The Census and the Constitution by David Boaz

The Washington Post profiles Daniel Weinberg, assistant director of the Census, who says:
"Since the decennial census is in our Constitution, it is the most important task a government statistician can undertake. The census is key to our democratic society by making sure that our congressional districts are equal in size so that we have representative democracy. To be involved in something that is central to our democracy is pretty exciting."
Good point. The census is indeed in the Constitution, Article I, Section 2. The Constitution provides that every ten years an enumeration of the population of each state shall be made in order to allocate members of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the census has been loaded down with intrusive questions not authorized in the Constitution and bearing no relation to the constitutional necessity of reapportionment. This year the Census Bureau is boasting of "one of the shortest forms in history," which is all to the good. Still, it does ask respondents to list their race, which really should be irrelevant to government. And to tell whether they own their home or have a mortgage, in order "to administer housing programs and to inform planning decisions." (That's worked out well!) And of course they need age and sex data, in order to facilitate various government programs and mandates and to assist "sociologists, economists, and other researchers who analyze social and economic trends." Through the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau continues to ask Americans many more questions, from whether you're on food stamps to how many bathrooms you have. All very interesting to sociologists and planners, of course, but hardly what Madison anticipated when he and his colleagues provided for an "actual enumeration" of the constituents of Congress. Writing in Slate back in 2000, Tom Palmer complained that the Census Bureau was selling the census as a kind of Super Lotto: You can't win if you don't play! "The numbers are used to help determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal and state funds. We're talking hospitals, highways, stadiums and school lunch programs." Come on! Get your piece of other people's tax dollars! In 1990 David Kopel reviewed the Census Bureau's promise of confidentiality.

Posted on February 11, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Legislative Sausage by David Boaz

How can any member of Congress be expected to cast an intelligent vote on a hodgepodge like this? And how can any voter make a rational judgment about a member of Congress who voted for or against this mess?
A major test of whether Obama's new strategy will yield legislative results could come when the Senate takes up a job-creation bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had hoped to introduce last week but which was sidetracked by a snowstorm.... The proposed package is expected to cost about $85 billion and would include a payroll tax break for companies that hire new employees, extensions of a variety of expiring tax breaks, and help for small businesses seeking loans. The measure also would extend unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits by three months and provide a temporary adjustment in Medicare payment rates to physicians to prevent a scheduled cut. The bill being crafted would reauthorize the Highway Trust Fund for one year, provide money for Build America Bonds and extend the USA Patriot Act, which is scheduled to expire at the end of February. The package also is expected to include $1.5 billion in agriculture assistance sought by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), one of the most endangered Democrats facing reelection in November.
The bill is full of things that would make good 30-second ads -- "mean-spirited Senator Jones voted against unemployment insurance!" -- and it may even include some necessary measures. But really, how can it be responsible legislative practice to put into one bill
  • extensions of expiring tax breaks,
  • extension of unemployment insurance,
  • a better deal for doctors under Medicare,
  • a year's reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund,
  • more money, more money, more money,
  • an extension of the Patriot Act (!),
  • a $1.5 billion favor to endangered Sen. Blanche Lincoln,
  • and all for the low low price of just $85 billion in the face of a $1.6 trillion deficit?
Senator Reid should be embarrassed. But this is the way Congress works once it decides to ignore the Constitution and legislate on virtually everything.

Posted on February 10, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Vote Now: Is Obama Failing? by David Boaz

Closing statements are posted at the Economist debate, "This house believes that Barack Obama is failing." Currently, Obama leads in the voting by a bit less than the margin by which American voters oppose his health care plan. But there's still time for a rally! So vote now. I conclude my closing statement this way:
Has Mr Obama failed? Of course it's too early to say that. But is he headed that way? Let's go to the tape: His policies are bad for the country; they expand government, reduce freedom and slow the economic recovery. The policies that he cannot implement by executive order have become bogged down in Congress as public opposition mounts. Since he was elected, his party has lost three elections for governor and senator. Public opinion has shifted so sharply against him that last week pundits began speculating that the Republican Party might take back the Senate. Mere months after an outpouring of articles hailing the end of Reaganism and the return of activist government, he has caused the resurgence of small-government attitudes. He aspired to be a transformational president who would "remake this nation". He may well be doing so in two ways: giving us a substantially larger government, and simultaneously reviving free-market, limited-government ideology among a broader public. That doesn't sound like success.
Since I wrote the statement, a few more items relating to Obama's political decline: The Marist poll now finds that 57 percent of independents disapprove of his performance, sharply down even from December and a sign of his continuing decline among swing voters. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows voters trust Obama over congressional Republicans by 47 to 42 percent. Not so bad. Better to be five points ahead than five points behind the opposition. But as Byron York notes, "In November, in the same poll, Obama led by 15 points. Last July, he led by 23 points. And last February, he his lead was 55 points. So in the course of a single year, Obama's lead over Republicans has shrunk from 55 points to five. Vote here. Vote now. (Click on "Vote now or add your view," and a voting box should appear. You'll have to register, though.)

Posted on February 10, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Summer Seminars by David Boaz

Students: Apply now for 11 weeklong, interdisciplinary seminars on liberty in its various aspects, hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies at locations around the country. And don't forget: Students and everyone else are invited to Cato University in beautiful Rancho Bernardo, California, the last week of July. Learn about liberty! Enjoy beautiful weather! Meet your favorite libertarian thinkers! Make lifelong friends! And all for the low low price of -- well, the IHS seminars are free. There's a charge for Cato University, and some student scholarships are available.

Posted on February 9, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

‘I Keep My Core Beliefs Written on My Palm for Easy Reference.’ by David Boaz

Somehow I was reminded of this cartoon today. "I keep my core beliefs written on my palm for easy reference."

Posted on February 8, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Tom Palmer on Life, Liberty, and Moral Relativism by David Boaz

Cato senior fellow Tom Palmer is profiled in the Washington Examiner's Sunday "Credo" column. He talks about the meaning of freedom and about people who have risked their lives to protect the rights of others, and offers some interesting thoughts when asked about "moral relativism":
You say that for many people, the idea of right and wrong has been degraded in our culture. Why? When did that happen? The growth of moral relativism is an interesting thing to chart. Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago argued that it was an unintended consequence of a positive development, which was the integration of different races and religions. As that happened, it became the easiest way to tell schoolchildren not to fight by saying, "Everyone and everything is as good as everything else." It is an easier route to say that there are no moral truths, but the outcome is not more mutual respect. It undermines the foundation of mutual respect. Moral relativism was a lazy shortcut for a pluralistic society. A better approach is to say you should respect others because they're human beings, and because they have rights.
Find the whole article here or see it in newspaper-page format on page 34 of the digital edition. And buy Tom Palmer's Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice here.

Posted on February 7, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Nozick in the News by David Boaz

Charles Krauthammer writes about "liberal expressions of disdain for the intelligence and emotional maturity of the electorate" and the conceit that "Liberals act in the public interest, while conservatives think only of power, elections, self-aggrandizement and self-interest." He has plenty of contemporary examples, but he also recalls one from a few years ago:
It is an old liberal theme that conservative ideas, being red in tooth and claw, cannot possibly emerge from any notion of the public good. A 2002 New York Times obituary for philosopher Robert Nozick explained that the strongly libertarian implications of Nozick's masterwork, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" "proved comforting to the right, which was grateful for what it embraced as philosophical justification." The right, you see, is grateful when a bright intellectual can graft some philosophical rationalization onto its thoroughly base and self-regarding politics.
Nozick, of course, was a libertarian, not a conservative, as the more insightful obituary by the philosopher Alan Ryan in the British Independent notes: the book's "criticism of social conservatism is at least as devastating as its criticism of the redistributive welfare state." But Krauthammer is right to note the casual assumption by the New York Times that conservatism desperately needed "philosophical justification." Sunday's Washington Post contains a related article by political scientist Gerard Alexander: "Why are liberals so condescending?"

Posted on February 6, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is Obama Failing? The Rebuttals by David Boaz

At the Economist's online debate, Elaine Kamarck and I have posted rebuttals to the opening statements. I say, among other things:
One question here is how do you measure a politician's failure. Is it, for instance, a failure to get his policies enacted, or his success in enacting bad policies? Surveys of historians always give high marks to presidents who expanded government or fought wars. Washington's most-quoted political scientist, Norman Ornstein, recently defended the productivity of the current Congress; his article illustrated that to the Washington establishment the very definition of a productive Congress is the spending of more taxpayers' money, the creation of new agencies and bureaucracies, and the concentration of more power in the hands of federal regulators. Citizens might prefer a government that kept us out of war, let the economy grow, and left us alone... Some analysts note that Ronald Reagan had low ratings at this point in his term, and a bad midterm election, but came back strong. As it turns out, tax cuts, spending restraint, deregulation and sound money tend to create strong economic recoveries. Threats of tax hikes, unprecedented levels of deficits, a wave of new regulations and fears about Fed monetisation may not. Has Mr Obama failed, a year into his term? Of course not. But that's the direction he's headed.
The vote is now 53 percent against the proposition that Obama is failing. If you agree with the proposition "This house believes that Barack Obama is failing," I encourage you to cast your vote.

Posted on February 5, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Perfect Storm of Regulatory Ignorance by David Boaz

Does the government know what it's doing, can it know what it's doing, in financial regulation? In the latest issue of Cato Policy Report, Jeffrey Friedman doubts it:
You are familiar by now with the role of the Federal Reserve in stimulating the housing boom; the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in encouraging low equity mortgages; and the role of the Community Reinvestment Act in mandating loans to "subprime" borrowers, meaning those who were poor credit risks. So you may think that the government caused the financial crisis. But you don't know the half of it. And neither does the government.... Omniscience cannot be expected of human beings. One really would have had to be a god to master the millions of pages in the Federal Register — not to mention the pages of the Register's state, local, and now international counterparts — so one could pick out the specific group of regulations, issued in different fields over the course of decades, that would end up conspiring to create the greatest banking crisis since the Great Depression. This storm may have been perfect, therefore, but it may not prove to be rare. New regulations are bound to interact unexpectedly with old ones if the regulators, being human, are ignorant of the old ones and of their effects.... This premise would be questionable enough even if we started with a blank legal slate. But we don't. And there is no conceivable way that we, the people — or our agents in government — can know how to solve the problems of modern societies when our efforts have, in fact, been preceded by generations of previous efforts that have littered the ground with a tangle of rules so thick that we can't possibly know what they all say, let alone how they might interact to create another perfect storm.
Read the whole thing -- about moral hazard, banking regulations, and the "perfect storm of ignorance" that happened and will happen again -- here in PDF. Less attractive HTML version here. Jeffrey Friedman is editor of Critical Review and of Causes of the Financial Crisis, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Posted on February 4, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Stossel on Demand by David Boaz

As I hope you know by now, John Stossel is on the Fox Business Network every Thursday night at 8 p.m. Don't miss it. But if you do, there are rebroadcasts at 10 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, and 11 p.m. Sunday. But some people complain that their local cable station doesn't carry the Fox Business Network. Well, contact them and tell them you want Stossel! (I'll wait while you do that.) And now, since the cable company won't add the network instantly, you should also know that clips and full shows are also available at Just go to for lots of recent shows -- on health care, global warming, Ayn Rand, Whole Foods, and more.

Posted on February 4, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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