President Obama will address a number of critical topics in his State of the Union on January 28, and it won’t be easy to reassure the public after a rocky 2013. From never-ending budget battles to controversial NSA surveillance programs to the hemorrhaging state of Obamacare, the president’s big-government approach is floundering. These issues show that the libertarian message is more relevant than ever to federal policy debates.
Where will the ideas of freedom have the greatest impact in 2014? What role will libertarians play in shaping the debate both in Washington and across the country? David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, will discuss the state of the union from a libertarian perspective and take your questions.
Posted on January 22, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
In Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, economic historian Deirdre McCloskey writes about the “Great Fact” – the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century. Two new books help us to understand what that means.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson. She found diaries from some of her Midwestern ancestors, and Yardley notes what they tell us:
It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses — mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere — slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: “Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.” Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: “When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.”
This isn’t so long ago. Catharine Martin was the great-great-grandmother of Diane Johnson. Go back another century, and read about 18th-century life in another new book, Three Squares by Abigail Carroll:
Invited to dine with a ferryman and his family, [a 1744 traveler from Maryland to Maine] declined. He described the meal: “They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, and all. They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use.”
By the standards of the age, the ferryman’s repast was ordered: “Only about a third of the families in seventeenth-century Virginia had chairs or benches, and only one in seven had both,” writes Ms. Carroll. Only about a quarter of the early Virginian houses had tables.
And finally, I note an older book on my own Scottish ancestors, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn:
The squalor and meanness of [lowland Scottish] life around 1600 [or 1700] can hardly be conceived by a person of the twentieth century. A cluster of hovels housed the tenants and their helpers….A home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in the holes to keep out the blasts….The fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke-clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while the family lay at the other end on heather piled upon the floor….Vermin abounded…skin diseases…Infectious diseases were propagated readily.
According to scholars such as Angus Maddison and Brad DeLong, GDP per capita hardly rose for thousands, or tens of thousands, of years before the emergence of capitalism. And then after 100,000 years of stagnation (by DeLong’s estimates), around 1750 capitalism and growth began, first in Northern Europe and the American seaboard, and spreading ever since to more parts of the world. That is, the existence of relatively free markets is the reason we don’t live like my Scottish ancestors. This is indeed the Great Fact of the modern world. We should celebrate it, even as we work to extend the benefits of markets to people and nations who don’t yet enjoy as much capitalism as they should.
Posted on January 20, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
This headline appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:
The story reports that President Obama “will call on Congress to help determine the [NSA surveillance] program’s future. Which is good because Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States provides that:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.
Deciding the scope and extent of any federal surveillance powers is clearly a legislative matter. Subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution’s limits on federal powers, legislative powers are vested in Congress, not the president. How can reporters (and headline writers) write so cavalierly about the president “giving” Congress a chance to “weigh in” on matters of fundamental law? This headline should be as jarring as one reading, “Obama plans to give Supreme Court a say in fate of NSA program.” It isn’t up to the president. The legislative branch is empowered by the Constitution to make law, and the judicial branch is empowered to strike down legislative and executive actions not authorized by the Constitution. The president’s job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the rise of presidential power ‘‘was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.’’ It’s time for Congress to stop acquiescing. And for journalists to remind readers of the powers granted to presidents in the Constitution.
Posted on January 17, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
After I read the latest of Mitchell S. Rosenthal’s tirades against drug legalization in the Wall Street Journal, I must have fallen asleep and dreamed of a world in which marijuana is legal and alcohol is illegal. Not one of Coleridge’s opium-induced dreams, alas, so I didn’t wake up to write a classic poem. But I did wonder what op-ed the Journal might publish in such a world if people began to agitate for the freedom to drink alcohol. With the help of Matthew LaCorte, I discovered you wouldn’t have to change many words. I imagine it might go something like this:
Let’s Not Kid Ourselves About Alcohol
By Rose Ethel Mitchell
Booze is always good for a giggle, and that makes it hard to take alcohol seriously. The news and entertainment media couldn’t resist puns on “LAX new rules” when California started the year with legal sales of alcohol for recreational purposes. TV stations across the country featured chuckling coverage of long lines outside the state’s new state-licensed liquor shops.
Legalizing alcohol isn’t just amusing. It’s increasingly popular with legislators and the public. And why not? No matter how drunk drinkers get, they’re nowhere near as useless in society as lazy pot-heads, right? Drinkers don’t clear all the munchies off the grocery shelves or grow their hair out like hippies. But studies show that, unlike pot, alcohol leads to violence and aggression, especially with friends or partners.
A recent study found that alcohol is more dangerous than such legal drugs as cannabis and Ecstasy. We should not be raising a glass to the coming acceptance of alcohol use and dependency. Alcohol is far from safe, despite the widespread effort to make it seem benign. Drinking damages the heart, increases the incidence of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, and can trigger acute psychotic episodes. Many adults appear to be able to use alcohol with relatively little harm, but the same cannot be said of adolescents, who are about twice as likely as adults to become addicted to drinking. The new California law limits alcohol sales to people 21 or older, but making it available for recreational use normalizes it in society. The drug will be made more easily available to those under 21, and how long until the age limit is dropped to 18? Having some bubbly may enhance social interactions, but at what cost?
Adolescents are vulnerable—and not just to booze. That’s how they are programmed. They make rash and risky choices because their brains aren’t fully developed. The part of the brain that censors dumb or dangerous behavior is last to come on line (generally not before the mid-20s). Meanwhile, the brain’s pleasure-seeking structures are up and running strong by puberty. When you link adolescent pleasure-seeking and risk-taking to liquor’s impairment of perception and judgment, it isn’t surprising that a 2004 study of seriously injured drivers in Maryland found half the teens tested positive for booze.
Drinking impairs judgment—no small matter during the adolescent years—and it can do lasting harm to the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and can change mood and behavior, making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination. Long-term drinking can damage the heart, inflame the liver, increase risk of cancer, and weaken the immune system.
Most disturbing is a recent discovery about alcohol from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health which found alcohol is the third leading cause of disease around the world. The lead author wrote, “Alcohol consumption has been found to cause more than 200 different diseases and injuries.” While New Yorkers are sipping their “Long Island iced tea” or vacationers are singing about tequila, the facts show that their bodies don’t think these drinks are going down smooth.
Many experts are troubled by changing teen attitudes about drinking. Half of adolescents have already tried illegal alcohol. Teen marijuana use and cigarette smoking have declined, and their abuse of prescription painkillers has fallen off sharply, but teen imbibing continues to increase. And a shocking 15% exhibit signs of alcoholism even in their teen years. This binge of facts will only worsen with legal alcohol.
No one can say how liquor legalization will play out. A perception of legal alcohol as safe, combined with sophisticated marketing, may well double or triple drinking. Warning of aggressive promotion, alcohol-policy expert Luke Farmer, who studied potential issues of a legal alcohol market for the New York City Council, pointed out last year: “The only way to sell a lot of alcohol is to create a lot of alcoholics.”
As we learn more about the realities of legalizing recreational booze, I suspect it won’t seem so funny anymore. Remember, potheads used to be good for a laugh too. A spaced-out pothead was a staple of Hollywood comedies in the 1960s and ’70s. Smoking cigarettes was considered cool. The reality of wrecked lives and ruined health eventually changed public perceptions of these addictions. Now liquor is becoming more widely regarded as a harmless amusement. That’s not funny, it’s tragic. Drinkers may enjoy a Scotch on the rocks, but the social effects will be rocky for us all.
It’s always hard to imagine a counterfactual. I wrote once about a world in which education was provided on the free market but shoes were produced and distributed by the government, and how people would have trouble imagining how a free market in shoes would work. In this case, however, we did go through an episode of substance prohibition, followed by legalization. And despite all the real problems created by alcohol use, we decided that a liberal system created fewer social problems than Prohibition. Surely we can imagine the same with regard to marijuana.
Posted on January 14, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on January 13, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Experts tell Monica Hesse of the Washington Post that closing a few bridge lanes is pretty thin gruel as far as punishing your enemies goes. Journalism professor and scandal-culture expert Mark Feldstein scoffs, “If he’s not willing to be thinking of unauthorized wiretaps . . .”
Hesse asks, “In the grand scheme of diabolical political paybacks, how does this vision stack up?”
Take FDR, Feldstein says. During World War II, after the Chicago Tribune published news of broken Japanese codes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to order troops to take over the newspaper’s building. (He was eventually talked down from this martial plot.) The publisher was an old nemesis from prep school.
Take President Richard M. Nixon — always with Nixon — who tried to get the IRS to conduct field audits against people he perceived as political foes in the early, pre-Watergate 1970s. “It was really a matter of trying to destroy people personally” by using the governmental means available, says Joseph Cummins, the author of dirty tricks encyclopedia “Anything for a Vote.” “That was the way Nixon felt about things.”
FDR knew the rule, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” He wasn’t so squeamish when it came to retailers who defied his preferences. Sewell Avery, chairman of the big catalog company Montgomery Ward, opposed labor unions, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Roosevelt’s re-election. In 1944 Avery refused FDR’s order to extend his company’s labor contracts to avoid a strike. Roosevelt ordered the War Department to seize the offices of Montgomery Ward. Attorney General Francis Biddle flew to Chicago to oversee the army’s physical removal of Avery from his office, as the photo shows.
When Christie does that, he’ll be ready for the political big leagues.
Posted on January 9, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
The Affordable Care Act is like a big box of Christmas presents: you keep rummaging around in the peanuts and find hidden treasures. Or hidden costs, as it were. Here’s one I hadn’t heard of until today:
Office workers in search of snacks will be counting calories along with their change under new labeling regulations for vending machines included in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law.
Requiring calorie information to be displayed on roughly 5 million vending machines nationwide will help consumers make healthier choices, says the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to release final rules early next year. It estimates the cost to the vending machine industry at $25.8 million initially and $24 million per year after that, but says if just .02 percent of obese adults ate 100 fewer calories a week, the savings to the health care system would be at least that great.
The rules will apply to about 10,800 companies that operate 20 or more machines. Nearly three quarters of those companies have three or fewer employees, and their profit margin is extremely low, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Association. An initial investment of $2,400 plus $2,200 in annual costs is a lot of money for a small company that only clears a few thousand dollars a year, said Eric Dell, the group’s vice president for government affairs.
“The money that would be spent to comply with this - there’s no return on the investment,” he said.
In my experience, vending machines shuffle their offerings fairly frequently. If the machine operators have to change the calorie information displayed every time they swap potato chips for corn chips, then $2,200 seems like a conservative estimate of costs. But then, as Hillary Clinton said when it was suggested that her own health care plan would bankrupt small businesses, “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized small business in America.”
Posted on December 31, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
December 26 is the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth, typically a date of great celebration in China. But this year the Chinese government seems somewhat ambivalent about celebrating Mao’s disastrous achievements. It’s about time.
Many countries have a founding myth that inspires and sustains a national culture. We’ve just seen South Africa and the world celebrate the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the founder of that nation’s modern, multi-racial democracy. In the United States we look to the American Revolution and especially to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people.
China of course followed a different vision, the vision of Mao Zedong. Take Mao’s speech on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”
Tragically, unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning it went terribly wrong, as really should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness” in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.
When Mao died in 1976, China changed rapidly. His old comrade Deng Xiaoping, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, had learned something from the 30 years of calamity. He began to implement policies he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which looked a lot like freer markets — decollectivization and the “responsibility system” in agriculture, privatization of enterprises, international trade, liberalization of residency requirements.
The changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world—more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. On its 90th birthday, the CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. And yet the economic changes are undermining the party’s control, a challenge of which the party is well aware. Five years ago Howard W. French reported in the New York Times:
Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.
Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.
But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.
The Chinese Communist Party remains in control. But it struggles to protect its people from acquiring information, routinely battling with Google, Star TV, and other media. Howard French noted that “the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution.” People get used to making their own decisions in many areas of life and wonder why they are restricted in other ways. I am hopeful that the 100th anniversary of the CCP in 2021 will be of interest mainly to historians of China’s past and that the Chinese people will by then enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under a government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed.
Posted on December 26, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
If you’ve been reading Cato at Liberty and www.cato.org, then you already know, as the lead story in the Washington Post reported this morning, that both the constitutionality and the necessity of the NSA’s massive surveillance are in doubt:
From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.
But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.
In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.
Posted on December 20, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on December 19, 2013 Posted to Cato@Liberty