Posts Tagged ‘Liberty’

Proponents of liberty generally are big fans of federalism. In part, this is simply an issue of “good governance” since both voters and lawmakers at the state and local level are more likely to actually understand the real issues in communities and be able to develop policies that are more sensible.

But we also like federalism because it’s relatively easy for people to move across state and local borders and this means governments have to compete with each other, both in terms of not driving away productive people and also in terms of not attracting those who want to mooch off the government.

The obvious implication is that if we can dramatically shrink the federal government so that it only handles the few (enumerated) powers envisioned by the Founding Fathers, that would give states far more authority to determine tax burdens and the degree of redistribution, and they would presumably do a better job because they would compete with each other for jobs and investment.

This is why I’m always interested when organizations produce rankings that show the degree to which states seem inclined to adopt good policy. For instance, I routinely highlight the findings of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index so I can see which states have acceptable tax policy. And the Mercatus Center’s Ranking the States by Fiscal Condition is a must-read publication to see which states follow sensible budget policy.

The latest addition to this group is the Cato Institute’s Freedom in the 50 States. It’s a comprehensive publication with lots of data and number-crunching, so wonks will have a field day digging into the details.

But if you simply want the highlights, I first looked to see which states have the best fiscal policy. Here’s the relevant table from the document and I’ve modified it to show which states have no income tax (blue stars), which ones have flat taxes (red stars), and which ones have no sales tax (black stars).

The obvious implication is that having no state income tax is probably the single most important way of controlling the fiscal burden of government.

But fiscal policy is just one variable of economic freedom. And while states obviously don’t have any leeway on monetary policy and trade policy, they have considerable powers over issues related to regulation.

And when you add these factors to the mix, you can get a measure of overall economic freedom.

If you compare these first two tables, there are some predictable similarities (New York and California score poorly while South Dakota, Tennessee, and New Hampshire do well).

But you also get some odd results. Pennsylvania, for instance, is 13th for fiscal policy, but drops to 30th for overall economic policy. I guess this means they are regulatory maniacs.

By contrast, Indiana is ranked a mediocre 26th for fiscal policy, but jumps to 11th place for overall economic policy, which presumably means a very laissez-faire approach to red tape.

Now let’s add personal freedom issues to the equation (issues such as guns, gambling, sex, education, booze, and even fireworks).

The bottom line, if you value overall liberty, is that you better be tolerant of cold weather since New Hampshire and Alaska are atop the rankings. New York is in last place by a comfortable margin.

Interestingly, if you compare the fiscal ranking with the above table for overall freedom, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of overlap. New Hampshire is first in both and New York is last, for instance.

But there are some odd anomalies. Iowa, for example is 9th for overall freedom but only 30th for fiscal freedom, a gap of 21 spots. There’s also a big difference for Kansas, which is 33rd in fiscal freedom but 16th for overall freedom.

Conversely, Texas is 10th for fiscal freedom, but drops to 28th place for overall freedom. And Alabama also has a split personality, ranking 6th for fiscal policy but 23rd for overall freedom.

Why are some states bad on fiscal policy but good on regulation and personal freedom, like Iowa and Kansas? Or, in the case of states like Alabama and Texas, the other way around?

Beats me. Maybe some southern states like controlling people’s lives so long as it doesn’t involve the power of the purse (sort of like Singapore). And maybe some farm states exploit the power of the purse, both otherwise leave people alone (sort of like the Nordic nations).

Here’s something easier to understand, a measure of which states have improved the most and deteriorated the most in the 21st century.

The bad news is that only nine states have moved in the right direction, with Oklahoma easily winning the prize for pro-liberty reforms. Honorable mention to Alaska, Maine, and Idaho.

By the way, is anybody surprised that Illinois is in last place? The dropping scores for Hawaii, New Jersey, and Connecticut also aren’t surprising.

But why have Kentucky, Nebraska, and Tennessee fallen so much?

P.S. Since we’re ranking states, here’s one final bit of information.

I wrote recently to debunk the left’s claim that California is an economic success story. My main point was to share per-capita income data from the BEA to who that California has been losing ground over the medium-term and long-term to states such as Kansas and Texas. And even in the short-term as well if you look at Census Bureau data on median household income.

But some leftists pushed back by arguing that the numbers nonetheless showed higher income levels in California. That’s certainly what we see in both the BEA and Census data, though I would argue that’s actually not relevant unless one (incorrectly) claims that California became a rich state because of big government. As i wrote in that column, “we’re focusing on changes in per-capita income (i.e., which state is enjoying the most growth, regardless of starting point or how much money can buy in that state).”

Speaking of “how much money can buy,” let’s look at some great work from the Tax Foundation on that topic. If you have $100 of income, where will you be able to buy the best basket of goods and services. As you can see, you’re far better off in Texas or (especially) Kansas than in California.

The bottom line is that living standards in Texas and Kansas would be higher than those in California if BEA and Census numbers were adjusted for purchasing power parity (as happens when comparing living standards across nations).

Some people may want to live in California (or some other high-tax state) because of the climate or scenery. They just have to accept lower living standards caused by bigger government. Just like there are certain benefits of living in nations such as France and Italy, but you have to accept bloated government and economic stagnation as part of the package

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Like all good libertarians, I hate waiting in government-mandated lines. Heck, you don’t even have to be a curmudgeonly libertarian to have unpleasant thoughts about the Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles (not to mention the virtual lines that exist for people stuck on hold after calling the IRS or some other inefficient bureaucracy).

And it must be doubly irritating to wait in line to get bureaucratic approval for things that shouldn’t require any sort of government permission in the first place.

Since I have to do a bit of travel, I’m especially resentful of the lines I face for customs and immigration when I cross borders. In some cases, these restrictions can even turn “Heaven into Hell.”

My aversion to government-mandated lines is so strong that I’m a big fan of the European Union’s “Schengen Zone” that has made crossing many European borders as simple as crossing from one American state to another (and regular readers know that I’m normally very reluctant to say anything nice about the policies concocted by the crowd in Brussels).

Given all this, I was very interested to see that the leading bureaucrat of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that borders are “the worst invention ever.”

Was he making a libertarian argument about the value of making it easier for people to travel and/or move? Let’s investigate. Here’s some of what was reported about Juncker’s comments in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker risked widening divisions with European leaders today by saying borders were the ‘worst invention ever’. He called for all borders across Europe to be opened, despite the chaos caused over the last year from the flood in refugees fleeing Syria and the wave of terror attacks hitting various continent’s cities. …Mr Juncker also said a stronger EU was the best way of beating the rising trend of nationalism cross Europe. In another extraordinary remark, he appeared to warn of war on the continent if the EU disintegrates as he echoed the warning from the former French president Francois Mitterrand, who said nationalism added to nationalism would end in war.

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Barone offered a different perspective.

He starts with the observation that Juncker’s home country of Luxembourg is rich because of borders.

Juncker comes from Luxembourg, a 998-square mile country… If you look up Luxembourg in lists of world economic statistics, you’ll find it rated No. 2 in gross domestic product per capita. That’s thanks to what Juncker called politicians’ worst invention ever, borders. Luxembourg is a financial haven and headquarters of the world’s largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal. Without their borders and national laws, the 576,000 Luxembourgers wouldn’t be as affluent as they are.

Barone is correct. Luxembourg is only a very successful tax haven because it has the right to have tax laws inside its borders that are attractive relative to the tax laws that exist in adjoining nations such as France and Germany.

For those who care about foreign policy, Barone also pushes back at the notion the European Union somehow has prevented World War III.

Juncker said, “We have to fight against nationalism, we have the duty not to follow populists but to block the avenue of populists.” Such is the faith of the Eurocrats: The EU exists to prevent another war between France and Germany. Never mind that the chance of such a war has been zero since 1945, 71 years ago. …Juncker was denouncing Austria and other nations for erecting border controls to keep out Muslim refugees. Evidently he believes that World War III will somehow break out if they are kept out.

This is surely right. The people in Western Europe no longer have any interest in fighting each other. And to the extent any international organization deserves credit for that, it would be NATO (even if it no longer serves a purpose).

Let’s now shift back to the role of borders and the size and power of government.

If you want a really good libertarian-oriented explanation of why borders are valuable, let’s go back in time to 2004. Professor Andy Morriss wrote an article for The Freeman that explains borders are good for liberty because they limit the powers of governments.

Borders come from property rights and are essential to a free society…are wonderful things. Lorain and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio must compete for my family’s residence. Choosing to live where we do is related to the taxes charged by the communities where we might have lived.

The value of borders, Andy explains, is that they represent a territorial restriction on the power of government and people can cross those borders if they think governments are being too greedy and oppressive.

Investors make similar choices. …Choosing bad policies produces an exodus; choosing good policies leads to immigration of both capital and people. …the competition offered on local taxation policy and other regulatory issues is important in restraining governments from infringing liberty. …National borders are also important sources of liberty. …without borders we would not have the competition among jurisdictions that restricts attempts to abridge liberty. …Jurisdictions…compete to attract people and capital. This competition motivates governments to act to preserve liberty.

He cites the example of how Delaware became the leading jurisdiction for company formation (and also a very good tax haven for foreigners).

…states compete for corporations, with Delaware the current market leader. Delaware corporate law offers companies the combination of a mostly voluntary set of default rules and an expert decision-making body (the Court of Chancery). As a result, many corporations, large and small, choose to incorporate in Delaware, making it their legal residence. (Their actual headquarters need not be physically located there.) Corporations get a body of liberty-enhancing rules; Delaware gets tax revenue and employment in the corporate services and legal fields. That state’s position is no accident. At the beginning of the twentieth century, New Jersey was the market leader in corporate law. When New Jersey’s legislature made ill-advised changes to its corporations statute that reduced shareholder value, Delaware seized the opportunity and offered essentially the older version of New Jersey’s law.

Borders also are good, Andy explains, because they create natural experiments that allow us the compare the success of market-oriented jurisdictions with the failure of statist jurisdictions.

Statists are correct that competition among jurisdictions will make clear the costs of the policies they promote. …The former divide between East and West Berlin is a fine example of the impact of cross-border comparisons. East Germans could see the difference in outcomes between the two societies, and East Germany had to resort to increasingly costly and desperate measures to prevent its citizens from voting against communism with their feet. …Competition between the two Germanys exposed the cost of East German policies.

In an observation that could have been taken from today’s headlines, he also notes that uncompetitive governments try to prop up their inefficient welfare states by clamping down on pro-market policies in other nations.

To prevent cross-border competition from exposing the costs of their favorite policies, …special interests attempt to forestall it. …High-tax, heavy-regulatory jurisdictions in the European Union are waging just such a fight now, arguing, for example, that Ireland’s low taxes are “unfair” competition.

He’s exactly right. Which is precisely why it’s so important to block efforts to replace tax competition with tax harmonization.

Andy’s conclusion hits the nail on the head. We may not like having to wait in lines and fill out forms to cross borders, but the alternative would be worse.

Even though borders can be an excuse for reducing liberty, a world with lots of borders is nonetheless a far friendlier world for liberty than one with fewer borders. They promote competition for people and money, which tends to restrain the state from grabbing either. Borders offer chances to arbitrage regulatory restrictions, making them less effective. Without borders these constraints on the growth of the state would vanish.

Before closing, let’s look at an example of how governments are forced to dismantle bad policy because of the the jurisdictional competition that only exists because of borders. It’s from an academic study written by Jayme Lemke, a scholar from the Mercatus Center. Here are some excerpts from the abstract.

Married women in the early nineteenth century United States were not permitted to own property, enter into contracts without their husband’s permission, or stand in court as independent persons. This severely limited married women’s ability to engage in formal business ventures, collect rents, administer estates, and manage bequests through wills. By the dawn of the twentieth century, legal reform in nearly every state had removed these restrictions by extending formal legal and economic rights to married women.

Why did states grant economic liberty and property rights to women?

Was it because male legislators suddenly stopped being sexist?

Maybe that played a role, but it turns out that people moved to states that eliminated these statist restrictions and that pressured other states to also reform.

…what forces impelled legislators to undertake the costs of action? …interjurisdictional competition between states and territories in the nineteenth century was instrumental in motivating these reforms. Two conditions are necessary for interjurisdictional competition to function: (1) law-makers must hold a vested interest in attracting population to their jurisdictions, and (2) residents must be able to actively choose between the products of different jurisdictions. Using evidence from the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, I find that legal reforms were adopted first and in the greatest strength in those regions in which there was active interjurisdictional competition.

The moral of the story is that competition between states improved the lives of women by forcing governments to expand economic liberty.

And since even the New York Times has published columns showing that feminist-type government interventions actually hurt women, perhaps the real lesson (especially for our friends on the left) is that you help people by expanding freedom, not by expanding the burden of government.

P.S. There is a wealth of scholarly evidence that the western world became rich because of borders and jurisdictional competition.

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I periodically get asked who should be in the White House.

Since I’m a policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I generally sidestep the question.

Though it probably isn’t too hard to figure out my preference if you peruse what I’ve written about previous presidents.

I’m a huge fan of both Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge, for instance.

But I’m definitely not partisan. I’ve also said nice things about John F. Kennedy and even Bill Clinton.

And to further demonstrate my independence, it’s time for me to endorse another Democrat.

Yes, you read correctly. The person I want in the White House is….(drum roll, please)…the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

He’s mostly famous for being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms (he won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892). And perhaps also for marrying a 21-year woman while in the White House.

But he should be remembered instead – and with great fondness – for his belief in classical liberal principles.

Let’s start with this blurb from his Wikipedia page.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. …He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. …Cleveland used the veto far more often than any president up to that time.

Perhaps his most glorious moment came when he rejected the Texas Seed Bill.

After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. …the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Wow, can you imagine any President saying these words today?

President Cleveland’s steadfast behavior and sound principles have garnered him some well-deserved praise.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily back in 2011, Paul Whitfield opined about Cleveland’s track record.

If free-market advocates could resurrect a U.S. president to deal with today’s problems, many would choose Grover Cleveland. …He vetoed hundreds of spending bills, refusing to succumb to political temptation whether it was wrapped in patriotism or sob stories. …Union military veterans had become a powerful special interest group. Expenditures on their pensions increased about 500% over 20 years… When Congress passed a bill granting pensions to veterans for injuries not caused by military service, he vetoed it. …He vetoed 414 bills during his eight years — 1885-89 and 1893-97 — in the White House, forcing Congress to curb its appetite for spending.

President Cleveland even had a libertarian approach to overseas entanglements.

Cleveland had a simple approach to foreign policy. He said America should “never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked.”

Let’s go back even further in time. Here’s some of what Lawrence Reed wrote in 1996.

I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland… Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. …Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them. …He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.

The article points out that Cleveland wasn’t perfect.

Indeed, the squalid Department of Agriculture was elevated to the Cabinet during his tenure.

But, on net, he pushed for liberty. Heck, look at this quote from President Cleveland, which Lawrence Reed shared in an article from 1999.

When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and the expense of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.

Wow. Taxation to fund beyond limited government equals “ruthless extortion.” That warms my libertarian heart!

Robert Higgs, the great economic historian, shared another great quote from President Cleveland.

Cleveland believed in keeping government expenditure at the minimum required to carry out essential constitutional functions. “When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance,” declared Cleveland, “he acts immorally by the people.”

Let’s begin to wrap up with some wisdom from Burton Folsom, who wrote about President Cleveland for the Freeman back in 2004.

For a U.S. president, one test of this courage is the willingness to veto bad bills— bills that spend too much money or that contradict Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. In that test of character, perhaps no president passed more convincingly than Grover Cleveland… During Cleveland’s first term (1885–1889), he vetoed 414 bills, more than twice the total vetoed by all previous presidents. …Over half of Cleveland’s vetoes involved pensions to Civil War veterans. Congressmen, especially Republicans, were increasingly trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to unqualified veterans in hopes of capturing “the soldier vote.”

Sadly, politicians today not only go after the “soldier vote,” but also the “farmer vote,” the “elderly vote,” the “urban vote,” etc, etc, etc.

And we don’t have principled leaders like Grover Cleveland with a veto pen.

Let’s look at some historical budget data to understand how truly lucky the nation was during Cleveland’s era. During the 1880s, in his first term, total primary spending (which is total outlays minus expenditures for net interest) averaged just 1.7 percent of GDP.

And this was before the income tax was enacted. After all, there was no need to have a punitive levy when the fiscal burden of government was so small.

P.S. Barton Folsom was the narrator of the superb video from Prager University on government-controlled investment.

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Exactly five years, I created a Declaration of Dependence for my statist readers.

It was supposed to be satire, but after looking at some new estimates of dependency, I now wonder whether I accidentally foretold America’s future.

Anyhow, here’s how my attempt to be funny began.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people should be made equal, that they are endowed by their government with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are jobs, healthcare and housing.–That to secure these rights, Governments must rule over the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the elite.

While I like to think I came up with a few clever lines, it’s hard to laugh when you think about what’s happened ever since America’s real Declaration of Independence.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation tells us about the evolution of taxation.

Since our country’s founding, we have witnessed…federal revenues taking up less than 5 percent of our economy to more than 20 percent. …Taxation in the United States in 1776 was incredibly different than what it is today. There were no income taxes, no corporate taxes, and no payroll taxes.

Instead, the government relied on a relatively modest set of tariffs and excise taxes.

…taxes primarily existed on imports of goods and services to the colonies, as well as on the sale of particular products. What sort of items were these tariffs imposed on? Primarily, they were levied on ships on a per-tonnage basis, slaves, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages. In all, the average tariff worked out to about 10 percent of the value of imports.

Amazingly, this very modest form of taxation lasted for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until that wretched day when the 16th Amendment was approved that the stage was set for the oppressive tax system that now exists.

By the way, when there was no income tax, there also was very little government spending.

For much of our nation’s history, federal outlays consumed less than 3 percent of economic output. The burden of Washington spending today, by contrast, amounts to more than 20 percent of GDP. And I hate to even think about the long-run projections since I become suicidal.

Oh, and let’s not forget the regulatory burden. We’ve gone from a system that had virtually no red tape to a nation that is now suffocating from a blizzard of bureaucratic edicts.

All of which makes today more costly, as the Washington Examiner reports.

Hundreds of federal regulations on beer, fireworks, hamburgers and even corn-on-the-cob cost families an additional $40, according to a new report on the July 4th tax. American Action Forum regulatory policy director Sam Batkins researched the regulations on the holiday treats to determine the costs. And they are huge.

Here’s the infographic he created.

Red tape adding $40 to our costs today? That will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Let’s close on an upbeat and inspirational note by reading Professor Randy Barnett on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

The Committee of Five consisted of the senior Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, New York’s Robert Livingston, the Massachusetts stalwart champion of independence John Adams, and a rather quiet thirty-three year old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. After a series of meetings to decide on the outline of the declaration, the committee assigned Jefferson to write the first draft. …Jefferson did not have three leisurely weeks to write. He had merely a few days. Needing to work fast, Jefferson had to borrow, and he had two sources in front of him from which to crib. The first was his draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that contained a list of grievances, which was strikingly similar to the first group of charges against the King that ended up on the Declaration. The second was a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had been drafted by George Mason in his room at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg where the provincial convention was being held. …Mason’s May 27th draft proved handy indeed in composing the Declaration’s famous preamble. Its first two articles present two fundamental ideas that lie at the core of a Republican Constitution. The first idea is that first come rights, and then comes government.

To be sure, the Founders’ view of rights was grossly imperfect. Blacks and Indians were grossly mistreated and women were not full citizens.

But by the standards that existed then, the America’s Founders did a remarkable job of curtailing the power of the state and enhancing the rights of individuals.

The good news is that there have been some significant expansions of liberty ever since the Declaration of Independence. A bloody war was fought in part to end the scourge of slavery. The toxic combination of racism and statism embodied by the Jim Crow laws has been abolished. And women now have full political and economic rights.

The bad news is that there also have been significant contractions of liberty in the economic sphere. It started with the so-called Progressive Era, particularly the disastrous tenure of Woodrow Wilson. It then accelerated during FDR’s economy-stifling New Deal. Government’s size and power further expanded during the grim LBJ-Nixon years. And, more recently, we witnessed the debacle of a Supreme Court ruling that the very limited enumerated powers in the Constitution somehow give the federal government the right to coerce individuals to buy products from private companies.

Notwithstanding all this bad news, I’m not quite ready to pack my bags for Australia.

The United States was the only nation founded on a set of philosophical principles and I’m very patriotic – in the proper sense of the word – about being an American.

I hope all American readers enjoy Independence Day. And in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, break a few rules. Dodge a tax, set off some illegal fireworks, and drive over the speed limit!

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Okay, the title for today’s column is a bit grandiose. It implies weighty and ponderous analysis of America’s ever-growing entitlement state and potentially dour predictions about when we reach a tipping point of too much dependency.

But let’s focus on the short run, which isn’t quite so depressing. I was one of John Stossel’s guests as we looked at what happened in 2015 and gave a sober assessment of whether the United States is moving in the right direction or wrong direction.

If you don’t want to watch 30-plus minutes, here are the highlights.

I’ll start with what has me worried and/or glum.

According to the political betting markets (which I feel are more accurate than polls), Donald Trump’s chances keep increasing. I don’t feel confident, however, that he would shrink the size and scope of government if he made it to the White House. And he’s using up the oxygen of candidates who (while imperfect) seem more sincerely interested in advancing economic liberty.

I see little hope of fixing a refugee program that lures newcomers into welfare dependency (and may breed terrorism by creating a dispiriting environment of helplessness).

Speaking of which, as government gets bigger and bigger, it becomes even less competent about fulfilling legitimate responsibilities such as thwarting people who want to kill us.

Here’s what I’m happy and/or optimistic about.

People are displeased about what’s happening in Washington, and it’s healthy for there to be hostility and distrust toward government.

There’s a real opportunity for genuine entitlement reform in 2017.

American society is becoming more tolerant. As I argued on the program, I don’t care whether people approve of gays or pot smoking, but I do want to be part of a society that (unlike Iran!) doesn’t persecute or harass people for behaviors or beliefs that don’t harm others.

So some good things are happening.

Though I reserve the right to be really depressed later this year.

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What’s the difference between libertarians and conservatives? I’ve touched on that issue before, citing some interesting research which suggests that the underlying difference involves cultural factors such as attitudes about authority.

But let’s narrow the question and look at the specific issue of how conservatives and libertarians differ on people’s right to make decisions about their own bodies.

By the way, this is not a discussion of abortion, which involves another person (or fetus, or baby, or clump of cells, or whatever you want to call it). Since there’s no consensus libertarian view on this issue (other than not having it subsidized by the government), I’ll let others fight it out over whether mothers should be able to abort.

Today, I want to look at whether people should be free to control their own bodies in cases when there’s a much more clear-cut case that there is no harm to others.

The obvious example is drug use. Libertarians believe that people should be able to use drugs, even if we happen to think they’re being stupid.

And I can’t help noting that more and more conservatives are realizing that the Drug War does more harm than good.

But let’s use a different example. The Washington Post recently reported that the government of India wants to prevent low-income women from improving their lives.

The issue is whether these women should be able to act as surrogate mothers.

India is one of the top countries in the world for couples searching for surrogacy that can be done far more cheaply than in the United States and elsewhere. It is a booming — and largely unregulated — business in India, with thousands of clinics forming the backbone of an estimated $400 million-a-year industry.

Before I continue, I can’t resist pointing out that – if we use words properly – the industry is regulated. But the regulation is very efficient because it’s the result of private contracts, not government edicts.

That being said, let’s not get distracted. The main issue is whether these voluntary contracts somehow are exploitative.

Critics have long said that fertility clinics and their clients exploit surrogate mothers — often poor and illiterate women from rural areas who are paid little.

But how on earth is this type of arrangement bad for Indian women?!?

A surrogate mother profiled in The Washington Post was paid $8,000: an amount 12 times what she made as a garment worker.

The article doesn’t specify whether the surrogate mother was paid 12 times what she earned in a year, or whether the pay was for the nine-month period of pregnancy.

Regardless, the woman clearly was a big winner.

Yet this practice somehow arouses antagonism among India’s political elite.

India’s Supreme Court recently labeled it “surrogacy tourism” and called for a ban. The government submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court on Wednesday saying that it “does not support commercial surrogacy” and that “no foreigners can avail surrogacy services in India,” although the service would still be available to Indian couples.

I’m not sure why Supreme Court Justices are lobbying for legislation. Maybe India’s system somehow enables that kind of grandstanding.

But it’s not good for poor Indians, or the Indian economy.

More than 6,000 surrogate babies are born in India per year, about half of them to foreign couples, according to one industry estimate. “We are taken aback by the government’s stand against foreign nationals,” said Jagatjeet Singh, a surrogacy consultant in New Delhi. “On one hand, the government is promoting foreign investment and the medical tourism industry. And on the other, they are talking of banning foreign nationals from coming to India for surrogate babies. There are dual standards.”

My guess is that richer people in India (such as members of the political elite) don’t like being reminded that their nation is poor.

They’re probably somewhat chagrined and embarrassed that they live in a country where thousands of women will jump at the chance to rent their wombs to foreigners.

But even if that’s an understandable emotion (I’m a bit ashamed when foreigners ask me about FATCA, for instance), that doesn’t justify laws banning voluntary exchange between consenting adults.

Moreover, renting a womb isn’t like working in a strip club or being a prostitute. As a libertarian, I don’t want to criminalize those professions, which just makes life harder for women in difficult circumstances. But we can all understand why there’s some degree of shame associated with stripping and hooking.

Heck, I can even understand why some folks don’t like voluntary kidney sales. It’s human nature, after all, to prefer a world where nobody is ever tempted to make big decisions for reasons of financial duress.

Earning money by being a surrogate mother, by contrast, seems perfectly benign. Perhaps somewhat akin to guys who make money by going to sperm banks.

P.S. A related issue is “sweatshops,” which some folks want to ban even though that denies poor people an opportunity to climb the economic ladder and improve their lives.

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I don’t understand why some people are hostile to libertarians.

After all, our philosophy is based on the notion that we want government to be limited so it is less likely to reach into your wallet or your bedroom.

At the risk of oversimplifying, libertarians think it’s okay for government to safeguard life, liberty, and property from force and fraud, but we’re very leery about giving additional powers to the government.

Seems like a reasonable governing philosophy to me, but some people object to being treated like adults and they lash out with very silly attacks on libertarianism.

Consider this article in Slate, which makes it seem as if libertarians are hypocrites if they accept – and express appreciation for – assistance from firefighters.

…an Okanogan, Washington man named Brad Craig thanks firefighters for saving his home. It’s a nice moment, though if you look closely you’ll notice that Craig happened to be wearing a t-shirt that given the circumstances is quite ironic… The shirt says “Lower Taxes + Less Government = More Freedom.” …10 different government organizations are mentioned in the AP story about the large-scale coordinated response that worked to Craig’s benefit.

Wow. I’m not sure whether the author is malicious or clueless, but this is remarkable. He’s basically saying that if you want less government, you must be a hypocrite if you support or benefit from any government.

Which is the same as me asserting that leftists are hypocritical to buy I-Phones because their support for more government means that they therefore must favor total government and no private sector.

There are, of course, some libertarians who persuasively argue that we don’t need government fire departments. And some who even argue that we don’t need any government.

But even if Brad Craig (the guy with the t-shirt) was in one of these categories, that doesn’t make him a hypocrite. Many poor and middle-class families would like a voucherized education system so they could afford to send their kids to private schools. In the absence of such a reform, are they hypocrites for sending their kids to government-run schools?

Obviously not.

Here’s another example. The government today takes money from just about all of us to prop up a poorly designed Social Security system. Are the workers who have been coerced into that system hypocrites if they take Social Security benefits when they retire?

Of course not.

Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller also weighed in on this topic. Here’s some of what he wrote.

I can express a desire for less government interference in my life without rejecting the need for firefighters. Or police, or roads, or Stop signs, or whatever. I understand that it’s actually possible to advocate individual liberty while still admitting the need for government. People have been saying such things for hundreds of years.

Well said.

Let’s close with this look at how libertarians are the reasonable middle ground between two types of statists. I don’t fully agree with all the characterizations (many leftists favor corporate welfare and are not tolerant of other people’s personal choices, for instance, while there are folks on the right who aren’t very committed to economic freedom), but it’s worth reviewing.

If you want to figure out where you belong, there is a short way, medium way, and long way of answering that question.

And while I don’t want put my thumb on the scale as you take these tests, I’ll simply note that decent and humane people tend to be libertarians.

P.S. Here’s a more scholarly look at the difference between libertarians and conservatives.

P.P.S. And here’s my take on why there aren’t any pure libertarian societies.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my collection of libertarian humor.

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