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

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

Obama’s shock doctrine

On the economy, Obama is trying to scare the American people in order to ram through a progressive agenda

"Profound economic emergency," the president says. Failure to pass his spending plan could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". Any delay will mean "paralysis" and "disaster". It's all out of the "shock doctrine" playbook: scare people to death and then demand that your agenda be enacted without delay.

Naomi Klein made waves two years ago with her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she claimed that conservative governments use crises to ram through free-market policies. As she put it in an interview: "The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call 'economic shock therapy' rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn't get through if people weren't in a state of fear and panic."

And that's just what we're seeing today only in reverse.

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?

No.

It did what governments actually do in a crisis it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is "an opportunity for us". After all, he said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before" such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That's just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think. "Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters," Klein wrote. "Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas." But that is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. For instance, the Centre for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President-elect Obama's transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

Paul Krugman, the Bush-bashing New York Times columnist, endorsed Emanuel's enthusiasm: "Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal healthcare system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come."

Arianna Huffington had called Klein's book "prophetic". As the Obama team began drawing up plans, she proved just how right she was, declaring: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on healthcare, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected."

None of this should surprise us. It's crazy to think that most governments will respond to a crisis by reducing their own powers and deregulating the economy, as Klein would have us believe. Political leaders naturally respond to crisis by riding in as the man on the white horse and taking control.

As Rick Perlstein, liberal historian, wrote: "The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood [that a crisis is the best opportunity to make radical change]. Franklin D Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his first hundred days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism and our concentration of vested interests to make change possible any other way."

Robert Higgs, the libertarian historian, is less enthusiastic. In Crisis and Leviathan, he demonstrated that government growth in the US has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises.

Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms, such as the economic reforms in Britain and New Zealand in response to deteriorating economic conditions. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Barack Obama,Books,Democrats,Global recession,Obama administration,Republicans,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US economy,US politics,World news

Liberalism is good for you

It offers more hope for peace, prosperity and freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds than the alternatives on offer.

Al Bawaba, the biggest news portal in the Middle East, has launched a new liberal blog, Mudawwanat Al Hurriyya (Blog of Liberty), in conjunction with the libertarian website The Lamp of Liberty, Misbahalhurriyya.org,

Bloggers will be from the Arab world and beyond. The Lamp of Liberty is produced by my colleagues at the Cato Institute, so some of the blog items will be translated from Cato@Liberty.

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Blogging,Race issues,The Guardian,World news

David Boaz: In Obama’s economic stimulus push, we’re seeing Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine in reverse

On the economy, Obama is trying to scare the American people in order to ram through a progressive agenda

"Profound economic emergency," the president says. Failure to pass his spending plan could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". Any delay will mean "paralysis" and "disaster". It's all out of the "shock doctrine" playbook: scare people to death and then demand that your agenda be enacted without delay.

Naomi Klein made waves two years ago with her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she claimed that conservative governments use crises to ram through free-market policies. As she put it in an interview: "The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call 'economic shock therapy' – rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn't get through if people weren't in a state of fear and panic."

And that's just what we're seeing today – only in reverse.

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more – all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?

No.

It did what governments actually do in a crisis – it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is "an opportunity for us". After all, he said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before" such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That's just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think. "Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters," Klein wrote. "Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas." But that is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. For instance, the Centre for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President-elect Obama's transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

Paul Krugman, the Bush-bashing New York Times columnist, endorsed Emanuel's enthusiasm: "Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal healthcare system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come."

Arianna Huffington had called Klein's book "prophetic". As the Obama team began drawing up plans, she proved just how right she was, declaring: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on healthcare, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected."

None of this should surprise us. It's crazy to think that most governments will respond to a crisis by reducing their own powers and deregulating the economy, as Klein would have us believe. Political leaders naturally respond to crisis by riding in as the man on the white horse and taking control.

As Rick Perlstein, liberal historian, wrote: "The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood [that a crisis is the best opportunity to make radical change]. Franklin D Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his first hundred days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points – our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism and our concentration of vested interests – to make change possible any other way."

Robert Higgs, the libertarian historian, is less enthusiastic. In Crisis and Leviathan, he demonstrated that government growth in the US has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises.

Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms, such as the economic reforms in Britain and New Zealand in response to deteriorating economic conditions. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.


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Posted on February 12, 2009  Posted to Barack Obama,Books,Comment,Comment is free,Democrats,Global recession,guardian.co.uk,Obama administration,Republicans,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US economy,US politics,World news

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.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90% income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we're progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

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."

That's a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it's not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking and fatty foods is that we're adults; that we're endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we "read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill."


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Posted on October 15, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,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."

Chinese students are forced to learn the official ideology - or, I should say, they are forced to sit in classes where the official ideology is expounded - few of them seem to be listening any more. And yet, students say, it's still hard to find anyone who will openly criticize communism - partly because it's still very helpful to be a member of the Communist Party and partly because it's dangerous to criticize the official ideology of an authoritarian government.

Fortunately, just as China's Marxists begin to deal with their terminal despair at the decline of Mao's Good Old Cause, a couple of "veteran Vermont activists" are riding to the rescue. Ellen David-Friedman and Stuart Friedman--she's a self-described Marxist, an organizer for the Vermont teachers' union, and vice-chair of the Progressive Party, he's a clinical social worker at Central Vermont Hospital--are leaving their jobs in the People's Republic of Vermont to teach the Chinese about the horrors of capitalism. Communist Party apparatchiks and overseers at Guangzhou University have never attempted to censor her or Stuart's teaching, David-Friedman tells the Vermont weekly Seven Days. "We can say anything we want to in the classroom," she notes - perhaps because these radicals are in fact teaching the official ideology, and it's so hard to find people who want to do that these days!

Communism is always such a disappointment in practice. You'd think by now even romantic communists would have given up on it. But no--neither the activists nor the Seven Days reporter is ready for that:

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.

The LA Times concludes,

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."

That sounds a lot like the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel's 1971 book Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun. Has the liberal-capitalist revolution begun in China?


guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted on July 5, 2007  Posted to Asia Pacific,China,Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Politics,The Guardian,Vermont,World news

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.

And I concluded: "No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of."

The book is about the American libertarian movement, which will obviously reduce its appeal on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's a fine work of political history.


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Posted on April 3, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Newspapers & magazines,The Guardian,World news

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