Cato Scholars on Vaccine Policies

David Boaz

The Cato Institute is committed to being a libertarian think tank: individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. But one thing that’s often misunderstood is that Cato as such does not take institutional positions on particular policy questions. Cato scholars speak for themselves and have the freedom to reach their own conclusions, particularly on things that are contested among libertarians.

Recently there was an example of this as two Cato scholars appeared in major media to articulate their differing views on vaccines and how to apply libertarian principles in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of our senior fellows, Todd Zywicki, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on August 6 to explain why he is suing George Mason University, where he is a law professor, over their policy requiring COVID-19 vaccination. In particular, he objects to the application of the policy to people like him who have already had and recovered from COVID, and thus already have some degree of natural immunity.

Another Cato adjunct scholar, also a George Mason law professor, Ilya Somin, appeared on MSNBC on August 11 to discuss why he sees vaccine requirements as potentially justified and preferable to other policy options. Drawing on libertarian principles, he made the case that a disease like COVID involves the potential of harm to other people. Somin pointed out that mask mandates, lockdowns, and restrictions on international travel are all much more intrusive than the relatively slight imposition of a safe and effective vaccine. There is a particularly strong libertarian case that private institutions, and even the government when acting as employer, can set policies attached to what are voluntary relationships: employees, customers, students, and the like. Florida’s recent attempt to ban private businesses such as cruise lines from adopting vaccine requirements has already suffered defeat in court and is one example of an affront to libertarian sensibilities.

In this case as on other issues, we don’t require uniformity or suppress differing views among our scholars. And any one scholar’s individual view is not necessarily “Cato’s position” on a matter. That diversity of viewpoints and intellectual freedom is part of why Cato has been able to provide an effective voice for classical liberal and libertarian ideas across the entire range of public policy issues. The standards we uphold are for intellectual rigor and solid grounding in good data, especially for work Cato publishes. Our scholars also frequently write, publish, and engage in advocacy outside of Cato, which we happily encourage. It’s that reputation for intellectual honesty and serious engagement with opposing points of view which has helped put Cato routinely near the top of rankings of America’s most influential think tanks, making a difference for freedom in state capitals, on Capitol Hill, and at the Supreme Court, where Cato’s renowned amicus program is tied with the ACLU at the top of the rankings for filing on the winning side of major policy cases.

Posted on August 13, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Nixon Shock and the Libertarians

David Boaz

On August 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon went on television and announced a three‐​part New Economic Policy supposedly intended to stop inflation and increase economic growth. By executive order he would “close the gold window,” thus preventing foreign nations from exchanging U.S. dollars for U.S. gold; impose a 10 percent surcharge on imports; and order a freeze on wages and prices. Public reaction was good, and the Dow Jones Average rose the next day. The New York Times editorialized that “we unhesitatingly applaud the boldness with which the President has moved on all economic fronts.”

The few libertarians at the time had a different reaction. Milton Friedman wrote in his Newsweek column that the price controls “will end as all previous attempts to freeze prices and wages have ended, from the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian to the present, in utter failure.” Ayn Rand gave a lecture about the program titled “The Moratorium on Brains” and denounced it in her newsletter. Alan Reynolds, now a Cato senior fellow, wrote in National Review that wage and price controls were “tyranny … necessarily selective and discriminatory” and unworkable. Murray Rothbard declared in the New York Times that on August 15 “fascism came to America” and that the promise to control prices was “a fraud and a hoax” given that it was accompanied by a tariff increase.

Some libertarians who were gathered that night at the Denver home of David and Sue Nolan decided that Nixon’s announcement was the last straw: it was time to form a new political party. In meetings over the next 10 months they created the Libertarian Party and nominated a presidential ticket. One of the attendees at the first convention, in June 1972, was Ed Clark, a free‐​market, antiwar lawyer who had decided to leave the Republican Party after Nixon’s speech. He soon became a member of the fledgling Libertarian Party and in 1980 became its most successful presidential candidate to that date.

Much has been said about the economic effects of the Nixon shock. Lew Lehrman wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, “The “Nixon Shock” was followed by a decade of one of the worst inflations of American history and the most stagnant economy since the Great Depression. The price of gold rose to $800 from $35. The purchasing power of a dollar saved in 1971 under Nixon has today fallen to 18 pennies. Nixon’s new economic policy sowed chaos for a decade.” There were intermittent gasoline shortages and lines until Ronald Reagan removed the price controls on oil. David Stockman told me in 1979, when I was new to the policy world, that closing the gold window had been the worst policy decision since he came to Washington. We’re still paying the price for the unleashing of inflation.

But I suppose there were a couple of positive outcomes from Nixon’s very bad decision: the creation of a stronger libertarian movement, and the fact that nobody has seriously proposed wage and price controls since.

Posted on August 13, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is Orban Protecting Hungary from Libertarianism?

David Boaz

Tucker Carlson spent a week in Hungary extolling the accomplishments of Viktor Orban, the proud father of “illiberal democracy.” In an earlier edition of his show, Carlson had praised Orban for not “abandoning Hungary’s young people to the hard‐​edged libertarianism of Soros and the Clinton Foundation.”

Absurd, right? George Soros and the Clinton Foundation libertarian, much less “hard‐​edged” libertarians? Hardly.

And we might just have a laugh and leave it there. But maybe there’s a deeper sense in which Carlson has a point.

Libertarianism may be regarded as a political philosophy that applies the foundational ideas of liberalism consistently, following liberal arguments to conclusions that would limit the role of government more strictly and protect individual freedom more fully than other classical liberals would. But modern liberals such as Soros and Bill Clinton share a lot of those basic ideas with libertarians.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote about the success of libertarians,

They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self‐​determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state.

In all those ways libertarians and other liberals changed the Western world and increasingly the entire world. Today libertarians, liberals such as Soros and Clinton, and conservatives such as Mitt Romney and Boris Johnson agree on such basic liberal principles as private property, markets, free trade, the rule of law, government by consent of the governed, constitutionalism, free speech, free press, religious freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, peace, and a generally free and open society. Not without plenty of arguments, of course, over the scope of government and the rights of individuals, from taxes and the welfare state to drug prohibition and war. But as Brian Doherty wrote in Radicals for Capitalism, his history of the libertarian movement, we live in a liberal world that “runs on approximately libertarian principles, with a general belief in property rights and the benefits of liberty.”

So one might say that with all the differences libertarians have with Soros⁠—who has been the target of anti‐​Semitic campaigning by Orban⁠—or with the Clinton Foundation, they are at least more liberal than Orban’s “illiberal state” modeled on the successes of Russia, China, and Turkey, a regime that is shutting down universities, taking over media, suspending parliament, chipping away at democracy, and undermining the rule of law.

And in that sense, while Soros and the Clinton Foundation are hardly libertarian, much less “hard‐​edged” libertarians, their conflict with the Orban regime does involve issues fundamental to the conflict between libertarianism and authoritarianism.

Posted on August 11, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz’s chapter in the book, El Manual Liberal, is read on the Centro Ricardo B. Salinas Pliego’s Vivir en Libertad podcast

Posted on August 5, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Federal Student Loans and Rising Tuition Costs: An Insider Speaks Up

David Boaz

We’ve been debating for three decades the question of whether federal student aid leads to higher college tuition. Now a new and well‐​placed voice has weighed in.

In 1987 then‐​Secretary of Education William J. Bennett argued that “increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.” The higher education establishment indignantly denied the claim.

But there was no doubt that tuitions were rising faster than the inflation level. And while some people insisted that federal and state aid to higher education was being cut back, that was hard to credit. Bennett pointed out in 1987 that federal student aid had risen 57 percent since 1980, while inflation had been 26 percent. A 2020 study by the Congressional Budget Office brought the numbers up to date: “Between 1995 and 2017, the balance of outstanding federal student loan debt increased more than sevenfold, from $187 billion to $1.4 trillion (in 2017 dollars).”

A 2017 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the average tuition increase associated with expansion of student loans is as much as 60 cents per dollar. That is, more federal aid to students enables colleges to raise tuition more. Salaries rise; bureaucracies expand; more courses — from “History and Analysis of Rock Music” to “Ultimate Frisbee” — are offered; dorms, dining halls, and recreational centers become more lavish. Even with all this spending, employers don’t find that new grads are well prepared for the workplace.

But now, in addition to academic studies, we have an insider’s testimony. For a new book and a lengthy Wall Street Journal article, reporter Josh Mitchell talked to Al Lord, former CEO of Sallie Mae, then the quasi‐​government enabler of federal student loans. At the time Lord viewed student debt as a good investment for families, and he made Sallie Mae the biggest student lender. But now, in retirement, he has a confession to make.

He joined the board of Penn State, and, Mitchell writes,

he had an epiphany: Colleges were incredibly inefficient businesses, and the student‐​loan program enabled them.

He was stunned to learn how big Penn State’s budget was, about $5 billion [in 2014], and how quickly it grew. (Penn State’s budget is currently $7.7 billion.)

He was also stunned to discover how much his grandchildren’s college educations were costing, as much as $75,000 a year per child. He had known that colleges were raising their prices faster than inflation, but he figured it would have to stop. But it hasn’t. “They raise them because they can, and the government facilitates it,” he told Mitchell.

“Schools were able to hike tuition since students now had expanded access to loans,” Mitchell summarizes.

Federal student loans went up. So did tuition, college budgets, and the debt that students carry for years. This system isn’t working.

Posted on July 28, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Our Deep Roots in Defending Free Speech

David Boaz

Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of a free society—and of the United States in particular. It’s also deeply embedded in the founding of the Cato Institute.


When it was founded in 1977, Cato was named for Cato’s Letters, a series of newspaper essays written in the 1720s. Why that name? Because John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who wrote under the pen name Cato after the defender of the Roman republic who refused to submit to Julius Caesar, took the ideas of great thinkers such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney and applied them to the controversies of the day. And that has always been the approach of the Cato Institute: to apply the great principles of liberty to policy and current affairs.

In any epoch, freedom of thought and expression is one of our essential liberties. Earlier this year, Cato held a virtual Young Leaders Seminar for college students, focusing on the importance of freedom of speech as a pillar of a free society and the unique threats facing free speech in the 21st century. The seminar paid special tribute to the legacy of former Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff, one of the great First Amendment defenders of the past half‐​century.

In opening that seminar, I drew on our connection to Trenchard and Gordon. I noted that the great American political historian Clinton Rossiter described Cato’s Letters as “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.” Bernard Bailyn, perhaps the most important historian of early America, wrote, “To the colonists the most important of these publicists and intellectual middlemen were those spokesmen for extreme libertarianism, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.”

Another historian of the American Founding, Forrest McDonald, points out that “free speech” was never a central political claim prior to the 1720s: “It was John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon … who first gave unreserved endorsement to free speech as being indispensable … and who were willing to extend the privilege to all, including those who disagreed with them.”

As Trenchard and Gordon wrote in Letter 15, “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech.… This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”

So, the importance of freedom of speech was in our bones even before the Cato Institute was founded. And obviously freedom of expression is essential for the work we do and, as Trenchard and Gordon wrote, for the public liberty.

We exercise our rights of free speech in books, studies, journals, and newspapers, on the radio, television, and internet, and in seminars and public speeches. We defend the right of free speech through our advocacy, as well as in the courts, on college campuses, and in our advice to legislators and policymakers.

People often complain that free speech is being violated when a newspaper refuses to run an article, a social media company bans a controversial account, a publisher cancels a book, an NFL team won’t hire a politically outspoken quarterback, or an owner shuts down a magazine after its criticisms of an elected official. We want to encourage a culture of free speech, but all these private actors are making decisions about which ideas and controversies they want to be associated with. That’s very different from government restrictions on expression. The First Amendment forbids any “law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” not editorial decisions by private companies.

Our defense of free speech must be aimed at those on both sides of the political spectrum who seek to have local, state, or federal governments ban—or compel—the expression of certain ideas. Government remains the true threat to be guarded against, and state censorship is crucially different from the decisions of private actors, however open the latter are to fair criticism. Conflating the two opens the door to the very thing free speech guards against: control of the marketplace of ideas by the government rather than free individuals and private, voluntary society.

Posted on July 19, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Who Started the Culture War?

David Boaz

Kevin Drum is a progressive blogger who was at Mother Jones until early this year. He caused a stir two weeks ago with a blog post titled “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals.” Taking issue with most of his ideological compatriots and with much of the mainstream media, he wrote, “over the past two decades Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right.…Almost by definition, liberals are the ones pushing for change while conservatives are merely responding to whatever liberals do.” He cited such “hot button social issues” as same‐​sex marriage, immigration, abortion, crime, “defund the police,” cancel culture, and wokeness. Drum stressed in a followup post that he was generally “all on board with most progressive change”; he just thought moving too far too fast would hurt Democrats electorally. Nevertheless, left‐​liberals were not happy with the column, but conservatives loved it. Peggy Noonan got a whole Wall Street Journal column out of it.

Tim Miller, a former Republican operative turned anti‐​Trump strategist, wasn’t having it. Sure, he said, the data showed that Democratic voters had shifted more than Republican voters. But culture wars start at the top:

But when it comes to the actions of politicians, the aggressive, top down Culture War is being driven overwhelmingly from the right. And the shift rightward among Republican politicians on culture war issues is as dramatic—if not more so—than the leftward shift among Democratic voters on policy.

So who’s right? As in so many issues, they both have a point. The cultural trends of the last generation and more have been leftward — in many cases we might say they have been classically liberal — and in the Trump and post‐​Trump eras the leftward pressure has picked up steam. Republican politicians have shifted their focus from fiscal conservatism and national security to angry tweeting about football players’ knees and the threat to Mr. Potato Head. Rather than creating a good climate for economic growth, Republican legislatures are banning “vaccine passports” and Critical Race Theory.

But some of this right‐​wing culture war is in response to real social and political changes that have upset many voters. Civil rights, feminism, and gay rights all created a backlash, and right‐​wing politicians in earlier eras capitalized on that backlash. Now strong majorities support most of the outcomes of those battles, so politicians have moved on. But progressives are now pushing new measures: chasing down every baker and florist in the country who declines to use their talents for a gay wedding and forcing them to comply; pushing K-12 school curriculum based on thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi who are well to the left of the mainstream on matters of race; imposing a national policy, never passed by Congress, on local school districts to guarantee transgender access to school locker rooms and sports; and more.

Miller is right: it’s Republican politicians, not Democrats, who raise hell about these issues. But that’s because they represent the voters who see themselves losing these battles. And most Democratic politicians don’t want to be vocal advocates of these policies. Think back to gay marriage: most Democrats, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton opposed it or avoided the subject until the polls turned positive. Right now Democrats prefer to focus their messaging on populist economic issues, not controversial social issues, especially when the social policies are being effectively advanced through bureaucratic impositions and court decisions. (Speaking of courts, I noted a few years ago that the federal courts prevent conservative states from being as conservative they’d like to be.)

As a libertarian, I wish Republicans and Fox News would spend less time on critical race theory and more time on Biden’s latest plan to spend $4 trillion the Treasury doesn’t have or the troubling use of executive orders and the administrative state. And like Drum, I often sympathize with liberals more than social conservatives on the expansion of equal rights and personal freedoms. But I’m not surprised that conservative voters and politicians push back when they feel — rightly or wrongly — that their traditions and values are under assault. Conservatism at its core is the opposition to change, for better and for worse, and especially relatively rapid change. Republicans, unlike Democrats, have little success in getting the policies they want on social issues from the courts and the bureaucracy, which leads to a greater focus on doing it through popular agitation and elected politicians.

Posted on July 16, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Gay Rights and the Illiberal World

David Boaz

On Monday, LGBT activists in Tbilisi, Georgia, called off a planned Pride March after hundreds of violent counter‐​protesters attacked activists and journalists.

On Tuesday, WeChat, China’s most popular social media service, shut down dozens of accounts on LGBT topics run by college students and nonprofit groups as part of a tightening of political control by the Communist Party.

Three weeks ago, Hungary’s parliament passed legislation that would ban the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change.

And all these assaults on human rights reminded me of a column written in 2013 by the British journalist Michael Hanlon. Hanlon wrote about a “morality gap” in the world that could be seen most clearly in attitudes toward gay rights. His column is worth quoting at length:

It is now clear, though not much talked about, that humanity, all 7.1 billion of us, tends to fall into one of two distinct camps. On the one side are those who buy into the whole post‐​Enlightenment human rights revolution. For them the moral trajectory of the last 300 years is clear: once we were brutal savages; in a few decades, the whole planet will basically be Denmark, ruled by the shades of Mandela and Shami Chakrabarti.

And there’s some truth in this trajectory — except for the fact that it only applies to half the planet. The other half resolutely follows a different moral code: might is right, all men were not created equal and there is a right and a wrong form of sexual orientation.

You can identify those countries in the dark half of the divide by their attitudes to homosexuality and women; to honour killings, race, disability, mental illness, religious minorities and to crime, torture and punishment, even animal rights and the environment.…

Let’s start with attitudes to gays, not because gay rights are the most important issue, but because attitudes to homosexuality show the morality gap in sharpest relief.…

A look at the timeline of gay rights shows a seemingly unstoppable barrage of permissiveness, with state after state passing laws first legalising homosexuality, then going further: permitting gay marriage and gay adoption and formalising gay relationships in terms of pensions and property rights. It’s tempting for those of us in this enlightened half of the world to think of this as a great wave of progress that rose up in the mid‐​20th century and will sweep across the world.

Tempting, but wrong. In fact, in much of the world, received wisdom on homosexuality appears to be going into reverse.

Of course, this divide in the world is well known. It’s been discussed and analyzed in Pew Research studies, examined at Human​Progress​.org, and included in the rankings of the Human Freedom Index.

Martin Luther King, Jr., often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There’s certainly evidence that’s true, but it’s cold comfort for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals living stunted lives in so much of the world today.

Posted on July 7, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Happy Second of July

David Boaz

As Americans enjoy the Fourth of July holiday, I hope we take a few minutes to remember what the Fourth of July is: America’s Independence Day, celebrating our Declaration of Independence, in which we declared ourselves, in Lincoln’s words, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The fireworks would be today if John Adams had his way. It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. On July 4 Congress approved the final text of the Declaration. As Adams predicted in a letter to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

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.

Jefferson moved smoothly from our natural rights to the right of revolution:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

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. That process continues to the present day, as with the Supreme Court’s ruling for equal marriage freedom last year.

At the very least this weekend, if you’ve never seen the wonderful film 1776, watch it at 10 pm on July 4 on TCM.

Posted on July 2, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Chinese Communist Party at 100

David Boaz

The Chinese Communist Party is going all‐​out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding on July 1. Movies, music, theater, elaborate wedding ceremonies. Fireworks, of course. And, in keeping with the party’s roots, repression. As the New York Times reports, nothing is being left to chance:

The Ministry of Civil Affairs is leading a nationwide crackdown against “illegal” nonprofit organizations, including religious and social groups, as part of efforts to ensure a “good environment” for the centenary.

Officials have also warned of consequences for those who “distort” party history or “defame” Communist heroes ahead of the centenary. The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the internet, recently unveiled a website and hotline for citizens to report “historical nihilists” and encouraging the public to help root out those who “deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture.”…

The campaign against such dissent reflects concerns among China’s top leaders that the party must do more to strengthen public loyalty and fortify its control of society.

Mr. Xi has long warned that Communist rule could disintegrate if the party does not assert control across society, including the private sector, schools and the news media. Party organs at the national and local levels are hosting study sessions on party history for cadres. Chinese military officials say they are using the centenary to “forge absolute loyalty” to the party and Mr. Xi.

Apparently, after 70 years of absolute rule, independent thought has not been completely snuffed out.

This is entirely in keeping with the experience of communist rule elsewhere, and with the historic mission of the CCP. The party was formed in 1921 with an official ideology of Marxism‐​Leninism. On July 1, 1949, as the Communist armies neared victory, party leader Mao Zedong made an important speech titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Mao 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.” That was the CCP’s founding vision.

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.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, China has changed a great deal. In far‐​flung parts of the country, villages and communes had already begun recreating markets and individual plots of land. Mao’s 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 what we might call “capitalism with crony characteristics.” Imperfect as this system is, it has lifted some 800 million people out of poverty.

Whatever its official ideology, China can hardly be regarded as Marxist anymore. But it remains Leninist. The CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. President Xi Jinping has become more authoritarian, and has concentrated more power in his own person than any ruler since Mao. Some say China is becoming “the perfect dictatorship.” As Jude Blanchette and Evan S. Medeiros write, Xi Jinping has moved not only to make himself and the party more powerful but also to make the party more ideological. New guidelines for party membership “required all individuals entering the CCP to ‘possess a belief in Marxism and in socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a basic criterion. So too must members ‘place political standards above all else,’ which entails priority to Party commands and ideology.”

China’s economic reforms since 1976 have dramatically reduced poverty, increased economic growth, and made Chinese companies some of the world’s largest. In recent years China has intensified repression and begun to play a larger role in regional and world affairs. But the country faces many challenges: slowing economic growth, a rapidly aging population, and increasing hostility from people and governments around the world. China is trying to defy the lesson of the past two centuries, that liberal countries are more prosperous and more secure. President Xi’s rush to lock down party control of the country is unlikely to succeed in the long run. No dictatorship, even the Chinese Communist Party’s, is perpetual.

Posted on June 29, 2021  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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