What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader )

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening — nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts — but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

Posted on May 17, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Int'l Economics & Development,Law & Legal Issues,Libertarian Philosophy

Barney Frank, the Occasional Libertarian

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, gave a resoundingly libertarian interview to NPR’s “All Things Considered” Friday evening. Frank has introduced a bill to repeal last year’s ban on online gambling. As he did in this 2003 Cato Policy Forum, he made his argument in libertarian terms. From the Nexis transcript:

ROBERT SIEGEL: First of all, what is your motive here Is it libertarian Is it to achieve more revenues for the government by taxing activity What is it

Rep. FRANK: It’s libertarian. I am appalled at the notion that the government tells adults that they cannot do certain things with their own money on their own time in ways that do not harm anybody else because other people disapproved of them. …

But my motive is overwhelmingly that I just don’t want to see the government telling people what to do….

SIEGEL: How much money would taxing Internet gambling bring in to the federal government

Rep. FRANK: Well, in the bill I am - not a lot - I really want to make it very clear, that’s not my major focal point here. Potentially this could be a useful source of revenue just like any other business. But I do want to stress, my main motivation here is that I do think I should mind my own business and I want to deal with the environment, and I want to deal with economic problems, and I want to deal with poverty and all these other things. But I spend a lot of energy trying to protect people from other people. I have none left for protecting people from themselves.

In between those segments, Frank said that we allow lots of things over the Internet–like wine sales–that are appropriate for adults but not for children. And he said that conservatives want to ban things they think are immoral, and liberals want to ban things they think are “just tacky.”

It’s good to hear an elected official use the word libertarian, and use it correctly, and apply it to issues. Would that more of his colleagues would do so. I’m reminded that seven years ago I did a libertarian rating of Congress. Frank did better than most Democrats, and indeed better than most Republicans (including 7 of the 11 members of the Republican Liberty Caucus Advisory Board). But he voted to restrict steel imports, restrict gun sales and gun shows, and implement the restrictive “Know Your Customer” bank regulations, and he opposed a tax cut. So his commitment to not telling what people to do with their own lives and their own money seems limited.

This year, as Financial Services chairman, he’s demonstrating his interventionist tendencies as well as his sometime libertarian instincts. He wants to push all workers into government health care, to regulate corporate decisions about executive compensation, to put more obstacles in the way of free trade across national borders, to keep Wal-Mart from creating an internal bank clearinghouse to hold down its costs. Not to mention expanding anti-discrimination rules to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Frank told another journalist:

“In a number of areas, I am a libertarian,” Frank said. “I think that John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a great statement, and I was just rereading it.

“I believe that people should be allowed to read and gamble and ride motorcycles and do a lot of things that other people might not want to let them do.”

Would that the Republicans who once took Congress on the promise of “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money” also reread (or read) “On Liberty” and take its message to heart. And would that Barney Frank come to realize that adults should also be free to spend the money they earn as they choose and to decide what contracts, with foreign businesses or local job applicants, they will enter into.

Posted on April 30, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

Libertarian Radicals

At the new Encyclopedia Britannica blog I ask whether Brian Doherty, in his Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, can have it both ways:

Doherty makes two claims about libertarianism that may seem to be in tension: First, as the title proclaims:”The most significant thing about libertarianism, the element that distinguishes its unique place in modern American thought, is that it is radical. It takes insights about justice and order and the fight between liberty and power farther and deeper than most standard American liberals, patriots, or Jeffersonians.”

But he also says:

“Libertarians can believe, with some justification, that we are in some sense already living in their world….We are not living in Karl Marx’s world….We live in a world energized and shaped by the beliefs of Marx’s political-economic rivals and enemies–the classical liberals, the thinkers who believed a harmony of interests is manifest in unrestricted markets, that free trade can prevent war and make us all richer, that decentralized private property ownership helps create a spontaneous order of rich variety.”

I think he can. And while you’re at the Britannica site, check out my entry on libertarianism.

Posted on April 25, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Libertarian Philosophy

Hillary Didn’t Invent Community

In an article on a pleasant suburban community near Washington, Roxanne Sweeney says, “It’s like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” praising the neighborhood’s friendliness and strong community ties. Later, reporter Rebecca Kahlenberg writes,

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn’t feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

“I can’t even count how many meals were brought to me,” Sweeney said. “I hate this line because I’m not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place.”

No, Ms. Sweeney! Friendship and community were not invented by Hillary Clinton. As the reference to “Leave It to Beaver” suggests, such ties go back long before Senator Clinton put her name on the book “It Takes a Village.” And long before “Leave It to Beaver.” Family, parish, and village are natural connections that predate not just Clinton but government and even formal social organization. They are the first building blocks of civil society. Clinton’s contribution to the topic is to confuse the natural ties of love and neighborliness with the artificial and imposed order of a vast and distant federal government.

As I wrote in a recent article and in Libertarianism: A Primer, Hillary calls for a national consensus and a common vision of what the government should do for families. But there can be no such common consensus in a pluralistic society. People don’t agree about all the values involved in rearing children, helping others, worshiping God, and forming associations. That’s why a successful society leaves such choices to individuals. Even in the little community of River Falls, it isn’t a formal community organization that came to Roxanne Sweeney’s aid. It was her friends.

At so many points in our lives, it takes friends, it takes a village, but it doesn’t take the federal government.

Posted on April 1, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

NYT Clueless on Libertarianism

In Sunday’s New York Times, Times economics columnist David Leonhardt reviews Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

It might have made sense to get a libertarian, or someone familiar with the libertarian movement, or a political historian to write the review. Instead, the Times turned to someone who knows something about economics. Since the Times is the most important book review venue in the country, it’s worth taking a close look at Leonhardt’s complaints.

The first half of the review retells the story of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, which is fine. It’s an interesting story, though it’s probably the part of the book most likely to be already familiar to Times readers. After the Randian opening, Leonhardt writes:

The story of the American libertarian movement, like the story of its most famous salon, has been a combination of small numbers and big influence. It has never really emerged from the fringe, for the simple reason that most Americans want their government to educate the young and care for the old. But over the last few decades, they have also grown increasingly skeptical of collectivist policies that go beyond the basics. Libertarian thinkers — Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and others — have helped foment this skepticism and then enthusiastically pointed to the alternative.

Fair enough. Most movements are small, even those that have big effects. “Fringe” is a subjective issue; if a movement produces several Nobel laureates and a chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and plays a role in such policy reforms as the end of the draft, deregulation, sharply reduced taxes, and freer trade, is it still on the fringe


Posted on March 31, 2007  Posted to Cato Publications,Cato@Liberty,General,Libertarian Philosophy


“I’m for free enterprise, but –” You can hear it coming. “I’m against all these government giveaway programs, but –” It’s a common and frustrating experience for a libertarian, hearing a ringing declaration of principle followed by a qualification that the speaker doesn’t have any intention of giving up his own subsidy, regulation, tariff, or pet project.

Years ago, when I was raising money for a free-market business group, I remember one of those letters: “I agree with everything you say. Government is too big. Subsidies and regulation are impeding the operation of our free enterprise system. But the Hawaiian sugar industry is unique.” A friend told me once that he’d persuaded his father, a dentist, to become a consistent libertarian–except on licensing for dentists. What about licensing for brain surgeons I asked. No, my friend said, I think he’s OK with letting the free market work there.

And now NPR has brought us the latest example. On the way home, my mind wandered as “All Things Considered” reported on a biodiesel refinery in Washington state. And then I heard a familiar opening line from the tech millionaire who is now the CEO of Imperium Renewables, which built the refinery.

I’m a pretty conservative guy, generally. I’ve voted Republican my whole entire life. And I’m very skeptical of the government’s role in any kind of market.

Wait for it, wait for it — you just know there’s a “but” coming.

But, in this case, there’s no other way to do it but with government support and mandates.

Turns out biodiesel is profitable with a federal tax subsidy of up to a dollar a gallon, and with the anticipation of restrictions on greenhouse gases. So a guy who’s normally “very skeptical of the government’s role” supports subsidies in this case because there’s “no other way to do it.” But that’s the whole point of markets and prices–to tell us what economic endeavors make sense. If Hawaiian sugar, or South Carolina textiles, or biodiesel fuel isn’t economically viable without subsidies, then that means it’s not the best use of our limited resources.

One of the values of a political philosophy–sometimes dismissed as “ideology” or “dogma”–is that it gives us a rule, a set of principles, for deciding such questions. We don’t have the time to look at all the data and decide what we think about every issue, and we’re certainly all subject to personal biases on the issues that touch us. There are lots of speakers I’d personally like to shut up, but if I remember that I do believe in the First Amendment, I realize I have to allow even offensive speech. I may want Amtrak to run fast trains between Washington and New York, or I may want to keep my own factory in business. But if I remember that the free-market economy produces the best results for all of us, then I will accept the outcomes of the market process.

People should think about the benefits of the whole libertarian system–free markets, free speech, freedom of religion, constitutional limits on government–whenever they’re tempted to say “I’m for freedom, but–”.

Posted on March 21, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Energy,Environment & Climate,General,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

Cock-fighting and Freedom

It’s not often that you can point to a stirring article about American liberty by a Weekly Standard editor. But Chris Caldwell’s piece in the Financial Times on cock-fighting is a fine read. Yes, cock-fighting. Presidential candidate Bill Richardson doesn’t want the legality of cock-fighting in New Mexico to burden his candidacy as he travels the length and breadth of this great land. So rather than defend New Mexico as the last bastion of American freedom, he chose to sign a law banning it to help his campaign.

Caldwell notes sadly that even the defenders of the practice hardly mentioned liberty. Instead, they mentioned the economic benefits of tourism and the alleged anti-Hispanic bias of the drive to ban a sport popular with Hispanics. The better argument, he thought, would have been liberty: some people want to attend cock-fights, and Americans have been doing so for centuries, so why should “reformers” be able to take a small pleasure away from others Caldwell deplores the decline of the general presumption of liberty:

It used to be, under the US system, that one could do anything that was not expressly forbidden. Now one is forbidden to do anything one cannot make an explicit case for. The burden of proof has shifted.

It’s especially sad that Bill Richardson, who is not so bad on fiscal issues and is a supporter of medical marijuana, felt that he had to take people’s freedom away for his own political gain.

Posted on March 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Civil Rights,General,Libertarian Philosophy

The Government Is Not the Country

The Washington Post reports,

“Three of the last five years, there’s been no budget for this country,” [Sen. Kent] Conrad said in an interview.

Actually, for the past 218 years, there’s been no budget for this country. The country is a vast, sprawling nation of 300 million people, millions of businesses, and more than 100 million households. The country is not a corporate entity, and it has no budget.

On the other hand, there is supposed to be a budget for the federal government, and Congress is indeed derelict in failing to pass one. But politicians should not forget the distinction between the country and the government.

Posted on March 14, 2007  Posted to Budget & Tax Policy,Cato@Liberty,General,Libertarian Philosophy

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