David Boaz, Matt Welch, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Conor Friedersdorf debate whether the “Libertarian Moment” was wishful thinking

Posted on May 2, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Napoleon and Trump, Advancing on the Capital

It is said, perhaps not reliably, that the following headlines 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

And I think about that story whenever I see articles like this one in this morning’s Washington Post:

GOP elites are now resigned to Donald Trump as their nominee

Philip Rucker writes:

An aura of inevitability is now forming around the controversial mogul. Trump smothered his opponents in six straight primaries in the Northeast and vacuumed up more delegates than even the most generous predictions foresaw. He is gaining high-profile ­endorsements by the day — a legendary Indiana basketball coach Wednesday, two House committee chairmen Thursday.

Which is not exactly the rush of support that any normal frontrunner would be getting by this point. But the article is full of Republican leaders saying things like “People are realizing that he’s the likely nominee,” and “More and more people hope he wins that nomination on the first ballot because they do not want to see a convention that explodes into total chaos.” Not exactly profiles in courage, these leaders. As Dan McLaughlin tweeted last night:

20 years from now - maybe 2 years from now - everyone in the GOP will want to say they were against Trump now.

But the stories are everywhere today: Republicans coming to accept their conquest by Trump. For a brief explanation of why they should not, I recommend Jay Cost’s tweets as captured on Storify and my own contribution to a National Review symposium in January:

From a libertarian point of view — and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule.

Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Equally troubling is his idea of the presidency—his promise that he’s the guy, the man on a white horse, who can ride into Washington, fire the stupid people, hire the best people, and fix everything. He doesn’t talk about policy or working with Congress. He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.

This is no brief for any other current presidential candidate. The major-party candidates seem as tragically un-libertarian to me as any group of candidates ever. But Trump seems dangerously uninformed, unmoored, erratic, threatening, and megalomaniacal in a way that transcends mere ideology.

Republicans like to praise the “greatest generation.” Nobody’s ever going to call the Republicans who rolled over for Donald Trump the greatest generation. Nor do they seem to be emulating their hero, Winston Churchill, who famously said:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

As Dan McLaughlin suggests, Republicans should be asking themselves, What will I say when my son asks, What did you do when Donald Trump knocked on the Republican party’s door, Daddy?

Posted on April 29, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Skim Milk and the Problem with Official Science

A new study, published in the journal Circulation, adds to growing doubts about the benefits of skim or low-fat milk, NPR reports this morning: 

“People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes” compared with people who consumed the least dairy fat, says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who is also an author of the study.

NPR reporter Allison Aubrey notes other recent studies on the possible benefits of dairy fat and then reports:

With all the new evidence that challenges the low-fat-is-best orthodoxy, Mozaffarian says it may be time to reconsider the National School Lunch Program rules, which allow only skim and low-fat milk.

“Our research indicates that the national policy should be neutral about dairy fat, until we learn more,” says Mozaffarian.

And there’s the problem for public policy. Why do we need a national policy on dairy fat? Why do we need national rules on what local schools can serve for lunch? And most specifically, since our understanding of nutrition science is always changing, why should we codify today’s understandings in law and regulation?

As I wrote a few months ago in response to a Washington Post story on the possibility that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error,

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong….

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.

Posted on April 18, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Capitalism, Global Trade, and the Reduction in Poverty and Inequality

Drawing on a new World Bank study, Washington Post columnist Charles Lane today notesa vast reduction in poverty and income inequality worldwide over the past quarter-century” – despite what you might think if you listen to Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, and other voices prominent in the media.

Specifically, the world’s Gini coefficient — the most commonly used measure of income distribution — has fallen from 0.69 in 1988 to 0.63 in 2011. (A higher Gini coefficient connotes greater inequality, up to a maximum of 1.0.)

That may seem modest until you consider that the estimate’s author, former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, thinks we may be witnessing the first period of declining global inequality since the Industrial Revolution.

Note that this hopeful figure applies to the world’s population as though every individual lived in one big country. When Milanovic assessed the distribution of income between nations, adjusted for population, the improvement was even more striking: a decline in the Gini coefficient from 0.60 in 1988 to 0.48 in 2014.

The global middle class expanded, as real income went up between 70 percent and 80 percent for those around the world who were already earning at or near the global median, including some 200 million Chinese, 90 million Indians and 30 million people each in Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil.

Those in the bottom third of the global income distribution registered real income gains between 40 percent and 70 percent, Milanovic reports. The share of the world’s population living on $1.25 or less per day — what the World Bank defines as “absolute poverty” — fell from 44 percent to 23 percent.

So maybe this is a result of all the agitation on behalf of a more moral or planned economy? No, says Lane, citing Milanovic:

Did this historic progress, with its overwhelmingly beneficial consequences for millions of the world’s humblest inhabitants, occur because everyone finally adopted “democratic socialism”? Was it due to a conscious, organized effort to construct a “moral economy” as per Vatican standards?

To the contrary: The big story after 1988 is the collapse of communism and the spread of market institutions, albeit imperfect ones, to India, China and Latin America. This was a process mightily abetted by freer flows of international trade and private capital, which were, in turn, promoted by a bipartisan succession of U.S. presidents and Congresses.

The extension of capitalism fueled economic growth, which Milanovic correctly calls “the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality.”

This is the good news about the world today. Indeed, it’s the most important news about our world. We hear so much about poverty, inequality, gaps, resource depletion, and the like, it’s a wonder any NPR listeners can bear to get out of bed in the morning. But as the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says, this is the “Great Fact,” the most important fact about our world today – the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century. And this vast increase in wealth that began in northwestern Europe, mostly Britain and the Netherlands, has now spread to most of Europe, the United States, Japan, and increasingly to the rest of the world.

Bernie Sanders is leaving tonight for the Vatican, where he’ll speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on changes in politics, economics, and culture over the past 25 years. Other speakers will include the leftist presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia. The Vatican would do better to invite Branko Milanovic and Deirdre McCloskey, who have a much better understanding of the real changes in our world than do Sanders, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales.

Economic growth has not eliminated all poverty, and it will never solve all the problems of the human heart. But understanding the enormous increase in world standards of living over the past three centuries and the past 25 years should be a starting point for any discussion of further progress. Neither the Vatican nor the American media do a good job of informing us about the Great Fact.

Posted on April 14, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

How to Get a Piece of the Taxpayers’ Money

Two articles in the same section of the Washington Post remind us of how government actually works. First, on page B1 we learn that it pays to know the mayor:

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has pitched her plan to create family homeless shelters in almost every ward of the city as an equitable way for the community to share the burden of caring for the neediest residents.

But records show that most of the private properties proposed as shelter sites are owned or at least partly controlled by major donors to the mayor. And experts have calculated that the city leases­ would increase the assessed value of those properties by as much as 10 times for that small group of landowners and developers.

Then on B5 an obituary for Martin O. Sabo, who was chairman of the House Budget Committee and a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, reminds us of how federal tax dollars get allocated:

Politicians praised Mr. Sabo, a Norwegian Lutheran, for his understated manner and ability to deliver millions of dollars to the Twin Cities for road and housing projects, including the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail line and the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center.

Gov. Mark Dayton (D) said Minnesota has important infrastructure projects because of Mr. Sabo’s senior position on the House Appropriations Committee.

We all know the civics book story of how laws get made. Congress itself explains the process to young people in slightly less catchy language than Schoolhouse Rock:

Laws begin as ideas. These ideas may come from a Representative—or from a citizen like you. Citizens who have ideas for laws can contact their Representatives to discuss their ideas. If the Representatives agree, they research the ideas and write them into bills….

When the bill reaches committee, the committee members—groups of Representatives who are experts on topics such as agriculture, education, or international relations—review, research, and revise the bill before voting on whether or not to send the bill back to the House floor.

If the committee members would like more information before deciding if the bill should be sent to the House floor, the bill is sent to a subcommittee. While in subcommittee, the bill is closely examined and expert opinions are gathered before it is sent back to the committee for approval.

When the committee has approved a bill, it is sent—or reported—to the House floor. Once reported, a bill is ready to be debated by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ah yes … an idea, from a citizen, which is then researched, and studied by experts, and debated by representatives, and closely examined and carefully considered. But it does help if you know the mayor, or if your representative has enough clout to slip goodies for his constituents into a bill – often without being researched, and studied by experts, and closely examined, and debated.

I wrote about this in The Libertarian Mind, in a chapter titled “What Big Government Is All About” – not the civics book version, but the way laws actually get made and money actually gets spent. 

Posted on April 1, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

President Obama and “President” Castro

News reports about President Obama’s visit to Cuba are regularly referring to his meeting with “Cuban President Raul Castro.” But Castro is not a president in the same sense that President Obama is. He’s not even a president in the dictionary sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “president” as “the elected head of a republican state.” Raul Castro was not elected, and Cuba is not a republic. Castro is a military dictator. That may not be a polite thing to say, but journalists are supposed to tell the truth, not worry about the feelings of the powerful. Indeed, according to the distinguished journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book The Elements of Journalism, written under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation, journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. The truth is that Raul Castro is, as Fidel Castro was, a dictator who rules with the support of the military.

Even the Wall Street Journal refers to “Cuban President Raul Castro.” I particularly regret this, because back in 2006 I called them out for their double standard on dictators, in a letter they published. They had written in an obituary note:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why, I asked, 

do you describe Gen. Alfredo Stroessner as a “military strongman” and Fidel Castro as “Cuban president” (“A Flair for Flavor,” Aug. 19)? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Mr. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Mr. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case, the armed forces were headed by Mr. Castro’s brother. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman?”

One could make the same point about Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He was formally the president, but newspapers generally referred to him as a military dictator. Pinochet ruled with an iron hand for 17 years. After 15 years he held a referendum on his rule. When he lost, he held elections and stepped down from power. That’s more than the Castro brothers have done after 57 years. 

Posted on March 21, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Reagan’s Russia Trip Should Be Obama’s Roadmap in Cuba

When staunchly anti-communist Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 — in the 64th year of Communist Party rule in Russia — no one expected that only eight years later he would end his second term by making a friendly visit to Moscow.

But he did, and what he did there should guide President Obama as he prepares to visit to Cuba — the first visit by a sitting president since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 — on steps the president can take to usher in true freedom for the Cuban people.

There’s a difference, of course: In 1980, the Soviet Union and the United States had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at one another, and Americans feared a clash between superpowers. Reagan’s main mission was to prevent those weapons from being used. We don’t face such high stakes with Cuba, but Americans do believe that people everywhere deserve to be free, and that’s a message worth presenting wherever people lack freedom.

Reagan went to Moscow to negotiate an arms control agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He could have left it at that — few Americans would have noted an absence of ideological speechmaking during a diplomatic visit. But since his televised 1964 “A Time for Choosing” address on behalf of the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, and before, Reagan had been an evangelist for human rights and economic freedom as universal values, and he didn’t want to pass up the singular opportunity to talk about those values behind the Iron Curtain. He made the decision to strengthen Soviet dissidents and vigorously advocate for the American system of free enterprise and limited government against longstanding Soviet misrepresentations.

He stopped in Finland on his way to the USSR and told a crowd in Helsinki, “There is no true international security without respect for human rights. … The greatest creative and moral force in this new world, the greatest hope for survival and success, for peace and happiness, is human freedom.”

He asked “why Soviet citizens who wish to exercise their right to emigrate should be subject to artificial quotas and arbitrary rulings. And what are we to think of the continued suppression of those who wish to practice their religious beliefs?” Obama should ask the same in Cuba.

In Moscow, Reagan met with almost 100 dissidents — “human rights activists and Jewish refuseniks, veterans of labor camps and Siberian exile and the wives and children of some still imprisoned,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He told them: “I came here to give you strength, but it is you who have strengthened me. While we press for human lives through diplomatic channels, you press with your very lives, day in and day out, year after year, risking your homes, your jobs and your all.” He reminded them “it is the individual who is always the source of economic creativity.”

Obama likewise plans to meet with Cuban dissidents, and he should seek to give them similar hope.

[pullquote]A few years after Reagan went to Moscow, the Soviet Union was history. Cubans would revere Obama if the Castro regime has a similar end.[/pullquote]

Reagan also gave a celebrated address at Moscow State University, one that compares to Obama’s speech to Chinese college students in 2009. Both presidents, both great communicators, outlined values and goals that are not just American but are, or should be, universal. But there were some clear differences in the philosophies they presented.

President Obama eloquently defended freedom in an authoritarian country: “We also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship — of access to information and political participation — we believe are universal rights.” But he missed the opportunity to emphasize the importance of freedom of enterprise, property rights and limited government as American values. Those are not only the conditions that create growth and prosperity, they are the necessary foundation for personal and political liberty.

Contrast Obama’s remarks with Reagan’s to Soviet students in 1988. Reagan extolled the values of democracy and openness, and he noted that American democracy is not a plebiscitary system but a way to ensure that the governors don’t exceed the consent of the governed: “Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.”

He tied all of these freedoms to the American commitment to economic freedom as well. Throughout the speech he tried to enlighten students, who had grown up in a communist system, about the meaning of free enterprise:

“Some people, even in my own country, look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste. What of all the entrepreneurs that fail? Well, many do, particularly the successful ones; often several times. And if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; yes, it’s what they learned from failing. … And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world.”

President Obama said some important things to the Chinese students. But his failure to note the centrality of economic freedom in the American experiment — which he also omitted in a commencement address the year before — could easily lead listeners to conclude that he cares little for economic liberty. He has a chance to dismiss that concern when he speaks to Cubans next week.

Obama might argue that China had already moved toward capitalism by the time of his visit, so it made sense that he focused on civil and political liberties. That’s not the case in Cuba, which keeps proclaiming baby steps to opening markets without much actual evidence. There, the president needs to speak directly to Cubans about human rights, political freedom, freedom of expression and the market freedoms that sustain those liberties and bring prosperity. Cuba doesn’t need a central plan for capitalism, it just needs to start lifting the restrictions on normal economic activity.

The president should take Reagan’s approach, even if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends. Cuba’s change will be gradual. But that fact doesn’t change the necessity — it makes it more imperative — for the leader of the free world to offer Cubans a way forward.

A year after Reagan’s Moscow visit and, more importantly, four years after the reformist Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe ended Soviet control. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. We don’t know how long Cuba’s transformation from autocratic state socialism to free-market democracy will take. But the Cuban people would revere Obama if the Castro regime saw a similar dissolution, and if the president’s words helped to inspire that transformation.

Posted on March 18, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Was the “Libertarian Moment” Wishful Thinking? A Debate

Less than 18 months ago, a cover story for the New York Times Magazine asked, “Has the ‘libertarian moment’ finally arrived?” From public suspicion of the surveillance state, to increasing tolerance for marijuana legalization, to marriage equality, to weariness with war—the article argued that after years of intellectual work, “for perhaps the first time,” libertarianism has “genuine political momentum on its side.” However, the Rand Paul presidential campaign failed to catch fire. The two breakout candidates of the presidential campaign have been a socialist and an authoritarian. The idea of tolerance seems increasingly quaint, as Mexicans and Muslims have become the target of public frustrations. And the public seems to have forgotten its weariness with war, as the Islamic State continues its brutal terrorism. Was all this talk of the libertarian moment simply wishful thinking? Or was the libertarian moment never about politics in the first place? Join David Boaz, Matt Welch, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Conor Friedersdorf for a wide-ranging conversation on the future of libertarianism.

Posted on March 16, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz participates in the event “Carrots, Sticks and Nudges: Balancing Public Health and Personal Freedom” hosted by the Milken Institute

Posted on March 5, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Sinclair Broadcast Group

Posted on March 2, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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