Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the fall of the Bastille, enunciated libertarian principles similar to those of the Declaration of Independence:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights… .

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression… .

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights… .

17. [P]roperty is an inviolable and sacred right.

But it also contained some dissonant notes, notably:

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation… .

6. Law is the expression of the general will.

A liberal interpretation of those clauses would stress that sovereignty is now rested in the people (like “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”), not in any individual, family, or class. But those phrases are also subject to illiberal interpretation and indeed can be traced to an illiberal provenance. The liberal Benjamin Constant blamed many of France’s ensuing problems on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often very wrongly thought to be a liberal: “By transposing into our modern age an extent of social power, of collective sovereignty, which belonged to other centuries, this sublime genius, animated by the purest love of liberty, has nevertheless furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny.” That is, Rousseau and too many other Frenchmen thought that liberty consisted in being part of a self-governing community rather than the individual right to worship, trade, speak, and “come and go as we please.”

The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals. As Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

The decisive factor which made the efforts of the Revolution toward the enhancement of individual liberty so abortive was that it created the belief that, since at last all power had been placed in the hands of the people, all safeguards against the abuse of this power had become unnecessary.

Governments could become vast, expensive, debt-ridden, intrusive, and burdensome even though they remained subject to periodic elections and largely respectful of civil and personal liberties. A century after the French Revolution Herbert Spencer worried that the divine right of kings had been replaced by “the divine right of parliaments.”

Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty

is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.

Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, reminded us of the reality of the ancien regime: 

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death on ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the horrors of the minor Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror, which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over, but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Posted on July 14, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the fall of the Bastille, enunciated libertarian principles similar to those of the Declaration of Independence:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights… .

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression… .

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights… .

17. [P]roperty is an inviolable and sacred right.

But it also contained some dissonant notes, notably:

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation… .

6. Law is the expression of the general will.

A liberal interpretation of those clauses would stress that sovereignty is now rested in the people (like “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”), not in any individual, family, or class. But those phrases are also subject to illiberal interpretation and indeed can be traced to an illiberal provenance. The liberal Benjamin Constant blamed many of France’s ensuing problems on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often very wrongly thought to be a liberal: “By transposing into our modern age an extent of social power, of collective sovereignty, which belonged to other centuries, this sublime genius, animated by the purest love of liberty, has nevertheless furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny.” That is, Rousseau and too many other Frenchmen thought that liberty consisted in being part of a self-governing community rather than the individual right to worship, trade, speak, and “come and go as we please.”

The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals. As Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

The decisive factor which made the efforts of the Revolution toward the enhancement of individual liberty so abortive was that it created the belief that, since at last all power had been placed in the hands of the people, all safeguards against the abuse of this power had become unnecessary.

Governments could become vast, expensive, debt-ridden, intrusive, and burdensome even though they remained subject to periodic elections and largely respectful of civil and personal liberties. A century after the French Revolution Herbert Spencer worried that the divine right of kings had been replaced by “the divine right of parliaments.”

Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty

is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.

Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, reminded us of the reality of the ancien regime: 

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death on ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the horrors of the minor Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror, which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over, but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Posted on July 14, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Convention Center Boondoggles

Every country wants a national airline, and every city wants a glitzy convention center to bring those free-spending conventioneers to town. But the economic analysis doesn’t hold up well in either case. A new book on convention centers should be required reading for any city council thinking of investing the taxpayers’ hard-earned money in another white elephant. This report by Don Bauder in the San Diego Reader is worth quoting at length:

Would you take advice from a gaggle of consultants whose forecasts in the past two decades have been off by 50 percent?

Of course you wouldn’t. But all around the U.S., politicians, civic planners, and particularly business executives have been following the advice of self-professed experts who invariably tell clients to build a convention center or expand an existing one.

A remarkable new book, Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, tells the amazing story of how one American city after another builds into a massive glut of convention-center space, even though the industry itself warns its centers that the resultant price-slashing will worsen current woes.

The author is Heywood Sanders, the nation’s ranking expert on convention centers, who warned of the billowing glut in a seminal study for the Brookings Institution back in 2005. In this new, heavily footnoted, 514-page book, Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas/San Antonio, exhaustively examines consultants’ forecasts in more than 50 cities.

Nashville was told its new center would result in 466,950 hotel room nights; it’s getting around 267,000 — “a little better than half [what was projected],” says Sanders in an interview. Philadelphia isn’t garnering even half the business that was promised.

“Getting half the business [that was projected] is about the norm,” says Sanders. “The actual performance is a fraction of what it is supposed to be.”

Yet, in city after city — including San Diego — self-appointed civic leaders listen to and act on these faulty forecasts. In almost all cases, mainstream media and politicians swallow the predictions whole without checking the consultants’ miserable track records….

How can convention centers get away with such legerdemain? Those in the know shut up, and the press, politicians, and public have neither the time nor the expertise to follow the prestidigitation.

How do the consultants get away with being 50 percent wrong most of the time? In my opinion — not Sanders’s — consultants in many fields are paid to provide answers that the people paying the consultants’ bills want to hear. And the people paying those bills are the business community — using taxpayers’ money, of course.

The worst news: “These expansions will keep happening,” as long as “you have a mayor who says it is free,” says Sanders.

More, much more, in the Reader and of course in the book. Free-market think tanks have been pointing out the bad economics behind convention centers – and publicly funded stadiums – for many years. 

Posted on July 9, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Convention Center Boondoggles

Every country wants a national airline, and every city wants a glitzy convention center to bring those free-spending conventioneers to town. But the economic analysis doesn’t hold up well in either case. A new book on convention centers should be required reading for any city council thinking of investing the taxpayers’ hard-earned money in another white elephant. This report by Don Bauder in the San Diego Reader is worth quoting at length:

Would you take advice from a gaggle of consultants whose forecasts in the past two decades have been off by 50 percent?

Of course you wouldn’t. But all around the U.S., politicians, civic planners, and particularly business executives have been following the advice of self-professed experts who invariably tell clients to build a convention center or expand an existing one.

A remarkable new book, Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, tells the amazing story of how one American city after another builds into a massive glut of convention-center space, even though the industry itself warns its centers that the resultant price-slashing will worsen current woes.

The author is Heywood Sanders, the nation’s ranking expert on convention centers, who warned of the billowing glut in a seminal study for the Brookings Institution back in 2005. In this new, heavily footnoted, 514-page book, Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas/San Antonio, exhaustively examines consultants’ forecasts in more than 50 cities.

Nashville was told its new center would result in 466,950 hotel room nights; it’s getting around 267,000 — “a little better than half [what was projected],” says Sanders in an interview. Philadelphia isn’t garnering even half the business that was promised.

“Getting half the business [that was projected] is about the norm,” says Sanders. “The actual performance is a fraction of what it is supposed to be.”

Yet, in city after city — including San Diego — self-appointed civic leaders listen to and act on these faulty forecasts. In almost all cases, mainstream media and politicians swallow the predictions whole without checking the consultants’ miserable track records….

How can convention centers get away with such legerdemain? Those in the know shut up, and the press, politicians, and public have neither the time nor the expertise to follow the prestidigitation.

How do the consultants get away with being 50 percent wrong most of the time? In my opinion — not Sanders’s — consultants in many fields are paid to provide answers that the people paying the consultants’ bills want to hear. And the people paying those bills are the business community — using taxpayers’ money, of course.

The worst news: “These expansions will keep happening,” as long as “you have a mayor who says it is free,” says Sanders.

More, much more, in the Reader and of course in the book. Free-market think tanks have been pointing out the bad economics behind convention centers – and publicly funded stadiums – for many years. 

Posted on July 9, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Voters: Still Invisible in New Pew Study

The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study of political ideology in America, based on 10,000 interviews early this year. That’s far bigger than most polls, so it allows more detailed examination of diverse political opinions. Indeed, the study is titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” And yet, disappointingly, it continues to try to place Americans into red and blue boxes: different groups are characterized as “consistently” liberal or conservative, or as groups that “don’t hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views.” There’s no suggestion that there might be consistent views other than contemporary liberalism and conservatism.

Take the interesting discussion of the “Young Outsiders” group: 

Young Outsiders lean Republican but do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party; in fact they tend to dislike both political parties. On many issues, from their support for environmental regulation to their liberal views on social issues, they diverge from traditional GOP orthodoxy. Yet in their support for limited government, Young Outsiders are firmly in the Republicans’ camp….

Young Outsiders share Republicans’ deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs. About three-quarters of Young Outsiders (76%) say the government can’t afford to spend more to help the needy.

However, the Young Outsiders’ generational imprint on issues like homosexuality, diversity and the environment make the Republican Party an uncomfortable fit. In views of societal acceptance of homosexuality, for instance, Young Outsiders have more liberal views than the public overall, and are much more liberal than Republicans….

The Young Outsiders today are very different, as they share the GOP base’s deep skepticism of government programs, but favor a more limited foreign policy, and hold decidedly liberal social views.

As I read this, I keep thinking there’s a word at the tip of my tongue … wait a minute … Oh, I know: The Young Outsiders hold libertarian views. Was that so hard? 

Indeed, they’re not so different from the voters that David Kirby and I identified eight years ago in “The Libertarian Vote”: 14 to 15 percent of the electorate, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, likely but not certain to vote Republican in most elections. Yet in the complete 185-page report, the Pew researchers never associate the word “libertarian” with the Young Outsiders.

Perhaps surprisingly, on page 101, they do identify a different group, the Business Conservatives, as somewhat libertarian:

Business Conservatives are traditional small-government Republicans. Overwhelming percentages think that government is almost always wasteful and it does too much better left to businesses and individuals….

Business Conservatives are more likely than other typology groups to identify as “libertarians,” though just 27% say that term describes them well. Their political values and attitudes do reflect a libertarian philosophy in some respects, though there are important differences as well….

Business Conservatives are not liberal on most social issues, but they are more progressive than Steadfast Conservatives. For instance, while nearly half of Business Conservatives (49%) oppose same-sex marriage, 58% say homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged.

That seems a somewhat less libertarian profile than the Young Outsiders, though it would be interesting to know how many Young Outsiders accept the description “libertarian.” (In a question asking “Which of these describes you well?” with “Video or computer gamer, Outdoor person, Libertarian, Religious person, and Focused on health and fitness” as the presumably non-exclusive options.) 

One strange thing about Pew’s ongoing “Political Typology” series is its mutability. Every few years the center does another huge survey and classifies Americans by ideology. But the classifications keep shifting. In 2005 you could see a few libertarian voters in the “Enterprisers” category, and other groups included Upbeats and Disaffecteds. In 2011 the Libertarians got their own category and were characterized as independents, not Republicans. Now the libertarians are invisible again, but can be ferreted out in one of the Republican groups. Either Americans wander all over the map, or Pew researchers just like a little variety.

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz made good use of the Pew poll to explore the meaning of “the political center.” He correctly points out that “the fact that people who may be classified as part of the political middle aren’t necessarily in the middle of the electorate and doesn’t mean they really are moderate in their views.” And he quotes Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, on the political middle: “It does not form a potentially coherent coalition around which some political entrepreneur might build a centrist party.” All true, partly because people may be “in the middle” between the parties because they’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal (libertarian-leaning) or because they’re fiscally liberal and socially conservative (populist or authoritarian-leaning). 

Balz adopts Pew’s language about “consistent views”: “People who didn’t fall into the polarized extremes sometimes hold views similar to those who are. They’re just not consistent about it.” But maybe they are consistent. Maybe some of the Young Outsiders and Business Conservatives think government coercion tends to be a bad way to handle both personal and economic matters. And maybe some other voters generally trust government more than individuals to manage both economic and social issues. Those aren’t inconsistent views. Indeed, one might argue that it’s the liberals and conservatives – who favor freedom in some areas of life but not others – who are the inconsistent ones.

David Kirby and I have written several studies and numerous shorter pieces on the often-overlooked libertarian voters. Much of that material is collected in the ebook The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center. More recently Kirby wrote about the rising libertarian strength in the Republican Party in this blog post, which might profitably be read in conjunction with Pew’s analysis of Business Conservatives and Young Outsiders.

By the way, based on Pew’s actual questions, which you can answer for yourself, it’s a wonder anyone comes out on the libertarian side. It is, as Matt Welch described an earlier iteration, “a festival of hoo-larious false choices.” But that’s common in polls by political scientists, which typically include a series of questions along the lines of “If people are poor, (a) the government should give them money, or (b) they should quietly accept their fate.”

Posted on July 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Voters: Still Invisible in New Pew Study

The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study of political ideology in America, based on 10,000 interviews early this year. That’s far bigger than most polls, so it allows more detailed examination of diverse political opinions. Indeed, the study is titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” And yet, disappointingly, it continues to try to place Americans into red and blue boxes: different groups are characterized as “consistently” liberal or conservative, or as groups that “don’t hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views.” There’s no suggestion that there might be consistent views other than contemporary liberalism and conservatism.

Take the interesting discussion of the “Young Outsiders” group: 

Young Outsiders lean Republican but do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party; in fact they tend to dislike both political parties. On many issues, from their support for environmental regulation to their liberal views on social issues, they diverge from traditional GOP orthodoxy. Yet in their support for limited government, Young Outsiders are firmly in the Republicans’ camp….

Young Outsiders share Republicans’ deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs. About three-quarters of Young Outsiders (76%) say the government can’t afford to spend more to help the needy.

However, the Young Outsiders’ generational imprint on issues like homosexuality, diversity and the environment make the Republican Party an uncomfortable fit. In views of societal acceptance of homosexuality, for instance, Young Outsiders have more liberal views than the public overall, and are much more liberal than Republicans….

The Young Outsiders today are very different, as they share the GOP base’s deep skepticism of government programs, but favor a more limited foreign policy, and hold decidedly liberal social views.

As I read this, I keep thinking there’s a word at the tip of my tongue … wait a minute … Oh, I know: The Young Outsiders hold libertarian views. Was that so hard? 

Indeed, they’re not so different from the voters that David Kirby and I identified eight years ago in “The Libertarian Vote”: 14 to 15 percent of the electorate, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, likely but not certain to vote Republican in most elections. Yet in the complete 185-page report, the Pew researchers never associate the word “libertarian” with the Young Outsiders.

Perhaps surprisingly, on page 101, they do identify a different group, the Business Conservatives, as somewhat libertarian:

Business Conservatives are traditional small-government Republicans. Overwhelming percentages think that government is almost always wasteful and it does too much better left to businesses and individuals….

Business Conservatives are more likely than other typology groups to identify as “libertarians,” though just 27% say that term describes them well. Their political values and attitudes do reflect a libertarian philosophy in some respects, though there are important differences as well….

Business Conservatives are not liberal on most social issues, but they are more progressive than Steadfast Conservatives. For instance, while nearly half of Business Conservatives (49%) oppose same-sex marriage, 58% say homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged.

That seems a somewhat less libertarian profile than the Young Outsiders, though it would be interesting to know how many Young Outsiders accept the description “libertarian.” (In a question asking “Which of these describes you well?” with “Video or computer gamer, Outdoor person, Libertarian, Religious person, and Focused on health and fitness” as the presumably non-exclusive options.) 

One strange thing about Pew’s ongoing “Political Typology” series is its mutability. Every few years the center does another huge survey and classifies Americans by ideology. But the classifications keep shifting. In 2005 you could see a few libertarian voters in the “Enterprisers” category, and other groups included Upbeats and Disaffecteds. In 2011 the Libertarians got their own category and were characterized as independents, not Republicans. Now the libertarians are invisible again, but can be ferreted out in one of the Republican groups. Either Americans wander all over the map, or Pew researchers just like a little variety.

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz made good use of the Pew poll to explore the meaning of “the political center.” He correctly points out that “the fact that people who may be classified as part of the political middle aren’t necessarily in the middle of the electorate and doesn’t mean they really are moderate in their views.” And he quotes Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, on the political middle: “It does not form a potentially coherent coalition around which some political entrepreneur might build a centrist party.” All true, partly because people may be “in the middle” between the parties because they’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal (libertarian-leaning) or because they’re fiscally liberal and socially conservative (populist or authoritarian-leaning). 

Balz adopts Pew’s language about “consistent views”: “People who didn’t fall into the polarized extremes sometimes hold views similar to those who are. They’re just not consistent about it.” But maybe they are consistent. Maybe some of the Young Outsiders and Business Conservatives think government coercion tends to be a bad way to handle both personal and economic matters. And maybe some other voters generally trust government more than individuals to manage both economic and social issues. Those aren’t inconsistent views. Indeed, one might argue that it’s the liberals and conservatives – who favor freedom in some areas of life but not others – who are the inconsistent ones.

David Kirby and I have written several studies and numerous shorter pieces on the often-overlooked libertarian voters. Much of that material is collected in the ebook The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center. More recently Kirby wrote about the rising libertarian strength in the Republican Party in this blog post, which might profitably be read in conjunction with Pew’s analysis of Business Conservatives and Young Outsiders.

By the way, based on Pew’s actual questions, which you can answer for yourself, it’s a wonder anyone comes out on the libertarian side. It is, as Matt Welch described an earlier iteration, “a festival of hoo-larious false choices.” But that’s common in polls by political scientists, which typically include a series of questions along the lines of “If people are poor, (a) the government should give them money, or (b) they should quietly accept their fate.”

Posted on July 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is There a Libertarian Center at the Supreme Court?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “The Supreme Court’s Libertarian Moment,” perhaps mostly though not entirely from Ilya Shapiro. A detailed analysis of the 2013-14 Supreme Court term in the Washington Post provides some evidence for that, if you read to the very end. In an article on the rising number of unanimous decisions this term, Robert Barnes notes at the end:

Criminal cases are often ones where the lines between the court’s liberal and conservative wings are blurred.

“There’s been a lot of talk in progressive circles about how you want to avoid taking cases to this particular Supreme Court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel with the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “One of the areas we’ve seen the Roberts court taking what might be called liberal positions are areas where there are a liberal-libertarian alliance.” [A point that two of her colleagues had made at length in the Post a few days earlier.]

Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer and former Scalia clerk who represented challengers in the recess appointments case, said there is the same gravitation on the right.

“I think one of the most interesting phenomenon we’ve seen on the court over the last 30 or 40 years is what I would call the evolution of the conservative instinct,” Francisco said. It no longer means “a thumb on the scale for the government.”

Roger Pilon explored the revival of libertarian legal thought in the Chapman Law Review last year.

Posted on July 3, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is There a Libertarian Center at the Supreme Court?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “The Supreme Court’s Libertarian Moment,” perhaps mostly though not entirely from Ilya Shapiro. A detailed analysis of the 2013-14 Supreme Court term in the Washington Post provides some evidence for that, if you read to the very end. In an article on the rising number of unanimous decisions this term, Robert Barnes notes at the end:

Criminal cases are often ones where the lines between the court’s liberal and conservative wings are blurred.

“There’s been a lot of talk in progressive circles about how you want to avoid taking cases to this particular Supreme Court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel with the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “One of the areas we’ve seen the Roberts court taking what might be called liberal positions are areas where there are a liberal-libertarian alliance.” [A point that two of her colleagues had made at length in the Post a few days earlier.]

Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer and former Scalia clerk who represented challengers in the recess appointments case, said there is the same gravitation on the right.

“I think one of the most interesting phenomenon we’ve seen on the court over the last 30 or 40 years is what I would call the evolution of the conservative instinct,” Francisco said. It no longer means “a thumb on the scale for the government.”

Roger Pilon explored the revival of libertarian legal thought in the Chapman Law Review last year.

Posted on July 3, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

RIP Christian Führer, East German Peace Activist

In the early 1980s a church in Leipzig, East Germany’s ­second-­largest ­city, began holding “peace prayers” on Monday night. Two young pastors, Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger, at the Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas Church, led the services. As Andrew Curry wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, it was a dangerous undertaking, but the church was the only place where any dissent could be cautiously expressed. “The church was the one space someone could express themselves,” Führer said. “We had a monopoly on freedom, physically and spiritually.”

Through the 1980s, as Curry reported, the Monday meetings grew. Gorbachev’s reforms gave Eastern Europeans hope. But they knew their history.

In 1953, workers in 700 East German cities declared their opposition to the Unified Socialist Party of Germany, or SED, the party that was synonymous with the East German state, and demanded the reunification of the country. Soviet soldiers fired on demonstrators, and more than 100 were killed. In the years since, all opposition movements in the Soviet bloc had met the same fate: “’53 in Germany, ’56 in Hungary, ’68 in Prague, ’89 in ­China—­that’s how communism dealt with critics,” ­Führer says. 

Suddenly in 1989, with a breach in the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria, and Solidarity winning an election in Poland, more people started showing up for peace prayers, more than the small church could hold. People started flooding out of the church and marching with candles through Leipzig. Week by week that fall, more people joined the marches – hundreds, then thousands, then 70,000, 150,000, 300,000. And then, unbelievably, the Communist Party fell, the Berlin Wall opened, and East Germans were free after more than 40 years. As a Leipzig politician told me in 2006, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.”

I was saddened to read that Christian Führer died Monday in Leipzig at 71. “Führer” is a German word meaning “leader.” Christian Führer was truly a Christian leader.

I talked about the Monday prayers and the fall of communism in this 2012 speech:

Posted on July 3, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

RIP Christian Führer, East German Peace Activist

In the early 1980s a church in Leipzig, East Germany’s ­second-­largest ­city, began holding “peace prayers” on Monday night. Two young pastors, Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger, at the Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas Church, led the services. As Andrew Curry wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, it was a dangerous undertaking, but the church was the only place where any dissent could be cautiously expressed. “The church was the one space someone could express themselves,” Führer said. “We had a monopoly on freedom, physically and spiritually.”

Through the 1980s, as Curry reported, the Monday meetings grew. Gorbachev’s reforms gave Eastern Europeans hope. But they knew their history.

In 1953, workers in 700 East German cities declared their opposition to the Unified Socialist Party of Germany, or SED, the party that was synonymous with the East German state, and demanded the reunification of the country. Soviet soldiers fired on demonstrators, and more than 100 were killed. In the years since, all opposition movements in the Soviet bloc had met the same fate: “’53 in Germany, ’56 in Hungary, ’68 in Prague, ’89 in ­China—­that’s how communism dealt with critics,” ­Führer says. 

Suddenly in 1989, with a breach in the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria, and Solidarity winning an election in Poland, more people started showing up for peace prayers, more than the small church could hold. People started flooding out of the church and marching with candles through Leipzig. Week by week that fall, more people joined the marches – hundreds, then thousands, then 70,000, 150,000, 300,000. And then, unbelievably, the Communist Party fell, the Berlin Wall opened, and East Germans were free after more than 40 years. As a Leipzig politician told me in 2006, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.”

I was saddened to read that Christian Führer died Monday in Leipzig at 71. “Führer” is a German word meaning “leader.” Christian Führer was truly a Christian leader.

I talked about the Monday prayers and the fall of communism in this 2012 speech:

Posted on July 3, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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