Is libertarianism history?

American liberals have some shameful things in their past. But what about the conservatives?

On Sunday the New York Times ran a remarkably ill-informed reviewof Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

Over at Cato@Liberty, I responded in great detail. Noting reviewer David Leonhardt's litany of embarrassing moments in libertarian history, I argued:

If that's the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it's a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact - not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one - that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travellers.

As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I'll just say: George W Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Newspapers & magazines,The Guardian,World news

Full profile

David Boaz is the executive vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute, a non-profit-making public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington DC. He is a leading authority on US domestic issues such as education choice, drug legalisation, the growth of government, and the rise of libertarianism.

He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, described by the Los Angeles Times as "a well-researched manifesto of libertarian ideas", the editor of The Libertarian Reader, and coeditor of the Cato Handbook on Policy. His latest book is The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to The Guardian

A toast to Yeltsin

Boris was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, and deserves credit for being the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power.

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

In a way he personalises 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 criticise the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly - partly because of Yeltsin's unexpectedly radical leadership.

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent "Yugoslav scenario" and allow the Soviet Union's 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Europe,Russia,The Guardian

American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies?

We Americans know that the head of state in a monarchy is an inherited position. But we rebelled against that system and created a republic, in which men (and later women) would be chosen to lead the republic on the basis of their own accomplishments, not their family ties. Sure, we had the Adamses, and we may well be fortunate that neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson had a son. And there are other dynasties, often combined to one state, like the Longs of Louisiana and the Breckinridges of Kentucky. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen is the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating back to the 18th century. One of his ancestors inspired the classic campaign song, "Hurrah, hurrah, the country's risin'/For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!"

And today, of course, we face the prospect of replacing the son of a president in the White House with the wife of a president. We may have 24 or more years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. One leading Republican strategist has recommended that Florida governor Jeb Bush run for president this year, on the grounds in this of all years he won't lose points for being a dynastic candidate: what are they going to say, "don't vote for the president's brother, vote for the other president's wife instead"?

Lynne Cheney, whose husband served as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming vice president; state house majority floor leader Colin Simpson, the son of former senator Alan Simpson; and two of Thomas's three sons, Greg and Patrick.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to The Guardian,United States

Asking too much of DNA

Genes can't tell us if US president James Madison fathered a child with a slave.

Several years ago newspapers reported that a study of DNA proved that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Now some African-Americans want a genetic history to prove that they are descended from James Madison, the father of the US constitution. But DNA can't prove what they want.

The Washington Post reports that Bettye Kearse, an African-American physician, wants to confirm her family's oral tradition that they are direct descendants of Madison. This past weekend she attended the Montpelier slave descendants reunion at the fourth president's mansion. "Working with Bruce Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories," Kearse wants to:

compare the Y chromosomes - which are identical across generations - of male descendants in Madison's family to the Y chromosomes of some of Kearse's male cousins. Jackson and Kearse have been searching for Madison relatives in England but recently located a descendant of one of Madison's brothers in North Carolina.

begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse says was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father. The child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison's child, whom she named James Madison.

Jackson, speaking to attendees Saturday about how genetic research is conducted, noted that if Kearse's claim proves correct, it would mean Madison's only living direct descendants are African American.

A more accurate headline, of course, would have been "A Jefferson - not necessarily Thomas Jefferson - fathered" Sally Hemings' youngest child.) The article on the DNA test results was accompanied by an article "Founding father," co-authored by Professor [Joseph] Ellis, which proclaimed that the DNA analysis "confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children."

Jefferson's place in American history - his central role in our nation's founding and the evolution of its system of government - justly derives from his ideas. As I see it, genealogy is irrelevant: the true "children" of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His lasting legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Genetics,Human rights,The Guardian

Is America’s nanny state growing?

Despite bans on smoking and trans-fats, we're not necessarily less free.

In the Washington Post, Anita Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I've thought a lot about in discussions of our growing "nanny state":

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines... . It is true that in 1960 US automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under "blue laws," most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. "People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed." Plus, "the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves."

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Politics,The Guardian,World news

Taking Marxism to China

Vermont socialists are trying to revive socialism in formerly communist China

Marxism is a bore in China, but tie-dyed American socialists are trying to revive it. Apparently it's easier to believe in socialism if you haven't actually tried to live under it.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

It isn't easy teaching Marxism in China these days.

"It's a big challenge," acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than "Das Kapital." The students say he isn't the problem.

"It's not the teacher," said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. "No matter who teaches this class, it's always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts."

Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: "In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution."

China's communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party "has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers," she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world's largest country back on the track toward socialism.

Talking over tea at the Education Ministry's modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today's students.

"They don't believe in God or communism," he said. "They're practical. They only worship the money."

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Asia Pacific,China,Politics,The Guardian,Vermont,World news

This perfect book

Ira Levin should be remembered for his dystopian novel This Perfect Day, which ranks alongside Brave New World and 1984

Ira Levin - who died this week at the age of 78 - was known for his bestselling novels Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, all of which became successful movies. But another of his novels, This Perfect Day, deserves to be better known than it is. Indeed, given its tight plot about a revolt against an all-providing world government, I don't know why it hasn't gained the attention of Hollywood. As libertarian historian Ralph Raico wrote in The American Enterprise back in 1998:

This Perfect Day belongs to the genre of "dystopian" or anti-utopian novels, like Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. Yet it is more satisfying than either. Not only is its futuristic technology more plausible (computers, of course), but the extrapolation of the dominant ideology of the end of the 20th century is entirely convincing.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to The Guardian

Investment returns

America shouldn't try to correct its record-high trade imbalance with China by rushing to increase exports

As US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson meets in Beijing with Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi to discuss the US-China trade balance, the US commerce department has just released its monthly report on the widening trade deficit. Journalists report this in hand-wringing terms that consistently reflect little understanding of real economics. "Oh no, imports from China are up," blares my radio. "The only solution is to increase American exports to China."

And that's supposed to be the free-trade position, a counter to the argument for tariffs or other coercive measures to prevent China from forcing its products on innocent American consumers. (I'm omitting the safety and health problems with Chinese products for now, as we heard the same economic complaints when Japan was the biggest non-white exporter to the US. Somehow we've never worried so much about imports from Canada, the UK and Germany.)

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Asia Pacific,Business,China,International trade,The Guardian,US economy

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.

McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Foreign Policy,John McCain,Mike Huckabee,The Guardian,United States

About David Boaz

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