to Greece in 2015 at the peak of the refugee crisis and is actively involved with several occupied buildings.

“They are living organisms: Kids go to school, some were born in the squat, we’ve had weddings inside,” she said.

There’s really nothing paradoxical about anarchists setting up institutions and communities outside the state to provide needed goods and services. The Greek anarchists probably don’t see businesses as part of that non-state society, though libertarian anarchists and anarcho-capitalists do. 

What is paradoxical, as I wrote five years ago, is Greek “anarchists” who object to the state reducing its size, scope, and power by cutting back on taxes and transfer payments. Anarchists who organize voluntarily to achieve common purposes are just living their philosophy.

Posted on May 22, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Government Can’t Even Plan for Its Own Survival

Economists and (classical) liberals have long criticized the failures of government planning, from Hayek and Mises and John Jewkes to even Robert Heilbroner. Ron Bailey wrote about centralized scientific planning, Randal O’Toole about urban planning, Jim Dorn about the 1980s enthusiasm for industrial planning, and I noted the absurdities of green energy planning

One concern about planning is that it will lead government to engage in favoritism and cronyism. So who would have guessed that when the leaders of the federal government set out to plan for their own survival—if no one else’s—in the event of nuclear attack, they failed?

That’s the story journalist and author Garrett Graff tells in his new book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us DieAs the Wall Street Journal summarizes:

COG—continuity of government—is the acronymic idée fixe that has underpinned these doomsday preparations. A bunker was installed in the White House after Pearl Harbor, but the nuclear age (particularly after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb in September 1949) introduced a nationwide system of protected hideaways, communications systems, evacuation procedures and much else of a sophistication and ingenuity—and expense—never before conceived….

Strategies for evacuating government VIPs began in earnest in the early 1950s with the construction of Raven Rock, an “alternate Pentagon” in Pennsylvania near what would become known as Camp David, and Mount Weather, a nuclear-war sanctuary in Virginia for civilian officials….

In 1959, construction began on a secret refuge for Congress underneath the Greenbrier, a resort in West Virginia. In the event of an attack, members of Congress would have been delivered by special train and housed in dormitories with nameplated bunk beds.

The most important COG-related activities during the Kennedy administration came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the closest this country has come to a nuclear war. Not only was the military mobilization chaotic—“one pilot bought fuel for his bomber with his personal credit card”—but VIP evacuation measures were, for the most part, a debacle: “In many cases, the plans for what would happen after [a nuclear attack on the U.S.] were so secret and so closely held that they were almost useless.” …

The Air Force also acquired, for the president’s use, four Boeing 747 “Doomsday planes” with state-of-the-art communications technology, which were nicknamed “Air Force One When It Counts.”…

Probably the most fraught 24 hours in the history of COG worrying occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. COG projects and training had been ceaselessly initiated and honed for a half-century; but, as Mr. Graff writes with impressive understatement, “the U.S. government [wasn’t] prepared very well at all.”…

While Vice President Dick Cheney had been swiftly hustled to the White House bunker, “those officials outside the bunker, even high-ranking ones, had little sense of where to go, whom to call, or how to connect back to the government,” Mr. Graff writes. But there were enough people in the bunker to deplete the oxygen supply and raise the carbon-dioxide level, and so “nonessential staff” were ordered to leave. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert tried to call Mr. Cheney on a secure phone, he couldn’t get through….

When President George W. Bush heard the news about the attacks that morning, he was in Florida. He was whisked into Air Force One, which, Mr. Graff notes, “took off at 9:54 a.m., with no specific destination in mind.” It would eventually land, and the president would address the country. But “Air Force One’s limitations”—it wasn’t one of the Doomsday planes—“came into stark relief.” For one thing the plane’s communications systems were woefully inadequate for what was required on 9/11. “On the worst day in modern U. S. history,” Mr. Graff writes near the end of his exhaustingly detailed account (I sometimes felt buried alive under its mass of data), “the president of the United States was, unbelievably, often less informed than a normal civilian sitting at home watching cable news.”

Fifty years of planning for a single event, the most important task imaginable—the survival of the republic and their own personal survival—and top government officials still didn’t get it right. A good lesson to keep in mind when we contemplate having less-motivated government officials plan our cities, our energy production, our health care system, or our entire economy.

Posted on May 19, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The President Is Not the Commander in Chief of the United States, Nor Its CEO

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday that “the president is the CEO of the country,” and thus “he can hire and fire whoever he wants. That’s his right.” Leaving aside the question of whether the president can fire everyone in the federal government, she is wrong on her main point. The president is not the CEO of the country. He can reasonably be described as the CEO of the federal government. The Constitution provides that in the new government it establishes, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, too many people keep calling the president—this president and previous presidents—”my commander in chief” or something similar. Again it’s important for our understanding of a constitutional republic to be clear on these points. The president is the chief executive of the federal government. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces, not of the entire government and definitely not of 320 million U.S. citizens. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.

Too many people who should know better keep getting this wrong. The highly experienced former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for instance, who declared last year on the campaign trail, “Donald Trump simply doesn’t have the temperament to be president and commander in chief of the United States.” (She had also used the term a year earlier, and in her previous campaign she expressed a determination to be the “commander in chief of our economy,” so this wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.)

And also third-generation Navy man, senator, and presidential nominee John McCain who declared his support for President George W. Bush in 2007, saying, the Washington Post reported: “There’s only one commander in chief of the United States, and that’s George W. Bush.”

Now Donald Trump is getting the same treatment. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Daily Mail, a popular newspaper in a country still headed by a monarch, would write

President Donald Trump sent a message to ex-FBI director James Comey and his detractors as he told Liberty University graduates that ‘nothing is more pathetic than being a critic’ during his first commencement address as the commander-in-chief of the United States.

But how about Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, writing in a Capitol Hill newspaper to mock President Trump’s historical ignorance:

How apropos that this famous and very fitting quote was likely used by the Abraham Lincoln, the president who actually was the commander-in-chief of the United States when the Civil War happened.

Oops.

And here also Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA”: “Our commander-in-chief has made a serious miscalculation.”

The Military Times should know better than to write, “Business mogul Donald Trump was sworn as the nation’s 45th commander in chief on Friday, promising to return government to the people and return American might to the international stage.”

Even Joy-Ann Reid, who hates Trump, gives him a title he doesn’t possess, declaring that Trump’s “greed and neediness and vaingloriousness have made our commander in chief a national security threat.”

In this time when we worry about threats to the Constitution and our liberal republican order, we need to remember the basics. 

This is a constitutional republic, and we don’t have a commander in chief. 

That’s an important distinction, and it’s disturbing that even candidates for the presidency miss it. Hillary Clinton may well have wanted to be commander in chief of the whole country, of you and me, and to direct us and our economic activities the way the president directs the officers and soldiers of the armed forces. But if so, she would have needed to propose an amendment to the Constitution—an amendment that would effectively make the rest of the Constitution irrelevant, since it was designed as a Constitution for a limited government of a free people.

Donald Trump is not my commander in chief. Neither was Barack Obama. Each was elected president, charged with leading the executive branch of the federal government.

Posted on May 15, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Endless War in Afghanistan and Colombia

Two front-page stories in the Washington Post today tell a depressing story:

President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban…more than 15 years after U.S. forces first arrived there.

Seventeen years and $10 billion after the U.S. government launched the counternarcotics and security package known as Plan Colombia, America’s closest drug-war ally is covered with more than 460,000 acres of coca. Colombian farmers have never grown so much, not even when Pablo Escobar ruled the drug trade. 

There are high school students about to register for the draft who have never known a United States not at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the policy of drug prohibition has now lasted more than a century, though the specific Colombian effort began only under President Clinton around 1998, getting underway in 2000.

I wrote an op-ed, “Let’s Quit the Drug War,” in the New York Times in 1988. Cato scholars and authors have been writing about the seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East for years now. Maybe it’s time for policymakers to start considering whether endless war is a sign of policy failure.

And maybe one day, a generation from now, our textbooks will not tell our children, We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Posted on May 9, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Brief History of the Cato Institute: A Live #Cato40 Daily Podcast

At the recent Cato40 celebration, Cato’s David Boaz, Ian Vasquez and Roger Pilon discussed Cato’s history and its role in promoting liberty.

Posted on May 8, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Dentists and Freedom in Ivory Coast

I heard a report this morning on BBC Newshour on the shortage of dentists in Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). I can’t find the report at the Newshour website, but here’s something similar from CNBCAfrica, coauthored by a Unilever representative. It’s a sad story of disease, pain, and school absenteeism.

But stories like this miss the point. Why does Ivory Coast have so few dentists? Why does the Gates Foundation need to buy mosquito nets for African countries? It’s not because there’s something special about dentists and mosquito nets. It’s because African countries are poor. And they’re poor because they lack freedom, property rights, markets, and the rule of law.

Take Cote d’Ivoire. In the 2016 Economic Freedom of the World Report, Cote d’Ivoire ranks 133rd in the world for economic freedom. On page 66 of this pdf version, we see that it rates particularly badly on “Legal System and Property Rights.” You can’t generate much economic growth if you don’t have secure property rights and the rule of law. It also rates badly on regulatory barriers to trade and capital controls. 

On the broader Human Freedom Index, we see on page 63 that Cote d’Ivoire also rates low for freedom of domestic movement, political pressure on the media, and procedural, criminal, and civil justice.

African countries have severe tariff and nontariff barriers to free trade, reducing the benefits they can gain from specialization and the division of labor, even among sub-Saharan countries themselves.

The long-term way to get more dentists and mosquito nets in Africa is not Western aid or charity, it’s freedom and growth. Those who want Africa and Africans to have better lives need to encourage African countries to move toward the rule of law, free trade, property rights, and open markets. 

Posted on May 2, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Case for Term Limits: Shock and Surprise When an Incumbent Actually Retires

The Washington Post reports:

Del. David B. Albo … (R-Fairfax) surprised his party by announcing Wednesday that he won’t seek a 12th term [in the Virginia legislature].

Really? After 12 terms in office it’s a surprise when a politician doesn’t run for a 13th term? Or it’s “shocking” when an 80-year-old U.S. senator doesn’t seek to add to her 40 years in Congress?

Maybe it’s time to limit terms. The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them. And polls show that contemporary Americans agree with them.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet in almost every election more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent. Even when voters are angry, it’s hard to compete with the power of incumbency.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. There must be more than one person in San Francisco capable of making laws. And more than one family in Detroit.

Term limits might result in the election of people who don’t want to make legislation a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $20 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq (and Yemen and Syria), and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

When journalists and political insiders are surprised and shocked by the retirement of legislators who have served for decades, it’s time for new blood.

Political scientists say the evidence on the effect of term limits is mixed. But the evidence on the effects of the permanent congressional class is pretty clear.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”

Posted on April 10, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz’s comments on the politicization of the ACLU airs on Vice Daily News

Posted on April 1, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Can You Tell the Real Politicians from the Satirical Ones?

At least in Serbia, people know that politicians’ promises are ridiculous. NPR reports on a satirical candidate named Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, or just Beli for short:

A new politician is here to save you. I’m pure and clean. Whatever the other politicians promise you, I will promise you three times more.

I’ll give jobs to everyone and big pensions to everyone. I’m going to move the sea here because we need a beach.

Satire it may be, but his new party won 12 council seats in his home town, and most of his party’s candidates are seriously seeking election. Reporter Joanna Kakissis continues:

There will be no corruption, excluding my own of course, he declares to one crowd. Please send all money directly to my pockets. Drama student Danka Svetilova laughs and asks for a selfie. She says mainstream politicians have lied to Serbs for years….

So that’s why she and her schoolteacher mom are voting for Beli in this Sunday’s presidential election. Better a fake candidate who tells the truth about lying, she says, than a real one who lies about telling the truth.

Posted on March 31, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

May the Quiet Revolution Continue

Back in 1977 the Communists controlled a third of the world, Democrats controlled the federal government, the big three networks had 91 percent of television viewers, textbooks said the Soviet Union would soon have a larger GNP than the United States, and the federal government’s most recent accomplishments were Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation.

And in that unpromising environment Ed Crane and Charles Koch decided to create a libertarian think tank. It could have been, as Otter said about that time, “a really futile and stupid gesture.” But some surprisingly positive things began happening right about then.

It’s hard to recall the depression, the malaise that Americans felt in the 1970s. Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying that he thought of the United States as Athens and the Soviet Union as Sparta. “The day of the U.S. is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as secretary of state is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available,” he is supposed to have said. Kissinger denied the quotation, but another leading intellectual-statesman, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stated a similar view openly in 1976, at the time of the American bicentennial: “Liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century; a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or particular places here and there, and may even serve well enough for special circumstance, but which has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going.  Increasingly democracy is seen as an arrangement peculiar to a handful of North Atlantic countries.”

But under the surface things were changing. Some of the very weaknesses that led Kissinger and Moynihan to their pessimism had eroded the confidence in government built up by the New Deal, World War II, and the prosperous 1950s. The ideas that Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, and others had been propounding for a generation were taking root with more people. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who had read some of those dissident authors, were planning their challenges to the failing welfare-state consensus.

Even less obviously, the Soviet leaders had lost confidence in the Marxist ideology that justified their rule, a fact that would have profound consequences in the coming decade. And in China, Mao had just died, and his old comrade Deng Xiao-ping was maneuvering for power. His victory would have consequences that no one could see in 1977.

Politics isn’t everything, of course. In 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak incorporated the Apple Computer Company, on April Fool’s Day. Two other young men, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had created a company to develop software for the new personal computers, and in 1978 the Microsoft Corporation’s sales topped $1 million. Around 1978 an Atlanta businessman came up with the idea of an all-news cable channel; Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network on June 1, 1980.

Forty years on, the world has changed so much that we may have forgotten what a different era 1977 was. Reagan and Thatcher moved public policy in the direction of lower taxes, less regulation, and privatization. They had an even bigger impact on the political culture in their countries and around the world. They both symbolized and galvanized a new appreciation for markets and entrepreneurship. Reagan’s optimism—along with the mountains of facts painstakingly accumulated by Julian Simon and other scholars—helped to dispel the doom and gloom of the 1970s. 

Reagan and Thatcher did little to challenge the welfare state legislatively.  But by strengthening the economy and helping more people appreciate the benefits of entrepreneurship and investment, they contributed to a growing demand for reform:

  • Economic deregulation (begun under President Carter) made the airline, trucking, railroad, oil, natural gas, telecommunications, and financial-services industries more efficient.
  • Tax-rate reductions set off economic booms in both countries, and more people became homeowners and investors.
  • Later, after Reagan and Thatcher had passed from the political scene, other advances for liberty took place — from NAFTA and other trade expansions to constitutional protections for Second Amendment rights and equal marriage rights to, slowly, a turn away from marijuana prohibition and the spread of school choice.
  • Finally, Americans came to realize that welfare was trapping millions of Americans in dependency.  What Jonathan Rauch called a “demosclerotic” political system did not change easily, but in 1996 a welfare reform bill was finally passed. 

Abroad, the changes have been even more dramatic. The only thing more certain than death and taxes was that the world was divided into communist and non-communist parts. And yet the changes that began with Deng’s rise to power in 1977-78 and the first stirrings of Solidarity in Poland in 1980 would change the face of the world in little more than a decade. 

The end of communism did not usher in nirvana, of course.  Russia had a brief spring and then slipped into autocracy and corruption. The other former Soviet republics are in most cases even worse off. The European countries that were once under the thumb of the USSR are doing somewhat better. East Germany is once again simply eastern Germany, part of a prosperous and democratic nation and the home of Europe’s preeminent leader. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic nations made fairly rapid transitions to liberal capitalism, while the southeastern European nations—which had little national experience of democracy or capitalism—have lagged behind. 

As for China, its economic development has been astounding. After Mao’s death in 1976, first spontaneously and then with the encouragement of Deng Xiaoping and the leadership, farmers began dismantling the agricultural communes, transitioning to a “responsibility system” with incentives. Agricultural production soared. The resulting surplus in food production allowed workers to move into other lines of work. State-owned enterprises were given more independence, and Chinese citizens were allowed to set up village and even private enterprises. Economic reform accelerated. When I attended the Cato Institute’s first conference in Shanghai in 1988, the huge city had almost no tall buildings. From the 16th floor of the Shanghai Hilton, you looked across miles of hovels to the Sheraton in the distance. There were few stores and restaurants in 1988, and they had little to sell. In 1997, when I arrived at 10 p.m. one night for Cato’s second conference in China, again at the Shanghai Hilton, I took a stroll around the neighborhood. Even at that late hour, I encountered an enterprising people—there were stores, restaurants, fruit stands, bars, nightclubs, farmers selling produce from their trucks. And the city’s skyline, if not yet Manhattan, had certainly blossomed to the scale of Houston. The differences were obvious and dramatic.

But there was another difference as well. At our 1988 conference students and professors wanted to talk about market reforms and democracy; they followed Milton Friedman around like a guru. In 1997 the participants were more subdued; they wanted to talk about business models and market institutions, but they clammed up when the Americans turned the discussion to free speech and political reform. It seemed as if the leaders of China had made a bargain with the people: stop talking about democracy, and we’ll let you get rich. Not the worst bargain in history, but not what we hope for. Today, even as Xi Jinping cracks down on free thought and political criticism, China is far freer than in Mao’s time. As Howard W. French of the New York Times reported in 2008, “Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.”

As Cato’s Human Freedom Index shows, the extent of freedom varies widely around the world. Markets, trade, access to information, democratic governance, and an end to legal discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation have made much progress. Yet there’s a growing trend toward autocracy and what Fareed Zakaria called illiberal democracy in countries such as Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela.

So what are the challenges to liberty as we enter the Cato Institute’s next 40 years? Many, as always. Let me identify just a few:

  • Socialism and social democracy. Libertarians and conservatives have worried since the days of Franklin Roosevelt about “creeping socialism” — whether by actual nationalizations in Great Britain and other countries, or by taxpayer-funded “social insurance” programs in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Those programs account for an increasing share of GDP in most developed countries, and they seem very difficult to trim or eliminate once recipients come to expect benefits. After the elections of Reagan and Thatcher and the collapse of communism, it seemed that socialism was a relic of the past and that even social democracy was listless. But now with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and the unexpectedly strong challenge of Bernie Sanders in Democratic primaries, it seems that avowed socialism is making a comeback, perhaps because a generation of voters has come of age without any experience of the failure of state socialism.
  • Along with the revival of socialism, the left in the United States and Great Britain has been energized by an accelerating demand that all institutions accept and conform to a particular version of “diversity.” From employment to housing to corporate boards to Hollywood, divergence from proportional representation is under attack. The extension of freedom to gay people in the Supreme Court’s Lawrence and Obergefell decisions and a series of state votes has been followed by a campaign to find and punish every traditionalist baker and florist. Freedom of association is threatened. Although this is a real problem, we should be careful not to exaggerate it, considering how badly freedom of association was harmed in the recent past by Jim Crow and sodomy laws, and by continuing questions about race and criminal justice.
  • Threats to freedom of speech. Throughout the past century protections for free speech under the First Amendment have been gradually expanded. For many decades Americans have affirmed to pollsters that they support the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Yet they often find exceptions to the general rule. In the middle of the 20th century majorities thought that atheists and communists should not be allowed to speak. Laws against pornography are often popular. More recently, 40 percent of millennials, far more than older groups, told the Pew Research Center that people should not be allowed to make statements that are offensive to minority groups. Perhaps most disturbingly, some activists at elite universities today reject the very idea of free speech as a standard. Meanwhile, threats of violence are a very direct way of chilling some kinds of speech.
  • Autocratic nationalism. It isn’t just Russia and Turkey where liberal principles are in retreat. As Freedom House writes, “The system pioneered by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán stands as an appealing model for elected political leaders with authoritarian leanings.” And not all those leaders are in currently non-democratic countries. For the first time in two generations Europe is seeing an upsurge of support for right-wing authoritarian movements. Although some of these groups appeal to “freedom,” their definition seems to amount to national sovereignty or even autarky. Political leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Frauke Petry in Germany are not advocates of free markets and fiscal conservatism. Their program tends to involve identity politics, anti-elite populism, economic nationalism, opposition to liberal trade and immigration, welfare statism, and a promise of strongman rule that will triumph over the deliberative nature of electoral and parliamentary institutions and “get things done.” Some supporters of President Trump display similar characteristics.
  • The underlying theme in all these problems, of course, is a declining commitment to liberal values. For some 300 years liberalism, the philosophy of liberty, has spread from northwestern Europe to more and more of the world and has been applied more fully. The values of individual rights, markets, private property, the rule of law and equality under the law, freedom of religion, tolerance, pluralism, and limited government have become more deeply rooted. It was the American creed that these truths were self-evident and would eventually be embraced by the whole world. Thomas Jefferson wrote two days before his death, “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride legitimately, by the grace of God.” A half-century later the Statue of Liberty, a gift from one liberal country to another, was formally titled “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Despite the existence of yet-unenlightened parts of the world and horrors such as communism and national socialism, liberals have maintained an optimistic view that all people do want the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Is that still true? That’s the question we face today. Will the liberal era come to an end, like the Roman Empire or the Dark Ages? Or will we look back a generation or two from now and see nannyism and campus speech restrictions as a passing fad like Prohibition, and right-wing nationalism as a rear-guard response to the real story of the past half century, globalization and its liberalizing influence?

I’m an optimist. Despite all these challenges, it’s still true that around the world, more people in more countries than ever before in history enjoy religious freedom, personal freedom, democratic governance, the freedom to own and trade property, the chance to start a business, equal rights, civility, respect, a higher standard of living, and a longer life expectancy. War, disease, violence, slavery, and inhumanity have been dramatically reduced. Immigration flows are always from less free to more free countries, creating some challenges but also demonstrating a broad preference for liberal societies.

I also think of something Murray Rothbard wrote in 1965:

The liberal Revolution implanted indelibly in the minds of [all people a desire] for the mobility and rising standards of living that can only be brought to them by an industrial civilization….And given these demands that have been awakened by liberalism and the Industrial Revolution, long-run victory for liberty is inevitable. For only liberty, only a free market, can organize and maintain an industrial system, and the more that population expands and explodes, the more necessary is the unfettered working of such an industrial economy.

Socialism doesn’t deliver the goods. Cronyism and tax-and-spend policies reduce economic growth. When people get a taste of growth, they want it to continue. And the economic freedom that leads to growth also gives people a taste for making their own decisions, which tends to spill over into a demand for political, cultural, and lifestyle choices.

But I’m not an economic determinist. I believe that ideas have consequences. Free societies depend on an intellectual foundation — both a constitution that constrains power and a consensus both elite and popular around liberty, markets, pluralism, and tolerance. That foundation has to be nurtured, debated, and sustained. Which is why I work at the Cato Institute.

Posted on March 24, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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