Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Americans distrust government? You don't say ...

For any thinking person, it can only be welcome news that the Pew Research Center reports, "[r]ather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed." In fact, says Pew, "[j]ust 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century." It appears that perception is finally catching up with reality, and Americans are growing increasingly aware of the monster they've created.

By "reality" I don't mean that government is necessarily an unalloyed evil (though a strong argument could be made to that effect). But government's very nature is one that deserves skepticism and mistrust. After all, as an institution with a "monopoly on violence," there's no reason to involve government in any aspect of human life unless you're trying to make people do things they don't want to do -- with dire consequences for noncompliance. However necessary that may be, the role of designated arm-twister is one that should come heavily laden with distrust.

That's especially true when you consider the actual track record of government, whether federal, state or local. From the use of eminent domain to increase tax revenues to surveillance of politically active organizations to violent raids and road-side stops to enforce prohibitions on disfavored intoxicants (and legally mug motorists), government is an intrusive agency at best and an abusive one at worst. Government officials are perfectly capable of violating rights and also punishing critics.

So it's no surprise that trust in government has declined over the years, from a high back in the neolithic era ... errr ... Eisenhower-through-Johnson days to today's rock-bottom low. What is surprising is that trust was ever high. To be honest, government hasn't necessarily changed and become more contemptible since the gray-flannel era -- we may have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Patriot Act now, but back then the powers-that-be unleashed the IRS on enemies of the administration of the moment, deposed foreign leaders and sent boys to die in Vietnam.

It's worth noting that Americans expressed their greatest trust in government at a time when media was at its most concentrated and controlled -- dwindling newspapers, a few heavily regulated broadcast networks, a muzzling Fairness Doctrine and no Internet. These days, a handful of politician-friendly editors won't keep government misdeeds from being reported and critiqued far and wide, since even the smallest publications have wide reach online. The result is the graph above, showing a fairly steady decline in trust over the years, offset only by the brief post-9/11 panic.

So if trust is falling, what's rising? Try anger at government, which has risen from 12% in 1997 to 21% today. And, logically, also rising is a desire for less of what people don't trust: about half of Americans now consistently say they want smaller government.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The late Colin Ward showed that liberty isn't a Left/Right issue

Reason magazine's Hit & Run blog has a post up noting the passing of Colin Ward, a British left-anarchist. I'm especially sorry that this is my first encounter with Ward, since he apparently was best known not for looking to some utopian future, but for examining the here and now, as well as the past, for examples of real-life voluntary, cooperative alternatives to state institutions. His aim was to not just argue that an authoritarian state is immoral, but to demonstrate that it is and has been unnecessary.

People like Ward interest me not only because of his practical interest in applied voluntarism, but also because he -- a man who was as critical of social democrats as he was of Margaret Thatcher -- was a living, breathing exemplar of the principle that the real political divide isn't between Left and Right, but between liberty and authority. This may be a tough sell in the simple-minded world of Team Blue/Team Red America, but it's apparent that there are believers in liberty on both the Left and the Right, and that these people have more in common with one another than they do with their supposed comrades who are more interested in top-down control than in freedom.

The connection is especially apparent among out-and-out anarchists like Ward and, say, David D. Friedman, the anarcho-capitalist (and son of Milton). When you remove the coercive power of the state from the equation, not only are their criticisms of authoritarianism largely complementary, but their hyphenations (left- and -capitalist) become little more than expressions of how they would like to arrange their personal affairs, not something they want to force on one another.

As you move away from anarchism, the introduction of some degree of state power complicates things by raising the likelihood that somebody will be coerced to do things they don't want to do. But it's notable that libertarian-socialist Nat Hentoff, after losing his Village Voice column, found a home at the libertarian Cato Institute, which is often accused of being "right-wing." It's also worth noting, on the other hand, that Senators Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein, supposed cross-aisle rivals, so frequently seem to find common cause on odious, authoritarian legislation.

Whatever the details of their differences, advocates of liberty really do have more in common with one another, as do advocates of authority. The real connections cut across the artificial Left/Right divide.

The challenge for liberty advocates, whether of the supposed Left or Right, is to look beyond supposed allies who mouth their favorite platitudes while forever increasing the power of the state over their lives -- and to get past unfamiliar terminology to find allies they didn't know they had.

As the late Colin Ward demonstrated, Left and Right don't matter; liberty and authority do.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

(Fewer) rules of the road

Officials in Drachten, Holland, wanted to reduce accidents and injuries on the town's roads, so they turned to a traffic engineer with an unusual idea: eliminate rules. Hans Monderman believes that people are more careful when they are subject to fewer commandments and less direction. So he removed road signs, traffic lights and even markings. The so-far positive results suggest that better results may well come from letting people make ad hoc arrangements on the spot than from subjecting them to top-down control.

Part of the problem is that regulations seem to create a false sense of security -- and entitlement. A recent British study found that drivers actually give bicyclists less room when cycle lanes are explicitly marked on the road. Leaving the road unmarked creates greater perceived danger and forces drivers to make their own arrangements -- generally creating a safer situation for bicyclists. The same dynamic, Monderman claims, prevails in all traffic situations. Leave drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to their own devices, and they come to better arrangements than any that can be forced on them.

So far, the data seems to support Monderman's theory. At least one report (PDF) on Drachten's traffic experiment found a significant drop in accidents and injuries after traffic signals were removed at a busy intersection -- from between four and ten a year before the change to one per year thereafter. Traffic also began to move faster through the intersection even as it became safer. "On the busiest streets average times to cross the intersection have fallen from 50 seconds to about 30 seconds."

There's a concept called "spontaneous order" popular among many philosophers and economists. The idea is that people are perfectly capable of adapting to new situations and establishing rules of the game for dealing with one another that are better than those imposed from above. The Drachten experiment looks to be an example of spontaneous order in action, as people create, on the fly, safe, sane ways to negotiate their way through busy roads.

Monderman's ideas are now being implemented in other municipalities in Holland and Germany, and are under consideration in the United States.

But left for the future is the idea that there might be wider lessons to be drawn from Drachten's experiment in letting people negotiate their relationships with one another with fewer rules standing in the way of better outcomes.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Rep. Ron Paul on liberty and the need for a revived anti-war movement

Rep. Ron Paul in an interview by Time magazine. You have to love a guy who can coherently link a denunciation of the income tax to a denunciation of conscription.

By the way, Alexander Cockburn has made the same (accurate) point about how the anti-war movement has neutered itself now that Bush is out of office.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Just don't hurt anybody

We all agree that civil liberties are good things, right? But we don't all agree about specific liberties and their defenders. Some people snipe at sexual rights and the ACLU, others at self-defense rights and the NRA ... We may believe in liberty, but we don't seem to agree on what it is. So, what is liberty? The answer, is that it's anything peaceful, or, put another way, anything done among consenting adults.

Some people will answer: But, you have no right to smoke grass, own guns, have gay sex, travel without showing ID, or open a business without a license if the government says otherwise! The law tells us what our civil liberties are, and the government, elected by a majority of the people, makes the law.

To put it bluntly: Screw the government, screw the law and screw the majority.

If you want to marry somebody of the same sex, toast the festivities with marijuana bought at an unlicensed bar, and celebrate with a machinegun shoot (well ... I suggest you reverse the order of the shoot and the toast), it ain't nobody's business if you do.

In fact, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do is the title of a wonderful book written by Peter McWilliams and published in 1996. In the book, the full text of which is now available online, McWilliams wrote, "You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other."

McWilliams didn't invent this idea. It's an old one, perhaps most closely associated with the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In the modern context, McWilliams elaborated:

Laws against consensual activities create a society of fear, hatred, bigotry, oppression, and conformity; a culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice, and growth. The prosecution of consensual crimes "trickles down" into ostracizing, humiliating, and scorning people who do things that are not quite against the law but probably should be. "They're different; therefore, they're bad" seems to be the motto for a large segment of our society. We are addicted to normalcy; even if it means we must lop off significant portions of ourselves, we must conform.

There's no need to accept the validity of all these arguments; the validity of any one is sufficient reason to wipe away all the laws against consensual activities.

"A culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice and growth"? Isn't that a bit strong?

Not really. You see, McWilliams died in 2000. A cancer and AIDS patient himself, he was arrested while helping another writer conduct research for a book on growing marijuana for medical purposes. His mother's house was held as collateral for the bond that secured his freedom while awaiting sentencing, and the chief prosecutor in the case threatened to seize the home if McWilliams was found with even a trace of the marijuana he used to control the severe nausea caused by his medication.

Unable to control his nausea, McWilliams choked to death on his own vomit.

Some people would make excuses for the prosecutor in the case. He was just doing his job according to the law, after all.

But a law that would deny a man medicine and cause him to choke to death is evil, and so are those who voluntarily help to enforce such laws.

We make a big deal about the democratic nature of our political system, but there's nothing about 50% plus one that could sanctify laws and actions like those that led to the death of Peter McWilliams. If we recognize that you have the right to do peaceful things -- that is to engage in trade, or to love, or to consume -- by yourself and with other consenting adults, then it doesn't matter if the people intruding into your life are lone wolves or a majority of the population. They're wrong to intrude and they're doing evil by sticking their noses where those noses aren't welcome.

Because it ain't nobody's business if you do.

Unfortunately, governments and our neighbors have grown accustomed to interfering in what isn't their business. Occasionally, they give a hat tip to the philosophical tradition represented by Mill and company by arguing that, if you're allowed to smoke grass or own a gun or operate a storefront without a license, others really are harmed by your subsequent (alleged) lower productivity at work, or the possibility that you'll go postal, or the vague potential for you defraud customers in a way that could allegedly be prevented by an official piece of paper.

This stretches the idea of "harm to others" so far out of shape as to be unrecognizable -- except as a dishonest intellectual dodge. Accepting the argument that what you might do, or what could reduce your utility to society, is any business of the government, leaves absolutely nothing beyond the reach of nosey busybodies with official titles.

It also, incidentally, reduces you to a cog in the machine.

Laws that interfere in your right "to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other" go too far. They should be defied and sabotaged. Governments that insist on passing such laws are illegitimate and should be dumped. And majorities that put such governments in power? Well, they're just wrong, and should be told to take a hike.

Defending liberty isn't about playing by the rules. It's about judging whether the rules, and the people who enforce them, are worth respecting.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Perfecting society, one law at a time

From Washington, D.C., comes news that the Obama administration plans a massive program of new government-imposed financial regulations. Just a week ago, the federal government stepped up its war against people who enjoy games of chance by freezing online poker winnings. And Germany's latest effort to "save the children" involves a nationwide ban on violent video games. It's clear that, for good or ill, we live in a control-minded age. But has anybody stopped to ask the human cost of the growing web of laws in which we're ensnared?

Over 2,000 years ago, Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, warned, "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." Even earlier, the Chinese philospher Lao Tzu cautioned, "The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.... The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

For millennia, anybody with a brain has known that weighing people down with laws -- even well-intentioned laws -- is expensive. Regulation extracts a price in wealth, in liberty and in blood. Laws and their enforcement can be tailored to suit well-connected constituencies, providing ample opportunities for bribery and malicious prosecution.

This isn't some abstract problem -- the cost of laws comes with names like John Adams, who was killed during a drug raid on the wrong house, Kathryn Johnston who was gunned down by cops working from a bad tip, and Salvator Culosi, who took an unprovoked bullet during an investigation of sports gambling.

To the ranks of those killed, you can add the many more names of those deprived of property, or imprisoned or otherwise damaged by enforcement of laws that somebody thought were a good idea. People like Linda Dorman, for instance, who was robbed of $4,000 by authorities in Tenaha, Texas, because she couldn't explain the source of the cash to their satisfaction.

Some of these people, like Dorman, Adams and Johnston, were innocent bystanders deprived of life and property during misfired attempts to enforce (or corrupt attempts to misuse) regulations that reach their tentacles deep into people's lives. Others, like Culosi, may have violated laws that they just found obnoxious and unworthy of respect.

The fact is, even the best-intentioned laws will meet some degree of noncompliance. The more contentious the passage of any given law is, the more likely a large segment of the population will defy legislation that many people oppose. That means plenty of contact between the public and enforcers, with handcuffs, bars and bullets potentially in store for people who might be your friends, neighbors or family.

The income tax in the United States has a relatively high rate of compliance by world standards at 84%. That still means millions of people are at risk of conflict with the Internal Revenue Service.

About 42% of Americans have smoked marijuana, and about 16% used cocaine, despite the illegality of both.

Teens risk child pornography charges for sending nude pictures of themselves to their friends, yet 20% of them still engage in the practice.

And European gun control laws, sometimes pointed out as models for the United States, have actually resulted in a situation where many more guns are held illegally than legally, by significant percentages of the population.

Even petty smoking bans have bred an underground culture of smokeasies where people puff away, risking violent arrest at the hands of authorities claiming concern for improving the public's health.

Such widespread defiance of laws breeds escalated enforcement efforts by the authorities. Policing becomes more drastic, more intrusive, more violent -- and always less just. People go to prison, assets are seized, businesses destroyed, and some folks are killed, all in the name of somehow making the world a better place with just one more law. Some of the people paying the price will be "criminals." Others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We certainly need some rules of the game to deter the predators among us. A grim price is worth the protection we hope to receive from murderers, rapists, muggers and the like.

But any proposal for a new law (or for maintaining an old one) should come with a question attached: How many people are you willing to kill to see this enforced?

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Intolerant thuggery may not have a political future after all

Pew- declining social conservatism
Source: Pew Research Center for People
and the Press
Much fuss has been made in the press about the low regard in which Americans hold Republicans, the stronger position of Democrats, and the ascendancy of Independents who refuse to affiliate with either party. But there's been relatively little discussion of the role Americans' growing social tolerance and concern for civil liberties plays in the GOP's troubles, or the fact that such "liberal" attitudes go hand-in-hand with a continuing distrust of government.

Gallup is getting play with survey results revealing that about 63% of the dwindling ranks of Republicans are white conservatives. The Democratic Party, by contrast, is more ethnically diverse and is overwhelmingly moderate-to-liberal.

But what do "conservative," "moderate" and "liberal" mean and what implications do such ideological identifiers have for the future?

The answer to those questions might be found in Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009, a publication of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The survey doesn't just rely on ideological labels that often conceal more than they reveal, but delves into opinions on social issues, economic matters and the relationship of the individual to the state.

The biggest change in views in recent years, according to Pew, comes in attitudes toward social tolerance and civil liberties. For example, while Americans are still somewhat uncomfortable with outright same-sex marriage (54% oppose, up from 49% last year), 53% favor civil unions "allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples."
We're now at the point where a majority of the population favors marriage for gays and lesbians in all but name.

Overall, the share of Americans saying that "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals" has dropped from 51% in 1987 to 28% today.

It's not just homosexuality, either. Only 19% of Americans say that women should return to their traditional role in society, down from 30% in 1987. And while 71% of respondents still adhere to "old-fashioned values about family and marriage," that's down from 87% in 1987.
Pew - civil liberties
In terms of civil liberties, while 55% of Americans agreed in 2001 that it "would be necessary to sacrifice some civil liberties to curb terrorism," that figure has declined to 27% today.
Interestingly, Republican support for surrendering civil liberties has tracked with national figures, declining from 40% two years ago to 27% today. But eight years of the security state under President George W. Bush have at least temporarily associated the Republican Party with Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps and state secrets doctrine (though President Obama seems dead-set on making all of that a bipartisan affair).

While 42% of Republicans would allow warrantless searches of the homes of potential terrorism sympathizers, only 34% of Democrats and 30% of Independents agree.

Tellingly, Independents track more closely to Democrats than to Republicans on social values. That's important because "independent" is where the action is, with the ranks of those rejecting both parties growing rapidly in recent years.

And, with important implications for the future, Americans are more socially liberal the younger they are. The "greatest generation," born before 1928 is more socially conservative than the "silent generation" born between 1928 and 1945, which is more socially conservative than Boomers born from '46-'64, followed by Gen-Xers from '65-'76. Today's so-called Gen-Yers are the most socially liberal of all.
Even on an issue where overall attitudes haven't really budged with time -- banning "books that contain dangerous ideas" from libraries -- support for censorship is highest among older Americans and lowest among the young.

But as Americans grow more socially tolerant and supportive of civil liberties, they're not necessarily embracing modern liberalism's love of state intrusion into the economy. That's especially true of those unaffiliated with either major party. According to Pew:
As a group, independents remain difficult to pin down. They are clearly left-of-center when it comes to religiosity and issues of moral values – independents’ views on homosexuality, gender roles, censorship and the role of religion in politics are clearly closer to those of Democrats than Republicans. They also tend to have more in common with Democrats with respect to foreign policy and military assertiveness. At the same time, their views on broader economic issues have taken a turn to the right in the latest survey. In particular, they are now more conservative on questions relating to the role of government in providing a social safety net and the government’s overall effectiveness and scope. They are also less aligned with Democrats than at any point in the past in their attitudes toward big business.
Pew - Federal government controls too muchSpecifically, 57% of Independents believe "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives." Sixty-one percent of Independents say that "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficiant and wasteful." And 55% of Independents agree that "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."

Pew describes this seeming growth in a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism as "centrism," but that doesn't really explain much. On closer examination, Americans overall -- and Independents in particular -- seem to want a little less government in both their bedrooms and their wallets. They don't want politicians discriminating against gays and lesbians, authorizing intrusive searches or banning books. They also don't want politicians to try to manage the economy or intrude into private businesses.

Americans are increasingly tolerant of each other even as they remain skeptical of the state.

Sentiments are incomplete and inconsistent, but overall national sentiment has apparently drifted in a libertarian-ish direction, favoring more liberty and hostile to government impositions.

Such sentiments might last until the next poll, of course. But they do seem to point to an intriguing -- and encouraging -- future for the country. They also indicate shifts in the population's values and attitudes that the major political parties will have to address if they want to be relevant in the years to come.

Republicans, in particular, have to face up to the fact that their socially authoritarian positions are, increasingly, a minority preference.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

We have met the barbarians, and they are us

When the political history of the 20th century is written, it's likely to be noted primarily as a period in which the human race willfully returned to barbarism after several centuries of increasing liberty, restrained government and recognition of the value of the individual. Up for grabs, though, is whether it will be treated as an interregnum in the development of free, civilized societies, or the precursor to a 21st century marked by resurgent tyrannical government and the the erosion of liberty. So far, the signs aren't good.

At least in the West, the 19th century was, overall, the liberal century. That's "liberal" in the original sense, as it's still understood in much of the world, a philosophy that values individuals over groups, liberty, limited government, free enterprise and the rule of law. As the Liberal International, which unites liberal political parties and organizations around the world, puts it:

Liberalism champions the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals. Liberalism acknowledge and respect the right to freedom of conscience and the right of everyone to develop their talents to the full. Liberalism aims to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. The freedom to be creative and innovative can only be sustained by a market economy, but it must be a market that offers people real choices.

In the United States, "liberalism" has generally come to mean something more collectivist and group-oriented. As South Africa's Helen Suzman Foundation, founded but the great anti-apartheid activist, points out:

[I]n the United States of America, however, the way in which "liberals" are defined differs from the South African and European definition. Liberals in the United States include many people who hold "progressive" views in the sense that they are less sympathetic to free enterprise and individualism and more consistently supportive of public welfare. In Europe and South Africa such people are very likely to regard themselves as "social democrats" or socialists, which are less familiar categories in the United States.

The 19th century was a liberal century in the original meaning of the word. That is, it marked an imperfect, incomplete, but very real progression toward a world in which people are valued as individuals and free to guide their own lives and associate with one another with minimal interference from a restrained state. Across Europe and the Americas, monarchies were toppled and replaced with governments that felt compelled to at least pretend they respected individual rights and limits on their power. Despite the liars among them, more people than ever before came to enjoy freedom of the press and of conscience, property ownership, due process and other previously unknown safeguards for their liberty.

Probably the greatest triumph of the century was the widespread abolition of slavery. In country after country, for the first time in history, human beings stopped owning other human beings. The fact that slavery existed at all is still considered an embarrassment, but even questioning the practice is a relatively recent development. For anti-slavery movements to evolve and, ultimately, triumph in most countries, is unprecedented.

The 19th century was a remarkably encouraging century if you value individual liberty.

Overall Freedom rankingsThen came the 20th century, which combined rapid technological advancement with massive repudiation of liberal values. Suddenly, politicians felt comfortable denigrating the individual and promoting the power of the state even beyond the claims of absolute monarchs of the past.

As Benito Mussolini wrote in 1932, "The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State."

And Joseph Stalin summed up his view of the world rather succinctly, saying, "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

Even the supposedly secure democracies of the 20th centurt flirted with totalitarian ideas. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration boasted, "The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America."

Having repudiated liberty, the totalitarian governments of the 20th century also repudiated life. R.J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii, estimates that through war, deliberate starvation, genocide, gulags, pogroms and the like, governments slaughtered 262 million people during the course of the last century.

The vast majority of that killing was done by absolute states that had explicitly rejected the previously rising tide of liberty, individualism and limited government that had gone before them.

Basically, big government kills, and it kills in a big way. Even if you don't value the freedom of societies with limited governments, it's impossible to ignore the fact that restrained states bathe in rather less blood than the uncontrolled variety.

Liberalism seemed back in vogue in the latter part of the century. Fascism, Nazism and then Communism were ultimately defeated at enormous cost, while democracy, liberty and free markets were seen as the wave of the future. The all-powerful state of the 20th century looked like a horrible aberration that would be avoided at all costs in the future.

So where are we now?

Just nine years into the 21st century, the United States seems to be flirting once again with the idea that the powerful state is a good thing, and that politicians should have more control over our lives than they have been permitted in decades.

We've already had one president -- George W. Bush -- who, without having any recognizable ideology, endorsed a far-reaching and almost absolutist vision of presidential power. In the name of battling terrorism, the Bush administration crafted legal arguments to the effect that the president could unilaterally disregard constitutional protections for free speech, a free press and safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure.

Now, President Barack Obama defends the Bush administration's use of the state secrets doctrine to shield executive actions from investigation and legal challenge, and even goes so far as to defy a court order to produce documents. While quibbling about the details of his predecessors' actions, Obama seems to endorse an expansive view of government power.

And first the Bush, and then Obama administrations have gone farther, returning to fascist economic policies that empower the state at the expense of private choice and individual autonomy.

No, this isn't totalitarianism and nobody is talking about mass murder. But we are seeing a significant and dangerous growth in the power of the state -- a return to collectivist, illiberal principles that threaten liberty. We've tried that path before, with nasty results. Powerful, intrusive government has proven to be a monster that either destroys or is destroyed.

The 20th century was scarred by a brief and bloody mass flirtation with high-tech barbarism. So far in the 21st century, it looks like the old infatuation may still have a hold on politicians' hearts.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Freedom's pecking order -- how the states stack up

Think tanks have long ranked not just countries, but U.S. states, according to their economic freedom, and Reporters Without Borders grades nations on their respect for press freedom. Until recently, though, nobody has really tried to assess the attitude toward personal freedom prevailing at the state level, or to really get a handle on the best place to live in the United States for people who want the government to just leave them alone. A new report from George Mason University's Mercatus Center takes on that job, finishing the work started last summer by Reason magazine.

In Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom, William Ruger, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University, and Jason Sorens, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, offer "the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres." Ruger and Sorens very explicitly ground their understanding of freedom in a live-and-let-live understanding of the concept, in which people are able "to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others."

In economic terms, that translates into assessments of burdensome regulations, high taxes, restrictive licensing laws, protection for property rights and the like.

Overall Freedom rankingsPersonal freedom scores depend on treatment of victimless activities such as gambling and prostitution, and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. Asset forfeiture and violations of free-speech rights (campaign finance regulation) are also considered. Also included are policies toward marijuana, laws respecting same-sex relationships, gun control and regulation of education outside government schools.

Given the ideological divisions in this country, it's probably no surprise that states like New York, California and New Jersey come out poorly in the economic freedom rankings at 50, 48 and 46, respectively. Those states may even take pride that they failed the free-market test. But red-staters be warned: Alaska ranks at number 47 in terms of economic freedom.

When it comes to personal freedom, though, some familiar blue-state names reappear. New York ranks at 48 in this category, California at 37 and New Jersey at 45. Ouch.

Alaska gets the highest personal freedom ranking of all 50 states, creating a bit of a quandary for freedom-loving fans of the last frontier.

In terms of overall freedom, combining personal and economic considerations, the best scoring states are New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota.

New York ... well ... New York has really good restaurants.

As for New Jersey (number 49) ... There's still no good reason for living in the Garden State.

Last summer, Reason magazine published "What's the Matter With Chicago?," a treatment of the same issue, focusing on 35 cities instead of 50 states. The authors looked at each city's policies regarding sex, tobacco, alcohol, guns, movement, drugs, gambling and food/other to come up with their rankings.

According to Reason, Las Vegas ranked best in terms of personal freedom, while officials in Chicago are the most intrusive. According to the magazine, "The Windy City’s litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. ... There’s a primary seat belt law, meaning motorists can be pulled over for not buckling up, and a ban on using cell phones while driving. The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country."

Sure enough, Illinois receives a mediocre ranking from Ruger and Sorens -- but so did Nevada. In part, that's a recognition that cities can be more or less liveable than the states in which they're located. But it's also a result of the somewhat subjective nature of ranking systems, which depend on categories included and excluded and the weights given each.

Ruger and Sorens admit that there's a subjective element to the weight they give each category. They make their data available online so that people can adjust their own rankings based on their own priorities. They also link to a site that is set up to adjust rankings using simple sliders, so have at it.

Before accusations fly that rankings like this are slanted to give the advantage to lefties or righties, let's read what Freedom in the 50 States has to say about the relative status of liberals and conservatives when it comes to respecting freedom:

[T]he relationship between ideology and personal freedom is flat, reflecting the propensity of liberal and conservative states to protect certain freedoms but not others. The relationship between liberalism and economic freedom is more strongly negative, and as a result the relationship between liberalism and overall freedom is modestly negative, but only among the most liberal states. In short, moderate states are no less or more free than conservative states, but liberal states do tend to be less free, particularly on economic issues.

Basically, neither of America's dominant political tribes has a lock on respect for liberty -- both tend to be selective about the freedoms they protect.

But if you're looking for a libertarian atmosphere of overall freedom, New Hampshire looks good. And the Wild West hasn't yet grown too mild.

Speaking of the West, Arizona, where my butt warms my sofa as I write, ranks 11 for economic freedom, 12 for personal freedom, and 8 overall. That's not too shabby.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

The real political divide: freedom vs. control

Pundits and politicians are playing the usual games with labels. President Barack Obama and his supporters are adherents of the "far left"; economists opposing the stimulus bill are partisans of the "extreme right." It's Team Blue vs. Team Red, with everybody expected to swallow the Kool-Aid proffered by one side or another. And it's all so pointless. The real division isn't between right and left; it's between the control freaks and the rest of us.

It's not that there aren't real ideological differences along the political spectrum -- there are. But left, right, up or down, there are activists who focus on ways of expanding freedom, and there are activists who focus on ways of extending government control over people's lives. They may put the emphasis on different issues and strongly disagree on specific policies, but ultimately, righties and lefties who emphasize freedom have more in common with one another t han they do with supposed comrades who are obsessed with control.

Nat Hentoff, the prominent writer and former columnist for the Village Voice, is a noted man of the left who is, therefore, supposed to be a loyal member of Team Blue. But in a recent newspaper column, he took President Obama to task for, among other things his secretiveness and his defense of warrantless wiretaps.

The flimflam candidate had assured his faithful enthusiasts that he would filibuster this bill (which will immunize the telecommunications companies that enabled the president to break the law in his once-secret warrantless wiretapping) that turned our privacy rights upside down and out.

Now, by dismissing the scores of lawsuits against these companies from Americans wanting to know whether they've been ensnared in this giant government-spun Web, the president and such supporters as Obama will have made it close to impossible to conduct meaningful investigations of the intricate nexus of the ways these telecommunications giants can collect leads to Americans with no connections to terrorism — and could continue to so long as they're assured by a future lawless administration that national security demands breaking another law.

Andrew Napolitano, on the other hand, a former New Jersey judge and current legal analyst for Fox News, is a man of the right who we would expect to still be mourning the absence-taking of the last president. But in his 2007 book, A Nation of Sheep, he compared George W. Bush's accumulation of power to "the great dictators of history." In a 2005 interview, Napolitano said of then-President Bush's beloved PATRIOT Act:

Let's put aside all of the procedural problems with enacting it. Forget about the fact that there was no debate. Forget about the fact that most members of Congress didn't even have an opportunity to read it. It is a direct assault on at least three amendments to the Constitution: the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment. The PATRIOT Act legitimates the notion that if we give up certain freedoms, the government will keep us safer. I reject that notion from a moral and legal point of view. I also reject it from a practical point of view. It doesn't work.

If we buy the right/left divide, Hentoff and Napolitano are supposed to be bitter enemies. But their liberty-based critiques of presidents from their own "teams" makes it clear that they share a stronger fondness for freedom than they do for the artificial red/blue divide. They could probably find plenty of issues on which to disagree, but both have become known as civil libertarians and advocates of limits on government power.

And, in fact, the two men have had kind words for each other over the years.

They should. Like all advocates of liberty, they have in common their love for the freedom of the individual. Working from such a common value, they can actually have meaningful conversations based in mutual respect.

Who else has something in common? Try these two quotes:

Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.


And when we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly. ... [T]here's a lot of irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it.

Separated at their philosophical birth, you say? I agree. But who shared such sentiments?

The first quote is from Republican Rudy Giuliani, speaking when he was the mayor of New York City. The second quote is from Democrat Bill Clinton, when he was president of the United States.

So much for those stark contrasts between Team Red and Team Blue, eh? Giuliani and Clinton share common values, too. In fact, the philosophical divide clearly runs much more deeply between Giuliani and Clinton, on one side, and Hentoff and Napolitano, on the other, than along traditional left/right lines.

It should be apparent that the right/left, red/blue divide is ... well ... not meaningless, but much less important than the real political divide, which is between people who care about liberty, and people who prefer control.

That's important to keep in mind during a cold winter when we've made the transition from a president who supports warrantless wiretaps, the performance of unsavory official acts behind the veil of "state secrets" and a government that plays an ever-growing role in our lives to ... well ... another version of the same thing.

There's a political divide out there, but it's not the one that usually distracts us.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'd like the control-freaks-out-of-my-face package, please

Netflix offers different packages to its customers: one, two or three movies at a time, and would you like Blu-ray with that? So do health clubs, which sell access to classes, coaches and equipment. My phone carrier offers a dizzying array of choices that can keep your costs down or grant you unlimited chatting from anywhere on the planet. Menus of options are the standard for most interactions between people and institutions that want to cater to a variety of tastes. So why do we settle for one-size-fits-all when it comes to our relationship with the government? Especially since arguments over the nature of the political package on offer have become so divisive and all-consuming.

The fact is, we vary as much as political consumers as we do as connoisseurs of movies, fitness equipment and mobile phone service. A recent paper (PDF) published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that liberals, conservatives and libertarians differ in their fundamental premises about what constitutes a "good society," and in the moral basics on which they construct their ideologies. Starting from such different foundations, it's ridiculous to think that an adherent of one of these ideologies could ever be happy with the sort of political arrangements that please members of another group.

Does it make any more sense to shoe-horn disparate individuals into the same package of political offerings and costs than it does to force them all to pay for spinning classes and nutrition counseling when all they want is to jump on the treadmill?

Maybe it's time to reconsider government as a provider of services -- services that can be and should be tailored to different tastes, so that what we get from and surrender to the government can be, to the extent possible, a matter of personal choice rather than a consequence of political combat.

This isn't exactly a new idea. The federal nature of the United States was supposed to result in separate "laboratories of democracy" bound together in one country. If people didn't like what was happening in Massachusetts, they could choose an arrangement that worked better for them by moving to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania.

So a menu of arrangements with the government could be considered an extension of federalism, but without geographical borders. On your eighteenth birthday, with opportunities to revisit the decision thereafter, you'd pick from a menu of arrangements with the government, representing very different packages of goodies and obligations.

One package might offer more extensive services, such as subsidized student loans, small business grants, health coverage and Social Security in return for somewhat higher taxes and observance of certain sets of regulations. Businesses eligible for low-cost loans and other forms of support would have to submit to the authority of regulatory agencies.

Another package would be bare-bones, offering no access to special services, support or pensions, but also requiring lower taxes and imposing fewer regulations. Anybody opting for this option would accept a higher level of personal responsibility in return for fewer taxes and less red tape.

Folks dubious about the value of alternative lifestyles and open sexuality could opt for a package that includes covenant marriage and a set of traditional moral standards accompanied by a badge of approval for participating institutions.

Businesses and individuals subject to regulatory regimes could advertise their status, so that people who put their faith in inspectors and regulations could so direct their trade.

Obviously, you couldn't spend your life in low-tax status, only to hop on the gravy-train package at 65 to take advantage of Social Security, so some kind of buy-in or window of opportunity would have to apply so that people didn't game the system.

And the various packages would have to be protected so that they aren't incrementally forced into homogeneity by the federal government the way the states largely have been on many issues.

Government has increasingly become a provider of services to the public. If that's what it's going to be, there's no reason why those services shouldn't be differentiated to cater to the very different tastes of widely divergent markets, including the preferences of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists, and individuals of no particular ideology but very clear preferences

Or we could keep fighting to jam our preferences down the neighbors' throats.


Monday, February 16, 2009

If you want liberty for yourself, you have to allow it for everybody

In the comments to my jury nullification piece at The Examiner (yes, I read comments) Smitty was especially on-point when he said, "The real problem might be toleration, or more accurately, the lack of it. We wish our preferred freedoms to be respected, while applauding governmental crackdowns upon those freedoms we dislike or are indifferent to." Frankly that's been an ongoing hurdle in the effort to preserve and extend liberty. Until pot-smokers and gun owners and low-taxers and sexual minorities recognize that liberty is indivisible and that we're all in this together, we're going to be picked off piecemeal by government officials all too happy to exploit our mutual antagonisms.

After World War II, Pastor Martin Niemöller voiced several variants of the following sentiments in his public speeches:

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

Along the same lines, Benjamin Franklin once commented, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

It comes down to the same thing: When liberty is under attack, everybody is at risk. But that's not what the politicians and inspectors and tax collectors and police officers say, of course. No, they're all too happy to tell you that the queers next door are a threat to your way of life, or that the gun nuts are a public danger, or that the tax dodgers are greedy and not doing their fair share, or the store keepers are running amuck without entangling red tape, or that the pot heads are lazy parasites who will corrupt your kids.

But once the politicians and inspectors and tax collectors and police officers are done with the queers, they'll happily shift their sights to the gun nuts, then to the tax dodgers, the store keepers, and then the pot heads, and ...

Where were you planning to hide? Forget about it. Because you're some kind of menace, too, and you'll be fresh out of allies if you don't realize that the freedom of people you don't care very much about is just as important as your own.

The sort of people who make up the political class -- the control freaks of the world -- are experts at divide and conquer. They have all sorts of reasons why you should be glad that somebody else is being hemmed in by laws and threatened with prison. Those people are bad -- until it's you who's so bad. What the control freaks will never tell you is that they'd be entirely unable to impose those draconian laws and threats if you'd ally yourselves with those different folks and their peculiar interests to protect their liberty and your own at the same time.

You don't care about your neighbor's gun collection and he doesn't give a damn about your pot farm? So what? If you help each other out, everybody wins. If you don't, you'll both end up losing something you want, or else hiding it in the shadows and hoping for the best.

Keep that in mind the next time a politician promises to protect you from bogeymen who look an awful lot like the pleasant couple who live down the street. Maybe it's time to knock on their door and talk about an alliance of convenience.

Because you're not going to stay free if the only liberty you care about is your own.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Yes, this really is what it's like ...

John Hasnas, an associate professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, accurately captures what it's like to be a libertarian. Some excerpts below (but read the whole thing):

Political analysts frequently consider what it means to be a libertarian. In fact, in 1997, Charles Murray published a short book entitled "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" that does an excellent job of presenting the core principles of libertarian political philosophy. But almost no one ever discusses what it feels like to be a libertarian. How does it actually feel to be someone who holds the principles described in Murray’s book?

I’ll tell you. It feels bad. Being a libertarian means living with a level of frustration that is nearly beyond human endurance. It means being subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events. How does it feel to be a libertarian? Imagine what the internal life of Cassandra must have been and you will have a pretty good idea.

Imagine spending two decades warning that government policy is leading to a major economic collapse, and then, when the collapse comes, watching the world conclude that markets do not work. ...

I remember attending a lecture at Georgetown in the mid-1990s given by a member of the libertarian Cato Institute in which he predicted that, unless changed, government policy would trigger an economic crisis by 2006. That prediction was obviously ideologically-motivated alarmism. After all, the crisis did not occur until 2008. ...

It is human nature to want to shoot the messenger bearing unwelcome tidings. And so, for the sin of continually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, libertarians are attacked as heartless bastards devoid of compassion for the less fortunate, despicable flacks for the rich or for business interests, unthinking dogmatists who place blind faith in the free market, or, at best, members of the lunatic fringe.

Cassandra’s curse was to always tell the truth about the future, but never be believed. If you add to that curse that she would be ridiculed, derided, and shunned for making her predictions, you have a pretty fair approximation of what it feels like to be a libertarian. ...

We'll be right about the fatal flaws of current policy, too. And then watch as the world concludes that somehow we're at fault.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian, but she's better than expected (and pretty easy on the eyes)

Right after Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's name circulated as New York Governor David Paterson's choice to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, I received an email from my father saying, "she sounds like a good libertarian." Well, not quite, but Gillibrand is about as close to a consistent supporter of personal freedom as you're going to get out of either of the major political parties these days. As the new senator from New York, she could well be a breath of fresh air, whether she's a Democrat or a Republican.

In fact, Gillibrand's 90% score from the American Civil Liberties Union, 100% rating from the National Rifle Association, support for extending tax cuts and opposition (twice) to the TARP bailout scam suggest that she has a taste for both civil liberties and economic freedom. A taste -- even a limited one -- for leaving people to make their own choices in the bedroom and the marketplace both is a woefully rare characteristic in modern politicians. Usually we have to pick one or the other and hope for the best.

On the other hand, Gillibrand waffled early on when it comes to same-sex marriage, although, to her credit, she came to support it. She opposes Social Security privatization, a position that essentially locks Americans into a Ponzi scheme that dwarf's Madoff's fever dreams. She boasted during the last campaign of voting "against legalizing marijuana" (apparently a reference to her opposition to letting states go their own way on the matter). She voted to extend immunity to telecoms when they collaborate with the government on warrantless wiretaps (although she did vote against such wiretaps on another occasion). And she has favord some of her party's traditional chestnuts when it comes to nonsensical price controls and business regulations that address problems caused by earlier interventions in the market (I'm looking at you, Rep. Frank).

Then there's immigration. Gillibrand is a bit of a roll-out-the-barbed-wire type when it comes to the border. Newsday's John Riley suggests the hard-line on immigration may be "Clintonesque positioning," but whether it's heartfelt or a position arrived at through political calculation doesn't matter if she casts her votes that way.

But we're talking about a major-party politician -- from New York. That Gillibrand has stacked up an encouraging voting record on civil liberties issues, including the right to bear arms, supports lower taxes, and opposed a federal financial spending spree puts her head and shoulders above the usual crop of aspirants to political office.

No, Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian. But in the Senate she could well be a far better ally of liberty than we had any reason to expect.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nothing feeds conflict like government

Is there any good reason why conservatives and liberals, fundamentalist Christians and atheists, family traditionalists and polyamorists, free-marketeers and socialists, can't just get along, living alongside one another without turning every interaction into mortal combat? I mean, sure they have different ideas about life, but why shouldn't people live according to their own values without worrying about how the neighbors get along? There's no reason they can't, is there?

Sure there is! That reason is government. Government promises to give us all the power to boss around our neighbors and, unfortunately, it delivers. That means that rather than live side-by-side with people who share differing values, we all too often expend our energy organizing the state, lobbying the state and getting people elected to government office in order to send men with guns to intimidate the folks next door into changing their wicked, wicked ways.

And then, of course, after an election or two and a change in the political winds, our neighbors get the chance to do the same thing to us.

It's all rather bloody-minded, breeds never-ending conflicts, and raises the question of whether this whole government business is really such a good idea.

Anarchist philosopher Crispin Sartwell, an associate professor at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, and syndicated columnist, says it's not. He once wrote:

usually the first argument for the legitimacy of state power goes something like this: people (other than me and my friends) are fundamentally selfish and destructive. so they must be constrained from doing terrible things by force. they need a code enforced by an authority. this whole thing makes no sense if the state itself is a group of people. get me? this supposes that those who exercise authority are not subject to your general critique of humanity: that they are demi-gods, maybe ...

In the following interview, he shares more of his ideas about the flaws of government power and the growing tendency in our country for people to turn to government in order to get their way by force.

More of Sartwell's ideas on government and anarchism can be found in Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Goodbye to a libertarian opponent of Apartheid

Helen Suzman served in South Africa's Parliament for 36 years, beginning in 1953, as a member of the opposition, opposed to the racist government of that country. That was a lonely and demanding job. For 13 of those years, she was the only explicit opponent of apartheid among the lawmakers. Maybe a little conflict is good for your health. Born on November 7, 1917, she lived to see a post-racial (but still troubled) South Africa, dying on January 1, 2009 at the age of 91. For all of those long years, Suzman was a champion of true liberalism.

The details of her life and achievements are, deservedly, being trumpeted worldwide in the press and by politicians and activists. I will point out that she was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, once awarded the International Freedom Prize, and -- an honor of which her foundation says she was "inordinately proud" -- denounced as an "enemy of the state" by Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe.

But, since Helen Suzman is being widely mentioned as a leading South African liberal, I do want to comment on Helen Suzman's brand of liberalism. Specifically, I want to point out that Suzman's liberalism was real liberalism, not the micromanaging, for-your-own-good nannyism of so many Americans who use the term "liberal."

From the Helen Suzman Foundation, which Suzman, logically, headed:

The Helen Suzman Foundation supports and promotes liberal democratic policies and ideals in the South African political situation. Views such as these are very similar to those held by liberals in Europe and certain countries in the East, where liberals are non-racial in their views, support free enterprise and are generally sympathetic to individualism, although their views on, and support for, welfare policies vary both within countries and between countries.

As we understand it, in the United States of America, however, the way in which "liberals" are defined differs from the South African and European definition. Liberals in the United States include many people who hold "progressive" views in the sense that they are less sympathetic to free enterprise and individualism and more consistently supportive of public welfare. In Europe and South Africa such people are very likely to regard themselves as "social democrats" or socialists, which are less familiar categories in the United States.

American visitors to this website should bear these differences in mind when reading about The Helen Suzman Foundation and its mission.

In the American context, Helen Suzman's politics would likely have tagged her as a moderate libertarian (or a classical liberal, among some political wonks). In fact, she lectured at the libertarian Cato Institute in 1989, and that organization's executive vice president, David Boaz, has penned an enthusiastic tribute to her work.

Suzman understood, as too many people do not, that liberty is indivisible. You can't have free markets without civil liberty, and you can't have social freedom without economic liberty. The one is unsustainable without the other, and none of it can be maintained if the primacy of the individual isn't put front and center among our political values.

Helen Suzman fought the good fight for freedom all her life. While the job will probably always remain unfinished, it's time for somebody else to pick up the torch.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Honest social studies for a three-year-old

My three-year-old son, Tony, recognizes the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates when their mugs appear on the TV news.

"That's McCain and Obama," he blurts when their photos pop up behind a couple of talking heads.

He also blurts out something else that he's heard me say in relation to those two men, which isn't going to endear me to the nice people at day care. So my wife and I decide it's time to explain just what's going on and why mommy and daddy have such strong feelings about the people in the news.

"John McCain and Barack Obama are bad men who want to tell us what to do," my wife tells Tony. "They're competing to become president of the country, and people will pick one of them for the job."

"That's right," I add. "They don't want to let us make our own decisions. They want to decide for us. That's why they want to be president."

"Your daddy voted for Mr. Barr, who doesn't want to boss us around. But he probably won't win."

Tony looks confused at this point. I don't blame him. I'm confused myself.

"Even though they're bad men, most people think either Obama or McCain will win," I say. "So they vote for the one they think will be less bossy, just like your mom did. But some people are really just big babies. They don't want to make choices, so they vote for McCain or Obama because they want somebody else to decide for them."

That's about as detailed as we get for a three-year-old, using terms he can understand. He definitely gets the idea of "bossy," since he got a time out last week for ordering around one of his friends. He was badly embarrassed -- more because his friend was so upset at being bossed around than because of the punishment.

Yeah, my take on the political system and its stakes isn't really out of the classic social-studies curriculum. That's because I'm honest, unlike most textbooks. I'm not peddling a fairies-and-rainbows version of the political process to my kid. I'm raising him with an appreciation of liberty as the core value of politics, with an understanding of politicians as the children on the playground who grew up without ever learning to keep their hands off other kids' toys, and with a healthy dose of wariness about that bossy clique of overgrown bullies called "government."

Later, I can fill in the shades of gray -- that we can have disagreements even with the "good" guys, and that the bad guys might not be all that evil if they never entered government and gained the opportunity to push people around.

I'll instruct Tony that, as with bossy kids, just because government officials tell you to do or not do something doesn't mean that you should pay them any attention. But you have to be careful about how you ignore them since they can be very mean.

And ultimately, I hope, he'll become an independent adult who, whatever choices he makes about his allegiances and his values, doesn't let other people substitute their whims for his preferences.

Of course, I want him to have a sense of perspective and to enjoy life without getting hung up on things he can't control. So I tell him the truth: Halloween should be a lot more important to him than Election Day.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bad news for the LP may still be good news for libertarians

Come Wednesday, Libertarian Party officials will almost certainly turn to their traditional task of putting a positive spin on miserable vote totals (don't blame me folks -- I threw you a bone). But amidst the spare electoral pickings, there may be more than a bit of hope for those of us who prize the message more than the messenger. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tells us:

Shrink the government. Cut taxes. Respect a person’s property and right to privacy.

In Texas, those are widely embraced political ideals.

They’re also bedrock principles of the Libertarian Party, which is fielding a whopping 174 candidates on Texas ballots in Tuesday’s election.

But 20 years after South Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul ran for president as the Libertarian nominee, introducing America to the message of economic conservatism and social tolerance, the party is still very much an underdog.

The culprit, as always, is the bipolar nature of American politics. People are convinced that they have to vote for Coke or Pepsi, so RC doesn't get a hearing (and unlike in the beverage marketplace, supporters of niche political products don't get to enjoy their minority selection). Nominally, that means a choice between free markets or social tolerance, although that's giving the major parties entirely too much credit. In real terms, it's turned into an oh-so-attractive race between know-better-than-you nanny-statism and thuggish meatheadism.

But people still project their expectations on the Democrat vs. Republican dichotomy.

As the Star-Telegram article points out, though, there is a constituency for a libertarian-ish message -- perhaps not a purist one, but certainly ones that tends in a more-freedom rather than less-freedom direction. The question is, does anybody other than the LP care enough to cater to that audience?

Democrats are poised to win the current election on a platform of general social tolerance, lukewarm enthusiasm for civil liberties and economic idiocy, so there's little incentive for the donkey party to fine-tune its message, unless it's concerned about holding on to gains in the West.

The Republicans are poised to suffer just desserts for eight years of militarism, authoritarianism, intolerance of legal niceties and general cronyism, so they're more likely to reconsider the product the party is selling. But all signs now point to the GOP positioning itself as a party of populist flag-wavers, sort of like the Australian National Party which, while it wanders a bit, tends to blend social conservatism and nationalism with "agrarian socialism."

The Cato Institute says that libertarians, broadly defined, make up about 10%-15% of the electorate, and Ryan Sager writes in Reason that those voters are up for grabs, though generally disgusted with the mouth-breathing program the Republicans have been peddling.
An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr. ...

Tax cuts or no tax cuts, a party that can be roused in time of deep crisis only by fear and tribalism—a party that a supposed moderate is now deeding to its most extreme elements—can scarcely serve as a safe home to liberty or the voters who cherish it.
That leaves an opportunity for the Democrats looking to hold on to recent gains, for reinvented Republicans, or for somebody else (a professionalized LP?) who wants to court a constituency interested in both economic freedom and civil liberties.

Or maybe we'll just get neglected. Again.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Freedom just makes Jacob Weisberg sad

Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg thunders that recent headlines are evidence of "global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas." According to Weisberg, author of a pro-Leviathan snoozer called In Defense of Government, "any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime." It's a fascinating thesis, hobbled just a bit by the fact that it's completely unmoored from reality.

There's a lot of finger-pointing going on now in an attempt to put the the blame for the financial mess on the Bush administration's policy of business deregulation. As with Weisberg's petulant essay, the finger-pointing tends to be strident, if only to drown out the puzzled protests from economists asking, "What deregulation?"

What deregulation, indeed.

As Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University pointed out in the pages of the New York Times:

THERE is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.

In fact, the Bush administration did take some regulatory action -- it increased the burden of business regulation, particularly in the form of Sarbanes-Oxley, which was an ill-considered reaction to the Enron disaster. Intended to toughen financial reporting requirements, Sarbanes-Oxley so enmeshed many companies in red tape that they took their business -- and their money -- overseas. The International Herald Tribune reported last year:

Two studies have concluded that excessive regulation was making the United States an unattractive place to sell new stocks. One study was conducted by McKinsey for the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, also of New York. The other was done by a group of executives and academics. In particular, the reports single out the Sarbanes- Oxley Act of 2002, the anti-fraud law passed after the debacle at Enron.

Both studies point to figures that show initial public offerings are migrating to Hong Kong and London, where underwriters charge half of what they do in the United States. If IPOs flee, the thinking goes, trading, investment and jobs will follow.

When money leaves the country, financial firms are just a bit less flush, a little less stable -- and that matters when times get tough.

But those are paper regulations. Did they have any teeth under President Bush? Have there been, over the past eight years, actual offices and warm bodies to make sure that companies adhere to red tape, for good or ill?

As a matter of fact, the answer is a big, fat, "yes." A study performed by Melinda Warren of Washington University in St. Louis's Weidenbaum Center and Susan Dudley of George Mason University's Mercatus Center, found a 42% real increase in federal regulatory spending just between 2001 and 2005. By this year, according to a follow-up study from the same organizations, that had turned into a 65% increase in regulatory spending.

Deregulation? Really?

So if regulations and regulatory enforcement increased, and that resulted in some capital fleeing the country, who was to blame?

Well, the answer is, no doubt, one we'll be pursuing for years to come. But the culprit may be ... well ... standing in the shadows behind folks like Weisberg. Professor Tyler Cowen, quoted above, fingered ineffective regulation along with a loss of accountability under President Bush, which could only have made the administration's heavy-handed regulation worse. But he continues in his Times piece:

It would be unfair, however, to blame the Republicans alone for these regulatory failures. The Democrats have a long history of uncritically favoring expansion of homeownership, which contributed to the excesses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the humbled mortgage giants. ...

As late as this spring, Congressional Democrats were pushing for weaker capital requirements for the mortgage agencies. The regulatory reality was that few politicians were willing to exchange short-term economic gains — namely, higher rates of homeownership — for protection against longer-term financial risks.

Jacob Weisberg is no dummy. He knows that there has been no deregulation over the last eight years. He knows that there has been, in fact, increased regulation and enthusiastic enforcement of the same. And, at the same time, politicians substituted political preferences for sound business practice through the medium of government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These are policies Weisberg favors. But the financial crash came anyway. So rather than reconsider the expanded state interference in economic life that he has long favored, he tries to place the blame on advocates of smaller government, who haven't been near the reins of power in recent memory.

Frankly, this is like a tribal witch doctor blaming western medicine for the epidemic that wipes out his village after his fathful flock exclusively relied on rattles and chicken bones to maintain good health.

This matters, because government intrusion into human life in all areas, whether business, sex, gambling, marriage, guns, abortion or the funny substances you favor to take the edge off a long workday, all tend to produce nasty unintended consequences. People like Weisberg then try to deflect the blame for those nasty side effects from the policies they favor to people who have long warned against such state interference in people's lives. If Weisberg and company are successful in their attempts to place blame for the witch doctors' errors on the physicians, we get another round of intrusions with new unintended consequences and ...

And so it continues.

So, when you hear apologists for greater state involvement in your life like Jacob Weisberg screaming that the problem is that you have too much freedom, take a peek around to see just which poorly thought out big-government programs might actually be at the center of the mess.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Can you bridge that chasm at the State Policy Network?

Every time I attend one of these political conferences, I have to relearn a difficult truth: I am no longer a hard drinker. So when I stay out past my bedtime schmoozing with think-tank types and knocking back pints of wine on somebody else's dime, I always end up with a next-day head of the sort I once had to earn with rivers of tequila. A tequila drunk? That's worth a hangover. A little red-wine tipsiness is no compensation for that midget-squatting-on-my-head feeling.

Hey, it's all for a good cause, right?

But whose cause is it? The gathering here in Scottsdale is a mixed bag of policy types, activists, bloggers, journalists and the like, spanning the spectrum from some kind of libertarian to some kind of conservative. And that's an increasingly fractious spectrum. The majority are pulling, pulling, pulling for McCain/Palin, but there's a lively Bob Barr contingent too (I haven't run into any Chuck Baldwin supporters).

And the constituencies don't necessarily grok each other. Yesterday, when news spread that Barr had asked Ron Paul to take the number-two slot on the Libertarian ticket, with current veep contender Wayne Allyn Root's blessing, some conservatives pushed that offer as a supposed deal-breaker -- how can you support Barr if he's making nice with (oooh) Ron Paul?

Of course, it doesn't work that way. For most of the folks considering Barr, Paul's presence on the ticket would be a bonus. His opposition to overseas military adventures, the Bush administration and the big-government GOP establishment are considered good things.

There's a growing chasm between many libertarians and conservatives, but people seem to be tripping over the damned thing without noticing that they've stubbed their toes.

The one thing the libs and cons do seem to agree on is that Sarah Palin was an inspired choice. The staff of one organization told me they pulled down their office Barr memorabilia after she won the nod. Maybe Palin is lying across that chasm all by herself as a human bridge.

Whatever happens with that chasm in the future, I'm finding these meet-and-greets to be worthwhile. The business-card collection is enough justification, as far as I'm concerned. I can't have too many additions to the ... well, nobody uses Rolodexes any more.

Which brings us to the next big boon from this conference. There's a huge emphasis on Web 2.0 and online social networking here -- tutorials and advice that are ideal for anybody who needs to promote a blog or a Website. Yes, I picked up some useful info.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go nail down the left wing of this little gathering by posting another piece or two at Examiner.com calling for legalizing prostitution.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Bob Barr and libertarians plugged in Time

Advocates of personal freedom and small government are back on the national media's radar -- in a big way. In "The (Not So) Lunatic Fringe," Time magazine recognizes the relevance of the broad libertarian movement to an extent that has been all-too-rare in recent years.

The credit for this coverage belongs to those millions of Americans who care deeply about freedom -- or who just want to be left alone. They might be philosophical libertarians overall, or primarily dope smokers, or civil libertarians, or home-schoolers, or gun owners, or advocates of Internet autonomy, but their passions have come together this year in two important ways that have propelled the libertarian movement onto the national stage: the enthusiastic backing and impressive support Rep. Ron Paul won during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the popular support Bob Barr is drawing as the Libertarian candidate for president.

Going against its purist tendencies, the Libertarian Party did its best this year to benefit from the enthusiasm Paul generated by nominating conservative-leaning, moderate libertarian Barr. As of this week, Zogby has Barr polling at 6% nationally -- the margin between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama -- making him impossible to ignore, especially since he draws even more impressive percentages in many states. Yes, the Zogby poll is an outlier, but it's picking up on a real phenomenon -- and probably helping to fuel that phenomenon as it does so.

The current recognition of the relevance of the libertarian movement is almost certainly because libertarianism is being interpreted broadly this year. The hard-line movement that has controlled the political party of the name and largely defined libertarianism in recent years may appeal to my anarchic soul, but it's all too easy to marginalize because it commands relatively few adherents and advocates for positions that are miles away from the world in which we live. When we define advocacy for freedom as 100% rejection of the modern, authoritarian state, we play into the control-freaks' hands, because then they can claim that very few people really want to run their own lives.

But the 85-percenters still want to be a lot freer than modern America allows. Given the realities of the world in which we actually live (rather than the one in which us radicals might like to live), we're all part of the same libertarian movement. That fact is apparent this year for the first time in a long time.

And that's why Time is spilling ink on the subject.

The one nit I'd pick with the Time article is its characterization of libertarianism as backward-looking.

There is a lot in the complaints in the Libertarian heartland that sounds like nostalgia for an idealized American past. Jim Berg will tell you about grazing-rights grievances, but he's just as quick to lament the death of the ranching lifestyle. "My grandkids have scattered like quail," he says. "They've all gone city."

This sense that progress has gone too far and too fast unites a large swath of Libertarians from coast to coast. ...

But the piece then backs away from that seeming-nostalgia-trip take on people who care about freedom, acknowledging that "it's always been partially left-wing, drawing from a long history of American anarchism. The modern challenge is to unite those two wings--or, as magician (and stalwart Libertarian) Penn Jillette told me, 'Convince the dope guys that the gun guys are O.K., and vice versa.'"

There are certainly people in the libertarian movement driven by a hankering for the past, but I think most modern libertarians -- especially younger ones -- look to the future and want to be free to greet it and shape it on their own terms, not those set by fearful, foot-dragging government officials.

But we embrace the nostalgia-trippers too, because finally, this year, many more people who want to live in a more-free, less-constrained country are emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences.

And they're making a difference by doing so.

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