The Fed's Latest Claim of "Independence" Is As Unconvincing as Ever

The Fed's Latest Claim of "Independence" Is As Unconvincing as Ever

07/12/2018Ryan McMaken

Here we go again. A fed official is once again going to the media to repeat the age-old myth that the Fed is totally independent of political influence.

The last time we heard about this from someone at Powell's level what last year, when Steve Mnuchin reminded everyone of the Fed's alleged independence in January:

Responding in writing to questions from Senator Bill Nelson , Steve Mnuchin described the Fed as “organized with sufficient independence to conduct monetary policy and open market operations.” He also praised “the increased transparency we have seen from the Federal Reserve Board over recent years.”

This time, it's Fed chair Jerome Powell himself, who granted an interview to NPR's Marketplace . Most of the interview was devoted to making this point about independence. Here's some of it:

Ryssdal: There is a question that has to be asked — actually a couple of them — about the political environment in which this economy operates right now. Granting that the Fed has always been a source of political frustration for many in the executive branch, it's worth pointing out here that Larry Kudlow, the chairman of the president's National Economic Council, and the president himself have said they are low-interest rate guys. Larry Kudlow encourages the Fed to move very slowly on interest rates on the theory that rising interest rates would be a tricky thing for the president politically. Do you think it's appropriate for the White House to be not telling the Fed what to do, but saying these things in public?

Powell: Let me just say I'm not concerned about it, and I'll tell you why. We have a long tradition here of conducting policy in a particular way, and that way is independent of all political concerns. We do our work in a strictly nonpolitical way, based on detailed analysis, which we put on the record transparently, and we don't consider political considerat — we don’t take political considerations into account.

I would add though that no one in the administration has said anything to me that really gives me concern on this front. But this is deep in our DNA. For a long, long time the Fed has felt it important to conduct our business that way. I'm deeply committed to that approach. And so are all of my colleagues here.

Ryssdal: Which I understand, but you're also humans. And when the White House leans on you, you must feel it.

Powell: Again, nothing has been said to me publicly or privately that gives me any concern about our independence.

Ryssdal makes a point that anyone not trained to believe Washington, DC sound bytes would see. Powell, like everyone else involved in the Fed's governance is a human being and brings with him his own biases.

We saw some of this in 2016 when it came to light that Fed employers donated far more money to the Hillary Clinton campaign, than to any other campaign:

Bloomberg had an interesting report this week looking at the political contributions of Federal Reserve employees this election season. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton is dominating the field, receiving $18,747 in contributions — over four times more than all other candidates combined. While most of the donations came from lower level Fed officials, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard came under fire for making several donations to Clinton’s campaign.

When people like Powell say "non-political," though, they don't mean non-ideological or unbiased. They mean they aren't making decisions in a way so as to benefit certain candidates or certain political parties.

Even if this were true — which it's not (see below) — it would be of little comfort. The Fed can still act to benefit certain groups over others. Its policies can be employed to keep interest rates low for governments, so as to keep the cost of the national debt low. The Fed can adopt policies that benefit Wall Street more than Main Street. The Fed can act to benefit spenders rather than savers.

These acts of picking winners and losers, and influencing public policy, would be considered "political" by a normal person — as indeed they are political. They're just not directly connected to any political campaign.

Besides, the fact the Fed behaves as a political institution has been documented for years by political scientists. ( Whole classes are taught on the subject .) Only economists and media talking heads are so naive or so willfully ignorant as to believe a policymaking institution can be "non-political."

But even on the matter of straight-up efforts to influence elections, the Fed is guilty. In 2010, when Fed Chairman Arthur Burns's diary was published, Doug French noted:

Burns's diary is page after page of political dirty dealing, lying, and backstabbing. Nixon went so far as to plant negative press about Burns and threatened to expand the Fed's Board of Governors to dilute the chairman's influence, all to bring Burns in line with the president's economic meddling. None of that seems necessary; Burns's diary would indicate that the president had him at hello.

No doubt a well-worn path still exists between the Eccles Building and the White House. But the myth continues. Economist Mark Zandi told CNBC's Lori Ann LaRocco recently,

I think the worst thing that could happen is if the Fed was politicized. An a-political Federal Reserve is a cornerstone of our financial system and broader economy. So nothing is more important than maintaining the Fed's independence. And the fact that its wrapped in the political process is just disturbing and disconcerting.

Ultimately, though, we need to ask ourselves if "independence" is even something that is desirable. After all, the flipside of "independence" is a lack of accountability. The only way for the Fed to be truly independent would be if it was totally unaccountable. Murray Rothbard wondered if that would be a good thing:

“Independent of politics” has a nice, neat ring to it, and has been a staple of proposals for bureaucratic intervention and power ever since the Progressive Era...But it is one thing to say that private, or market, activities should be free of government control, and “independent of politics” in that sense. But these are government agencies and operations we are talking about, and to say that government should be “independent of politics” conveys very different implications. For government, unlike private industry on the market, is not accountable either to stockholders or consumers. Government can only be accountable to the public and to its representatives in the legislature; and if government becomes “independent of politics” it can only mean that that sphere of government becomes an absolute self-perpetuating oligarchy, accountable to no one and never subject to the public’s ability to change its personnel or to “throw the rascals out.”

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Woodrow Wilson Made Democracy Unsafe for the World

11/12/2018James Bovard

This week is the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany. Many people celebrate this centenary of America’s emergence as a world power. But, when the Trump administration is bombing or rattling sabers at half a dozen nations while many Democrats clamor to fight Russia, it is worth reviewing World War One’s high hopes and dire results.

Wilson was narrowly re-elected in 1916 based on a campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." But Wilson had massively violated neutrality by providing armaments and money to the Allied powers that had been fighting Germany since 1914. In his war speech to Congress, Wilson hailed the U.S. government as "one of the champions of the rights of mankind" and proclaimed that "the world must be made safe for democracy."

American soldiers fought bravely and helped turn the tide on the Western Front in late 1918. But the cost was far higher than Americans anticipated. More than a hundred thousand American soldiers died in the third bloodiest war in U.S. history. Another half million Americans perished from the Spanish flu epidemic spurred and spread by the war.

In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared, "We have no quarrel with the German people" and feel "sympathy and friendship" towards them. But his administration speedily commenced demonizing the "Huns." One Army recruiting poster portrayed German troops as an ape ravaging a half-naked damsel beneath an appeal to "Destroy this mad brute."

Read the full article at USA Today.
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Gustave de Molinari's Short-Lived Flirtation with the Socialists

Some of the French economists centered around the Journal des Economistes were elected officials. For example, Louis Wolowski was elected to the Assemblée Constitutionelle in 1848;1 so was juge de Paix Frédéric Bastiat. Decades earlier, Jean-Baptiste Say and Benjamin Constant were famously defending Classical Economics in the Tribunat where they opposed Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte returned the favor and expelled both of them in 1804 and 1802 respectively.2

Unlike the aforementioned economists, Gustave De Molinari never was a politician himself. However, this does not mean that he never ran for office. He had briefly attempt to join the ranks of the liberal party in 1859.

Left or Right?

In his 1864 book review of De Molinari's Cours d'économie politique, Lord Acton points out the turbid relationship between the Liegeois-born economist and the Liberal Party: "[In] 1848, he returned to his own country, and finished his course of political economy at the Musée d'Industrie of Brussels, where, we believe, he has not been altogether well treated by the Liberal ministry. This gives a personal significance to his protest against the nomenclature of the two parties, which falsely implies that the one comprises all that is religious, and the other all that loves liberty, in Belgium".3

Indeed, De Molinari wasn't the keenest on political demarcations; in earlier writings, he had presented the fluidity between the nomenclature of liberal, religious, and even socialist party structures. Historian Roderick T. Long pointed out that De Molinari favored a collaboration with the French socialist party.4 According to him, both economists and socialists favored the same principles. In his Lettre aux socialistes (1848), the anonymous author (later identified as De Molinari) stressed that both economists and socialists favored a society in which justice was prevalent for every individual member. However, both groups used a different methodology. Economists thought of liberty and freedom as the necessary means to reach said goal, as history has shown them time and time again. Socialists, on the other hand, used statist recipes with taxes.

Blanc VS Coquelin

One place Molinari clashed with the socialists, however, and thus distinguished himself as a true supporter of laissez-faire, was in his opinions on banking.

While living in Paris, De Molinari must have read his friend Charles Coquelin's research on banks. Coquelin defended a free-market approach on banking; he preached the concept that the government should have no involvement in the role of banking. Rather, banks should be left alone. After empirical research on business cycles, Coquelin concluded that banking crises were the result of privileged monopolies and governmental regulation.5

Journalist and socialist Charles Potvin, however, opposed this vision: “Mr. De Molinari views align with the following principle. Legal persons should have the opportunity to gather themselves without governmental intervention. The role of the government should be limited to registration instead of active participation, isn’t it Mr. De Molinari? (Mr. De Molinari nods in agreement). If we follow Mr. De Molinari’s vision, wouldn’t priests and bankers run Belgium?6

Potvin’s opinion on banking changed over time — whilst always remaining in the realm of radical socialism. In his biography, historian Christophe De Spiegeleer argues that Potvin shows appreciation for the works of PJ Proudhon in his essays (Du Gouvernement de soi-même, La Banque Sociale).7 Proudhon proposes "la Banque du Peuple"; a company in which the people (ipse facto: the poorest individuals within a society) could borrow a lump sum of money without paying an extra fee. The poorest individuals were shareholders as well.8 Potvin praised these "mutualistic companies" in his magnum opus Du Gouvernement de Soi-Même (1877).

However, in his exchange with De Molinari, Charles Potvin outs himself as a disciple of socialist Louis Blanc. According to Blanc, the involvement of a government in the realm of banking was of the utmost importance. According to Potvin, spontaneous order and liberty would lead to anarchy in Belgium! For this particular reason, Louis Blanc claimed it necessary to seek government intervention and lift up the competition, in favor of a single, nationalized bank.9

"Pourquoi j’ai retiré ma candidature"

In a pamphlet (Pourquoi j'ai retiré ma candidature), written a couple of days after the fulminations of Potvin against Molinari, De Molinari announced the renunciation of his candidacy. In 1855, however, he had already predicted his fate within the party. In an article "Dialogue entre un électeur et un candidat," he criticized uninformed vocal minorities that forsake their own responsibilities. In the fictional dialogue, the voter expects politicians to take care of everything; protectionism, warfare, parish relief funds, subsidizing religion, ... To which the politician responds whether the voter would favor higher taxes. How would we fund these services? To which the voter responds: “How should I know? That’s up to you and that is why we elected you!”10

  • 1. RAMBAUD, Jules, l’oeuvre économique de L. Wolowski, Paris, L. Larose & Forcel, 1882, 9-29.
  • 2. MINART, Gérard, Entrepreneur et esprit d’entreprise. L’avant-gardisme de Jean-Baptiste SAY, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2013, 158-159.
  • 3. ACTON, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, “Review of Gustave de Molinari’s Course of Political Economy (1855)”, The Home and Foreign Review, 4, 1864, 313.
  • 4. LONG, Roderick T., “Rothbard’s “Left and Right”: Forty Years Later”, Mises Institute, 2006.
  • 5. MALBRANQUE, Benoît, “Réformer les banques: les propositions originales de C. Coquelin”, Laissons Faire, 1, 2013, 20-24; DE NOUVION, Georges, Charles Coquelin. Sa vie et ses travaux, Paris, Institut Coppet, 2017 [1908], 24-25.
  • 6. "M[onsieur] De Molinari proclame ce principe: les personnes civiles ont le droit de se constituer sans l'intervention de l'Etat. [...] La personne civile vient au monde, et l'Etat enregistre [...], n'est ce pas M[onsieur de] Molinari? (De Molinari fait un signe d'approbation). La Belgique ne serait-il pas exposée à une double invasion de moines et des banquiers?"“Après l’autel le coffre-fort”, Le Bien Public, 6 juni 1859.
  • 7. DE SPIEGELEER, Een blauwe progressist. Charles Potvin (1818-1902) en het liberaal-sociale denken van zijn generatie, Gand/Brussels, Liberaal Archief, 2011.
  • 8. PROUDHON, Pierre-Joseph, “Banque du peuple: déclaration”, Le Peuple, 1849, 1-13.
  • 9. CHARRUAUD, Benoît, Louis Blanc, la république au service du Socialisme, Unpublished PhD, Université Strasbourg III. Robert Schuman, 2008, 50.
  • 10. Cela vous regarde. Nous ne vous nommons pas pour autre chose" DE MOLINARI, Gustave, “Dialogue entre un électeur et un candidat”, l’Economiste belge, 1855, 1.
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The Midterm Election Showed Why We Need More States

11/09/2018Tho Bishop

The midterm elections continue to play themselves out in various races throughout the country. The fight going on in Florida and Arizona over newly discovered ballots brings to mind the line attributed to Joseph Stalin, “It's not the people who vote that count, it's the people who count the votes."

While it may be too soon to come up with official vote totals for a few senate races, there is one election night conclusion we can be certain about: America needs more states.

While the idea may seem may seem radical, smaller political units are the best way of addressing some of the growing cultural divides that the media loves to talk about. Some of these divisions are illustrated quite starkly when we look at a county by county break down of various statewide elections.

For example, New York does a great job showing the difference between the political preferences of urban and rural voters. Though the state is one of the strongest havens for the Democratic party, Governor Andrew Cuomo only won 15 of the state’s 63 counties in his successful re-election bid. Without significant change, rural parts of New York will always have very little say in the direction of the state government due to how small their population is relative to the boroughs of New York City.

The political dominance of NYC is of course also true in primaries. Letitia James, who was elected this week as New York’s Attorney General, won the Democratic primary in spite of coming in third place in every New York county north of Westchester and Rockland.

AG Primary NY.png
(Source: New York Times)

Of course it’s not always true that cities dominant state politics. The Georgia governor’s race, for example, saw Republican Brian Kemp defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in spite of the latter’s strong support in the metro Atlanta area (though Abrams is pushing a legal challenge to the result.) The cultural divide in that race goes beyond rural vs. urban voters, but also demographic representation. The majority of counties Abrams won were those with majority black populations. Similarly, the non-urban blue counties in the Texas governor’s race were all areas with Hispanic-majority populations.

While it’s fair to question whether one party is actually better equipped to serve the interests of one demographic or another, the desire for communities to have greater political self-determination is understandable.

Ludwig von Mises wrote at length about the struggles of being an ethnic or cultural minority living under an interventionist government. We see these concerns played out in current topics such as the push for community policing as a means to try and address police brutality in minority communities.

There are other practical advantages to smaller political units, beyond political self-determination. Research by Mark Thornton, George S. Ford, and Marc Ulrich has found a correlation between constituency size and government spending. As Ryan McMaken summarized in an article on what the US can learn from Swiss federalism:

As Thornton et al. conclude:

[T]he evidence is very suggestive that constituency size provides an explanation for much of the trend, or upward drift in government spending, because of the fixed-sized nature of most legislatures. Potentially, constituency size could be adjusted to control the growth of government.

Other factors mentioned by Thornton, et al. and others include:

  • Large constituencies increase the cost of running campaigns, and thus require greater reliance on large wealth interests for media buys and access to mass media. The cost of running a statewide campaign in California, for example, is considerably larger than the cost of running a statewide campaign in Vermont. Constituencies spread across several media markets are especially costly.
  • Elected officials, unable to engage a sizable portion of their constituencies rely on large interest groups claiming to be representative of constituents.
  • Voters disengage because they realize their vote is worth less in larger constituent groups.
  • Voters disengage because they are not able to meet the candidate personally.
  • Voters disengage because elections in larger constituencies are less likely to focus on issues that are of personal, local interest to many of the voters.
  • The ability to schedule a personal meeting with an elected official is far more difficult in a large constituency than a small one.
  • Elected officials recognize that a single voter is of minimal importance in a large constituency, so candidates prefer to rely on mass media rather than personal interaction with voters.
  • Larger constituent groups are more religiously, ethnically, culturally, ideologically, and economically diverse. This means elected officials from that constituent group are less likely to share social class, ethnic group, and other characteristics with a sizable number of their constituents.
  • Larger constituencies often mean the candidate is more physically remote, even when the candidate is at "home" and not at a distant parliament or congress. This further reduces access.

In these ways changes to the size of states wouldn’t only grant voters a greater say in what goes on in their state capitols, but could potentially lead to a change in how the Federal government operates. Smaller states would diminish the significant advantages incumbent senators enjoy due to the costs of running state-wide campaigns in expensive media markets like those found in California or Florida, and could even diminish some of the power national parties have on the higher chamber.

Of course none of these structural changes will help solve the issues America faces without an ideological change in favor of free markets and individual liberty. Still, at a time when Americans are questioning all sorts of political norms, it is worthwhile to question the physical size of political units in the US.

So as we prepare for several news cycles fixated on various electoral lawsuits, the best solution is the simplest one: let them both win.

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The Most Important Florida Election Win is the One No One is Talking About

11/07/2018Tho Bishop

Last night’s midterms were the odd political event where both sides left seeming reasonably happy with the result. While it was no blue wave, Democrats will now have two years of using the House to investigate the Trump Administration, while the GOP has strengthened its hold of the Senate and held on to several governorships.

Republicans also managed to expand its position in the state of Florida, with Rick Scott edging out Senator Bill Nelson – though recounts are on the horizon. This was an interesting political year for the Sunshine State, with proud Trump supporter Ron DeSantis topping the Bernie-backed Andrew Gillum. Looking beyond statewide races though, several constitutional amendments passed that will have a positive impact on the state’s future – particularly the three of the state’s 12 amendments dealt with taxes.

Amendment 1 expanded the homestead property tax exemption for property value up to $125,000 from the previous $100,000. Coupled with Amendment 2, which made permanent a temporary 10% cap on assessment increases on property not subject to homestead exemption, Florida voters gave themselves some stronger protections against property taxes – one of the more sinister means of government revenue collection.

An even bigger change came with the passing of Amendment 5, which establishes that a supermajority is now required for any future tax increases in the state of Florida. This is an important protection for the state which should isolate a radical change in fiscal policy beyond the reach of a single election cycle. For example, this amendment would have gone a far way in handcuffing the ability of Andrew Gillum to follow through with his platform that prioritized Medicaid Expansion paid for by new corporate taxes. Given the makeup and geographical breakdown of the Florida legislature, it will require a serious makeover of Florida politics for these sorts of ideas to ever near a supermajority.

This protection, combined with the strides Florida has made in recent years on regulation and licensing reform and lowest-in-the-country per capita spending means Florida should remain a strong contender for its current title as the freest state economy in the country well into the future. My guess is that more residents and businesses will continue to move to one of Paul Krugman's least favorite states. 

While the outcome of these tax-related amendments can be viewed as positives for Florida, the outcome of other amendments may cause people to question the wisdom of direct democracy. For example, Amendment 9 was an odd double-issue amendment that combined a ban on off-shore drilling with a restriction on indoor vaping. It, like all amendments on the ballot, passed.

It will be interesting to see if the “just vote yes” approach to on-ballot amendments continues next year. Attorney John Morgan, the driving force behind last year’s medical marijuana initiative, has announced plans to push for two issues in 2020. One would legalize recreational marijuana in the state, while the other would be a minimum wage hike.

Should he be successful, we’ll see if Florida voters are able to figure out the good idea from economic folly.

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Colorado's GOP Bloodbath, Explained

11/07/2018Ryan McMaken

Yesterday in Colorado, voters rejected numerous proposed taxes and government regulations. One of the biggest was Proposition 112, which was an anti-fracking measure that would have outlawed fracking in much of the state. That failed, with 57 percent voting no.

Meanwhile, a proposed tax to fund government schools — for the children! — failed with 55 percent voting no. Two separate new taxes to fund new transportation projects failed with neither mustering more than 40 percent approval. There was a pro-hemp-industry measure, which passed with 60 percent approval, which is designed to allow more expansion for hemp businesses. 66 percent also voted against new proposed limits on campaign funds. Nor did voters look kindly on an effort to reduce the minimum age for serving in the state legislature to 21 (it's currently 25).The "youth vote" strikes out yet again.

So looking at these pro-business, anti-tax, anti-youth vote results, one might think, "golly, those Republicans must have done pretty well in Colorado!"

Think again.

Last night's election was an absolute bloodbath for the GOP in Colorado.

The same voters who voted to defeat all statewide tax increases also voted to elect Democrats to every single statewide office, including Governor, AG, and Treasurer. The Dems maintained control of the House, and they managed to flip a few seats to get control of the Senate.

With the governor, it wasn't especially close. Jared Polis won with 52 percent, but his opponent, Walker Stapleton, couldn't even muster more than 45 percent. He performed more poorly than all other statewide GOP candidates, all of whom got 47 percent.

With Polis at the top of the ticket, and with Stapleton as such an embarrassingly weak candidate, this hurt the rest of the GOP candidates.

But how could an electorate so opposed to taxes vote for so many Democrats? The answer is that Democrats ran as fiscally responsible moderates, while Republicans largely ran as conservative culture warriors.

This could be seen in the campaign ads of the two gubernatorial candidates. Stapleton, who should ask for his money back from his campaign advisors, ran with the tag line "A conservative who gets things done!" Stapleton should have asked his advisors when was the last time anyone won the governor's mansion playing up his conservatism. The answer is maybe one time: 2002, when incumbent Bill Owens crushed hard-left candidate Rollie Heath.

When Owens ran the first time, though, his campaign had a laser-like focus on three things: increase infrastructure spending, lower taxes, increase school accountability. The end. He avoided talking about anything else. And he won with a less-than-one-percent margin in the 1998 race.

Using that sort of simple approach, Owens remains the only Republican to win the governorship since John Love back in the 1960s. And Love was no "conservative." He signed one of the nation's most expansive pro-abortion statutes at the time.

Since then, when Democrats run as moderates — as was the case with Roy Romer (1987-1999) and John Hickenlooper (2011-2019) — they win.

And Polis ran as a moderate. I know this because I live in a core city (i.e., not the suburbs), which means the marketing consultants assume I'm likely to vote Democrat. So, I was fed Polis ads before pretty much every YouTube video I've seen in the past two months. I can even quote from memory Polis's tag line: "Jared Polis: saving you money!"

And who's going to vote against that? Had I been less cynical, given the content of the ads, I probably would have concluded, "this Polis guy sure sounds reasonable!" What Polis certainly did not do was say "Jared Polis: a liberal who fights for reform!" or something like that. It would have been disastrous.

In fact, the anti-Polis ads said Polis was "too radical for Colorado." The problem is, few non-Republicans believed it. This is especially the case since Polis's Congressional career was, as far as Washington politicians go, not especially terrible.

Moreover, Polis was helped by how awful a candidate Walker Stapleton was. If you assumed that someone named "Walker Stapleton" was from the manicured lawns of a manse in Connecticut, you would be right. Stapleton is a cousin of George W. Bush, and while he is the grandson of a five-term mayor of Denver, Stapleton is not from Colorado. He moved to Colorado just six years before he decided to run for statewide political office and begin his march toward his rightful place — in his mind — at the top of Colorado's political establishment. Worse yet, his mayor grandfather is largely notable for being a high-ranking Klansman. And while you might say "gee, a man shouldn't be punished for who his grandfather was," it was just one more thing that made Stapleton's biography so un-compelling.

Polis, by the way, is fabulously wealthy, and while he was born rich, he has managed to cultivate an image (accurately or not) of being someone who turned a small fortune into a large fortune in mundane industries like the greeting card and florist industries. In Colorado, no one begrudges people with self-made riches. But wealthy carpetbaggers from east-coast political families don't fare quite so well.

Polis's riches, though, allowed him to spend massively on political ads, which is why even people like me saw hundreds of those ads telling us what a reasonable, fiscally responsible fellow he is. Stapleton, meanwhile, spent time talking about his conservatism and "sanctuary cities" and other things few Coloradans have ever cared about. (I suppose there's some comfort for the GOP in the fact that even with all his spending, Polis still only got 52 percent.)

But, if you seek victory as a Colorado candidate, offer the voters tax cuts, offer the voters shiny new roads (paid for without tax increases). But whining about immigrants never did much to win anyone statewide office around here. This isn't Trump country. It's not the Bible Belt (and never has been). But as the voter-initiative results showed, most Coloradans aren't fans of taxes or commie rhetoric about business owners. One would think that's a fairly easy winning formula to figure out.

It's unknown if the state GOP will ever get its act together again and run some decent candidates, but one might note that the voters of Maryland just re-elected a Republican governor. If a Republican can win in Maryland of all places, what does that tell us about the Colorado GOP?

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Insight Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

11/07/2018Gary Galles

One of the dangers facing those who have come to believe in a certain philosophy or approach is the temptation to ignore or reject useful insight from those who are not “pure” enough—those who deviate from “the Truth” either in their position on certain issues or because of the hypocrisy of actions inconsistent with their alleged beliefs.

That is bad strategy. After all, in a world where, ultimately, ideas are what matters, one cannot successfully rebut incorrect positions one is ignorant of. But it also wastes useful insights.

Rejecting an insight because of hypocrisy that is unrelated to that insight or which does not disprove it is a logical error, with potentially serious consequences. For instance, that approach would put the wisdom of America’s founders “out of bounds,” particularly those whose actions once they had power differed from the principles they enumerated and fought for beforehand. Their abuses, once in power, testify to power’s ability to corrupt, but do nothing to reject their insights into the importance of liberty and the corollary need to curb government.

Restricting oneself to the insights of those who are “pure” amounts to an appeal to authority. Such consistency adds important endorsement to the power of a valid insight (one reason why libertarians are so fond of Murray Rothbard). That is particularly important in a complex world, where one can easily miss important incentives or causation mechanisms, undermining the degree of certainty one can have about deductions to be drawn. Those who have earned reputations for recognizing what others miss act as insurance against such potential mistakes. Yet a true statement is true regardless of whether the source is “pure of heart and action,” just as falsehoods that come from good men do not become true because they are stated by good men.

People also tend to shy away from giving much consideration to those viewed as deviating from “the Truth” in some of their actions. But such deviations do not justify ignoring their contributions.

In some situations, there may be only two basic positions possible—support for a particular group, especially the one in power, or joining with the opposition. Especially in violent disputes, one may be unable to opt out, forcing a choice between two imperfect options. Joining the opposition, often far from pure, may yet be the only effective means of opposing a greater evil (e.g., the resistance in World War II). That does not, however, amount to endorsing everything those in the opposition stand for. That is why defending the currently abused side can make the most sense (in the limited sense that in such choices, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), even if their positive program, should they come to power, would also be abusive of those to be “ruled.”

Similarly, someone can have a valid objection to something that is wrong, without having an adequate conception of what is right or of what would best correct the wrong in view. As a result, just because you disagree with someone else’s broader understanding or “solution” does not justify throwing out their valid insights with their confusion. This seems most frequent in considerations of justice—I can often recognize when an injustice is imposed on me, but that does not mean my preferred “solution” either solves the injustice or does so without imposing new injustices on others (e.g., one of the attributes of negative rights is that they prevent injustice without causing injustice elsewhere, which positive rights cannot).

One practical consequence is that we can learn from and be inspired by victims of abuse and tyranny, who recognize the wrongs, without endorsing their possibly misguided or even harmful “solutions.”

A good example of someone generally overlooked by libertarians for certain “indiscretions” is Albert Camus, the 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature, whose birthday is November 7. One can easily take issue with or be unconvinced by his existentialism or his conclusion that everything comes back to absurdity. One can also object to actions such as his brief membership in the Communist party, his personal infidelities, etc. But despite those issues, his defense of liberty against tyranny, particularly in World War II and its aftermath, was very important. Consider just a few of his most important insights.

  • The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.
  • Political utopias justified in advance any enterprises whatever.
  • The welfare of the people…has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.
  • The tyrannies of today…no longer admit of silence or neutrality. One has to take a stand, be either for or against. Well, in that case, I am against.
  • The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the state. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.
  • Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but without law there is no freedom.
  • Freedom is not a gift received from the State or leader.
  • Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne…It’s a long distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.
  • Freedom is nothing else but a chance to get better, whereas enslavement is a certainty of the worse.
  • Liberty ultimately seems to me, for societies and for individuals…the supreme good that governs all others.
  • It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. Is it possible…to reject injustice without ceasing to acclaim the nature of man and the beauty of the world? Our answer is yes.
  • Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are.
  • The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom, even temporarily…there is not a single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.
  • The current motto for all of us can only be this: “without giving up anything on the plane of justice, yield nothing on the plane of freedom.”
  • Being aware of one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.
  • More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself.

There are many things Albert Camus wrote or did that I may have issues with. But it would be a shame to lose the inspiration of words such as these due to differences that do not negate their validity.

In a world where time and energy are scarce, choosing to read someone we have learned to consistently expect insight from makes a great deal of sense. It increases the chances that the time will be well spent. It expands our own insights and reminds us of how important some things are to life. That is why libertarians read a great deal from those who similarly value freedom. But while that may be our foundation, we cannot stop there. While holding on to our recognition of the importance of liberty, we can also learn from and be inspired by those who may be fellow travelers only in part.

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Censorship and Gun Control Will Not Make Us Safe

11/06/2018Ron Paul

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is being used to justify new infringements on liberty. Of course, opponents of gun rights are claiming this shooting proves America needs more gun control. Even some who normally oppose gun control say the government needs to do more to keep guns out of the hands of the “mentally ill.” Those making this argument ignore the lack of evidence that background checks, new restrictions on the rights of those alleged to have a mental illness, or any other form of gun control would have prevented the shooter from obtaining a firearm.

Others are using the shooter’s history of posting anti-Semitic comments on social media to call for increased efforts by both government and social media websites to suppress “hate speech.” The shooter posted anti-Semitic statements on the social media site Gab. Gab, unlike Twitter and Facebook, does not block or ban users for offensive comments. After the shooting Gab was suspended by its internet service provider, and PayPal has closed the site’s account. This is an effort to make social media websites responsible for the content and even the actions of their users, turning the sites’ operators into thought police.

Some social media sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are eager to silence not just bigots but those using their platforms to advocate for liberty. Facebook has recently banned a number of libertarian pages— including Cop Block, a site opposing police misconduct. Twitter has also banned a number of conservatives and libertarians, as well as critics of American foreign policy. Some libertarians say we should not get upset as these are private companies exercising private property rights. However, these companies are working with government and government-funded entities such as the Atlantic Council, a group funded by NATO and the military-industrial complex, to determine who should and should not be banned.

The effort to silence “hate speech” is not just about outlawing racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic speech. The real goal is to discredit, and even criminalize, criticism of the welfare-warfare state by redefining such criticism as “hate.” It is not just progressives who wish to use laws outlawing “hate speech” to silence political opponents. Some neoconservatives want to criminalize criticism of Israel for the nonsensical reason that any criticism of Israel is “anti-Semitic.” Other right-wing authoritarians wish to expand hate crime laws to include crimes committed against police officers.

Ironically neoconservatives and other right-wing authoritarians are among the biggest purveyors of real “hate speech.” What could possibly be more hateful than speech advocating perpetual war? Cultural Marxists are also guilty of hate speech with their calls for both government and private violence against political opponents, and for the use of government force to redistribute property. Just about the only individuals advocating a political philosophy not based on hate are those libertarians who consistently advance the non-aggression principle.

Preserving the right to free speech is vital to preserving liberty. All who value freedom should fight efforts to outlaw “hate speech.” “Hate speech” laws may initially be used to target bigoted and other truly hateful speech, but eventually they will be used to silence all critics of the welfare-warfare state and the authoritarian philosophies that justify omnipotent government. To paraphrase Ludwig von Misses, libertarians must fight hate speech—including the hate speech emanating from Washington, D.C.— with the “ideas of the mind.”

 

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Economic Total Warfare: How Many Iranians Will Die from New Trump Sanctions?

11/02/2018Tho Bishop

The Trump Administration is preparing to restore sanctions on Iran that his predecessor lifted as part of a nuclear disarmament agreement. This week John Bolton also indicated that they were considering new sanctions on Nicaragua during a speech that lumped the Central American country with Cuba and Venezuela as the “troika of tyranny” — a new tropical-flavored version of the Axis of Evil.

The moves come the same week as Secretaries James Mattis and Mike Pompeo called for Saudi Arabia to end its military action in Yemen. This follows growing pressure from a bipartisan coalition of senators calling for reexamining America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. While much of this is a direct byproduct of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, many in Washington seem to have finally awakened to the horrors of famine and other human rights abuses in Yemen, a direct byproduct of Saudi Arabia’s actions.

Unfortunately America’s escalation of sanctions to other countries once again highlights the superficial nature of Washington’s lip service to human rights. It’s fitting that Trump boasted about escalating economic sanction with Iran with a Game of Thrones-inspired tweet, the devastation these policies will bring to Iranians brings to mind the callousness of Cersei Lannister.

We know this because this is precisely what happened in the past.

While any government will defend the use of sanctions as an attack on some rouge nation, the reality is that the much of the pain is inflicted directly on the people themselves. Removing Iran from the international financial system devastated Iranian merchants, resulting in scarcity for vital necessities. In particular, sanctions have a significant impact on the availability of even basic medicine. As an Iranian doctor explain to The Guardian:

It’s no more only about shortages in drugs for cancer or special diseases such as haemophilia or thalassemia, but also normal drugs that were abundant in Iran previously. A normal drug like Warfarin, which stops blood clotting, is becoming difficult to find, which means patients’ lives are at risk if we as doctors can’t get these medicines. Another example is Amlodipine, which is for treatment of blood pressure. Amlodipine is produced internally but companies have problems with importing its ingredients due to banking restrictions or other sanctions.

The actions of the Trump Administration will assuredly lead to the deaths of innocent Iranians who have no connection to the regime.

Unfortunately this willingness to punish civilians for the actions of their government is an economic extension of the total war views of the 20th century. Mises wrote about this escalation of warfare in Omnipotent Government:

Modern war is not a war of royal armies. It is a war of the peoples, a total war. It is a war of states which do not leave to their subjects any private sphere; they consider the whole population a part of the armed forces.

Even worse, the Iranians that suffer most from these actions are the very same ones who are the most opposed to their regime. This isn’t simply economic collateral damage, it’s economic friendly fire.

There is one development that may offer some degree of assistance to the Iranian people during this round of sanctions: international pushback to the dominance of the dollar.

As the Trump Administration has doubled down of the same failed policies of the past, we’re seeing an economic version of blowback emerge as well. With the other members of the Obama Iran Deal opposing the Trump Administration re-enacting tariffs, Europe, China, Russia, and others have been working up parallel financial channels to work around the US sanctions. Gold has also become a popular means of avoiding the dollar, with the Trump administration taking new measures to target Venezuela’s gold trade. 

At its best, money is a foundation of civilization and human flourishing, allowing for the division of labor and the benefits of trade. The more the US turns this tool of peace into a weapon of war, the more other countries will look to protect themselves from it. Just as competing currencies is the best way to protect Americans from the hubris of the Fed, it’s the best way to shield the globe from malice of Washington.

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Why Presidents Want You Scared

10/31/2018James Bovard

The media is railing about Trump for fearmongering ahead of the midterm elections.  Like this never happened before?  Like this is not the job description of modern politicians? Like Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton did not fearmonger whenever they could profit by spooking Americans?  Trump is continuing a tradition that was firmly established by Woodrow Wilson.  Fearmongering is simply another proof of the rascality of the political class – and another reason why their power should be minimized. Here’s a 2011 piece I wrote on the topic, excerpted in part from Attention Deficit Democracy.

Fear-Mongering and Servitude

In his 1776 essay, “Thoughts on Government,” John Adams observed, “Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.” The Founding Fathers hoped the American people would possess the virtues and strength to perpetuate liberty. Unfortunately, politicians over the past century have used trick after trick to send Americans scurrying to politicians to protect them.

President Woodrow Wilson pulled America into World War I based on bogus idealism and real fear-mongering. Evocations of fighting for universal freedom were quickly followed by bans on sauerkraut, beer, and teaching German in government schools. H. L. Mencken observed in 1918: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence, clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” In Mencken’s time he was often considered cynical. Subsequent developments have proven Mencken to be a prophet.

The Democratic Party relied heavily on the fear card in the 1920 presidential race. On the eve of the November vote that year Democratic presidential candidate James Cox declared: “Every traitor in America will vote tomorrow for Warren G. Harding!” Cox’s warning sought to stir memories of the “red raids” conducted in 1919 and 1920 by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, during which thousands of anarchists, communists, and suspect foreigners were summarily jailed and in many cases deported. The American people rejected Cox and embraced Warren Harding’s promise of a “return to normalcy.”

President Franklin Roosevelt put “freedom from fear” atop the American political agenda in his 1941 State of the Union address. But FDR’s political legacy—especially Social Security—has institutionalized fear-mongering in presidential and congressional races. Democrats perennially portray Republicans as planning to yank life support from struggling seniors.

For almost 50 years American politicians have used television ads to spur dread, most famously in the 1964 “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign. The ad showed a young girl, in the words of Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, “picking the petals off a daisy before the screen was overwhelmed by a nuclear explosion and then a mushroom cloud and Mr. Johnson declared, ‘These are the stakes.’” The ad did not specifically claim that Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, would annihilate the human race, but the subtle hint wafted through. Though this ad only aired once, it instantly became a legend.

Whipping up fear was the flipside of President Bill Clinton’s “feeling your pain” political style. Clinton fanned people’s fear of guns, militias, and life without medical insurance. At the same time, the Clinton administration stretched the power of government on all fronts—from concocting new prerogatives to confiscate private property to championing FBI agents’ right to shoot innocent Americans to bankrolling the militarization of local police forces. Clinton was the Nanny State champion incarnate, teaching Americans to look to government for relief from every peril of daily life—from unpasteurized cider to leaky basements. As long as the President seemed to care about average Americans, his abuses were largely forgotten. (The 1996 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, also promised to provide voters with “freedom from fear” via untying “the hands of the police.”)

Fear and Bush

The 2004 race was the most fear-mongering presidential campaign in modern American history. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush referred to terror or terrorism 16 times. Bush reelection campaign television ads showed firemen carrying a flag-draped corpse from the rubble at Ground Zero in New York and a pack of wolves coming to attack home viewers as an announcer warned that “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” (One commentator suggested that the ad’s message was that voters would be eaten by wolves if John Kerry won.) Just before Election Day a senior GOP strategist told the New York Daily News that “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.” People who saw terrorism as the biggest issue in the 2004 election voted for Bush by a 6 to 1 margin. Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy, observed that the Bush campaign was “using the fear factor almost exclusively. This is a highly researched decision with all the tools of public opinion management. It’s nothing but a reflection that it works.”

Bogus terror alerts might have made the difference in the 2004 election. Robb Willer of the Sociology and Small Groups Laboratory at Cornell University examined the relationship between 26 government-issued terror warnings reported in the Washington Post and Bush’s approval ratings. “Each terror warning from the previous week corresponded to a 2.75 point increase in the percentage of Americans expressing approval for President Bush,” Willer concluded. Bush beat Kerry by 2.4 percentage points in the popular vote. Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge later admitted that many of the 2004 alerts were unjustified. The Cornell study also found a “halo effect”: Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of the economy also rose immediately after the announcement of new terror warnings, Willer reported. Apparently the more terrorists were allegedly poised to attack America, the better job Bush was doing.

Voters in 2004 could choose whether they would be killed by terrorists if they voted for Kerry or whether they would be left destitute and tossed out in the street if they voted for Bush. Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz commented to the Washington Post: “It’s not surprising that both campaigns are looking for the leverage point: scaring the hell out of the American public about what would happen if the other guy wins.” But the more an election is about fear, the more the winner will presume to be entitled to all the power he claims to need to combat the threat.


In his 2005 State of the Union address Bush declared: “We will pass along to our children all the freedoms we enjoy. And chief among them is freedom from fear.” The Founding Fathers would have derided the notion of politicians giving citizens “freedom from fear.” And they would have denounced the notion that this new-fangled freedom is superior to the freedoms the U.S. government had pledged to respect for more than 200 years.

After promising freedom from fear, a politician can always invoke polls showing widespread fears to justify seizing new power. The natural result of making freedom from fear the highest freedom is that any policy that reduces fear can be portrayed as pro-freedom. Bush claimed that to keep Americans safe he had to suspend habeas corpus and detain any suspected terrorist in perpetuity based solely on his unproven assertions. Bush authorized the CIA to use waterboarding and other methods of torture on detainees. He ordered the National Security Agency to launch a massive illegal wiretapping program that eavesdropped on thousands of Americans’ phone calls and emails without warrants. Yet Bush remained a great champion of freedom—at least in the eyes of his supporters.

The political mass production of insecurity is a dominant trait of our age. The easiest way for rulers to destroy the leashes the Constitution imposed on them is to make voters think they must choose: “We can obey the Constitution or we can prevent you from all being killed. What is it going to be?”

Rising fear can also undermine the freedom of speech that is a bulwark against government abuse. To the extent people desperately cling to faith in the leader to save them from all perils, they develop an intolerance to anyone who points out government follies or falsehoods. The Bush 2004 reelection campaign did all it could to fan such intolerance. Stumping around the nation for Bush, former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik told audiences in the final months of the campaign: “Political criticism is our enemy’s best friend.” As criticism is suppressed government becomes more incorrigible. Eventually the mistakes that could have been corrected cheaply early on become catastrophic national failures.

Fear and Obama

President Obama has picked up the fear-mongering relay baton with his attempts to frighten Americans about health care, global warming, economic collapse, and government shutdowns. Obama has also invoked the fear card to sanctify bombing bad guys anywhere and everywhere.

Government fear-mongering creates a downward politico-psychological spiral. The more fearful people become, the more gullible they will be. British philosopher John Stuart Mill warned in 1842: “Persons of timid character are the more predisposed to believe any statement, the more it is calculated to alarm them.” It is almost irrelevant whether 10 or 20 or 30 percent of the citizenry can see through government’s fraudulent warnings. In a democracy, as long as enough people can be frightened, all people can be ruled.

In the same way that some battered wives cling to their abusive husbands, the more debacles the government causes, the more some voters cling to rulers. The craving for a protector drops an iron curtain around the mind, preventing a person from accepting evidence that would shred his political security blanket. In the days after the 9/11 attacks polls showed a doubling in the number of people who trusted government to “do the right thing.” The media fanned this blind faith—as if trust in government was the high road to public safety. The Bush administration exploited the trust to unleash itself at home and abroad, and the nation is still paying the costs of its post-9/11 infatuation with government.

Bogus fears can produce real servitude. The Founding Fathers expected the American people to bravely stand up for their rights if their rulers trampled the law. Citizens cannot cower on cue without forfeiting any possibility of keeping government on a leash. If America is to have a rebirth of liberty, it must begin with a rebirth of courage.

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Thales College

10/31/2018David Gordon

The distinguished entrepreneur Robert Luddy, a friend and benefactor for many years of the Mises Institute, has extended his innovations in education from elementary and high schools to universities. His Thales Academy has had great success, and he now proposes a Thales College as well. This college will not seek accreditation, in that way cutting through oceans of bureaucratic red tape. Students will pay only $4000 per term for tuition, enabling them to avoid the long-term burden of repaying student debt. The college, located in Wake Forest, North Carolina, will use innovative techniques such as the “flipped classroom,” in which students read the material at home and meet in class only for discussions. You can be sure that students in a program run by Bob Luddy will get a sound education in free market economics and the values of Western civilization.

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