FreedomFest is the great annual meeting of libertarians in Las Vegas organized by author, economist, and editor Mark Skousen. Held close to the 4th of July every year, it celebrates a diversity of opinions rarely found among the “conservatively correct” who rule the Republican Party and brook little dissent – for example, against more wars. Steve Forbes, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, and Fox Business Channel’s Judge Napolitano are always there.
Sen. Rand Paul was the keynote speaker at this year’s conference, which took place July 11-14. He said that there is “consensus” in Washington — for higher taxes, more regulations, and few reforms. He questioned Defense Department waste and demanded a first time audit of Pentagon spending. He said his proposed cuts of just 1 percent across the board for all government spending were opposed by most of Congress, even though such a real cut would in 10 years balance America’s budget.
Speakers included a veritable Who’s Who of libertarian intellectuals and independent conservatives. (See links to their biographies and to the program topics.) Some hundred subjects were covered in lectures or seminars with panels of experts, a gamut covering the American and world economies, finance, investment, geopolitics, philosophy, history, art, healthy living, science, and technology. John Mackey spoke on food, saying that he approved of the “paleo” diet, based upon what ancient humans ate, but adding that whole grains (unrefined flour) were healthy as well.
A newly expanded feature was Anthem: The Libertarian Film Festival, with some 20 films on issues such as jury nullification, Liberty in film, Ayn Rand, Detroit’s underground economy, climate change, and many libertarian themes.
TAC editor Daniel McCarthy, contributing editor Sheldon Richman (who edits the Foundation for Economic Education’s Freeman), and myself participated in a panel on “Liberty or Empire—Freedom and Unending Wars.” I focused on understanding Third World nations, why democracies can’t run empires, and why America is unable to win guerrilla wars. McCarthy spoke on the connection between war and revolution as forces that transform society – another reason Americans should not take lightly the consequences of unending wars. Sheldon Richman discussed the original Articles of Confederation of the 13 American colonies and how many of our Founders were concerned that too strong a central government be able to go to war like the old European kings. (Audio recordings of the sessions are available here.)
James B. Stewart has an instructive story in the New York Times on the origins of the broccoli meme: where it started and how it ended up figuring in the Supreme Court arguments over the Affordable Care Act.
With an accompanying graphic titled “The Broccoli Trail,” the whole thing has an air of epidemiology about it. Still, it’s a great example of the power of a small band of conservatives and libertarians harnessing non-mainstream media and crystallizing legal opposition to an extraordinarily complex law.
Before reaching the Supreme Court, vegetables were cited by a federal judge in Florida with a libertarian streak; in an Internet video financed by libertarian and ultraconservative backers; at a Congressional hearing by a Republican senator; and an op-ed column by David B. Rivkin Jr., a libertarian lawyer whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when he was 10.
Even those who reject the broccoli argument appreciate its simplicity. Whatever the Supreme Court rules, Mr. Rivkin and his libertarian allies have turned the decision into a cliffhanger that few thought possible.
Apologies for the heresy, but of all the many reasons to oppose Obamacare, the mandate to purchase insurance was never very high on the list for me. Let me put it slightly differently: The motivation behind the mandate — preserving the profit margins of private insurance companies — is more troubling than the compulsion itself. As under Obamacare, Germany compels its citizens to contribute to “sickness funds,” but most of the insurance industry there is nonprofit.
In any event, slippery-slope arguments are far from dispositive. As George Will wrote in 1983, all government “takes place on a slippery slope. Anything can be imagined carried to unreasonable lengths. That is why the most important four words in politics are: up to a point…”
If nothing else, Stewart’s “Broccoli Trail” is one more piece of evidence (if any more was needed) that the Supreme Court does not exist in some kind of platonic strongbox that mere politics cannot penetrate. As a lawyer friend of Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum corresponded:
I think legal watchers deep down believed that the Court would not be so superficial as to unhinge established jurisprudence for an ideological cause. It’s a fun parlor game, but they figure that when sobriety prevails the court will bow to precedent where — as here — the issue is squarely within existing precedent. Well, no, and they are perfectly free to channel right wing bullshit points such as inactivity vs. activity. I think this really rattled [Jeffrey] Toobin to see justices behaving like congressmen from Alabama in their arguments.
As we now know, the justices routinely use Google to research their opinions.
Talk about slippery slopes.
Murphy argues that government intervention inevitably breeds social conflict. From marriage to health care to education, an intrusive state makes controversies and disagreements that much harder for society to manage:
If it weren’t for the punitive federal income tax, then a major justification for government-sanctioned homosexual marriage would be moot. If the government didn’t arrogate to itself the power to award children to households it deemed fit, then yet another major “practical” consideration would vanish.
To be sure, Murphy admits, “There are no perfect solutions to these controversies, and I am not claiming that the voluntary private sector would make everyone happy.”
Murphy makes a lot of sense here, but let’s look at this from a slightly different angle: not whether social conflict exists, per se, but whether a given public good outweighs the absence of social conflict. Speaking of school prayer and bilingual education, he writes: “The only real solution is to privatize schooling altogether and let families, churches, and secular institutions voluntarily come up with their own curricula and rules for student behavior.” Yes, that would be a “solution.” But what if your notion of how severe the conflicts over prayer and bilingual education is distorted or outsized?
I had never seen this quote from Leo Strauss before. It’s originally from Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, but I ran across it yesterday in Pierre Manent’s Democracy Without Nations (which I highly recommend).
Liberalism stands or falls by the distinction between state and society, or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. Just as certainly as the liberal state will not “discriminate” against its Jewish citizens, so it is constitutionally unable and even unwilling to prevent “discrimination” against Jews by individuals or groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private “discrimination,” to protect it and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require a legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.
He means classical liberalism, of course. The conflict between that kind of liberalism and the traditional view of human nature as corrupt and sinful is well known, but the symmetrical conflict between classical liberalism and the progressive attitudes of most liberals themselves, classical as well as modern, gets less attention. This had nothing to do with the historic shift from classical to modern liberalism, but it has everything to do with the contortions of libertarians today, who, if they confront this problem at all, find themselves becoming more left-wing or more right-wing than the ideal image of liberalism allows: they become either liberal statists, which is a practical contradiction as far as classical liberalism is concerned, or else illiberal anti-statists, which seems like a psychological contradiction.
McSweeney’s has published an attempt at parody of Ayn Rand that quite spectacularly misconstrues her attitudes toward immigrants and Jews, two categories to which she belonged. The piece’s take on Rand’s attitude toward her own sex (“Women can’t read”) might be intended ironically, but the notion that Rand must have been xenophobic is evidently meant to be taken seriously.
She was more likely to be on the receiving end of such attitudes. Rand was once derided as an “an ignorant little Jewish girl” by Ludwig von Mises (himself a Jew) — though on another occasion he called her the bravest man in America (yes, “man”). And as a thickly-accented Russian emigre frequenting right-wing circles in the ’40s and ’50s, she was no stranger to suspicions about her “Americanism.” This oral history leaves no doubt about where she stood on immigration: “Someone asked her for her views on immigration, if she thought it was a good thing. And she got indignant immediately at the very idea that anyone might be opposed to immigration, that a country might not let immigrants in.”
McSweeney’s Megan Amram has given us a splendid self-parody of hipster wannabes who can’t think about politics in terms other than the crudest of liberal cliches. If you want a really good Ayn Rand parody, though, you can’t do better than the man herself, as this clip from an NPR piece on Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters shows:
Mallon quotes from Ayn Rand, in a chapter he calls “Advice,” fascinate precisely because of their lack of elegance. Mallon observes that “the ugly, pile-driving clarity of Rand’s writing was … suited to the giving of advice, at least in those instances when the requester needed someone else’s certainty to pulverize hesitation.” He then quotes from a letter that Rand wrote to her niece who asked for the loan of twenty-five dollars to buy a dress. Auntie Ayn stipulated a repayment plan and signed off thusly: “If you become ill, then I will give you an extension of time — but for no other reason. … If, when the debt comes due, you tell me that you can’t pay … then I will consider you as an embezzler. … I will write you off as a rotten person and I will never speak or write to you again.”
Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups.
We don’t need any more fights over “Piss Christ” or the National Portrait Gallery’s“Hide/Seek” exhibition on sexual difference in portraiture or the Enola Gay exhibitat the National Air and Space Museum. And we can thank our lucky stars that Kentucky’s Creation Museum is private, or we’d have a major political battle over that.
Meanwhile, we should note that the NEA’s budget is about 0.2 percent of the total amount spent on the nonprofit arts in the United States. The rapidly growing crowdfunding platform Kickstarter expects to direct more funding to the arts in its third year of operation than the NEA does. (link)
Breitbart and other outlets have framed the Koch-Cato battle in terms of personalities: how nasty Ed Crane is, how vain the Kochs are, who screwed over Murray Rothbard worse. Anyone who has interacted with libertarian bigwigs of a certain age knows that these questions animate them fiercely. But should anybody who hasn’t had a professional relationship or personal crackup with any of these players care?
Any libertarian worth his salt ought to be more interested in the philosophical stakes, and where those are concerned, I have a hard time seeing any merit in a Koch takeover of Cato. What’s more, I don’t know that anyone has even made the argument that a Koch-ified Cato would be more libertarian than an un-Koched one. If the Kochs had only been adding the likes of Judge Andrew Napolitano to the Cato board, there would be grounds to ponder the question. But I’m curious to hear what kind of “libertarian” philosophical claim can be made for adding (or trying to add) Republican partisans like John Hinderaker and Ted Olson to Cato’s governing body.
If Rothbard were alive today, he might enjoy some Schadenfreude at seeing his old foes tear into one another. But I don’t think he would come down on the Koch side, even if he felt more personally wounded by Crane. Rothbard would put the ideological analysis first, especially with an eye to foreign policy. A friend who knew him well reminded me a few years back that “Murray Rothbard always used to say that war is the most important issue.” There are reasons why the most antiwar libertarians might feel frustrated with Cato — Leon Hadar, a former Cato scholar, has outlined some of them in TAC — but it would take quite a feat of reasoning to show that John Hinderaker would actually make Cato more antiwar.
Have a look at the byline-less “Crane Chronicles” series (1, 2, 3) over at Breitbart, in which the LA-based viral news blog takes a firm stand on the side of the Brothers Koch in the battle for the future of the libertarian think tank. The latest, published last Tuesday, quotes several anonymous sources and accuses Cato Institute president Ed Crane of sexual harassment and creating a “hostile and degrading” work environment for women.
It’s bracing stuff, but readers of this blog need no warnings to take Breitbart News’ anonymous sources with a grain of salt.
The first piece makes hay out of Ed Crane talking to Jane Mayer for her paranoid New Yorker profile on the Kochs. The author, whoever that might be, takes this as heresy, unconscionable collusion with the “Democrat Media Complex” that places him beyond the pale of sympathy. The quote in question involves a “top Cato official” referring to Charles Koch and his Market-Based Management ideas as an “emperor” who’s “convinced he’s wearing clothes.” Reading David Koch’s letter about the controversy, it’s tough to escape the conclusion that the Kochs have taken offense at Crane’s insufficient deference to their silly management philosophy:
When confronted about this, Ed initially claimed he only spoke briefly and favorably about us. He later acknowledged that he had made the statement as quoted, but it was only for background. Subsequently, he claimed that he was misquoted. As Ed has shown, he will partner with anyone – including those that oppose Cato and what it stands for – to further his personal agenda at the expense of others working to advance a free society.
Whether or not Ed Crane should have spoken to Jane Mayer should be irrelevant, though that sort of tribalism certainly animates the staff of Breitbart News. The idea that the president of the leading libertarian think tank should have some sort of gag rule for talking to left-wing reporters is nonsense. Whether Mayer misquoted Crane or quoted him against his wishes is not irrelevant, but to suggest that his statements were part of some sort of power grab on Crane’s part is more than the evidence supports. Either the Kochs are using this line as part of a power grab of their own, or Charles really was offended by the characterization of his book. To anyone who doubts the Kochs are narcissistic enough for that to be a motivating factor I would ask: What kind of self-respecting billionaire writes a self-help book? Read More…
How does the nation’s preeminent old-school conservative columnist, writing a column about the “drug legalization dilemma,” fail to so much as make a passing mention of the eighteen states whose police power is being usurped by federal drug warriors? George Will, with some familiar arguments:
So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it.
Still, because the costs of prohibition — interdiction, mass incarceration, etc. — are staggeringly high, some people say, “Let’s just try legalization for a while.” Society is not, however, like a controlled laboratory; in society, experiments that produce disappointing or unexpected results cannot be tidily reversed.
Legalized marijuana could be produced for much less than a tenth of its current price as an illegal commodity. Legalization of cocaine and heroin would cut their prices, too; they would sell for a tiny percentage of their current prices. And using high excise taxes to maintain cocaine and heroin prices at current levels would produce widespread tax evasion — and an illegal market.
It’s like George Will is arguing with Ron Paul or something, the way he glosses over the distinctions between different drugs to make a blanket argument that they’re “natural” and therefore the government should protect its citizens from their harmful effects. The problem with that is according to the government’s own statistics, 60 percent of drug cartel profits come from the sale of marijuana (Will has quoted 80 percent), therefore simply allowing states to enforce their own laws would cut significantly into their ability to wreak havoc on both sides of the border. Will has made this argument himself.
The Tuareg rebels have declared independence for the region of Azawad, in northern Mali. France, the EU, and the AU have rejected the declaration. The declaration comes after the recent rebellion in Mali, which has seen the junta ousted from power. This development is not that surprising. The Tuaregs have been launching rebellions for decades, and have long protested against negligence of the government in Bamako. The declaration is only rhetoric; it is not possible for Azawad to become independent without any international cooperation. What is worth noting is the history behind this specific rebellion, and what it reveals about the unintended consequences of our foreign policy. While the war in Libya is over, there are notable looming conflicts that invite us to make similar mistakes soon. Read More…