Free money, fr33 agents

I’ve been remiss in not linking yet to a couple of new sites from my friends.

First is Stimulus Watch, designed by my Crispy on the Outside co-blogger Jerry Brito. It’s a wiki site that lets citizens track stimulus spending proposals, vote on their importance, and supplement the descriptions with local knowledge. It’s searchable by location so you can find the proposals in your area. Oregon has 159 “shovel-ready” projects in the website, ranging from the plausibly appropriate to a $1.5 million dollar request for resurfacing tennis courts in Eugene.

The second is one of my new favorite blogs, Fr33 Agents by my friends Jason Talley and Tom Pearson. They profile libertarian activists and cover the “this movement like the fan boys and girls that we are.” Their daily updates are a great source for keeping up with grassroots opposition to big government interference in our lives. Go check them out.


Good on Barr

Bob Barr has a remarkably honest op-ed in today’s L.A. Times:

In 1996, as a freshman member of the House of Representatives, I wrote the Defense of Marriage Act, better known by its shorthand acronym, DOMA, than its legal title…

I’ve wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned. In testifying before Congress against a federal marriage amendment, and more recently while making my case to skeptical Libertarians as to why I was worthy of their support as their party’s presidential nominee, I have concluded that DOMA is neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law.

In effect, DOMA’s language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don’t want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran’s benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Even more so now than in 1996, I believe we need to reduce federal power over the lives of the citizenry and over the prerogatives of the states. It truly is time to get the federal government out of the marriage business. In law and policy, such decisions should be left to the people themselves.

In 2006, when then-Sen. Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he said, “Decisions about marriage should be left to the states.” He was right then; and as I have come to realize, he is right now in concluding that DOMA has to go. If one truly believes in federalism and the primacy of state government over the federal, DOMA is simply incompatible with those notions.

I’ve voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in all three presidential elections in which I’ve been eligible, usually as a protest vote rather than to express an actual desire to see the candidate in office. I don’t know if Harry Browne would have made a decent leader, though “better than Bush” seems a safe answer. Michael Badnarik clearly would not have been. Ron Paul, to whose Republican campaign I donated prior to the newsletter scandal, was better as a figurehead than a policymaker.Yet Barr really does have a sharp mind for policy and an admirable ability to revise his own views; see his writing on the Drug War, another issue where he alienates old conservative allies. It’s disappointing that his campaign never took off, but I’m glad to see he’s still making his voice heard. We need more like it right now.


Rigging the system

Whenever I tell people that I support scrapping practically all of our campaign finance laws, they say that I must have a ridiculous amount of trust in politicians and private donors. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is one reason that disclosure for large donations is one regulation I could potentially still support. It takes much greater faith in human nature to believe that allowing incumbent politicians to write the laws governing their own elections will lead to a healthy democracy. In his most recent column, Radley Balko summarizes the many ways the ruling parties have rigged the system to keep challengers at bay:

Consider these two figures: Congress’ approval rating right now is a dismal 19 percent. Clearly, we aren’t happy with the people who are governing us. Yet 90-95 percent of the incumbents running for re-election to Congress will be victorious on election night. Many will run unopposed. Between gerrymandering their districts to ensure a friendly electorate, campaign finance legislation, debate rules that effectively bar third-party participants, onerous ballot access rules, and the privileges of office, the Democrats and Republicans have ensured that the vast majority of the country will chose only between one of two candidates this year — candidates who, when it comes right down to it, really aren’t all that different.

Whole thing here. For a more in-depth look at campaign finance, John Samples’ The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform is well worth reading.


Struggling to identify the lesser evil

I’m not going to endorse anyone in this election. As with the previous two presidential races in which I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ll be throwing my ballot to the Libertarians on the theory that my vote has a vanishingly small chance of affecting the outcome and its marginal value is greater for a small third party than for the Big Two. I’m also glad to have a respectable candidate on the LP ticket this year; I won’t have to hold my nose voting for Bob Barr as I did voting for the insane Michael Badnarik. I expect McCain and Obama both have the potential to be disastrously bad presidents and I won’t take an affirmative act in favor of either of them. The question then isn’t so much which of them I’d rather see in office as it is whose victory will drive me to the fewest shots of bourbon on election night and beyond.

One of my friends recently pointed out that this site has an anti-Obama bias. He’s right, but it’s not because I think Obama is substantially worse than McCain. It’s because so many intelligent people seem to be under Obama’s spell, taking it on faith that he’s going to be a fantastically transformational president. The few McCain supporters I know are more grounded. They don’t particularly like the guy or what he stands for, but they soberly think him the lesser of two evils, especially given Democrats’ control of Congress. (There are plenty of stupidly enthusiastic McCain supporters as well, but I don’t think they read this blog.)

Throughout this campaign I’ve wavered about which of the two I think would be least destructive in office. I initially favored Obama, if for no other reason than to kick the reigning bastards out. I later drifted toward McCain based on the superiority of many of his policy ideas. Then he nominated Palin for VP and it got really hard to be a self-respecting McCain defender. Ever since the convention the McCain campaign has been an intellectual disaster. Perhaps there is no way McCain could have won this election, but he could have at least forced Obama into a more substantive discussion. If he had, he could have made a respectable play for the politically secular, socially tolerant, economically literate voter. It’s extremely disappointing that he didn’t, because he could have made a good case for himself on a number of issues:

Trade: McCain boasts an admirably long career of promoting free trade. According to Cato’s trade vote tracker, since 1997 he’s voted 88% of the time against trade barriers (35 of 40 votes) and against subsidies 80% (8 out of 10 votes). Obama has a thinner record, but it’s consistently anti-trade: Out of 18 opportunities to vote in favor of free trade, he did so only 4 times. This matches his rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he stokes resentment toward foreign trade by blaming outsourcing for our economic woes. McCain’s the clear favorite here.

The popular line among Obama-leaning libertarians right now is that Obama is only appearing anti-trade to get elected and that he’s clever enough to implement better policies once he’s in office. Maybe, but that’s not the way his record points. It strikes me as equally likely that he’ll be true to his word on restricting trade and waver in his support of civil liberties, as he in fact has a record of doing. Counting on Obama to stand up against his own rhetoric, Democratic interest groups, and an anti-trade, pro-regulation Congress is a thin reed on which to place one’s hopes.

Climate change: The best way to cut carbon emissions is to tax them directly or institute a system of cap-and-trade. Ideally no candidate would propose anything besides these ideas and some highly targeted grants to basic research. In the real world politicians invariably support handouts to special interests, too.

Obama and McCain both support cap-and-trade, though Obama’s targets are slightly more ambitious and therefore more costly. They both support subsidies to coal and renewable power. Obama has his own grab bag of other subsidies and handouts to promote. Though you won’t hear them say much about it now, Obama and Biden both have a long history of boosting ethanol, subsidies McCain has had the guts to call out as wasteful sops to farm states that don’t actually help the environment. McCain would advocate subsidies for the construction of nuclear plants and offer prizes for research; there are reasons to be dubious of the nuclear idea and thankfully he may not be able to win support for it.

On an issue where both candidates spout a lot of nonsense, McCain’s plan has an edge for likely being less expensive. If you’re against throwing money at reducing carbon emissions, McCain’s your man. If you’re in favor of doing that, he’s still your man because he’ll waste less money in the process. A major obstacle to addressing climate change is getting the system of cap-and-trade instituted in the first place; if McCain doesn’t reduce emissions to the degree you prefer you can tighten the restrictions four years later. Whatever reasonable position you may have on climate change, there’s a good argument for McCain being the smarter pick.

Subsidies and spending: Speaking of subsidies, remember that $300 billion farm bill from this past spring? McCain has consistently opposed farm subsidies, preferring to defend the interests of US farmers by opening foreign markets to trade. Obama staunchly supports the handouts, with the exception of opposing our notorious sugar protectionism. Until he had to win the Florida vote, that is. Now he supports that too.

Predictably neither candidate is addressing the true causes of uncontrolled government spending: entitlements and the military budget. They both want to expand the military and neither is likely to meaningfully reform entitlements, though McCain does have a decent fiscal record. McCain at least will be better at resisting new government largesse. I worry about the new entitlements a liberal Democratic supermajority will put into place — spending programs that will be practically impossible to reverse once they’ve been implemented.

Health care: I don’t pretend to know how to “fix” the US health care system. I am convinced that decoupling health insurance from employment and bringing more market pressures to bear on health care costs would be worthwhile approaches to reform. McCain’s plan would transfer the tax credit from employers to individuals, free up the insurance market by allowing plans to compete across state lines, and open group plans to new kinds of associations. These all strike me as steps in the right direction.

Taxes: Making sense of tax policies is a struggle even for experts and I don’t pretend to be one. Neither candidate is pushing comprehensive reform. Clive Crook argues that McCain has undersold his plan since after accounting for his refundable health insurance credit it will arguably make middle class Americans better off than they’d be under Obama’s. This issue, along with long-term deficits, has received too little attention in the campaign.

Foreign policy: No, McCain doesn’t have an advantage here, but Obama’s not as superior as people think. He is not principally opposed to committing US troops to foreign intervention; he’ll just commit troops to presumably nicer, smarter wars than McCain would. He may prove dangerously hawkish on Iran if diplomacy fails to prevent it from moving forward with nuclear projects. He and McCain seem equally reckless regarding Georgia. But a key difference is this: When a President McCain proposes sending our troops into a new arena, he’ll face skepticism from the media and a Democratic Congress who will accuse him of continuing failed policies from the Bush years. President Obama will get a free pass since he’s by definition smart and nice and doesn’t fight stupid wars like Bush did. When Obama proposes deploying US troops, who will step up to counter his ambitions? And why does he want to add 90,000 troops to the military unless he foresees a use for them?

Divided government: The most compelling reason to vote for McCain is that he’ll face a Democratic Congress. Though it’s hard to run a pro-gridlock campaign, for advocates of limited government it’s the best thing McCain’s got going for him. If we have learned one thing from the post-9/11 Bush Administration, it is that we should be wary of trusting a charismatic president whose party controls both houses of Congress in time of perceived crisis. This year the crisis is financial rather than military, the presumptive president even more charismatic than before, and Congress potentially even beyond the reach of filibuster by the minority party. That’s a hell of a lot power to trust in one man. Would President McCain, or even President Palin, be so terrible as to make this the preferred alternative?

A counter to this argument is that Republicans need to spend some time in the wilderness to renew their small government credentials. I agree, and for that reason I’m glad to see that they’ll lose even more seats in Congress and that they’re sweeping George Bush under the rug as thoroughly as possible. But I’m not sure that handing the levers of power entirely to the Democrats is worth the long-term cost or that exiled Republicans wouldn’t look instead to culture warriors like Palin to redefine the GOP. Hoping they’ll return with a new Goldwater or Reagan or Gingrich is taking a big risk for a very uncertain payoff.

On a related note, a last argument in McCain’s favor is that there’s a decent chance he’d be a one-term man. He even flirted with the idea of making a one-term pledge. Obama will likely enjoy two. Except in the unlikely event that there’s been no economic recovery or a foreign policy disaster four years from now, he’ll be in a position to win re-election. So what’s worse, eight years of Obama, or four of McCain followed by a potentially open contest?

That’s the best case I can make for McCain. I don’t find it compelling; the specter of McCain-Palin foreign policy looms too large over any prospect of them assuming office, especially in the worst possible scenarios. If McCain hadn’t chosen such an obscenely unqualified vice presidential nominee I could feel more confident in preferring him. If Republicans could maintain control over just one house of Congress I could rest easier about Obama’s big government ambitions. We’re left instead with two atrocious choices. For all the reasons given above, I can’t join in the chorus of libertarians half-heartedly rooting for Obama. I can’t root for McCain either, but I confess I’ll feel more relief than I perhaps should if by some miracle he wins on Tuesday. Luckily, it appears there’s little chance he’ll have the opportunity to prove me wrong.


Cato in The Post

My friends at Cato get a nice profile in The Washington Post today:

The specter of the most titanic intervention in the markets since Franklin Roosevelt started sewing the safety net has folks at the Cato Institute reaching for something strong.

“I’m thinking of taking up drinking,” says David Boaz, executive vice president.

He’s kidding, of course. Just a little gallows humor from the author of “Libertarianism: A Primer,” who has a Goldwater poster and two busts of Adam Smith in his office.

Instead, in their handsome building on Massachusetts Avenue, faced with a proposed $700 billion government bailout of Wall Street, this town’s most gung-ho libertarians and free-marketeers are reaching for their coffee and their keyboards. They are invigorated. The prospect of doom and ruination for everything they hold dear only makes them stronger.

I feel bad for the media intern who will have to figure out how to log all the references and quotes from the article, but I’m glad to see Cato get such a sympathetic treatment. Now if only the Post would start incorporating more free market policy ideas into its articles…


An a-Paul-ing endorsement

Recently I was feeling nostalgic for Ron Paul. If Obama’s likely to win the White House anyway, it would have been far better to see him spar with an intellectually interesting Republican rather than a political hack like McCain. Then yesterday he endorsed Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party for president. Dave Weigel offers a taste of Baldwin’s rhetoric. Such as this, from a few days after 9/11:

…it is now time for the American people to realize that the liberal policies of the last 30 years have created the opportunity for terrorists like those who attacked us Tuesday to accomplish their heinous crimes. America’s foolish fascination with multiculturalism and unrestricted illegal immigration made it easy for those Islamic terrorists to do what they did…

Our Founding Fathers knew that our nation’s protection was ultimately in the hands of God. Freedom and security are the blessings of God. Since God was no idle spectator when our country was birthed, He is no idle spectator today. Both blessing and judgment belong to Him. He can accomplish either according to His will.

It is, therefore, imperative that America returns to God! For nearly a half-century, we have forsaken the moral principles of Heaven. We have legally murdered too many unborn babies. We have too readily accepted aberrant, sexual behavior. We kicked Heaven out of our schools, out of our homes, and out of our hearts. As a result, God is giving us a little taste of Hell.

This in a year when the LP nominated former Congressman Bob Barr, one of the most credible candidates the party’s ever put on the ballot. As with Paul’s disgraceful failure to fire the guy who authored his racist newsletters, the Baldwin endorsement shows an appalling lack of judgment. Paul accomplished a fair amount of good with his primary campaign, but as far as I’m concerned now he can’t fade into obscurity fast enough.

Update: James Poulos has more reactions here.


“The Libertarian” speaks launched a new column this week called “The Libertarian” featuring Richard Epstein. I’d rather see libertarian ideas mainstreamed than walled off into their own cage at the ideological zoo, but I’m glad that Epstein is contributing regularly. He’s a fascinating scholar and his book Skepticism and Freedom is one of the most rigorous defenses of classical liberalism there is. The introduction to the column is light but the coming articles about labor markets promise to be interesting.

[Via the University of Chicago Faculty Blog.]


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.


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 deserves a raise.

Back in The Jungle
Don’t blame Milton!


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?