David Boaz discusses Gary Johnson, and the future of libertarianism on a Washington Examiner produced video

Posted on September 2, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

How Liberal Courts Help Conservatives States Stay Free

A new study says that New Hampshire is the freest state in the country, followed by Alaska, Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Dakota.

New York is the least free state by a large margin, followed by California, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Maryland.

For some readers, the immediate reaction will be that conservative states get the highest ratings and liberal states the lowest. That’s not quite true: New Hampshire and Alaska are generally regarded as libertarian-leaning more than conservative, and very conservative states such as Alabama and Mississippi score pretty far down.

It’s not that the study focuses just on economic freedom, as some analyses do. The “Freedom in the 50 States” report by political scientists William Ruger and Jason Sorens, just published by the Cato Institute, where I work, covers both economic and personal freedom, from taxes and regulation to imprisonment rates, gay marriage, and marijuana.

Maybe if the Supreme Court took economic liberties as seriously as personal freedom, the big Eastern and Western states would once again be the wide-open, fast-growing places they were when they got big and prosperous in the first place.

Those of us in cosmopolitan coastal states may still wonder if places like Oklahoma and Indiana are where we’d find the personal and economic freedom we crave.

Here’s one explanation: The federal courts prevent conservative states from taking away a lot of the freedoms they’d like to, while they’re much more tolerant of intrusions on freedom found in liberal states.

Take Oklahoma, for instance. Its personal freedom score improved in this edition of the report because in 2014 a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. In the next edition, lots of conservative states will have better scores because of the 2015 Supreme Court decision overturning all such state laws.

Marriage bans aren’t the only thing that conservative states are prevented from doing. Another federal court found that Oklahoma’s ban on considering sharia law in judicial decisions was religious discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. In 2008 the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s law prescribing the death penalty for the rape of a child. Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Montana also had such lawsFourteen states, mostly in the South and once again including Oklahoma, had laws banning homosexual acts until the Supreme Court struck them down in 2003.

Go back another generation, and we recall the Court striking down laws requiring school segregation and banning interracial marriage.

In all these cases, federal courts, interpreting the U.S. Constitution, have prevented conservative states from denying their citizens’ individual rights. And thus those states get higher scores on the “Freedom in the 50 States” ranking.

Courts have been less likely to find that intrusions on freedom by liberal states violate the Constitution. States are generally free to set their own tax and regulatory policies. In 2005 the Supreme Court notoriously declined to restrict a local government’s power to take property through eminent domain.

In two decisions, in 2008 and 2010, the Court did limit a state’s ability to impose restrictive gun control laws. The 2010 decision, striking down a law in Chicago, improved Illinois’s ranking on personal freedom. More generally, the Second Amendment and the Court’s insistence on protecting the individual right to bear arms probably prevent some liberal Democratic states from enacting gun bans.

James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, said that “independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.” Judges don’t get it right in every case, but over the years they have protected Americans’ rights and freedoms from lots of intrusions by legislatures and executives.

So take heart, my coastal cosmopolitan friends. Maybe the flyover states aren’t really more libertarian in spirit than the East and West coasts. Maybe they’ve just had their own bad ideas slapped down by the Supreme Court more often. And who knows, maybe if the Supreme Court took economic liberties as seriously as personal freedom, the big Eastern and Western states would once again be the wide-open, fast-growing places they were when they got big and prosperous in the first place.

Posted on August 19, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Remembering Boris Yeltsin’s Finest Moment

Yeltsin on tankTwenty-five years ago today I was driving back to Boston from Cape Cod. Two stories dominated the radio news that morning. Hurricane Bob was headed straight for New England, putting my return to Washington in doubt. And Russian hard-liners had staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, who was being held incommunicado in his dacha in Crimea. Eventually I got back to Washington, by a very slow train rather than by plane. The other story had more lasting consequences.

On that morning of August 19, 1991, as the coup plotters issued a declaration of a new Soviet president and seized control of Russian media, supporters of democracy gathered at the Russian parliament. And Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic, decided to go out and speak to the soldiers and people outside the parliament building. He climbed up on a tank and rallied opposition to the coup. Two days later it collapsed, and Yeltsin was a national hero. As I wrote when Yeltsin died in 2007:

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

He went on to effectively dismantle the Soviet Union and to let 14 of the Soviet republics go their own way. He set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. It was far from an ideal privatization process. But there weren’t many models for wholesale transformation of a communist economy into a market economy. As I wrote in 2007,

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

For all his mistakes, Yeltsin helped to free a continent and end the Cold War. And 25 years ago today was his finest hour.


Posted on August 19, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses vice presidential candidates on FBN’s Stossel

Posted on August 12, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Not My Commander in Chief

Hillary Clinton declares on the campaign trail, “Donald Trump simply doesn’t have the temperament to be president and commander in chief of the United States.” Thankfully, he isn’t going to be – not because of his standing in the polls, but because there is no such position as “commander in chief of the United States.”

This is a constitutional republic, and we don’t have a commander in chief. According to Article II of the Constitution, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”

That’s an important distinction, and it’s disturbing that any candidate for the presidency would miss it. Hillary Clinton may want 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 needs 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.

Much as they might both wish it, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton is going to be my commander.

Posted on August 12, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

RIP Elliot Tiber, One of the Capitalists Who Created Woodstock

Elliot Tiber has died at 81. He was an interior decorator and aspiring artist, but he became best known for his role in creating the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969 and for his books and a 2009 movie about the experience. I wrote about the book and movie Taking Woodstock in Liberty magazine in 2010. That article isn’t online, so I republish it here:

The movie Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber. I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock Festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture. 

In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, N.Y. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer. 

The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands. 

There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do. 

And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a 3-day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of activity. “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, installing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake, N.Y. 

Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.”  At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Max Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened. 

The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love – and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies (see John Nolte’s movie review at BigHollywood.com – can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary Woodstock. 

In his book Tiber also details his life split between Manhattan’s scene and his parents’ upstate struggles. He tells us that as a young gay man in the ‘60s he encountered Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, and Robert Mapplethorpe. 

Tiber writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock—a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about—was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock—and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses—would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. Taking Woodstock (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and capitalism. 

Posted on August 10, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Zoning, Grandmas, and Affordable Housing

On its front page today, the Washington Post writes about legal and regulatory obstacles to building small second housing units on single-family lots, often for aging family members.

Second homes, often called “granny flats,” have become a new front in the conflict that pits the need for more housing in the country’s most expensive cities against the wishes of neighbors who want to preserve their communities. The same battles flare over large developments that might loom over single-family neighborhoods. But even this modest idea for new housing — let homeowners build it in their own back yards — has run into not-in-my-back-yard resistance….

Homes like the Coffees’, proponents argue, could help ease housing shortages that have made $2,000-a-month one-bedrooms look like a bargain in cities such as Los Angeles. They could yield new affordable housing at no cost to the public. They could add rentals and economic diversity to more neighborhoods. And they could expand housing options for a population in which baby boomers are aging and millennials are stuck at home.

Many neighbors, though, protest that a glut of back yard building would spoil the character of neighborhoods designed around the American ideal of one family on one lot surrounded by verdant lawn. …

“You have surging housing prices in the most prosperous cities in the country, and at the same time income inequality is growing, and there’s a cultural and demographic resurgence of urban living,” [Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute] said. Young people with less money, in particular, he adds, are “slamming into their parents and grandparents’ regulatory regimes of strict limits on construction of new housing.”

It’s not the first time I’d heard of the problem. In 1996 George Liebmann wrote in Regulation about how “Zoning makes it more difficult to keep aged parents close by and care for them.” He recommended that “Duplex homes and accessory apartments should be permitted in all new residential construction. Housing options such as these allow elderly persons to live near their adult children without intruding on their children’s privacy.” (“Modernization of Zoning,” pp. 71, 75). Note that he was talking not about separate structures but simply residential units attached to the main house. And even those were impeded by zoning regulations. I mentioned them briefly in my 1997 book Libertarianism: A Primer and my 2015 update, The Libertarian Mind (p. 309).

Local officials think their zoning rules are more important than keeping families together.  They fume that allowing such small structures for grandma would “turn our zoning ordinance upside down.” And what’s more important, saving money and keeping grandma near her family or strict adherence to zoning regulations? The Post article, featuring a conflict in Los Angeles, notes the problem of NIMBY or “not in my back yard” attitudes by neighbors. And in this case, as reporter Emily Badger notes, it’s actually in your back yard. Or technically, it’s a matter of “not in my neighbor’s back yard.”

Brink Lindsey wrote about how zoning limits affordable housing in his recent paper on regressive regulation, as did Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko in Regulation.

Posted on August 8, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cato University 2016: A Libertarian History of the World (Through a New Lens)

From Cato University 2016: Summer Seminar on Political Economy

The Cato Institute’s premier educational event, this annual program brings together outstanding faculty and participants from across the country and, often, from around the globe in order to examine the roots of our commitment to liberty and limited government, and explore the ideas and values on which the American republic was founded.

Posted on July 28, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Government Unions and Dysfunctional Government

Why is government so often dysfunctional? Why is it, in contrast to the voluntary sector of society, so often slow, inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive? Peter Schuck explored the question at length recently in his book Why Government Fails So Often. Chris Edwards offers a shorter and more libertarian analysis in a recent Cato policy study. But maybe these two new stories from the past few days shed some light on the question, first from Washington, D.C.:

Metro officials fired a senior mechanic just weeks after the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident last year, alleging that he failed to properly inspect a tunnel fan, falsified an inspection report, and later lied about it to investigators.

But now, the largest union representing Metro workers is fighting the transit agency to have the mechanic reinstated.

Seyoum Haile, a 13-year Metro veteran, was terminated one month after the January 2015 incident that resulted in the death of a passenger — but arbitrators said he should be suspended instead, and now the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is suing to get him back on the job.

Meanwhile, in Miami:

National condemnation has been swift today after video showed Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black behavioral tech trying to help an autistic patient, holding his arms in the air before a North Miami Police officer shoots him. But Miami’s two most prominent police union chiefs have now leaped to the officer’s defense. 

John Rivera, who leads the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, says the officer was actually trying to protect Kinsey because he believed the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck, had a gun — but then he accidentally shot Kinsey instead. 

For more on the consequences of government employee unions, see here and here.

Posted on July 25, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Power Always Attracts Friends and Supplicants

Napoleon Trump

A month ago Politico reported:

Donald Trump is trying to win over a skeptical Republican donor class, but they’ve closed their wallets — and they’re angry.

Today the New York Times reports a different view:

G.O.P.’s Moneyed Class Finds Its Place in New Trump World

In his unlikely rise to the Republican nomination Donald J. Trump attacked lobbyists, disparaged big donors and railed against the party’s establishment. But on the shores of Lake Erie this week, beyond the glare of television cameras, the power of the permanent political class seemed virtually undisturbed.

Though Mr. Trump promises to topple Washington’s “rigged system,” the opening rounds of his party’s quadrennial meeting accentuated a more enduring maxim: Money always adapts to power.

At a downtown barbecue joint, lobbyists cheerfully passed out stickers reading “Make Lobbying Great Again” as they schmoozed on Monday with Republican ambassadors, lawmakers and executives. At a windowless bar tucked behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel, whose rooms were set aside for the party’s most generous benefactors, allies of Mr. Trump pitched a clutch of receptive party donors on contributing to a pro-Trump “super PAC.”

To be sure, a number of individual and corporate donors stayed away from the Republican convention and seem to be unwilling to support Donald Trump. Still, the reconciliation of so many principled conservatives, prudent donors, and former targets of vicious personal attacks puts me in mind, again, of the following headlines that may have appeared in a Paris newspaper, perhaps Le Moniteur Universel, in 1815 as Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and advanced through France:

March 9


March 10


March 11


March 12


March 13


March 14


March 18


He has been fortunate enough to escape his pursuers

March 19


March 20


March 21


March 22

HIS IMPERIAL AND ROYAL MAJESTY arrived yesterday evening at the Tuileries, amid the joyful acclamation of his devoted and faithful subjects

So far, those last few headlines have not been replicated, but those who wish to be near power have already begun rallying around.

Posted on July 21, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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