Obvious, but it needs to be said

Steve Chapman on what was missing at the conventions:

This year’s Republican National Convention had a different theme for each day. Monday was “Serving a Cause Greater than Self.” Tuesday was “Service,” Wednesday was “Reform,” and Thursday was “Peace.”

So what was missing? Only what used to be held up as the central ideal of the party. The heirs of Goldwater couldn’t spare a day for freedom.

Neither could the Democrats. Their daily topics this year were “One Nation,” “Renewing America’s Promise,” and “Securing America’s Future.” The party proclaimed “an agenda that emphasizes the security of our nation, strong economic growth, affordable health care for all Americans, retirement security, honest government, and civil rights.” Expanding and upholding individual liberty? Not so much.

Forty-four years after Goldwater’s declaration, it’s clear that collectivism, not individualism, is the reigning creed of Republicans as well as Democrats. Individuals are not valuable and precious in their own right but as a means for those in power to achieve their grand ambitions.


Indie shops take on the green giant

A few years ago it was common to hear lamentations about Starbucks moving in and crushing the neighborhood independent shops. An article in yesterday’s Seattle Times points out that perception is catching up to reality with a more balanced take on Starbucks’ influence:

Collectively, independent and small-chain coffeehouses have the largest share of coffee and doughnut sales in the U.S., with 34 percent of the market in 2006, according to a new report from the Chicago research firm Mintel. Starbucks has the next largest share at 29 percent.

“When you talk to all the detractors whose critique is that Starbucks ruined the culture of coffeehouses, you’d get the impression there were all these coffeehouses and then Starbucks came in and destroyed them,” said Kim Fellner, a longtime national labor and community organizer whose book “Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino” came out last month.

While there are some examples of Starbucks putting independents out of business, she said, “you find far more where people who look at Starbucks and say, ‘They’re being successful. I could be, too.’ ”

The popularity of Starbucks has helped spread coffeehouse culture beyond university communities and Italian neighborhoods, Fellner said.

Starbucks has fallen on hard times lately and lost its focus on coffee quality a long time ago, but the company deserves great credit for raising the bar for American coffee culture and bringing espresso drinks and single origin beans to a mass audience. Many of today’s indie shop customers got their first taste of decent cappuccino at a Starbucks.

I had a similar take on the company in a post titled “A libertarian goes to Starbucks.” For a more in-depth assessment, Taylor Clark’s Starbucked is a fun, informative history.

[Via Pasteboard.]


Don’t name Milton!

An amusing story from the Chicago Tribune:

Few names are more associated with the University of Chicago than Milton Friedman’s.

But that’s exactly the problem, say some faculty who want to put the brakes on a plan to name a new research center after the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

In a letter to U. of C. President Robert Zimmer, 101 professors—about 8 percent of the university’s full-time faculty—said they feared that having a center named after the conservative, free-market economist could “reinforce among the public a perception that the university’s faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity.”

Aside from his achievements as an advocate for free markets and individual liberty, Friedman was an unquestionably brilliant economist with contributions to the field that were not limited to any particular political views. There are far worse names to have associated with one’s university.

[Hat tip: Newmark’s Door.]


Today in Dust-Up

Today in Dust-Up, Paul Roberts and I discuss whether or not the FDA has enough regulatory power. You can guess where I come down, but Paul doubts the agency’s efforts too.

On a related note, Peter Van Doren lays down some skepticism about food safety regulation in this Cato Daily Podcast.

Update: Also, whoever writes the headlines at LATimes.com deserves a raise.

Back in The Jungle
Don’t blame Milton!


Dust-Up in the L.A. Times

This week in the L.A. Times Dust-Up feature, I’m discussing food policy with Paul Roberts, author of the recently released The End of Food. We take on a different question each day, taking turns on who goes first. Today’s question considers food-borne illness in our produce: is it a major menace or a manageable threat?

This should be a fun discussion. Paul and I don’t agree on everything, as you’ll see in the coming week, but we’d both like to see consumers eating better, fresher food, an end to subsidies for industrial farming, and regulations that aren’t bent to the interests of major corporate players. His book is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in why so much of our food is so bad and how out of touch we are with its origins.


Back in The Jungle?

Paul Krugman makes another foray into the food safety issue today. His logic of blaming free market advocates for the failures of a regulatory agency is completely absurd — especially since the regulatory captures he notes in the article are exactly the kinds of things that make libertarians skeptical of government regulation in the first place.

Moreover, it’s not clear that the food safety crisis Krugman writes about has even occurred. News reports about food safety issues are certainly prominent, but according to Alex Tabarrok, the numbers tell a different story. The CDC’s data on foodborne disease outbreaks show a decline from 1998-2006.

Krugman’s previous column on food safety was covered here. Sadly, the intervening year hasn’t made him a better writer.


Paul’s new project

After the New Republic article about the Ron Paul newsletters came out, I worried that the money leftover in his campaign bank fund would go to an objectionable group. Fortunately, Paul is deciding instead to start a new project: The Campaign for Liberty, a fund raising group for libertarian-minded Republican candidates largely excluded from the party’s current ugly turn toward big government. He’ll also be holding a large rally in Minneapolis during the Republican National Convention — though not in the convention, where he and his supporters won’t receive a warm welcome. ABC News has the story.

I haven’t been following the so-called “Ron Paul Republicans” very closely, but this seems like a good use of the money (and one that campaign donors won’t object to). Paul has always been better at raising money than speaking as a candidate, and funneling money to some successful, small government Republicans would be a good direction for the movement he energized last year to take.

[Via Andrew Sullivan.]


Corruption: We’re doin’ it wrong

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Robert Frank argues that libertarian activists, unlike our left-wing counterparts, can’t possibly understand what it means to “sell out” and get a “real,” higher paying job in the for-profit sector:

Consider the poor Washington libertarian. Everywhere else in America his type is an exotic species, a coffee-shop heretic who quotes from “Atlas Shrugged” and steers every conversation toward Ron Paul or gold. Take him or leave him, he doesn’t care. He is his own master.

Not so the Beltway variety. Here, in the very home of the taxing, regulating leviathan, the libertarian is such a commonplace and unremarkable bird that no one gives him a second glance. Here he is a factotum of the establishment, a tiny voice in a vast choir assembled by business and its tax-exempt front groups to sing the virtues of the entrepreneur.

And therein lies his dilemma. Almost by definition, our young libertarian’s job is to celebrate the profit motive from the offices of a not-for-profit organization. He is subsidized, in other words, to hymn the unsubsidized way of life. Rugged individualism may be his creed, but a rugged individual he ain’t.

This is more than just an abstract problem, as I discovered last week at a panel discussion hosted by America’s Future Foundation, one of the lesser libertarian nonprofits in the city. The questions that night were whether nonprofit work constituted a “real job” and if moving to the private sector was “selling out” – ideas well known to any liberal do-gooder…

Selling out is not a threat to the market order; selling out is how the market gets its way. Just look at the city in which all these remarks were made. Private-sector Washington is one of the wealthiest places in America. Public-service Washington lags considerably behind. The chance of ditching the one for the other is what accounts for everything from the power of K Street to the infamous “revolving door,” by which a public servant takes a cushy corporate job after engineering some extravagant government favor for the corporation in question – or its clients.

The libertarian nonprofits that line the city’s streets often serve merely to rationalize this operation after the fact, giving a pious shine to the policies that are made in this unholy manner.

Oh no, our cover is blown! Cato Institute scholars are clearly in the pocket of the corporate donors who make up less than 10 percent of the organization’s funding. Just look at the site’s front page. There’s Ilya Somin arguing for better eminent domain protections for small property owners against politically connected developers. And here’s Swaminathan Aiyar noting the stupidity of biofuel subsidies that have been forced unwanted upon the nation’s big agricultural companies. Or how about Gerald O’Driscoll, a former Federal Reserve vice president, decrying the Fed’s bailout of Bear Stearns and the sweet deal it negotiated for Morgan Stanley? He’s just itching for a job at one of the other big banking firms.

Reason is even worse. Jacob Sullum’s opposition to the Phillip Morris-backed FDA legislation is merely a clever ploy to hide his friendly relationship with the nation’s largest tobacco company. Or perhaps he’s betting on getting a job with an internet gambling company after helping them crush those weak and defenseless Vegas casinos. Personally, I’m secretly hoping my raw milk article will land me a well-paid appointment shoveling manure at a local dairy. I’m not sure what angle Radley Balko is playing by getting Mississippi Drug War victims off Death Row, but I’m sure it’s something.

And don’t even get me started on the “merry litigators” at the Institute for Justice. They’re currently celebrating their victory on behalf of an Arizona bar owner who may now allow his customers to dance. We can expect IJ attorneys to line up cushy gigs in the Big Dance industry in no time.

Frank is right. We libertarians are conniving for luxurious, generously rewarded jobs in the for-profit sector. We’re just really, really bad it.


Libertarians and labeling

Ezra Klein has a weird post up today accusing libertarians of being hypocritical in their opposition to laws requiring restaurants to post calorie information:

It’s a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response. Take trans fats, which have disappeared from just about every food save margarine now that they need to be listed on the package. If caloric information was posted, a lot of currently popular items would become unpopular (the awesome blossom, say), and restaurants would innovate towards lower calorie, but still filling, foods. In the absence of that information, the incentives to do so are weak. It’s one of those soft ways of making the market work better towards a social end: We agree that people should be healthier, people agree that they want to be healthier, and all this would do is give them the information to make healthy decisions. It would not actually bar any foods from production or sale. But because there’s some odd desire among some on the right to lionize unhealthy decisions (smoking!) and defend existing business models, whatever they may be, to the death, this regulation faces a steep uphill climb.

Information is a market good, too. It’s not a perfect market and one can reasonably argue that in some cases mandating label inclusions is for the public good, but more information isn’t always an improvement. Nor is government always better than the market at deciding what information ought to be provided; recall the mandated GM labels that were roundly ignored in the Netherlands. Corruption by lobbying is also an issue, as with Diageo’s manipulation of low-carb wine labeling and its current push to force nutritional labeling on the entire alcohol industry.

Requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts might indeed have the effects that Ezra hopes it would by making people think twice about what they eat and the social benefits might be worthwhile, but there’s nothing unlibertarian in being skeptical of mandates for information that we’re not sure customers are demanding in the first place.

Update: See Megan McArdle, too.

Guess what? Burgers make you fat!
Do people know what they want to know?


Gene Healy blogs again

After a long blog hiatus, Gene Healy is back with a new site and a new book to promote. The blog is here, and a welcome return for those of us who’ve missed his grumbly libertarian cynicism. The book is The Cult of the Presidency, an examination of how the modern American president has acquired excessive powers at the expense of individual liberty and good government. I’m about halfway through it now and recommend it highly.

[Disclosure: Part of my job is promoting this book, but if you think that represents a conflict of interest then you profoundly overestimate the size of this blog’s readership.]


A bubbly anniversary

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the legalization of beer, which preceded the repeal of the Volstead Act by several months by classifying low-alcohol beer as “non-intoxicating.” For the libertarians among you, this is the one night of the year to raise a toast to FDR.

Update: In other news of beer liberation, the Virginia ABC is finally allowing the sale of Rustico’s tasty hopsicles.

Update 4/8/08: My friends Caleb Brown and Brandon Arnold discuss beer’s legalization in the Cato Daily Podcast.


GOOD on speakeasies

Nostalgic for the appeal of the speakeasy, or just not interested in being bothered by city health regulations, a few enterprising cooks are entering the speakeasy business. From GOOD:

Given that speakeasies violate numerous health codes and zoning laws, it’s not surprising that the people who run them are leery of letting in just anybody. (The Chowhound website won’t even allow discussions of secret restaurants on its message boards, for fear of getting them shut down.) Mark is more likely to offer a seat to the person who emails about fears of a life doomed to eating boxed macaroni and cheese than to someone who simply requests a reservation for two; the online application for Studiofeast, another Brooklyn-based speakeasy, asks applicants to describe their ideal last meal. Through word of mouth and aggressive filtration of potential diners, these hidden kitchens strive to create the perfect dinner party.

This libertarian foodie likes it! Read the whole thing here.

[Via Slashfood.]


Baylen is Crispy on the Outside

Baylen Linnekin — foodie, libertarian, former barista, and drinking buddy for one particularly memorable evening that left me spending the night on the floor of the coffee shop where I worked — has launched a new weblog with pal Jerry Brito. Check out Crispy on the Outside for all things related to bacon, food, bacon, stupid government regulations, and especially bacon. (You can see why Baylen and I get along.) Crispy’s one of my favorite new weblogs; add it to your RSS readers and blogrolls post haste!


Litigating libertarians

Those of us of a libertarian bent have two very interesting cases in the courts right now, both carefully crafted to vindicate lost constitutional rights. The newest involves SpeechNow, an organization aimed at defeating candidates hostile to free political speech. Writing in the Washington Post, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith and Institute for Justice attorney Steve Simpson explain what’s at stake:

Political activist David Keating created SpeechNow.org to give individual Americans a way to speak about candidates free of the byzantine campaign finance regulations that apply to modern political speech. The group’s particular mission is to protect First Amendment rights at the ballot box — to buy ads urging citizens to vote for politicians who support free speech and against those who do not — but its model could be applied to any issue or candidate a group of voters cares about.

SpeechNow.org is an independent group of citizens spending their own money on their own speech. It does not accept corporate or union contributions, makes no donations to politicians or parties and does not coordinate its activities with them. It will also fully disclose its contributions and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission…

Nonetheless, according to federal campaign finance laws and the FEC, SpeechNow.org must become a “political committee,” a PAC, and comply with a host of regulations that rival the tax laws in burden and complexity. Failure to do so could result in up to five years in prison for contributors and the principals of the group…

Imposing limits on groups such as SpeechNow.org ends up hurting the very people whom backers of campaign finance regulation always claim they’re trying to help — people of average means who must pool their resources to be heard — while leaving the field to the very wealthy to spend what they please.

Those are among the claims SpeechNow.org and its members made in a lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It challenges the constitutionality of requiring independent groups of citizens to register and organize as political committees. For the first time, federal courts will be asked to decide whether independent political speech by groups of individual American citizens has the full protection of the First Amendment.

The other is District of Columbia v. Heller, the challenge to DC’s gun ban that may end up being the first substantive Supreme Court case on the Second Amendment in 70 years. There’s been lots of commentary on the case, but my favorite article so far is this New York Times profile on its architect, Cato’s Robert Levy.