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

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