A Reading List for Presidents’ Day

As government workers – though only about a third of private-sector office workers – get a day off for Presidents’ Day (legally, though not in fact, George Washington’s Birthday), 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 15, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Why We Celebrate Washington’s Birthday

Monday, February 22, will be the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, although the federal government in typical federal government fashion has instructed us to observe Washington’s Birthday (not Presidents’ Day) on a convenient Monday sometime before the actual date. There’s a reason that we should celebrate George Washington rather than a panoply of presidents. 

wrote this several years ago:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power. 

John Trumbull, “General George Washington Resigning His Commission”

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

John Adams said, “He was the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” Indeed, Washington was a person very conscious of his reputation, who worked all his life to develop his character and his image.

In our own time Joshua Micah Marshall writes of America’s first president, “It was all a put-on, an act.” Marshall missed the point. Washington understood that character is something you develop. He learned from Aristotle that good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction – “We are what we repeatedly do.” Indeed, the word “ethics” comes from the Greek word for “habit.” We say something is “second nature” because it’s not actually natural; it’s a habit we’ve developed. From reading the Greek philosophers and the Roman statesmen, Washington developed an understanding of character, in particular the character appropriate to a gentleman in a republic of free citizens.

What values did Washington’s character express? He was a farmer, a businessman, an enthusiast for commerce. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was deeply interested in scientific farming. His letters on running Mount Vernon are longer than letters on running the government. (Of course, in 1795 more people worked at Mount Vernon than in the entire executive branch of the federal government.)

He was also a liberal and tolerant man. In a famous letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, he hailed the “liberal policy” of the United States on religious freedom as worthy of emulation by other countries. He explained, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

And most notably, he held “republican” values – that is, he believed in a republic of free citizens, with a government based on consent and established to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property.

From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice – at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

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.”

I talked about George Washington in this Cato Daily Podcast in 2007.

Posted on February 12, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Gallup Finds More Libertarians in the Electorate

The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian, and the number has been risingLibertarians in the Electorate, 2000-2015.

Two years ago David Kirby found that libertarians made up an even larger portion of the Republican party.

So why isn’t all this supposed libertarian sentiment being reflected in candidates and elections? There have been plenty of analyses in the past week, including my own, about why Rand Paul didn’t attract this potentially large bloc of libertarian voters. Maybe people don’t see issues as equally salient; some libertarians may wish that Republicans weren’t so socially reactionary, but still vote Republican on the basis of economic issues. Some, as Lionel Shriver writes in the New York Times, feel “forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” 

For now I just want to note that there are indeed a lot of voters who don’t fit neatly into the red and blue boxes. The word “libertarian” isn’t well known, so pollsters don’t find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don’t ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views – views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. 

David Brooks wrote recently that the swing voters in 2016 will be people who don’t think big government is the path to economic growth and don’t know why a presidential candidate would open his campaign at Jerry Falwell’s university. Those are the voters who push American politics in a libertarian direction. David Bier and Daniel Bier wrote last summer about how many policy issues show a libertarian trend over the past 30 years. Find a colorful chart illustrating their findings here.

Politics is often frustrating for libertarians, never more so than during this presidential election when the leading presidential candidates seem to be a protectionist nationalist with a penchant for insult, a self-proclaimed socialist, and a woman who proudly calls herself a “government junkie.” But polls show libertarian instincts in the electorate, just waiting for candidates who can speak to them. 

Read more about the libertarian vote in our original study or in our 2012 ebook.

Posted on February 10, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bernie and the Revolution

John Wagner of the Washington Post reports that Bernie Sanders rallies feature a playlist to back up that “political revolution” he keeps talking about:

Supporters of the senator from Vermont who arrive at events early are likely to hear “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” by folkster Tracy Chapman. And “The Revolution Starts Now” by country rocker Steve Earle. And “Revolution” by reggae legend Bob Marley & the Wailers. And “Revolution” by Celtic punk band Flogging Molly….

There’s “Uprising,” by Muse; “Power to the People,” by the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; “Make a Change,” by Buckwheat Zydeco; and “Give the People What They Want,” by The O’Jays.

And as I read through his article, I kept waiting for the most famous “Revolution” song of all, by the Beatles. Apparently you won’t hear that at a Bernie Sanders rally. Now, my more music-savvy colleagues tell me that’s probably because the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, is very tight-fisted about rights. But I wonder if it just might be that John Lennon’s lyrics are a little too cautionary:

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan…

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.

Of course, Bernie hasn’t been carrying any pictures of Chairman Mao. But he did honeymoon in the Soviet Union – in 1988! – and in the 1960s he spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz run by a pro-Soviet group (Noam Chomsky called them “split between Stalinist and Trotskyite”). So that disparagement of Mao might be a little too close for comfort. Not to mention the skepticism about radical solutions and changing the Constitution. In fact, as he moves to a national campaign, maybe he should add a few songs from the American Revolution.

Posted on February 9, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses Ted Cruz as a libertarian on KHOW’s The Ross Kaminsky Show

Posted on February 9, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

“The Libertarian Mind” in the New York Times

The writer Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, cites The Libertarian Mind in a New York Times column today, about the difficulty of being a “disenfranchised…socially progressive economic conservative.” Shriver writes:

Yet whether it’s “leftist” or “rightist,” my catechism is consistent. The rubric to which those positions hew — we should be free to do whatever doesn’t impinge on the rights of others — forms the conceptual backbone of the United States. The Constitution is libertarian. To the extent that the unamended Constitution was flawed, it was more rigorous application of libertarian principles that would have abolish slavery and granted women’s suffrage. Libertarians were way ahead of the pack on decriminalizing homosexuality.

We can at least thank Rand Paul for nominally refurbishing libertarianism so that it is halfway respectable. But the real mystery is why American libertarianism was ever marginalized (and why they marginalized themselves). David Boaz encapsulates the essential idea in last year’s “The Libertarian Mind”: “You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten: Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.”

Shriver goes on to endorse seatbelt and helmet laws, a higher minimum wage, gun control, and socialized medicine, a useful reminder to us more ideological sorts that even intelligent, well-informed voters don’t always fit into neat categories. But she does complain about being “repeatedly forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” And she says:

Voters like me — who believe that environmental quality, health and safety, and security needn’t be purchased at the cost of our liberty, and who defend the right to make our own mistakes as a crucial aspect of being human — deserve political representation.

Exactly. And that’s a point we’ve been making here at the Cato Institute since our 1981 paper on liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist perspectives right up through our recent work on “the libertarian vote.” It’s gratifying to see this additional confirmation that there are many voters out there who are “socially progressive economic conservatives,” or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or indeed broadly libertarian.

Posted on February 9, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cruz Makes Play for Libertarian Voters. Is Anybody Game?

As he moved from evangelical Iowa to fiscally conservative New Hampshire, Sen. Ted Cruz didn’t waste a minute in changing his tune.

In his Iowa victory speech Cruz gave a shout-out to libertarians, who are thick on the ground in New Hampshire. He declared, “That old Reagan coalition is coming back together, … conservatives and evangelicals and libertarian and Reagan Democrats all coming together as one, and that terrifies Washington, D.C.”

One friend asked on Twitter, “When was the last time a presidential candidate even mentioned the word #libertarian?” Well, Rand Paul and Ron Paul did, of course, and Republican-turned-Libertarian Gary Johnson. And so did Ronald Reagan, who said in various speeches just before he launched his 1976 campaign that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” And so indeed did Barack Obama, once, in libertarian-leaning Wyoming in March 2008: “You can be liberal and a libertarian, or a conservative libertarian,” he told a crowd in Casper. But “there’s nothing conservative” about President George W. Bush’s antiterror policies. “There’s nothing Republican about that. Everybody should be outraged by that.”

Get beyond economics and some constitutional issues, and Cruz’s record is far less libertarian.

Still, libertarians are pleased when a candidate appeals to them by name. And with Sen. Rand Paul out of the race, the libertarian vote doesn’t have an obvious home.

That libertarian vote is bigger than Paul’s 5 percent in the Iowa caucuses. David Kirby and I found that 13 to 15 percent of American voters hold libertarian values on a range of questions. In three separate analyses Kirby found that libertarian strength among Republican voters had risen to between 34 and 41 percent by 2012. Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul, garnered 21 percent in the Iowa caucuses and 23 percent in New Hampshire, not far off that mark.

That’s why Cruz is now lowering the volume on social issues and trying to sound like Rand Paul. CNN reports, “Gone Wednesday morning was the vow to investigate Planned Parenthood. In was [Rand Paul’s] punchline about the White House tapping your cell phone.” He’s talking about the Fourth Amendment, eminent domain, and auditing the Federal Reserve. He’s downplaying the social issues that he emphasized in Iowa. (Maybe he’ll bring them back next week in South Carolina.)

But will libertarians buy it?

Cruz’s appeal to libertarians rests on his apparently strong commitment to free-market economics and the limited federal government established by the Constitution. He name-drops economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who are idolized in liberty circles. He filibusters against Obamacare, albeit without a coherent game plan. Just this week he introduced a bill to reinstate school choice in the District of Columbia. Compared with far less ideological establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, or the megalomaniacal Donald Trump, he’s got an advantage.

Iowa gave Cruz one big selling point with libertarians. The Wall Street Journal exulted that he was the first candidate to win the caucuses without supporting the federal ethanol mandate. The ethanol industry and popular governor Terry Branstad spent millions to stop Cruz. Libertarians reveled in the victory over corporate welfare. As was once said of Grover Cleveland, they love him most for the enemies he has made.

Cruz talks a lot about his commitment to the Constitution and the constraints it places on government. He memorized and recited the Constitution as a teenager. His campaign website says, “Ted Cruz has spent a lifetime fighting to defend the Constitution [which] was crafted by our founding fathers to act as chains to bind the mischief of government and to protect the liberties endowed to us by our Creator.” Words to warm a libertarian heart.

Even there, though, a closer examination gives libertarians pause. Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute and Damon Root of Reason have pointed out that Cruz seems not to understand “the proper role of the courts in limiting legislative and executive excesses, federal, state, and local.” In both the seminal Lochner case of 1905 and the gay marriage case of 2015, Cruz has insisted that the Supreme Court defer to state legislative decisions rather than uphold individual rights.

Get beyond economics and some constitutional issues, and Cruz’s record is far less libertarian.

Take foreign policy. Cruz has tried to position himself between Republican uber-hawks such as Sens. John McCain and Rubio, and the non-interventionist positions of Rand Paul. He has questioned nation-building and the toppling of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. And the who has called gays “perverted,” “degenerate,” “spiritually darkened” and “frankly very sick people,” to campaign for him.

The night before the caucuses, making his final pitch to Iowans, Cruz brought Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson with him to Iowa City, and Robertson told the crowd that same-sex marriage “is evil. It’s wicked. It’s sinful….We have to run this bunch out of Washington, D.C. We have to rid the earth of them.” In November Cruz appeared at a “religious liberties” conference organized by pastor Kevin P. Swanson, who railed at the conference, as he had said many times before, “YES! Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. YES! Romans Chapter 1, Verse 32, the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death….And I am willing to go to jail for standing on the truth of the word of God.”

Those are not alliances likely to appeal to libertarians, not to mention moderates, independents, swing voters, soccer moms, or anyone who wants a president with a modicum of judgment.

Ron Paul supporters and other libertarian-leaning voters may swoon when Cruz says, “There are a whole bunch of areas that the federal government has no business sticking its nose in. I will fight every day for you, for your freedom, for your right to run a small business, for economic growth and for keeping government the heck off your back.” But if they look more closely, he’s going to have some awkward conversations.

Posted on February 8, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses Donald Trump’s Iowa results and conservatism on Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Between the Lines

Posted on February 4, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Rand Paul Would Have Enlarged GOP Tent

Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign has ended, like most presidential campaigns, short of the White House. The Republican debate will be poorer without him.

Polls show substantial support for libertarian ideas in the Republican Party. Gallup found that libertarian strength in the GOP had risen from 15% in 2002 to 34% in 2012. In two surveys in 2012 and 2013, David Kirby, then at FreedomWorks, found libertarians were 35% or 41% of the party.

Paul obviously didn’t capture that vote. The senator of Kentucky had trouble triangulating between his own strongly libertarian views and what he thought Republican voters, especially in evangelical Iowa, wanted. The rise of the Islamic State terrorist group and its bloody videos in the summer of 2014 made it more difficult to sell non-interventionist ideas on foreign policy. Donald Trump and Ted Cruzin different ways appealed to the angrier and more conservative-leaning segment of libertarians. And despite a news media perception that libertarians draw heavy support from billionaires, Paul attracted few of the seven-figure donations that flowed to Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton.

Republicans didn’t just lose a presidential candidate. They lost a chance to revive the party.

Both in the Senate and in the presidential race, Paul brought new ideas and a fresh perspective to the Republican debate. Most of the GOP candidates are just 50 shades of Reagan-Bush. Neoconservative, social conservative, establishment conservative — they all stayed in a pretty narrow lane on most issues.

Paul brought something new to the table. He said he wanted to “defend the whole Bill of Rights,” not just the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. He pushed Republicans to question the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden. He joined Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to reform excessive prison sentences, which led to a bill introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and others that could well pass the Senate this spring.

On conservative talk shows and in front of all-white audiences, Paul repeatedly spoke like this: “There are many people in our country, particularly minorities, who aren’t being treated fairly. They’re not getting due process. They’re not getting a speedy trial. I think if we showed equal deference and love for the Fifth Amendment and the Sixth Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment, the right to privacy, all of a sudden, there’s a whole new group of people, young kids, college kids, African Americans — who are going to say, ‘You know what? That’s the party I want to belong to.’”

In his first Senate campaign in Kentucky, in 2010, he opposed the USA Patriot Act, saying that “America can successfully protect itself against potential terrorists without sacrificing civil liberties.” He drew cheers on the presidential campaign trail for declaring, “What you do on your cellphone is none of (the government’s) damn business.” He filibustered against the potential use of drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens in America, and again to block extension of the Patriot Act.

In his statement withdrawing from the presidential race, he said, “Big Government threatens Americans from all walks of life,” not just businesses and workers but also “the teenager from a poor family facing jail time for marijuana.” No other candidate in either party spent so much time talking about civil liberties issues.

On foreign policy, while the other candidates tried to top one another with uber-hawkishness — Trump’s “bomb the s—- out of them,” Cruz’s gleam at seeing whether “sand can glow in the dark,” Rubio’s proposal to send U.S. troops into yet another country — Paul cautioned that interventionism hadn’t worked very well in recent decades.

Perhaps unfortunately for his campaign, he blurred his message by denouncing President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and calling for a declaration of war against ISIL. But as the conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out, the senator eschewed the flat-out non-interventionism of his father for a sort of Fabian realism: “Paul often offers rhetorical hostility instead of sanctions, sanctions instead of conflict, and limited constitutionally authorized conflict instead of open-ended war.”

With Paul gone from the presidential race, so is the voice for realism and prudence in foreign policy. So is a passionate voice on criminal justice reform and overcriminalization.

And that revived Republican Party that Paul talked about, the one that “a whole new group of people, young kids, college kids, African Americans” might “want to belong to”? Well, between Trump’s immigrant-bashing and Cruz’s embrace of anti-gay hysteria, that has gone too, at least for this year.

The good news for libertarian-leaning voters — and for anyone who cares about out-of-control federal spending, the Bill of Rights, mass incarceration, mass surveillance or wars without end — is that Rand Paul is still a U.S. senator and likely to win another term this fall.

The White House’s loss will be the Senate’s gain. And, hopefully, America’s gain, as Paul continues his effort to rally Americans on these issues and to work with senators of both parties to make progress toward smaller government and more liberty.

Posted on February 3, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz’s article “Conservatives against Trump” is cited on WBUR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Posted on January 26, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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