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The New York Times

The editorial board of the New York Times has supported liberty twice in the past few days. First, there was the editorial calling for a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

On July 27, the board supported Senator Patrick Leahy’s bill to reign in the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records “and bring needed transparency to the abusive spying programs that have tarnished the nation’s reputation.”

Both positions are good ones (even if Leahy’s bill may be weaker than one might like). Of course, it won’t be long until the editorial board makes me grit my teeth again.

I know of quite a few people who harbor rather dark conspiratorial theories of how government works. There is this sense that the government possesses some malevolent genius and the technical expertise to execute the most complex strategies with speed and accuracy. Yet, I always respond: “show me the evidence.” There is ample evidence of sloppy, buffoonish, and ham-handed behavior and unintended consequences, often cloaked in arrogance and obscured by the opacity of thousand-page statutes. Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone too much cause for relief. A bully with an IQ of 80 is still worrisome. And government can still cause a lot of damage through its inattentive and sloppy actions. There is a reason why a common response to mediocrity is: “close enough for government work.”

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I predicted Oklahoma would win its case against federal exchange subsidies. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has now ruled against the government on this issue. For more on this breaking news story, check out Jonathan Adler at Volokh.

The always entertaining P.J. O’Rourke has some reflections on the recent FreedomFest in Las Vegas (DailyBeast). Much of the piece is good fun (as one might expect). But O’Rourke does end with an important question that has bedeviled libertarians for quite some time: how do you make the leap to mass politics?   In O’Rourke’s words:

people love to hear what libertarians have to say until those people go into the voting both. Then limitations on the size, power, and expense of government start to get personal.

According to the Census Bureau, 49 percent of Americans receive some kind of government benefits. And political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides of The Century Foundation (which is liberal-centrist) say that if you throw in everything that can be construed as a government benefit, e.g. mortgage interest deductions, 96% of Americans are on the take.

What would be a good yard sign for a libertarian politician?

Vote for _______
He Can Give You Less 

Make Sure Not Much Happens Ever” isn’t a catchy slogan. As O’Rourke notes: “I suppose we could infiltrate the government and do nothing.  But federal employees, at the V.A. for instance, seem to have that base covered.”

Summer Reading

I have not read something new on the New Deal in some time, so I turned with some anticipation to Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times as one (of many) books I am reading this summer. It is a wonderfully interesting analysis that devotes a good deal of coverage to the New Deal’s accommodations with Southern Democrats. A sample quote:

“In embracing features of planning that had been identified mainly with the radical program of the Bolsheviks, in supporting features of corporatism that principally had been associated with Fascist Italy, and in backing the delegation of great power to administrative agencies that regulated the private economy in a manner that had a family resemblance to the active economic project of Nazi Germany, the South helped to show that each of these policies could be turned in a democratic, not totalitarian, direction.”

Of course, Southern legislators who controlled the most important committee chairmanships, extracted a high price:

“As economic legislation advanced, they fortified Jim Crow by making certain that southern employers could continue to draw without hindrance on the still-enormous supply of inexpensive and vulnerable black labor. They did so by ensuring that key New Deal bills on subjects sensitive for the South, such as labor relations, would be adapted to meet the test of not disturbing the region’s racial structure. The main techniques by which this goal was accomplished were a decentralization of responsibility that placed administrative discretion in the hands of state and local officials whenever possible, a recognition in law of regional differentials in wage levels, and the exclusion of maids and farmworkers–fully two thirds of southern black employees–from key New Deal programs” (all quotes, pp. 162-63).

The book could be a bit more critical of the performance on the New Deal programs (for those who are interested, Amity Shaes’ The Forgotten Man provides a pretty compelling account). But the Katznelson volume provides the best analysis I have seen of the role of race in shaping the New Deal and the incredible uncertainty faced by policymakers and citizens during the period in question.

Ron Fournier (National Journal) has a brief but depressing piece on the state of contemporary politics, arguing that “We Don’t Suck as Much!” is the only message either party can deploy as we enter the midterms. The money quote:

This is no way to run a country. When both parties in a two-party system measure themselves not by promises kept and problems solved but by the Pyrrhic victories awarded to least-lousy combatants, you get what we’ve got in this country: Record-low trust in government, a broken political system, and a deeply disillusioned public. These may be the sad legacies of both Boehner and Obama.

All of this reminds me of the French presidential contest of 2002, where one of the slogans was “VOTEZ escroc pas fascho”—“vote for the crook, not the fascist.”

Persons of Straw

Alright, straw men… I guess I have been an academic for too long. Elizabeth Nolan Brown (Reason) observes that many journalists who write about libertarianism are in the business of constructing straw men. They simply do not feel the slightest need to do the kind of research necessary to make credible statements:

Not only do you not have to know the first thing about libertarianism to cover it for major news outlets, it is perfectly fine to a) decline to ask anybody who does know, b) make up your own version of what it is, and then c) lament the terribleness of this terrible philosophy or people you have just created.

Brown illustrates her points by drawing on a recent essay by Damon Linker. I have read a fair amount of Linker’s work and find it quite thoughtful, but that is another matter. The larger point seems quite correct: many media commentators (and any number of academics) feel little need to go beyond poorly constructed straw men when arguing against libertarianism.

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Many academics I know present one of four caricatures of libertarianism, two of which they find frightening and the other two a bit bemusing. First, there is the libertarianism that is best exemplified by Timothy McVeigh. It can be found where the Christian Identity movement, the Tea Party, and the National Rifle Association overlap. The world they would like to create would end up looking a good deal like Mogadishu (As one of my friends says: “If you like libertarianism, you will love Somalia”). Second, there is the libertarianism that is exemplified by Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko. Here we have the corporate titans, the Koch brothers, and the 1 percent intent on rigging the system to perpetuate massive levels of inequality (“Could we actually get a Gini coefficient approaching 1?”). Third, we have the tinfoil hat libertarianism that fears the conspiratorial “powers that be.” Imagine a combination of 9/11 truthers and Comic Con attendees living in their mothers’ basements. Finally, there are the “smoke-em-if-you got-em” libertarians. These are the libertines who are largely interested in free love and free drugs but are largely apolitical. The world they would create looks a lot like a Grateful Dead concert (or Zuccatti Park absent the “Occupy” placards). Libertarianism is either evil or easily dismissed as an oddity that has no relevance to contemporary politics.

In contrast to these kinds of caricatures, Brown explains:

Libertarians are the ones who tend to both support same-sex marriage and people’s right not to be compelled to work in service of one; to want to get both our bosses and the government out of birth control decisions; and to take free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and personal autonomy very seriously.

None of this sounds too frightening–or too unreasonable–unless you are intent on using the power of the state to impose your own vision on others. Brown’s piece has some links to recent Reason posts that speak to contemporary issues. They may be of use for those seeking to get a better grasp on libertarianism.

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