Is Government a Threat to Our Freedom?

My book Libertarianism: A Primer, published in 1997, begins with this paragraph:

In 1995 Gallup pollsters found that 39 percent of Americans said that “the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”  Pollsters couldn’t believe it, so they tried again, taking out the word “immediate.”  This time 52 percent of Americans agreed.

Well, the Pew Research Center has been polling on a similar question, and they’ve just found the highest number ever. They ask a slightly different question – “Do you think the federal government threatens your own personal rights and freedoms, or not?” – and of course pollsters’ methods and samples may vary. Pew’s numbers seem to have been somewhat lower than Gallup’s over the past two decades. But today they report:

Pew Poll on Threat to Rights

As Barack Obama begins his second term in office, trust in the federal government remains mired near a historic low, while frustration with government remains high. And for the first time, a majority of the public says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 adults, finds that 53% think that the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms while 43% disagree.

Gallup’s polling found that the level of fear had fallen dramatically in the early 2000s, as did Pew, but that by late 2011 it had risen back to 49 percent. Gallup also, alas, reports a partisan divide in answers to the question:

Americans’ sense that the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms is also at a new high, 49%, since Gallup began asking the question using this wording in 2003. This view is much more pronounced among Republicans (61%) and independents (57%) than among Democrats (28%), although when George W. Bush was president, Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to view government as a threat.

Dan Mitchell noted that divide back in 2010 and suggested that, with a Republican administration spending us into bankruptcy and a Democratic administration continuing the wars and the Patriot Act, partisans ought to start recognizing the threats from their own respective parties. Indeed.

The bottom line, though, is that when a government is viewed as a threat to “your own personal rights and freedoms” by a majority of its citizens, it should probably take a critical look at its policies.

Posted on January 31, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Libertarian State of the Union

Posted on January 29, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses libertarianism at the Libertarian State of the Union on C-SPAN 3

Posted on January 29, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Virginia Is — at Last — for Lovers?

Never say that progress doesn’t happen. The Commonwealth of Virginia may be – in 2013 – about to repeal its longstanding law against (heterosexual) cohabitation by unmarried persons. The legislature may also compensate people who were forcibly sterilized by the state – as late as 1979. The state’s multiple bans on gay marriage remain in force, of course. But progress has to start somewhere.

I wrote about Virginia’s long record of intrusions into the private lives of its citizens in my article “Virginia Is for (Homoracial, Heterosexual, Mentally Adequate) Lovers” at a few years ago. And about the state’s gay marriage ban in 2006.

Posted on January 29, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Milton Friedman on Business’s ‘Suicidal Impulse’

In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’” (Google the title if you can’t access it), Gordon Crovitz cites Milton Friedman’s speech to a Cato Institute conference in Silicon Valley in 1999:

In 1999, economist Milton Friedman issued a warning to technology executives at a Cato Institute conference: “Is it really in the self-interest of Silicon Valley to set the government on Microsoft? Your industry, the computer industry, moves so much more rapidly than the legal process that by the time this suit is over, who knows what the shape of the industry will be? Never mind the fact that the human energy and the money that will be spent in hiring my fellow economists, as well as in other ways, would be much more productively employed in improving your products. It’s a waste!”

He predicted: “You will rue the day when you called in the government. From now on, the computer industry, which has been very fortunate in that it has been relatively free of government intrusion, will experience a continuous increase in government regulation. Antitrust very quickly becomes regulation. Here again is a case that seems to me to illustrate the suicide impulse of the business community.”

You can find the full text of Friedman’s talk here.

For more on business’s suicidal impulses, see “Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations With Washington, D.C.” by entrepreneur T. J. Rodgers; “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics” by Adam Thierer; and my own “Apple: Too Big Not to Nail.”

Posted on January 28, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama’s Stark Vision of the World

Charles Krauthammer zeroes in on the stark worldview expressed in President Obama’s inaugural address:

Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state. His speech was an ode to the collectivity. But by that he means only government, not the myriad of voluntary associations — religious, cultural, charitable, artistic, advocacy, ad infinitum — that are the glory of the American system.

For Obama, nothing lies between citizen and state. It is a desert, within which the isolated citizen finds protection only in the shadow of Leviathan. Put another way, this speech is the perfect homily for the marriage of Julia — the Obama campaign’s atomized citizen, coddled from cradle to grave — and the state.

“Nothing lies between citizen and state.” Exactly. That’s why Obama can say things like

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

Well, of course not. No one thinks a single person could. It takes many people, working together. But even Krauthammer misses the point that it takes businesses, coordinated by prices and markets. Krauthammer correctly chides Obama for thinking that collective action means only the state and not voluntary associations. But most of our needs are met, most of our progress is generated, by neither the state nor charities.

We are fed, clothed, sheltered, informed, and entertained by individuals, working together with other individuals, mostly in corporations, with their activities coordinated by the market process. As I’ve said before, libertarians “consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.”

What kind of a bleak worldview is it that can look at the bounty provided by business enterprises and charitable associations and see a barren wasteland enlightened only by the activities of the federal government? President Obama’s worldview, apparently. And Hillary Clinton’s.

My further thoughts on Obama’s collectivist speech in this 10-minute audio podcast.

Posted on January 25, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama’s Big Defense of Big Government

Posted on January 22, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Dollars Per Vote in the Presidential Election

There’s been a lot of talk about the high cost of the 2012 election, with both major candidates spending more than a billion of dollars once affiliated groups are included. Some people find that too much. Others point out that Americans spend that much every year on potato chips, and surely deciding who will lead the United States government is at least that important.

And of course the bigger amounts are government spending. When politicians vote to give money to students, the elderly, farmers, automobile companies, defense contractors, and other voting blocs, political considerations are certainly part of the decision-making process. When Republicans vote for $60 billion in “Hurricane Sandy recovery aid,” including money for Alaskan fisheries and activist groups, aren’t they buying votes? 

But for the moment, let’s take a look at how much the candidates did spend, and how much they got for it. I’ve added Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson to the usual Obama-Romney comparison to get some perspective.


The vote totals are from Wikipedia. Spending figures for the Democratic and Republican candidates and for Johnson are from 

So the first thing we notice is that Obama and Romney spent respectively $10 and $7 per vote, while Johnson spent less than $2. But party and outside groups roughly doubled spending for the major candidates. More money was spent on behalf of Romney, but presumably money spent by groups other than the official campaign is less efficient, so that their total expenditures were effectively similar. And we can only wonder how much of “the libertarian vote” a Libertarian Party candidate might pick up if he had enough money to be heard.



Posted on January 17, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Do the American People Agree with Obama?

News reports quote President Obama, in discussing the debt ceiling and the ongoing argument over tax and spending policy in his press conference yesterday, saying:

It turns out the American people agree with me. 

Do they? It’s true that a majority of respondents told pollsters that they wanted to raise taxes on someone else. And Congress did that in the “fiscal cliff” legislation.

But what about the president’s insistence on a larger government and essentially no cuts in federal spending? The election day exit polls shed some light on those questions.

51 percent of voters polled said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals—8 points higher than in the 2008 election. Only 43 percent of voters said they believe government should be doing more.

49 percent said the 2010 health care law should be repealed, with only 44 percent of voters supporting it.

And 51 percent said they prefer smaller government with fewer services, while 43 percent prefer larger government. As usual.

There are many reasons that Mitt Romney lost the election, from the Republicans’ alienation of everyone except straight white men, to an effective campaign of demonization, to “legitimate rape.” But the polls don’t show that voters agree with President Obama on constant expansion of the size, scope, and power of government.

Posted on January 15, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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