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Archive for the ‘Liberty’ Category

It’s easy to get discouraged if you believe in small government and individual liberty.

It seems that the burden of the public sector is always expanding and that politicians and bureaucrats are always figuring out new ways to restrict our freedoms.

But let’s not lose hope.

We still have a lot of economic liberty, particularly if you count non-fiscal policy factors.

And we still have the Second Amendment.

Heck, we don’t just have the right to keep and bear arms, we exercise that right in massive numbers.

Take a look at this impressive graphic. We’re #1 in some bad ways, but it seems we’re also #1 in a very good way.

Make sure to share this graphic with your statist friends and colleagues. It’s guaranteed to put them in a glum mood for the rest of the day!

And when you share this with your misguided acquaintances, ask them why guns don’t cause murder in nations such as Switzerland and Finland. Maybe you’ll have a breakthrough and they’ll confess that gun control isn’t the solution.

Incidentally, in addition to having lots of guns in America, we also are quite ready to defy the government if politicians try to take them away.

What’s happening in Connecticut is merely one example of this wonderful form of civil disobedience.

Since we’re on the topic of gun ownership vs. gun control, here’s another image that will cause heartburn for your leftist friends.

Schindler guns

Same theme as the 4th image in this post.

And let’s not forget the best-ever poster on gun control.

Last but not least, here’s a poster sent to me by the PotL.

photo1

It’s the same message found at the top of this post and at the bottom of this post.

If you want more info – both serious and humorous – on gun control, click here.

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One year ago, I looked at the worst policy developments of 2012.

I had some very good (or should I say bad?) options for that award, including the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, the IRS’s lawless decision to make American banks act as tax collectors for foreign governments, Japan’s higher VAT tax, the California vote for a class-warfare tax hike, and France’s 75 percent income tax rate.

I ultimately decided, perhaps for selfishly sentimental reasons, that the worst development was repeal of the flat tax in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

We’re going to do the same exercise this year, but the glass is going to be half full. Not only will we look at the worst policy developments of 2013, but we’ll also list the best policy developments of the year.

And because I try to be optimistic, we’ll start with the good news.

But remember the rules. We’re looking at policy rather than politics. I know, for instance, that one of my favorite posts in 2013 was the one about Reagan crushing Obama in a hypothetical matchup, but that’s obviously not a policy development.

So what are my choices?

Potential examples of good news include the fact that very little legislation was enacted during the year, the sequester (while it lasted), the overwhelming rejection of class-warfare tax policy in Colorado, and the government shutdown.

Those are all good options, but I think these three developments rank the highest.

1. Obamacare – You’re probably thinking I’m on drugs since Obamacare is listed as good news, but bear with me because I’m engaging in some one-step-backwards-two-steps-forward analysis. More specifically, I think the President’s signature “achievement” has done more than anything else in recent years to discredit big government. I also think the flop of Obamacare has rejuvenated interest in – and support for – the types of policies that would make health care system more affordable and efficient. I’ve always feared that undoing the damage of government intervention in the health sector was our most intractable challenge, but Obama may have given us a path forward and that is worth celebrating. By the way, the Detroit bankruptcy is good news for the same reason. Maybe, just maybe, some people will learn the right lessons when statist policies spectacularly fail.

2. The defeat of pro-gun control politicians in Colorado – I don’t think many people will argue when I say that nothing matters more to politicians than getting reelected. And that’s why I am so happy that two Colorado state senators were kicked out of office because of their votes to impose gun control. And that was then followed by the resignation of another state senator who wanted to avoid the same fate. There aren’t many certainties in life, but I can assure you that pro-gun control politicians all across the nation noticed what happened to these Colorado thugs and are now much less likely to push anti-second amendment initiatives. More broadly, we can feel somewhat optimistic that the right to keep and bear arms has never been in a stronger political position.

3. Spending restraint – This hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves, but the federal budget in 2013 was actually smaller than the federal budget in 2012. And I’m using honest math, not the Washington approach of calling an increase a cut because the budget might have grown even faster. Indeed, the nation actually has enjoyed a two-year spending slowdown that substantially reduced government spending as a share of GDP. In other words, my Golden Rule was in effect! If we could maintain this approach for a few more years, we’d quickly have a balanced budget and hopefully kill off any pressure for tax hikes.

Feel free, by the way, to offer your suggestions in the comment section. Maybe the best news of 2013 was something that I neglected to cover.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger.

Potential bad news stories might include the IMF coercing/bribing Albania to get rid of its flat tax, the easy-money policies of the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, the 100th anniversary of the income tax, the global shift to higher tax rates, the seemingly permanent drop in the employment-population ratio, and the fiscal cliff tax hike from last January 1.

Geesh, that’s a depressing list. But there are three options – in my humble opinion – that are even worse.

1. Obamacare – I realize I listed Obamacare as one of the best developments of 2013, but it also has to be one of the worst. The legislation is a toxic stew of spending, taxes, regulation, cronyism, and intervention, and it was based on the absurd theory that you solve government-caused problems by adding even more government. And even though Obamacare has discredited big government and opened the door to real reform, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the law will survive and created more dependency.

2. Erosion of the Rule of Law – One of the defining features of a civilized society is the rule of law. Heck, even if laws are bad, it’s still important for people to know that there are rules and that the government is constrained by those rules. That’s the basic difference between the developed world and the types of despotic rule you find in developing nations (with Argentina being a tragic example). Unfortunately, the Obama White House seems to think that it can arbitrarily change laws or ignore laws simply based on the President’s ideological whims or political needs. This has happened over and over again with Obamacare, but the problem extends to many other issues.

3. Murray-Ryan budget deal – Since I thought the sequester was one of the good things that happened in 2013, you won’t be surprised that a law designed to evade the sequester would make the list of bad policy developments. The budget pact between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray allowed more short-term spending, much of it financed by back-door tax hikes. I’m the first to admit that the spending hikes and tax increases were relatively small compared to the size of the federal Leviathan, but what’s really depressing about the Murray-Ryan deal is that it probably sets the stage for future bad agreements. And this Charlie Brown cartoon shows what frequently happens when Republicans and Democrats decide to negotiate on fiscal policy.

Once again, feel free to offer your suggestions for the worst development of 2013.

On a more personal note, I’m happy to report that I don’t think there were any noteworthy bad developments in my life. Other than getting another year older, which isn’t any fun.

I can,however, report a couple of good developments for the year, including the Princess of the Levant and some better performance on the softball field.

And in the I’m-not-sure-how-to-react category, my favorite daughter got engaged this year. I’m worried this may eventually lead to marriage. And then children.

Which would make me a grandfather, and I’d like to think that I’m much too young for anyone to call me Grandpa!

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I’m a very straight-laced guy. Some would even say boring. I’ve never done drugs, for instance.

But not because they’re illegal. I’ve never done drugs for the reason that I’ve never smoked cigarettes. Just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. And I encourage friends and family to have the same approach.

That being said, I’ve never thought we should criminalize things simply because I don’t like them.

Particularly when it would make a lot more sense to focus law enforcement resources on stopping crimes against people and property. This new video from Learn Liberty explains further.

But this isn’t about cost-benefit analysis. Watch this powerful video from Reason TV about how one family has been victimized by drug prohibition.

Now ask yourself what purpose it served to have local cops basically entrap that unfortunate kid? If you come up with an answer, you have a very creative imagination.

Also keep in mind that the War on Drugs is the reason why politicians imposed costly and ineffective anti-money laundering laws. As well as disgusting and reprehensible asset forfeiture laws.

One misguided government policy leading to two other bad policies. That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids!

P.S. Drugs do impose costs, but they’re mostly incurred by moronic users. Though there sometimes are collateral victims, such as kids whose parents allow their lives to get messed up. That’s why it would be nice if drugs somehow didn’t exist. Heck, the same things could be said about booze. Or tobacco. But they do exist. The libertarian position isn’t that these things are good. Instead, our position is that prohibition does more harm than good.

P.P.S. Just in case you think I’m an outlier, I invite you to read the thoughts of John McCain, John Stossel, Mona Charen, Gary Johnson, Pat Robertson, Cory Booker, and Richard Branson.

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The English are an interesting tribe. There is much to like about their country, including the fact that voters repeatedly elected Margaret Thatcher, one of the world’s best leaders in my lifetime.

On the other hand, the United Kingdom has veered sharply to the left in recent decades, and Thatcher must have been very disappointed that her Conservative Party now is but a hollow shell, controlled by statists who actually think people should voluntarily pay extra tax to support wasteful and corrupt government.

And the politicians openly pursue Orwellian tax-collection tactics!

No wonder the country now faces a very grim future.

But the thing that most irks me about the British political class is the fanatical embrace of anti-gun policies. Consider some of these examples.

Given these example of anti-gun zealotry, you won’t be surprised to learn that some English pundits think America is primitive and backwards for retaining an individual right to bear arms.

You may be thinking, “so what, they have their bad laws and we have our good laws.” But it seems at least some Brits want to disarm not just their own citizens, but Americans as well.

Writing for the UK-based Guardian, Henry Porter asserts that it is time for the United Nations to somehow undermine private gun ownership in the United States.

…what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? … If this perennial slaughter doesn’t qualify for intercession by the UN and all relevant NGOs, it is hard to know what does.

Mr. Porter doesn’t specify how the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations are supposed to accomplish this task.

Does he want Obama to ram through the U.N. treaty that leftists hope would trump the Second Amendment?

If so, all I can say is good luck trying to enforce gun bans. The American people would engage in widespread disobedience if our own politicians tried to take away our constitutional freedoms.

I’d like to see UN bureaucrats try to disarm these great Americans

And if a bunch of U.N. bureaucrats tried to do the same thing…well, that’s such a ridiculous notion that I’m reminded of my fantasy about what might have happened if the United Nations had tried to stop Texas from executing a child murderer who originally was from Mexico.

But the call for UN intervention is not the most absurd part of the article.

What could be sillier, you ask? How about the fact that Mr. Porter implies that gun owners are akin to slave owners. It’s not an explicit accusation, but you can see in this excerpt that he wants readers to draw that conclusion.

Half the country is sane and rational while the other half simply doesn’t grasp the inconsistencies and historic lunacy of its position, which springs from the second amendment right to keep and bear arms, and is derived from English common law and our 1689 Bill of Rights. We dispensed with these rights long ago, but American gun owners cleave to them with the tenacity that previous generations fought to continue slavery.

So if you “cleave” to your guns, you’re on the same level as the people who defended slavery. I guess this is the U.K. version of Obama accusing some Americans of “clinging to guns.”

Ironically, Mr. Porter self identifies as a “journalist specialising in liberty and civil rights.” But he doesn’t specify what side he’s on, so I guess we can assume – based on this column – that he specializes in undermining liberty and curtailing civil rights.

P.S. The Guardian is known as a left-wing newspaper, but I’ve always had a special place for them in my heart ever since one of their writers accused me of being “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.” He meant it as an insult, of course, but I think of it as the nicest thing ever written about me. Even better than this.

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What do John Stossel, Mona Charen, Gary Johnson, Pat Robertson, Cory Booker, and Richard Branson all have in common?

And let’s add voters from the states of Colorado and Washington to this list. So what unites this unusual collection of people?

They’ve all expressed doubts about the War on Drugs. And that’s a good thing.

As explained in this video, the Drug War has been a very costly failure. Indeed, it’s been such a boondoggle that we can now add John McCain to the list of those who think maybe it’s time to consider decriminalization.

McCain Drug WarSen. John McCain (R-AZ) signaled Thursday that he’s receptive to legalizing pot. Tim Steller, a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, reported over Twitter from a town hall in Tucson, Ariz. that McCain cited the “will of the people” in expressing an openness to legalization.

I’m glad Senator McCain is moving in the right direction, though I’m not sure I like his reasoning. The “will of the people” sometimes means two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.

I much prefer the logical arguments of my Cato colleague Jeffrey Miron, who is a Senior Lecturer in economics at Harvard. Here’s some of what he recently wrote for the Huffington Post.

I have come to regard legalization as a policy no-brainer. Virtually all the effects would be positive, with minimal risks of significant negatives. An important piece of that research has been examination of drug policy in the Netherlands, where marijuana is virtually, although not quite technically, legal.

Jeff just visited Amsterdam and here’s what he found in that supposed den of iniquity.

Legalization advocates point to Amsterdam as evidence that legalization works, at least for marijuana. Legalization critics, such as former White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, believe instead that Dutch policy is flawed, generating crime and nuisance effects. Only first-hand observation could give me a clear view of which description is more accurate. …the Red Light District could not have felt safer or more normal. Yes, marijuana was widely available. …But nothing about the District felt unsafe, or suggested elevated crime or violence; I have felt less safe in many American and European cities. …The absence of violence is not surprising. Prohibition, not drug use, is the main reason for the association between violence and drugs, prostitution, gambling, or any banned good. In a legal market, participants resolve disputes with lawyers, courts, and arbitration. In an illegal market, they cannot use these methods and resort to violence instead. Thus the critical determinant of violence is whether an industry is legal, as the history of alcohol prohibition illustrates. That industry was violent during the 1920-1933 period, when the federal and many state governments banned alcohol, but not before or after. And if the government banned tobacco, or coffee, or ice cream, or any good with substantial demand and imperfect substitutes, a violent black market would arise.

There’s no evidence, by the way, that legalization means more drug use.

In 2009, the past year marijuana use rate was 11.3 percent in the United States but only 7.0 percent in the Netherlands. This does not prove that legalization lowers drug use; many other factors are at play. But these data hardly support the claim that prohibition has a material impact in reducing use. When we were toured Amsterdam on a canal barge, the guide commented that, “Despite legal drugs and prostitution, Amsterdam is a safe city.” My son, who has heard me rant about prohibition for years, looked up and quipped, “He should have said “Because drugs and prostitution are legal, right?” Exactly.

Sounds like Jeff’s done a good job as a father (and if I’m allowed to brag, I haven’t done a bad job either).

In closing, let me emphasize that libertarian does not mean libertine. My Republican friends are wrong when they think libertarians are like the guy in the upper left of this poster.

You can support legalization without being a drug user or without thinking that it’s a good idea for other people to smoke pot. Heck, I’m probably one of a small minority of people in my generation to never try any drug.

But that doesn’t mean I want to squander lots of tax money and reduce human freedom to persecute others who are engaged in victimless activities. Especially when it means a massive increase in the power of government!

Let’s not forget, after all, that politicians used the Drug War as an excuse to enact reprehensible and costly laws on asset forfeiture and money laundering. One foolish policy leads to a couple of other misguided policies. That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids!

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I’m in Vienna, Austria, for the annual European Resource Bank meeting.

I had the pleasure last night of listening to Jose Pinera speak about economic reform in Chile, particularly the system of personal retirement accounts.

He shared a chart that conclusively shows why good economic policy makes a difference.

Chile Miracle

Wow. Look at how much faster the economy has grown since the communists were ousted in 1975 and replaced by a pro-market government.* And the poverty rate has plummeted from 50 percent to 11 percent!

Simply stated, economic reform has been hugely beneficial to poor and middle-class people in Chile. Something to remember as we try to rein in the welfare state in America.

Let’s look at some more data. A couple of years ago, I shared this chart showing how Chile had out-paced Argentina and Venezuela. In other words, Chile’s performance is ultra-impressive, whether examined in isolation or in comparison with other nations in the region.

The reason for all this success is that Chile didn’t just reform its pension system. As you can see from this Economic Freedom of the World data, Chile has made improvements in virtually all areas of public policy.

The nationwide school choice system, for instance, is another example of very beneficial reform.

It’s not quite Hong Kong or Singapore, but Chile is definitely a huge success story.

*The Pinochet government that took power in the 1970s may have been pro-economic liberty, but it also was authoritarian. Fortunately, Chile made a successful and peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s and has generally continued on a pro-free market path.

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When I was became interested in public policy, I thought Jimmy Carter was the epitome of a bad President. But as I began to learn economics, I realized that Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson also were terrible and belong in the Hall of Fame of bad Presidents.

Presidential Hall of ShameAnd the more I studied economics and public policy, I learned that Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were two peas in a failed big-government pod and deserve membership in that Hall of Fame.

Or I guess we should call it a Hall of Shame (you can click on the image to see my selections).

Whatever we call it, I’m now at the point where I realize that Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt are the charter members. Why? Well, because they were the first Presidents to reflect the progressive ideology.

More specifically, they shared the ideology of the progressive movement, which saw a powerful and activist central government as a force for good – a radical departure from the views of America’s Founding Fathers, who hoped that the Constitution would protect people by keeping government very small.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama is in that “progressive” tradition, even to the point of attacking the views of the Founding Fathers in a recent speech at Ohio State University.

I commented on this issue in this Fox News segment.

That short clip only scratches the surface.

For more detail, here are some excerpts from a column by Andrew Napolitano. Like me, he isn’t impressed by the President’s statolatry.

It should come as no surprise that President Obama told Ohio State students at graduation ceremonies last week that they should not question authority… And he blasted those who incessantly warn of government tyranny. Yet, mistrust of government is as old as America itself. America was born out of mistrust of government. …Thomas Jefferson…warned that it is the nature of government over time to increase and of liberty to decrease. And that’s why we should not trust government. In the same era, James Madison himself agreed when he wrote, “All men having power should be distrusted to a certain degree.” …The reason Obama likes government and the reason it is “a dangerous fire,” as George Washington warned, and the reason I have been warning against government tyranny in my public work is all the same: The government rejects the natural law because it is an obstacle to its control over us. …Because the tyranny of the majority can be as dangerous to freedom as the tyranny of a madman, all use of governmental power should be challenged and questioned. Government is essentially the negation of liberty.

Napolitano also warns against majoritarianism in his column, which is music to my ears.

Though I’m not sure our battle today is with majoritarianism or the progressive ideology.

Our real challenge is redistributionism. Far too many people think it is okay to use the coercive power of government to obtain unearned benefits. And that’s true whether the benefits are food stamps or bailouts.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd as we travel farther and farther down this path, it leads to ever-greater levels of dependency and ever-higher levels of taxation. But that simply means more people decide it makes more sense to ride in the wagon rather than pull the wagon.

Somehow, we have to reverse this downward spiral.

Unless we want America to become Greece or France, at which point productive people may be forced to emigrate – assuming there are still some sensible nations left in the world.

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A reader wants to know if I think the American people are becoming more statist over time.

I’m conflicted. More and more people get lured into some form of government dependency every year, and this suggests Americans eventually will adopt a  European-style moocher mentality.

This worries me.

On the other hand, I periodically see polls suggesting that the American people have very libertarian views on key issues.

These are encouraging numbers. And here’s another bit of good news. A recent poll by Fox News found that a plurality of Americans would not give up personal freedoms to reduce the threat of terrorism. What’s especially remarkable is that this poll took place immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon by the welfare-sponging Tsarnaev brothers.

Terrorism Freedom Tradeoff

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a left-leaning friend who said this poll showed that Americans were a bunch of “paranoid nuts” because this poll showed that they viewed their government with suspicion.

But perhaps people are simply rational. I had an intern look up data on the probability of getting killed by a terrorist. He found an article from Reason that reported.

…a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, the odds of being killed by a terrorist are very low. And with the risk so low, why give up liberty? Particularly when it’s highly unlikely that sacrificing more of your freedom will actually reduce the already-low threat of terrorism.

This reminds me of the money laundering issue. Just a few decades ago, there was no such thing as anti-money laundering laws. Then politicians decided we need these laws to reduce crime.

These laws, we were told, would give law enforcement more tools to catch bad guys and also reduce the incentive to commit crimes since it would be harder for criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

That sounds good, but the evidence shows that these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

So how did politicians respond? In a stereotypical display of Mitchell’s Law, they decided to make anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact.

This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So when I see polls showing the American people are skeptical about surrendering freedom to the government, I don’t think they are being “paranoid.” I think they’re being very rational.

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Barack Obama has stated that he wants to be like Reagan, at least in the sense of wanting to be a transformational figure.

But almost certainly he has failed.

Yes, Obama has increased the burden of government spending, raised tax rates, and created more dependency, but there’s nothing particularly special about Obama’s tenure that makes him different from other statist Presidents such as Nixon, Carter, and Bush.

Nor is there any evidence that he has fundamentally changed the attitudes of the American people.

That may sound like a bold – and overly optimistic – assertion, but check out the amazing results from a new poll. According to a survey of 1,000 adults, Reagan would kick the you-know-what out of Obama, winning a hypothetical contest by a staggering 58-42 margin.

Reagan Obama Poll

By the way, the margin might be even bigger than I’m reporting. As you can see from this press excerpt, all we know is that 58 percent of respondents said they would vote for Reagan. I’m assuming that 42 percent would vote for Obama, but it’s possible there was also a “don’t know” or “other” category, so maybe Obama would be under 40 percent!

…just about everything about the era — from the politics, leaders and safety to the music, TV shows and blockbuster movies — are seen as being better than they are today. In fact, 3 in 4 Americans (74%) thought that our country was better off then and even safer (76%). The same amount (76%) believe that government ran better in the 1980s than it does today. And if a presidential election were held today, 58 percent would vote for Ronald Reagan over Barack Obama. Americans ages 18 to 34 were evenly split, with 51 percent favoring Reagan and 49 percent Obama.

Even young people preferred Reagan over Obama, which is remarkable since they didn’t experience the Reagan years and largely have learned about the Gipper from the media and schools, both of which are very hostile to Reagan.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by these polling results. Just take a look at this amazing infographic, which shows Obama’s horrible record on jobs compared to Reagan and other Presidents. Michael Ramirez makes the same point in this very funny cartoon.

Or look at these powerful charts based on Minneapolis Federal Reserve data, which compare the strong results of Reaganomics with the pathetic results of Obamanomics.

In other words, good policy leads to good outcomes, and good outcomes yield political rewards. That simple lesson has been lost on the weak gaggle of big-government GOPers who followed Reagan.

But our hypothetical polling results show that Americans today are still ready to rally behind a candidate who offers a compelling message of freedom and prosperity. That’s yet another reason why I’m still optimistic about the fight for liberty.

P.S. Here’s some snarky humor comparing the Gipper with Obama. And if you liked the story of what happens when you try socialism in the classroom, you’ll also enjoy this video of Reagan schooling Obama.

P.P.S. If you want to be inspired, click here and here to see two short clips of Reagan in action.

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Whether they’re banning bake sales, federalizing school lunch menus, or criminalizing Big Gulps, the nanny-staters feel they have some special wisdom that gives them the right to tell other people how to live their lives.

This irks libertarians since we value human liberty, even if it means people sometimes make foolish choices. But so long as you’re not interfering with someone else’s rights, we don’t think government should dictate your private behavior.

Parternalists obviously disagree. For a very reasonable explanation of this mindset, here’s some of Cass Sunstein’s work, as excerpted by The New Republic.

What seems to unify paternalistic approaches, however diverse, is that government does not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and it is taking steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good.

In other words, people are sometimes dumb and the government at the very least needs to nudge them in the right direction.

Sunstein outlines the objections to this approach, largely focusing on the fact that the market process will discourage bad behaviors.

To the committed antipaternalist, government should not short-circuit the valuable process of learning by doing. If people make mistakes about diets, drinks, love, or investments, they can obtain valuable lessons, and those lessons can make their lives a lot better. …In a market economy, companies compete with one another, and people are free to choose among a wide range of options. If a car has terrible fuel economy, and if it costs a lot of money to operate, fewer people will buy it. As a result, companies will produce more fuel-efficient cars. Some consumers may be fooled or tricked, but in the long run, free competition and open markets will help. On this view, paternalism presents a major risk, because it may freeze the process of competition.

Not surprisingly, Sunstein argues that the market process is sometimes inadequate.

…even if we are inclined to think that individuals are generally the best judges of how to make their own lives go well, the word generally is important. With that qualification, we can see that the objections to paternalism depend on some empirical judgments. …The relationship between freedom of choice and welfare is being tested, with complex results. Sometimes people’s means do not promote their own ends. Behavioral economists have identified a number of reasons that people’s choices do not always promote their welfare. …sometimes we fail to take steps that really are in our interest. Human beings often procrastinate, and the long-term may not be so salient to us. We can be tempted by emotional appeals. Sometimes we do not take steps that would make our lives go a lot better. If welfare is our guide, means paternalism might be required, not forbidden.

To be fair, Sunstein recognizes that many antipaternalists are motivated by freedom, not some abstract measure of human welfare.

Suppose that we are not so focused on welfare and that we believe that freedom of choice has a special and independent status. We might think that people have a right to choose, even if their choices cause harm, and that government cannot legitimately intrude on that right, even if it does in fact know best. …Many of the most deeply felt objections to paternalism are based on an intuition or judgment of this kind. They often take the form of a question: By what right can government legitimately interfere with the choices of free adults?

This passage captures my view.

I actually agree with paternalists in that there are lots of people who make bad choices. I think a major problem is that these people over-value the positive feelings they get from “bad” behaviors today and under-value the harm  that those behaviors will cause in the future.

At the risk of making a sweeping judgement, I even think the biggest barrier to upward mobility is that some people don’t have a properly developed sense of deferred gratification.

So I think paternalists often are right, but I disagree with the notion that government should coerce people and impose “good” choices. Simply stated, freedom and liberty matter to me.

To butcher a very important quote, “I may disagree with your decision to smoke cigarettes and guzzle 32 oz. sodas, but I will defend to the death your right to do so.”

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I won’t defend to the death your right to be foolish. But I’ll surely write a snarky blog post.

Let’s close by acknowledging there are some gray areas. What about the idea that government can “nudge” us to make better choices? A classic example is a government rule to automatically sign new workers up for things such as 401(k) plans, but then give them the ability to opt out.

I don’t want government to interfere with private employment contracts, but that type of policy is obviously not nearly as objectionable as banning Big Gulps.

And you can come up with other proposals that might even pass muster with rabid libertarians. If a high school has a consumer finance class that teaches people about compounding and present value, that presumably will nudge them to be more pro-saving.

Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not, though we hard-core libertarians would argue that such lessons presumably would be part of the market-based education system.

In other words, there’s a reason why our answer to just about every question is “less government.” Not only is that a good philosophy, it’s also the way of getting the best results.

P.S. If Sunstein’s name sounds familiar, it may be because I have criticized him for endorsing more redistribution based on FDR’s awful Economic Bill of Rights.

On the other hand, I have favorably cited his research to show that too much regulation can cause needless deaths.

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Mostly for the humor value, I’ve shared stories about brainless anti-gun political correctness by America’s “educators.”

I realize this is a serious issue and I should be figuratively banging my fist on the podium and demanding negative consequences for these foolish teachers and school administrators.

But I share my outrage for stories like this one from New Jersey.

“Take him from his parents and send him to a foster home!”

New Jersey police and Dept. of Children and Families officials raided the home of a firearms instructor and demanded to see his guns after he posted a Facebook photo of his 11-year-old son holding a rifle. …The family’s trouble started Saturday night when Moore received an urgent text message from his wife. The Carneys Point Police Dept. and the New Jersey Dept. of Children and Families had raided their home.

Thankfully, this absurd exercise in government overreach met with stiff resistance.

Moore immediately called [his lawyer] Nappen and rushed home to find officers demanding to check his guns and his gun safe. Instead, he handed the cell phone to one of the officers – so they could speak with Nappen. “If you have a warrant, you’re coming in,” Nappen told the officers. “If you don’t, then you’re not. That’s what privacy is all about.” …“I was told I was being unreasonable and that I was acting suspicious because I wouldn’t open my safe,” Moore wrote on the Delaware Open Carry website. “They told me they were going to get a search warrant. I told them to go ahead.” …The attorney said police eventually left and never returned. “He has a Fourth Amendment right and he’s not going to give up his Fourth Amendment right or his Second Amendment right,” he said. “They didn’t have a warrant – so see you later.”

But let’s not be too optimistic just because this story ended well.

…the person who reported the false allegations of abuse cannot be held liable, she noted. “You can’t be prosecuted for making an allegation of child abuse –even if it’s false,” she said. Nappen said what happened to the Moore family should serve as a warning to gun owners across the nation. “To make someone go through this because he posted a picture of his son with a .22 rifle on his Facebook page is pretty outrageous,” he said.

We should all be outraged by this story. You don’t need a vivid imagination to see that this type of nanny-state-meets-the-jackboot- state thuggery could become more prevalent – and a lot uglier – in the future.

Raising my kids right

I’ll be taking my kids out to the High Lonesome Ranch in May, and we’ll be doing some shooting. And when they were much younger, my kids enjoyed their opportunity to shred some soda cans with an AK-47. I can only imagine what might have happened if I had taken some photos and posted them (not that Facebook existed in the primitive 1990s).

Let’s close by being thankful for the Founding Fathers. They bequeathed to us a Bill of Rights that includes a 2nd Amendment and a 4th Amendment. I know my conservative friends appreciate the former, but I hope this story helps them realize that the latter is also important as a bulwark against government thuggery. It’s for that reason that I once had the unusual experience of siding with Ruth Bader Ginsburg over Clarence Thomas!

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I realize the sequester kicks in tomorrow and I should be writing about that rare opportunity to control the burden of government spending.

To be sure, my fingers are crossed that Republicans won’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and I’ve been busy on Capitol Hill talking to folks about the issue, but this post already says everything you need to know about that topic.

It’s time to switch gears, particularly since I have a soft spot for feel-good stories.

And what could be more heart-tugging than a story about the right to keep and bear tanks?

Here are some blurbs from the Wall Street Journal.

Weapons buffs may stock semiautomatics in the gun safe. But nothing makes a statement like having an Army tank in the garage. …there are several hundred to 1,000 private tank owners in the U.S. …Brothers Ken and Gene Neal, owners of Bullet Proof Diesel, a truck-parts manufacturer in Mesa, Ariz., once took their 1966 British Chieftain tank into the desert and joyfully backed it over a rusty car. When their insurance agent inquired about their plans for the tank, the Neal brothers emailed back, “We are going to use it to take over the world.” Says Ken Neal, 45: “A tank is cool.”

Private Tank

The latest in home defense

But is it legal?

Yup, and it can even have a working gun if you’re willing to fork over $200 for a permit.

A tank in the U.S. can have operational guns, if the owner has a federal Destructive Device permit, and state laws don’t prohibit it. The permit costs $200, and the applicant must swear he hasn’t been a “fugitive from justice,” “adjudicated mentally defective” or convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” A local law-enforcement official, usually a sheriff or police chief, has to sign off on the application. Tanks generally aren’t street-legal, so owners usually drive them off-road or on other private property. Some say local authorities sometimes make exceptions for parades, a quick test drive or a trip to the gas station.

But won’t tanks in private hands lead to horrible crimes? Doesn’t seem that way, particularly since the story mentions that the only tank used in a crime was one taken from a government armory.

And in sensible places such as Texas, local police think a tank is “awesome,” not a cause for hysteria.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bauer, the Texas banker, took his Chaffee out for a spin in his warehouse parking lot. He had rigged the .50-caliber machine gun on the turret with a propane system that generates the noise and muzzle flash of gunfire, without the bullets. He fired off several bursts. Minutes later, two Port Lavaca police cruisers pulled up. The first officer rolled down the window and asked dryly: “You know why we’re here, right?” Mr. Bauer assured him that no actual rounds had been fired. …The second policeman, Jeremy Marshall, got out of his car and eyeballed Mr. Bauer’s tank. “Awesome,” he said.

Meanwhile, a 6-year old boy in Maryland is suspended for making a gun shape with his fingers and a 5-year old girl in Pennsylvania is busted for having a pink plastic gun that shoots bubbles.

The best of America…and the worst of America.

But we shouldn’t be resting on our laurels. Most able-bodied men in Switzerland have fully automatic guns (i.e., capable of continuous firing) in their homes, so it’s an open question which nation is more “awesome.”

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I’ve always been a big fan of Economic Freedom of the World because it provides a balanced and neutral measure of which nations do best in providing free markets and small government.

And I like it even when it gives me bad news. It’s somewhat depressing, after all, to read that the United States has dropped from the #3 nation when Bill Clinton left office to the #18 country in the most recent index.

But for all its many positive attributes, Economic Freedom of the World isn’t a comprehensive measure of liberty. That’s why I’m very glad to see that Ian Vasquez and Tanja Stumberger have put together a Freedom Index designed to measure economic and personal liberty.

And since they’re both sensible people, their definition of personal liberty is very sound – i.e., the freedom to be left alone and not harassed, persecuted, or annoyed by government.

Here’s their description of what the Freedom Index is designed to measure.

…we use indicators that are as consistent as possible with the concept of negative liberty: the absence of coercive constraint on the individual. We do not attempt to measure positive freedom…nor do we measure so-called “claim freedoms,” which often become government-imposed attempts at realizing positive freedoms (e.g., the “right” or freedom to a have job or housing). …This index of freedom also does not incorporate measures of democracy or “political freedom.” …Democracy may be more consistent than other forms of government at safeguarding freedom, but it is not freedom, nor does it necessarily guarantee freedom. …We combine economic freedom measures from the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index with measures of what we somewhat imprecisely call civil or personal  freedoms. The economic freedom index and the personal freedom index we devise each receive half the weight in the overall index.

Here are some additional details on the personal freedom score.

For the personal freedom sub-index, we use 34 variables covering 123 countries… The index is divided into four categories: 1) Security and  Safety; 2) Freedom of Movement; 3) Freedom of Expression; and 4) Relationship Freedoms. …We have tried to capture the degree to which  people are free to enjoy the major civil liberties—freedom of speech, religion, and association and assembly—in each country in our survey.  In addition, we include indicators of crime and violence, freedom of movement, and legal discrimination against homosexuals.

So how do nations compare with this system?

New Zealand is the nation with the most freedom, followed by the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The United States is #7

Freedom Index Top 20

By the way, if you’re wondering about places to avoid on your next overseas vacation, Zimbabwe is in last place, followed by Burma and Pakistan.

And if you want to maximize your personal liberty, but aren’t as concerned about economic liberty, the top nations are the Netherlands (9.5), Uruguay (9.4), and Norway/Japan/New Zealand (9.2).

If you want to experiment with a life of very limited personal liberty, your “best” choices are Pakistan (3.1), Zimbabwe (3.2), Sri Lanka (3.4), and Iran (3.6).

Last but not least, here’s the video I narrated from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explains in more detail the economic-freedom component of the Freedom Index.

Hmmm…more growth and prosperity with free markets and small government. Such a novel concept!

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For five consecutive weekends, I responded to your “questions of the week.”

That involved queries about my views on when the monetary system will begin to unravel, whether I hated Republicans, what I thought about Senator Jim DeMint moving over to the Heritage Foundation, the degree to which the media is biased, and if my opinions have changed on any issues.

But last weekend, I got too wrapped up in other topics and neglected to answer any of the questions I received. So I’ll try to compensate by answering one question today and another tomorrow.

Today’s query actually is a request, not a question: “Take the Quiz and Tell Us How Libertarian You Are?”

Libertarian QuizAt first I thought this was going to be a request to take the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, put together by the Advocates for Self Government.

And that would have been an easy test since it involves only 10 questions. I’ve done if before and I’m a pure libertarian.

But the reader instead sent me the much more detailed test put together by Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University.

This means answering 64 questions, though it doesn’t actually take that long to complete.

Libertarian TestThe good news is that I got a 94, which sounds close to perfect.

The bad news is that the maximum score is 160, so I obviously fell far short of libertarian purity.

But even a 94 makes me a very unusual person. According to Professor Caplan’s grading system, I’ve “entered the heady realm of hard-core libertarianism.

Libertarian Test Summary

If you want to know why I got what appears to be a modest grade, it’s because the test basically measures whether you’re an anarcho-capitalist. And as I confessed back in 2011, when sharing this funny video poking fun at libertarianism, I’ve never been able to rationalize how to get rid of all government.

From an ideological perspective, I’d like to think that we could privatize courts, police, and national defense. But I just don’t see how the market would fill those roles.

So, yes, I’m a squish. But whenever anarcho-capitalists give me a hard time, I tell them that we should work together to get rid of 90 percent of government. Then we can squabble about what to do with the remaining 10 percent.

P.S. Since I shared the funny anti-libertarian video, I may as well share these other examples of humor targeting me and my fellow travelers.

And since sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, here’s some libertarian-produced humor mocking statists.

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Regarding Obama’s “you-didn’t-build-that” comment back in July, I explained why that attack on entrepreneurs and small business owners was misguided.

And I also shared some humorous cartoons on the topic.

But it is true that no entrepreneur produces a product without help from many others. But what the President apparently doesn’t understand is that almost all of the real help comes from voluntary and decentralized exchange in the private market.

This CEI video is a good introduction to this spontaneous process.

And if you want to look at the topic from a different perspective, this video helps to explain how we often get much more than we pay for in a competitive market economy.

There’s also a moral argument presented in this video from the American Enterprise Institute.

Needless to say, Walter Williams is always worth reading to understand the difference between markets and statism. And here’s some good real-world evidence about the benefits of better policy.

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It’s not uncommon for there to be debate and discussion about the degree to which libertarians and social conservatives are allies and enemies.

I think they’re mostly allies, in part because there is wide and deep agreement on the principle of individual responsibility. They may focus on different ill effects, but both camps understand that big government is a threat to a virtuous and productive citizenry.

That being said, I also realize that a libertarian who thinks drug legalization is the most important issue in the world is probably not going to feel much kinship with a social conservative who focuses on spiritual treatment of drug addiction (even though I would argue they should share policy views).

I’m contemplating this topic because of a recent New York Times column by David Brooks. He is concerned that traditional conservatives (which I think would overlap with, but not be identical to, social conservatives) have lost influence in the conservative movement and Republican Party. Let’s start with this excerpt.

…the conservative movement…was a fusion of two different mentalities. On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. …there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government. …they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

So far, so good. As a self-described libertarian, I like these concepts. Indeed, I support liberty in part because I think it will both enable and encourage people to experience good lives in the kind of ecosystem David describes.

But then he has a sentence that rubs me the wrong way.

Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism.

Let me first stipulate that it’s unfair to equate “compassionate conservatism” with “big government conservatism.” That may have been the end result, but the goal – as was explained to me on several occasions – was to reform the way government did things, not to make it bigger.

But even if we accept that goal, I think Reagan and Bush represented different strains of conservatism. Reagan wanted to shrink the federal government because he viewed Washington as a threat to David’s “harmonious ecosystem.” In other words, Reagan-style conservatism is (was?) based on the notion that Washington could only make things worse, not better.

The Bush people, by contrast, had a more optimistic view of the federal government’s capabilities.

Indeed, Brooks is explicitly willing to make government bigger in hopes of achieving certain goals.

There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels. The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. …The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.

Here’s where I think he lets hope triumph over experience. What makes him think that the federal government is capable of successfully creating and operating “mobility programs”? It’s been operating dozens of such programs and they’ve all failed.

Or why does he think the federal government can reduce out-of-wedlock births when the evidence suggests that the welfare state has played a non-trivial role in enabling such misguided behavior?

Brooks also makes a ridiculous claim about what’s happened to domestic discretionary outlays. Here’s the data, adjusted for inflation, from the Historical Tables of the Budget.

Granted, David is talking about the plans in the Republican budget, not what’s actually happened. But the most the GOP wants to achieve is to put domestic discretionary spending back at 2008 levels. That’s not exactly an “absurdly low level,” particularly compared to existing post-stimulus outlays.

The more relevant question is why he thinks federal spending is associated with good results. There’s certainly no positive evidence from Obama’s stimulus. We also know the War on Poverty backfired. And entitlements are a ticking time bomb in the absence of reform.

By the way, this doesn’t negate what Brooks says about the GOP’s inability to articulate a message that resonates with (as he calls them) the “less educated half of this country.”

All I’m arguing is that results should matter. If we care about making life better for these people and we want the “harmonious ecosystem” David mentions, then we should be making government smaller rather than larger.

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I get criticized all the time, usually because of my support for limited government (though sometimes because people think I’m not sufficiently radical).

Sometimes I even get attacked because I cite someone else’s work, as happened when a bunch of Keynesians went after me for posting some data on Reaganomics vs. Obamanomics put together by Richard Rahn.

Just last week, though, I was attacked from a completely different perspective. Some guy named Stan Sewitch, in an article for the San Diego Daily Transcript, questioned my motives rather than my views.

He started out with an innocuous description of a speech I gave.

These days, the harbingers of doom no longer include hippies or even youth. The “protest” movement that may be growing in our country now is known for its natty fashion sense and belief in free markets… It winds its way to the offices of lobbyists and politicians. It acts a great deal behind the scenes, and uses the educated, articulate voices of “think tank” gurus to make the points. Daniel Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a nonprofit economics and policy research organization that promotes “libertarian” philosophies, i.e., small government, free markets and individual rights. I heard him speak recently about how the United States could avoid “becoming the next Greece.” As he described the lengthening list of ills that our country has inflicted upon itself, Mitchell acknowledged that neither party has a consistent track record of doing the “right thing” to keep our gross domestic product growing faster than our government spending rate. …In that sense, the Cato Institute does seem to represent a nonpartisan view of our national and international state of affairs.

Since I think America faces a very grim fiscal future in the absence of entitlement reform, and since I also blame Bush as much as I blame Obama, I can’t quibble with anything he wrote.

But then he starts to speculate about my (grossly inadequate) salary.

But as he continued to describe the litany of calamity that will befall us under current conditions, I asked myself, “Gee, I wonder who pays Mitchell’s salary? Can’t be cheap.” So I did a little looking on the Web, and I found the 2011 annual report for the Cato Institute. They brought in about $33 million in revenue last year, spent about $22 million and showed net assets of $63 million. Well, it looks like they practice what they preach, spending less than they earn. And they earn a lot.

Where’s he going with this, I wonder. But I suppose I could have guessed that he would focus on rich people and corporations.

The Cato Institute doesn’t list its individual benefactors or corporations that provide the funding, but their board of directors includes David and Charles Koch. The Kochs founded the Cato Institute and have contributed millions to it. Combined, the Koch brothers are worth roughly $50 billion. Their company, Koch Industries, generates about $100 billion in annual revenue and is the second-largest private company in the United States. Other like-minded, wealthy individuals undoubtedly make up the financial support for the Cato Institute, along with corporations, the sale of Cato Institute books and the speaking fees that Cato scholars receive for their expert punditry.

My Sewitch obviously doesn’t know that Cato hasn’t received support from the Kochs in recent years, much less that the Cato Board and the Koch brothers had a big fight about the future of Cato, but that’s an understandable mistake since the average person would have no reason to follow a squabble inside the libertarian movement.

But his point is generically true. Occasional large contributions from wealthy people can play a non-trivial role in the budget of any non-profit group.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s where he gets to the part about my motives.

Whether or not one subscribes to the shiny and attractive ideals of small government, free markets and individual liberty, one has to follow the money, the economics of any given viewpoint to be able to evaluate the veracity of the opinion. The money behind Mitchell’s capacity to publicly opine comes from business people who want to affect policy at the federal and state level toward outcomes that they believe are in the collective best interests. It also doesn’t hurt that those same people benefit personally and financially from the promoted policies and research results that the Cato Institute generates. …So if someone is earning their living by preaching, whether for God or free markets, I have to find out who’s paying them to tell me this stuff, and I immediately discount the value of the sermon by 84 percent.

Gee, I guess I should be happy that my opinions are worth 16 percent rather than zero.

But now for my serious point. Washington is filled with people who say things, write things, and do things solely because they’re getting paid. I often write about the sleazy behavior of such people, particularly Republicans who do the wrong thing just to fatten their bank accounts.

So I can’t complain when someone questions my motives. Everyone in Washington should be viewed with suspicion. It is, after all, a pervasively corrupt town.

That being said, I invite the world to comb through everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever said, and everything I’ve ever written to find the slightest shred of evidence that I am motivated by anything other than a principled belief in liberty.

Do I get paid to do all these things? Of course, which is why I consider myself to be a very lucky person. I’m getting a salary to do what I would be doing anyhow.

And if we count the non-pecuniary satisfaction of fighting for liberty, I’m one of the richest people in DC.

You can’t deposit non-pecuniary satisfaction in a bank, to be sure, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of the multimillionaire lobbyists. That would be like watching It’s a Wonderful Life and wanting to be like Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey.

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Thomas Sowell, George Will, and Walter Williams have all explained that the Constitution imposes strict limits on the powers of the federal government. This means, for all intents and purposes, that it is a somewhat anti-democratic document.

And by anti-democratic, I mean the Constitution puts restrictions on democracy (not restrictions on the Democratic Party, though in this case…).

More specifically, it doesn’t matter if a majority of people want Obamacare or a Department of Education. We live in a constitutional republic, a system specifically designed to protect individual liberties from tyranny.

The Founding Fathers obviously didn’t want our freedoms to be subject to the whims of a king, but they also wanted to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so happy to share this short video from the folks at the Institute of Humane Studies. The Supreme Court may have wimped out in fulfilling its role of  protecting us against untrammeled majoritarianism, but at least we can understand why it’s a good idea to protect economic liberty.

I particularly like the fact that the video cites the Supreme Court’s horrific Kelo decision.

By the way, if you want to understand the other side of the debate (or if you want to enjoy a good laugh), you can peruse my post on E.J. Dionne’s failure to understand history and constitutional governance.

P.S. I applied the lessons of this video in my post about why the U.S. government should promote liberty rather than democracy in the Middle East.

P.P.S. They probably don’t realize it, but Republicans actually came out against marjoritarianism in their party platform.

P.P.P.S. There is at least one Republican who is against majoritarianism (and for the right reason). Click here for the answer.

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If you can read the following and not get upset, you are not a good person. Please move to France (where higher taxes are “patriotic”) and don’t come back.

I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but you’ll hopefully understand after reading this excerpt from a very disturbing report posted on Zero Hedge.

Jacques Wajsfelner of Weston, Massachusetts is a criminal mastermind. Big time. Like Lex Luthor. But rest easy, ladies and gentlemen, for this nefarious villain is about to face some serious jail time thanks to the courageous work of US government agents. You see, Mr. Wajsfelner was finally caught and convicted of a most heinous crime: failing to disclose his foreign bank account to the US government. Note– he was not convicted of tax evasion. He was not convicted of failing to file or pay taxes. His crime was not filing the annual Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR). Because of his failure to disclose his foreign bank account, Wajsfelner is now looking at FIVE YEARS behind bars in a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit. Oh, one more thing– Wajsfelner is 83 years old. He was born in Germany during the global depression and rise of Adolf Hitler. The Wajsfelner family soon fled the Nazi regime and made its way to the United States.

Please note that Mr. Wajsfelner didn’t get convicted of not paying tax. He got convicted for the utterly trivial and victimless “crime” of not reporting a foreign bank account.

So the government is sending a completely harmless old man to jail for something that shouldn’t be illegal (and if we had a flat tax, there would be no double taxation of saving and investment, so it wouldn’t matter for tax purposes if your bank account was in Georgetown, Kentucky, or Georgetown, Cayman Islands).

Now let’s compare the treatment of Mr. Wajsfelner with the way some real criminals are treated.

Then there’s Eric Higgins of Port Huron, Michigan, who was recently busted for major possession of child pornography and engaging in sexually explicit conversations with juveniles online. He was given 20 months. Oh… and Mr. Higgins was a US Customs & Border Patrol agent. …Or Ricardo Cordero, another US Customs & Border Patrol officer who was given 27-months for personally smuggling 30 Mexican nationals into the United States, and assisting another smuggler to bring 15 Mexican nationals across the border. This genius even had the smuggler testify as a character witness at his divorce proceeding! Or Jon Corzine, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and member of the political elite, who presided over one of the largest plunders in the financial system ever seen during the recent MF Global collapse. He walks the streets freely to this day.

The article closes with a very accurate – but understated – assessment of the federal government.

It seems pretty clear where the US government stands: the victimless crime of failing to report a foreign bank account is far more egregious than, say, possession of child pornography, engaging with minors in online sex chat, bribery, extortion, fraud, and abuse of official power.

This horrifying example of government abuse is a good example of why I’m a libertarian. Yes, I get upset about bloated and counterproductive government spending. And I also get irked by our punitive and destructive class-warfare tax system.

But what gets me most upset is unfair tyranny against powerless people. If your stomach can stand it, here are some more examples.

Every one of the government officials involved in these episodes should be fired. And they should consider themselves lucky that tar and feathers are no longer a method of dealing with despicable bureaucrats.

P.S. The Zero Hedge website is also the source of the extremely funny and clever ethnic analysis of Europe.

P.P.S. While I utterly despise bureaucrats who engage in thuggish behavior, I’m not a big fan of bureaucrats in general.

P.P.P.S. The government’s grotesque treatment of Mr. Wajsfelner is part of the overall attack on tax competition. Heaven forbid people have the freedom to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions!

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Normally this blog focuses on big issues such as the economic damage of government spending and the self-defeating foolishness of high tax rates.

Today, though, it’s time for another edition of “You Be the Judge.”

In this game, we look at stories and issues that require us to balance common sense, the principles of a free society, and justice.

Previous editions of this game include: Putting politicians on trial, vigilante justice, brutal tax collection tactics, child molestation, pay levels at government-owned firms, sharia law, healthcare, incest, speed traps, jury nullification, and vigilante justice (again).

Our latest example comes from Alaska, where someone with very questionable judgement was busted for floating down a river while consuming vast quantities of alcohol. Here’s some of the story from the Fairbanks Daily News.

A Juneau man faces a rare DUI charge for allegedly having a 0.313 breath-alcohol content as he floated through Fairbanks on an inflatable raft Sunday night. Alaska’s driving under the influence law applies to people operating motor vehicles, water craft and airplanes. …when Alaska State Troopers received a report of a “heavily intoxicated” man floating down the Chena River near the Parks Highway bridge at 6:40 p.m. Sunday, a wildlife trooper boat responded and arrested 32-year-old William Modene. …At 0.313, Modene’s breath-alcohol content was almost four times the legal limit for operating a vehicle, 0.08. …Under Alaska’s DUI law, operating a water craft means to “navigate a vessel used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water for recreational or commercial purposes on all waters, fresh or salt, inland or coastal, inside the territorial limits or under the jurisdiction of the state.”

So here’s the issue we have to decide: Mr. Modene doesn’t sound like a model citizen, and he may be swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool, but the question on the table is whether the government should have arrested him for DUI?

From a legal perspective, is it accurate to say that he was “operating” a water craft or “navigating” a vessel?

I’m not an expert on such matters, but it seems to me that he was doing nothing more than floating down a river. There’s nothing in the story, for instance, to indicate he had a motor on his raft.

From what we know, Mr. Modene posed zero danger to other people. He was merely a drunk, minding his own business as he floated along.

My gut instinct is that this case should be tossed. The government would be in a much stronger position if it had charged him with “being drunk in public” or something like that. But even in that case, floating down a river may not meet the test of being “in public.”

There’s a separate issue, of course, about whether the government can and should intervene if someone is engaging in self-destructive behavior. If there’s a report that someone has just taken a bottle of sleeping pills, most of us presumably would agree that it would be okay for the government to break down his door and tote him to a hospital to have his stomach pumped.

But the self-destructive behavior has to pose an immediate danger. We’d hopefully all reject, for instance, the notion of some Bloomberg-esque ban on unhealthy food because people sometimes shorten their lives by overeating.

Since I probably average one beer a month, I’m not competent to make sweeping statements about alcohol, but it’s my understanding that a blood alcohol level of .4 is when people begin to die. Since Mr. Modene was already above .3, perhaps there’s some argument for police intervention.

But set that aside. Pretend you’re on the jury and you have to vote on whether Modene is guilty of DUI. What’s your verdict? And if you also want to weigh in on whether the government had a right to interfere with his raft trip, don’t be bashful.

For me, that second question is more challenging. That’s why I like sticking with simple questions of right vs. wrong, such as whether I side with Switzerland or France on the issue of whether fiscal sovereignty and financial privacy should be undermined to help high-tax nations impose their bad tax laws on an extraterritorial basis.

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I’ve already confessed to man-crushes on Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, and (or course) the Gipper, but it’s time for me to cross partisan and racial boundaries and announce my man-crush on Cory Booker.

From the Huffington Post, here’s what the Newark Mayor had to say about the failed War on Drugs.

Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker took to Reddit Sunday to criticize the war on drugs, saying it was ineffective and “represents big overgrown government at its worst.” “The so-called War on Drugs has not succeeded in making significant reductions in drug use, drug arrests or violence,” the Democrat wrote during the Reddit “ask me anything” chat. “We are pouring huge amounts of our public resources into this current effort that are bleeding our public treasury and unnecessarily undermining human potential.” Booker then called drug arrests a “game.” “My police in Newark are involved in an almost ridiculous game of arresting the same people over and over again and when you talk to these men they have little belief that there is help or hope for them to break out of this cycle,” he wrote.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this doesn’t mean that anyone should use drugs. I’ve led a very boring life, for instance, and have never tried any illegal drugs.

But Mayor Booker is right. Like Ron Paul, Pat Robertson, Richard Branson, and Gary Johnson, he’s figured out that the Drug War is mostly a vehicle to expand the size and power of government. It’s why we have fascist asset forfeiture laws and costly money laundering laws.

Oh, and by the way, the Drug War has totally failed in stopping illegal drug use. Though it has enriched organized crime, so big government isn’t the only beneficiary.

To learn more about the failed War on Drugs, I’d recommend this video and this video. But mostly, I suggest you read these two horrific stories.

P.S. As you can see from this post, there actually are political jokes about money laundering laws. I haven’t run across any about the Drug War, but I’ll be sure to post them if they show up in my inbox.

P.P.S. Here’s a very funny video featuring Cory Booker and Chris Christie. Kudos to both of them for having senses of humor.

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A couple of months ago, I discussed a column by Arthur Brooks, in which he explained that libertarians and conservatives need to make a moral argument for capitalism and not just rely on statistics and economic analysis.

This is correct, I believe, and I cited myself as an example. When the flat tax became an issue in the 1990s, I gave lots of speeches, and I pontificated about lower marginal tax rates and getting rid of double taxation. I quickly learned, though, that people were most excited about getting rid of the corruption in the current system.

Brooks now makes his case for the morality of capitalism in a new video.

A superb job. His insights on earned success are very important. Indeed, this is why the dependency culture is misguided for both taxpayers and recipients.

President of the American Enterprise Institute

And it’s also why I try to stress that bloated government is basically a racket that either allows people to obtain unearned benefits or makes it harder for people to achieve earned success.

P.S. Brooks also is more than capable of making traditional economic arguments, as you can see from what he wrote about Europe’s collapsing welfare states.

P.P.S. And he has produced some first-rate research on the loss of ethics in Europe compared to the United States.

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We know that the United States and most other developed nations are in deep trouble if we leave government policy on auto-pilot. And we know the painful day of reckoning will arrive even faster if we continue the Bush-Obama policies of expanding the burden of the public sector.

All this sounds very depressing, but the good news is that we know the types of policies that will solve the problem.

The bad news is that we often don’t do a very good job of convincing people of the changes that are needed.

Part of the answer is that libertarians and small-government conservatives are probably too utilitarian. Not in our hearts, but in the way we talk.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute addresses this problem in a column for the Washington Examiner.

…many who strongly believe in free enterprise steer clear of all public “moral” arguments. This is a mistake and a missed opportunity. A great deal of research shows that people from all walks of life demand a system that is morally legitimate, not just efficient. …Privately, free enterprise’s champions…celebrate capitalism because they believe that succeeding on merit, doing something meaningful, seeing the poor rise by their hard work and virtue, and having control over life are essential to happiness and fulfillment. But in public debate, conservatives often fall back on capitalism’s superiority to other systems just in terms of productivity and economic efficiency. …The dogged reliance on materialistic arguments is a gift to statists. It allows them to paint free enterprise advocates as selfish and motivated only by money. Those who would expand the government have successfully appropriated the language of morality for their own political ends; redistributionist policies, they have claimed to great effect, are fairer, kinder, and more virtuous. …Average Americans are thus too often left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral Left versus the materialistic Right. The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the Left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today. But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don’t understand basic moral principles. …There just doesn’t seem to be a good alternative to the “statist quo,” and as a consequence, the country is slipping toward a system that few people actually like.

I think Brooks is correct. Most libertarians and conservatives are not motivated by GDP numbers. They believe in small government because it is morally sound (no government-imposed stealing) and fair (you don’t get rich without offering something of value).

During public policy debates, though, we rely on utilitarian arguments.

I offer myself as an example. When the flat tax became a big issue in the 1990s and I started giving lots of speeches about tax reform, I would make dry and technical arguments about marginal tax rates and capital formation. But I quickly learned that much of the support for the flat tax was motivated by a belief in a fair and moral system – no cronyism, treating everybody equally, ending corruption, shutting down loopholes, etc. So I modified my speeches and gave much more attention to the moral arguments.

That being said, there’s no silver bullet in public policy fights. We probably need a combination of morality and utilitarianism. And it’s obviously important to put things in terms ordinary people can understand. That, I believe, is what made Reagan so effective. And it’s what I try to do with this blog (albeit on a much more limited level).

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The Obama Administration is in a bit of hot water because it wants to coerce just about everyone – including a lot of religious institutions –  to provide health insurance policies that cover the cost of birth control and certain abortion-inducing drugs.

The White House already has tried to defuse the controversy by shifting the coverage mandate from insurance buyers to the insurance companies, but everyone with an IQ above room temperature realizes that is a meaningless cosmetic change.

Regardless of how one feels about abortion or birth control (or even how one feels about religion), this is a bad policy. Decisions about what  sort of insurance to provide shouldn’t be the result of a one-size-fits-all government mandate.

Yes, the Administration’s religious intolerance is unseemly, but it is also symptomatic of why government intervention in the health sector is the underlying problem.

John Cochrane, an economist at the University of Chicago (and an Adjunct Scholar at Cato!) addresses the economic issues in a Wall Street Journal column. Here are some key passages.

Insurance is supposed to mean a contract, by which a company pays for large, unanticipated expenses in return for a premium: expenses like your house burning down, your car getting stolen or a big medical bill. Insurance is a bad idea for small, regular and predictable expenses. There are good reasons that your car insurance company doesn’t add $100 per year to your premium and then cover oil changes, and that your health insurance doesn’t charge $50 more per year and cover toothpaste. You’d have to fill out mountains of paperwork, the oil-change and toothpaste markets would become much less competitive, and you’d end up spending more. …Doubling the number of wellness visits and free pills sounds great, but who’s going to pay for it? There is a liberal dream that by mandating coverage the government can make something free. Sorry. Every increase in coverage means an increase in premiums. If your employer is paying for your health insurance, he could be paying you more in salary instead.

For all intents and purposes, Professor Cochrane is explaining the economics of third-party payer, which occurs when government intervention undermines the ability of markets to promote efficiency and low prices.

He also delves into the moral issues and explains that the only solution is to get the government out of health care.

Our nation is divided on social issues. The natural compromise is simple: Birth control, abortion and other contentious practices are permitted. But those who object don’t have to pay for them. The federal takeover of medicine prevents us from reaching these natural compromises and needlessly divides our society. The critics fell for a trap. By focusing on an exemption for church-related institutions, critics effectively admit that it is right for the rest of us to be subjected to this sort of mandate. They accept the horribly misnamed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and they resign themselves to chipping away at its edges. No, we should throw it out, and fix the terrible distortions in the health-insurance and health-care markets. Sure, churches should be exempt. We should all be exempt.

I’ve explained four principles that should guide policy makers as they try to put the toothpaste back in the tube and restore free markets to healthcare.

And I’ve cited a real-world example of how the system would work if the third-party payer crisis was fixed.

We can implement free-market reforms, though they won’t be easy. Or we can keep on the current path, lose more of our freedom, and eventually have life-and-death decisions controlled by bureaucrats.

Should be an easy choice.

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Someone has to take the tough assignments

I’m currently in the British Virgin Islands to speak at a conference. As you can see from this photo (taken from my satellite office), I’m having to endure hardship conditions.

But I’m willing to suffer because I believe in making personal sacrifices in the battle for liberty.

As you can probably guess, I’m speaking about tax competition. But I write about that issue so much that there’s no need for me to reiterate my remarks.

Instead, I want to focus on the speech given this morning by Sir Richard Branson, founder and head of the Virgin business empire.

Why does Branson get higher billing than me?!?

Sir Richard is a tax resident of BVI (which is a smart step since there’s no income tax here and the top tax rate in the U.K. is 50 percent), and most of his speech focused on business and development advice for his adopted home.

But he also spent several minutes talking about the damaging and destructive impact of the War on Drugs. And I’m proud to say that he cited data from a Cato Institute report on the successful decriminalization policy in Portugal.

This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned Cato’s work on the issue, by the way. As my colleague Tim Lynch noted last year, Branson also cited the Portugal study in a strong message against the failed War on Drugs that he posted on the Virgin.com website.

I suspect Branson isn’t willing to give up his day job running the Virgin Group, but we’re happy to have him as a volunteer publicist for our studies and the cause of liberty.

Incidentally, he’s not the only one who has commented on this development. The Economist also has noted the positive impact of Portugal’s pro-liberty policy.

And if you want general information on the failed Drug War, check out this story on the complete mis-match between the costs and benefits of prohibition. And here’s a speech by Gov. Gary Johnson on the issue, as well as a video exposing how the War on Drugs is completely ineffective – or even counterproductive.

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I posted some polling data a couple of weeks ago that showed how the dependency mindset (as captured by these cartoons) is far worse in Europe than it is in the United States.

Now let’s look at some additional public opinion research from Gallup that illuminates American exceptionalism. Here is how voters responded to a question on the biggest threat to America’s future.

Though I don’t want to get too optimistic. Given what’s happening in Europe and the fact that politicians so far have failed to enact genuine entitlement reform, the 64 percent should be 94 percent.

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While I’m usually a pessimist about public policy, there are a handful of issues where I think there’s positive momentum. School choice is one example and another is putting an end to the misguided war on drugs.

I’m somewhat optimistic on the drug war because more and more people, including conservatives, are realizing that government intervention isn’t working and is actually making things worse.

For example, here are some excerpts from a Mona Charen column, in which she praises Ron Paul for his leadership position on the issue.

Friedman was for legalization of all drugs, not just marijuana. It’s a position embraced by only one candidate for president, Ron Paul. …Paul deserves full credit for endorsing drug legalization. Friedman would approve. Governments in the United States, federal and state, spend an estimated $41.3 billion annually to prevent people from ingesting substances we deem harmful, though many unsafe ingestibles — you know the list — remain legal. Half of all federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug offenses, along with 20 percent of state prisoners. In 2009, there were 1.7 million drug arrests in the U.S. Half of those were for marijuana. As David Boaz and Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute noted, “Addicts commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal. Police sources have estimated that as much as half the property crime in some major cities is committed by drug users.” Drug money, such as booze money during Prohibition, has corrupted countless police, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, border patrol agents, prosecutors and judges. Drug crime has blighted many neighborhoods. America’s appetite for drugs has encouraged lawlessness and violence in many neighboring countries, most recently in Mexico, where its drug violence is spilling north. Because illegal drugs are unregulated, their purity is unknowable — accounting for thousands of overdose deaths and injuries. Since we maintain drug prohibition to protect people from their own foolish decisions, those overdose deaths must weigh in the balance, too. Drug prohibition, Milton Friedman pointed out, keeps the price of drugs artificially inflated and amounts to a favor by the government to the drug lords. …Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron estimates that if drugs were legal and taxed, the U.S. and state treasuries would receive $46.7 billion in added revenue, while saving $41.3 billion in expenditures.

My only disagreement with Charen’s column is that Gary Johnson also wants to end the War on Drugs, so he should share some of the praise with Ron Paul.

And I suppose I should say that I don’t want the government to collect an additional $46.7 billion of revenue, but that’s a separate fiscal policy issue.

Ms. Charen continues with some very sensible cost-benefit analysis of legalization.

What is the downside to legalization? Friedman acknowledged the possibility that legalization might result in some increase in drug addiction. There was, after all, an uptick in alcoholism after Prohibition was repealed. But not all victims are created equal. The child, Friedman notes, who is killed in a drive-by shoot-out between drug gangs is a total victim. The adult who decides to take drugs is not. Let’s stipulate that some unknown number of Americans will become addicts after legalization, who otherwise would not have. We must ask whether the terrible price we are now paying — in police costs, international drug control efforts, border security, foregone tax revenue, overdose deaths, corruption and violence — is worth it.

This utilitarian argument is important. Libertarians traditionally rely on the moral argument that people should be free from government coercion so long as they’re not hindering the rights of others, and I certainly agree with that sentiment. But we could probably make more progress on this issue by also explaining that the costs of the drug war far outweigh any benefits.

And I suspect it also would help if we explained that legalization does not necessarily mean approval.

Ending the war on drugs does not mean endorsing drug use, any more than ending prohibition meant one had to be in favor of alcohol consumption.

Heck, you can be like me and be personally opposed to drug use and favor legalization. You can also favor private-sector sanctions against drug use and favor legalization.

When all is said and done, there are lots of reasons to favor legalization. Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s and it isn’t working today. Too bad Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are the only candidates on the right side of this issue.

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At a basic level, my attitude on patriotism is captured by this t-shirt. And hold the snarky comments. My view is not influenced by the woman modeling it.

Or, if you want something with more substance, this Penn & Teller routine is very instructive.

But this polling data, taken from a recent report from the Pew Research Center, captures what is great about American exceptionalism.

When I periodically express my patriotic feelings, I am celebrating my happiness that I live in a nation where a majority of people still favor liberty over dependency.

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One of the reasons I’m a libertarian is that virtually all of my personal interactions with government are unpleasant.

* Governments pull me over and give me tickets for trying to efficiently drive from one location to another.

* Governments coerce me into filling out complicated tax forms in order to give politicians money that will be wasted on vote-buying scams.

* Governments make flying a miserable and time-consuming experience.

* Governments make me waste time in lines to get my car registered and inspected.

* Governments require me to deal with surly and slothful bureaucrats if I have to go to the Postal Service.

* Governments operate crummy monopoly schools that necessitate me spending lots of money to get my kids educated.

Today, I discovered a personal reason to despise Amtrak.

I have to take the train to New York City for an “Intelligence Squared” debate tat will take place this evening about Keynesian “stimulus.”

But because Rick Perry announced his flat tax plan today, I have been swamped with press calls and radio interviews. In an effort to maximize my output, I timed my last talk radio interview to conclude just before I would have to go to Union Station to catch the train.

However, traffic was bad on the way to the train station (I can probably blame that on government as well, but I’ll resist the temptation), so I didn’t arrive until 5 minutes before my train. A bit nerve-wracking, but presumably not a crisis.

I rushed to the gate, saw the door was closed, so I snuck through another door (along with two other tardy passengers) and got to the track before the train left.

Seems like a happy ending to the story, right?

But we’re dealing with the government. So rather than a helpful employee greeting us and saying “glad you guys made it on time,” we were chased down by Amtrak bureaucrats and a cop, all of whom yelled at us for violating the rules.

We pointed at the train, which was about 30 feet from us and pleaded for some common sense and human decency, but the bureaucrats seemed happy about forcing us to wait an additional hour for the next train.

If (and I realize this is unlikely) we ever get a Congress that believes in the Constitution and decides to eliminate corrupt and inefficient subsidies, I will be thinking of these bureaucrats when explaining to members of Congress why Amtrak should lose its spot at the public trough.

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The folks from the Koch Institute put together a great video a couple of months ago looking at why some nations are rich and others are poor.

That video looked at the relationship between economic freedom and various indices that measure quality of life. Not surprisingly, free markets and small government lead to better results.

Now they have a new video that looks at recent developments in the United States. Unfortunately, you will learn that the U.S. is slipping in the wrong direction.

The entire video is superb, but there are two things that merit special praise, one because of intellectual honesty and the other because of intellectual effectiveness.

1. The refreshingly honest aspect of the video is its non-partisan tone. It explains, in a neutral fashion, that Bush undermined prosperity by making government bigger and that Obama is undermining prosperity by increasing the burden of government.

2. The most important and effective argument in the video, at least from my perspective, is that it shows clearly that a larger government necessarily comes at the expense of the productive sector of the economy. Pay extra-close attention around the 2:00 mark.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are several policies that impact on economic performance. The Koch Institute video focuses primarily on the key issues of fiscal policy and regulation, but trade, monetary policy, property rights, and rule of law are examples of other policies that also are very important.

This video, narrated by yours truly, looks at economic growth from this more comprehensive perspective.

The moral of the story from both videos is very straightforward. If the answer is bigger government, you’ve asked a very strange question.

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