Monthly Archives: October 2012

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Lesser of Two Evils: A Final Shot – Article by Charles N. Steele

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 26, 2012
Recommend this page.
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Mr. Stolyarov has responded to my twopart essay on Mitt Romney as a lesser of two evils.  Here I comment on his response .  I don’t want to rattle on endlessly, so this will be my final “shot” in the debate, unless Mr. Stolyarov asks for my response on specific questions.  I am grateful to him for the opportunity to discuss these issues in this forum.  I’ve found it useful, and hope others have as well.

Mr. Stolyarov’s part 1, “The Imperative of Libertarian Rejection of the Two-Party Trap,” is a reply to my part 1 “Is it Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil?” in which I express doubt about his assertion that “in casting one’s vote” [one earns a] “share of moral responsibility in what would transpire if one’s candidate of choice (even half-hearted choice) gets elected.”

I’m suspicious of this “moral responsibility.” My piece explores whether someone who votes for a candidate has moral responsibility, and if so, what is the nature of that responsibility.  I take pains to keep it a general argument and avoid discussion of the 2012 election.  Unfortunately Mr. Stolyarov doesn’t really answer the questions I raise and instead addresses details of the current presidential candidates.  To the extent he does mention the moral responsibility of a voter, he simply asserts it.  At some points he asserts that a voter provides “moral sanction” in voting for a candidate, but this is something I directly challenged.  Elsewhere he claims to be a consequentialist, and that one bears responsibility only for contributing to actual harms.  I think this conflicts with his “moral sanction” argument.  It also fails to explain how a non-swing voter who votes for a winning candidate shares any moral responsibility at all, since his vote didn’t matter.  In short, I don’t think Mr. Stolyarov’s “Imperative” adequately addresses the philosophical issues I raised, and I remain skeptical of the “moral responsibility” one allegedly bears in voting for a lesser evil.

In part 2, “Why Mitt Romney Will Not Benefit Liberty,” Mr. Stolyarov really lets Mitt Romney have it (and does a good job of it).  We agree in our dislike for Romney.  I also share Mr. Stolyarov’s disgust at Romney’s unwillingness to attack Obama on important matters of principle.  But the question at hand isn’t “Is Romney bad?” but rather which candidate – Obama or Romney – is a lesser evil, or are they equally bad?  I gave four areas of fundamental importance in which Romney easily surpasses Obama, in my view.   I don’t think Mr. Stolyarov succeeds in showing that Romney and Obama are equivalent in these four areas.  Allow me to revisit them.

1. General Vision

Mr. Stolyarov discounts the differences between progressives and conservatives, and argues that conservative skepticism of government is a thing of the past.  This can’t be correct.  The Tea Party phenomenon is explicitly an anti-big-government phenomenon.  It was behind a crushing electoral blow to progressive and moderate Democrats and Republicans in 2010.  Regardless of any inconsistencies, confusions, or errors expressed by Tea Partiers, one can’t sensibly argue the movement isn’t exceedingly skeptical of government, often quite hostile to it.  Conversely, one can’t sensibly argue that progressives aren’t overwhelmingly enamored of ever more government solutions to problems in almost every aspect of life.  Mr. Stolyarov repeatedly refers to the Republican Party establishment.  It’s true that this “establishment” hasn’t welcomed the Tea Party, but the bulk of the support that exists for the GOP today is from people skeptical of big government, not people enamored of the Republican leadership.  To miss this is to miss one of the most important political developments of the last ten years.

Mr. Stolyarov missed my point about the “Peoples Rights Amendment” (PRA).  The PRA isn’t about campaign finance reform.  It is about ending all constitutional protections for all rights of any organization: a business firm, a non-profit organization, a church, a labor union, a political party, anything.  Among other things, it would mean that news organizations, publishers, internet service providers, YouTube, etc., would no longer be protected by any part of the Bill of Rights, and certainly not by the First Amendment.  Under PRA, Mr. Stolyarov will be free to stand on a soapbox in the city park and speak, but You Tube will have no legal protection if legislators decide to ban Stolyarov’s videos.  He’ll be free to publish The Rational Argumentator on a home printer, but his internet service provider will have no legal protection if legislators decide they disapprove of his essays.  Democrats have actually introduced this totalitarian nonsense in the House, with the endorsement of Nancy Pelosi; it’s not simply some pipe dream.  They are promoting similar proposals at the state level.  I cannot think of anything that Republicans are proposing that would so fundamentally change America’s political system to enable totalitarianism.  Regarding the examples Mr. Stolyarov provides (NSA, SOPA), I’m unaware of how Obama and Romney (or Democrats and Republicans) differ.  If Democrats aren’t demonstrably systematically superior, then it can hardly be said that these are relevant.

Regarding gun control, Mr. Stolyarov is simply misinformed.  The fact that no new gun-control legislation has been passed is beside the point.  The Obama administration has worked to undercut private firearm ownership, not through legislation but through regulation, subterfuge (“Fast and Furious,” for example), and international negotiations (which are on hold pending the outcome of the election). And the proposals for a renewed assault-weapons ban (AWB) are more draconian than the Clinton version, not less.  Proposed restrictions on ammunition sales, handgun ownership, semiautomatic weapons, etc., are more restrictive than anything we’ve previously suffered under, not less.  And Heller is not settled law, if Obama is able to appoint one more progressive to the Supreme Court.  Progressives would like to eliminate most privately owned firearms.  Their attacks on the Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground laws show that this hostility is directed at honest citizens and is not about crime prevention.

My examples suggest that progressives are seriously working to eliminate the Bill of Rights.  On the other hand, Mr. Stolyarov responds that he’s concerned about “Occupy” protesters being pepper-sprayed at UC Davis.  I’m uncertain what this event has to do with the Romney v. Obama choice, but he and I have very different definitions of “peaceful.”  My definition of peaceful does not include forcibly blocking public thoroughfares and occupying public spaces so that others cannot exercise their legitimate rights to use them.  It’s shameful that taxpayer money is now going to these “victims.”  But again, how does this indicate anything about the differences in the candidates or the issues I’ve raised?  I think it’s irrelevant.

2. Health-Care Reform

Mr. Stolyarov is probably correct that for Romney and the Republican leadership think of the political base primarily as a means for winning elections.  That’s exactly why Romney wouldn’t veto a PPACA repeal, were it presented to him.  It’s crazy to think he’d veto it against the will of everyone in the GOP and then “rely on political amnesia” to get him by in 2016.  He’d have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.

I didn’t discuss specifics of the PPACA, but I don’t believe the mandate is the worst part.  The mandate isn’t a giveaway to insurance companies.  Without a mandate, the requirement to sell insurance without regard for pre-existing conditions and without risk rating would trigger adverse selection that would eliminate private insurance almost overnight.  Other bad parts of the law include the Independent Payments Advisory Board (IPAB), a component that has the potential to do great harm to American health care.  But then, the PPACA is 2000-plus pages long; there’s lots of mischief in it.  (The Romneycare bill was only 86 pages.)  But this is all beside the point.  The President does not have a line-item veto, so if a Republican Congress repeals PPACA, Romney cannot pick and choose which pieces to preserve.  He’ll sign and we’ll be rid of it.  There’s no other way this can happen.

3. Supreme Court Appointments

Mr. Stolyarov sees a “clash of interpretations [legal philosophies] as too many steps removed from the outcome of a Presidential election. To be sure, the President may appoint Supreme Court justices, but that is all. How the justices subsequently rule is out of the President’s hands.”

It’s true but completely irrelevant that how justices rule is out of the president’s hands.  From a libertarian standpoint, progressive legal theories are worse than libertarian legal theories, obviously.  It’s also obvious to those who study the matter closely that Romney is far more likely to appoint justices sympathetic to libertarian theories than is Obama.  The two candidates are not even roughly similar in this regard.  This alone is sufficient to make Romney the lesser evil, and is a place where he might well do positive good.  Alternatively, if Obama appoints three Ginsburg clones, it will be a very dark day indeed.

4. Economic and Fiscal Issues

I’ll admit that this is the weakest part of my argument.  But still, on environmental regulation, Obama is clearly worse.  It even appears that EPA may have put new energy regulations on hold until after the election.  It’s very likely that an Obama victory will lead to much heavier regulation of one of the bright spots in our economy, the boom in hydrocarbon production.

On fiscal policy, neither candidate (and neither party) has seriously grappled with America’s looming sovereign-debt crisis.  It’s quite obvious, though, that Democrats would be much happier seeing government take a greater share of the economy in revenue than Republicans would – the recent battles over the debt ceiling are evidence of that.

Conclusion

I’ve made two very distinct lines of argument in this exchange.  Concerning the philosophical issues of a voter’s moral responsibility, I think Mr. Stolyarov has largely talked past my arguments.  In the end, I don’t think a voter should worry about “moral responsibility.”  My advice to a libertarian voter: study the principles, issues, and candidates carefully, and then vote (or abstain) according to whatever you think will do the most to further liberty.  Don’t waste any additional effort contemplating the moral responsibility you’ll allegedly bear.

Concerning whether Mitt Romney is the lesser evil, Mr. Stolyarov provides lengthy critique of Romney, a case for voting for a libertarian alternative such as Gary Johnson, and blistering scorn for the Republican leadership and their treatment of Ron Paul’s supporters.  In each case, he does so eloquently.  But these are tangential to the question at hand – is Mitt Romney the lesser of two evils?  I think that I’ve made a strong case that from a libertarian standpoint, Romney, bad as he is, is superior to Obama.  In the end, we’ll never know, of course.

Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics.  He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States.  He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.

Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.

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Why Mitt Romney Will Not Benefit Liberty – Stolyarov’s Response to Steele – Part 2 – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 25, 2012
Recommend this page.
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Here, I continue my exchange with Dr. Charles Steele regarding the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the question of whether either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have any merit as candidates or whether one can be preferred to the other. In “The Imperative of Libertarian Rejection of the Two-Party Trap”, I addressed the question of whether it can be morally legitimate to vote for a lesser evil, and concluded that it is not – particularly where a fundamentally dishonest and deceptive ticket such as Romney/Ryan is concerned. (Readers can also see the aforementioned article for a list of links to the previous installments of this exchange.) Here, I respond to Part 2 of Dr. Steele’s previous response: “Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee?”.

I will first say that I have no intention of defending Barack Obama or claiming that his second term would not be “as bad” as Dr. Steele portrays. Barack Obama has, in many ways, been responsible for a massive growth of the American police and surveillance state, as well as an expansion of militaristic interventionism abroad. His economic policies have, likewise, been highly damaging to liberty and prosperity alike. Drone attacks on innocents, molestation at the airports, an escalating War on Drugs, persecution of whistleblowers, attempts to conflate Wikileaks with crime and terrorism, health-insurance mandates, bailouts and subsidies to political cronies, inflationary monetary policy, reckless deficit-spending fiscal policy, support for draconian “cybersecurity” legislation that would fundamentally curtail Internet freedom and subject billions of individual communications to monitoring by error-prone algorithms, continuing maintenance of CIA torture facilities (a.k.a. “black sites”) abroad, and the “audacity” to insists that the President of the United States has the authority to assassinate any American citizen abroad, or indefinitely detain any American citizen in the United States, based on his mere say-so – all that (and more along similar lines!) has been the legacy of Obama’s first term. I have absolutely no intention of defending Obama – except in cases where the accusations against him are simply factually untrue, or where his administration happens to have stumbled upon a decent and reasonable policy.

One important question to ask is, “Why has Mitt Romney not emphasized virtually any of the above tremendous harms of the Obama administration?” At the Free and Equal Third-Party  Debate, all four of the participants (Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, and Virgil Goode) had scathing criticisms of Obama’s administration in some (or, in the case of Gary Johnson, most) of the areas mentioned above. Ron Paul’s criticisms of Obama were similarly severe, and similarly on target. The perceptive observer, then, is left to wonder why Mitt Romney’s campaign completely ignores the actual harms caused by Obama during his first term and instead focuses on criticisms that are trivial at best or disingenuous and dishonest at worst. Is it, perhaps, that Romney would himself perpetrate the travesties discussed above, and perhaps intensify them? Is it, perhaps, that Romney’s political base actually insists that he attack Obama for not being “tough” enough with regard to certain military engagements and infringements on civil liberties?  (One must remember that Romney himself stated during the Republican debates that he would have signed the indefinite-detention provision of the NDAA. Furthermore, Romney expressed strong support for SOPA and the Protect IP Act before reversing his stance once it became apparent that continued endorsement of these bills would be politically ruinous.)

Rather than defend Obama or contrast him favorably to Romney, I will respond to each of Dr. Steele’s points by following a general theme: that Mitt Romney is cut from the same cloth as Obama policy-wise, and is even worse personality-wise. Obama, for all of his erroneous and dangerous views and actions, at least seems to have an ideological system that he endeavors to realize, however imperfectly and however subject to political maneuvering and backtracking. Romney, on the other hand, seems beholden to no principles. David Javerbaum has aptly characterized Romney as engaging in “quantum politics” – e.g., “Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.”

This, then, can be seen as my response to Dr. Steele’s point regarding the “general vision” of the two candidates. Dr. Steele wrote that “This presidential election is not so much a choice between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama as it is between two competing visions of the role of government.” I respond that the two parties do not represent competing visions, because the Republicans – by nominating Mitt Romney – have shown that they do not represent any vision whatsoever, or at the very least that their “vision” is a blank to be filled by the expediencies of the day. A left-progressive vision, however erroneous or even dangerous in some respects, is at least relatively predictable – though even many left-progressives (e.g., Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party) are themselves disgusted at the course the Obama administration have taken and strike me as a lot more honest and at least capable of doing good in certain areas (e.g., civil liberties), as compared to either the Democratic or the Republican establishments.

I certainly do not see in Romney/Ryan or the Republican establishment the barest shred of “the view that government is limited by the rights of the individual, and that most of civilization is built by free people acting in the market.” Romney’s incessant ads in Nevada about how he opposes Barack Obama’s “threats” to Social Security and Medicare are a case in point; he is just another establishment campaigner who tells various segments of the electorate what they want to hear, and portrays his rival as a terrible menace. But more importantly, the Republican establishment has shown that it not only cares little for individual rights in theory – but it is ready to trample upon them in practice, through the fraudulent and sometimes violent manner in which supporters of Gary Johnson and Ron Paul were effectively disenfranchised during the nominating process and – at the Republican National Convention – were met with a “rule change” (adopted over the loud objections of the delegates) that will effectively bar grassroots delegate selection in perpetuity. The Republican Party, by preventing even their previously most ardent grassroots supporters from rising to positions of prominence in future elections, has closed itself off from any connection with individuals or the free market. It has become the party of oligarchic elites – the party of crony corporatism and entrenched political favoritism. To be sure, the Republican Party does need its “useful idiots” to mobilize mass fervor against the Democrats and win elections. Hence, the Republican establishment fails to quell xenophobic, theocratic, and racist bigotries (e.g., the oft-repeated claims that Obama is an atheist Muslim who was not born in the United States). Even though the Republican elites are too intelligent to fall for such nonsense themselves, they are too callously manipulative and devoid of principles to discourage sentiments that may be politically useful to them.

Dr. Steele writes that “conservatives are far more skeptical of government than are progressives” – but this refers to a conservative movement that was perhaps of this sort some thirty years ago during the Reagan era (in rhetoric at least), but not at all today. While Dr. Steele asserts that “the Republican Party is the party of skepticism about government”, the Republican Party gave us unprecedented expansions of federal-government power during the George W. Bush era. Indeed, a principal observation regarding  the Obama administration’s deleterious effects for liberty is that Obama has built upon the foundation that George W. Bush created, with few material departures. Today’s Republican Party is a mix of neoconservatism, theoconservatism, crony corporatism, and pop-conservatism. Libertarianism is not a material component of the Republican agenda – other than occasional lip service to libertarians during election years – just to get their vote. Every election season, the Republican Party courts libertarians, and every time it has electoral success, it simply discards any pretense at pursuing even a quasi-libertarian agenda. When was the last time that a Republican victory has brought about any policy shifts in a remotely libertarian direction?  In the face of such repeated bait-and-switch tactics, how many times does it take to learn not to fall for them again? How many times do good libertarians need to be deceived by entrenched political elites who have no intention of diminishing the scope of their power?

Dr. Steele contrasts the Democratic and Republican platforms, but even the shreds of pro-liberty sentiment in the Republican platform were hard-won from the establishment by the tireless activity of Ron Paul’s supporters on various Republican committees. These friends of liberty were faced with procedural manipulations and threats from the establishment for attempting to introduce pro-liberty platform planks, and it is certainly salutary that they succeeded. But they were able to plant a few saplings of liberty into extremely hostile soil. The Republican establishment will never accept libertarians and will try, at every turn, to undo these hard-won gains. Attempting to accommodate the Republican establishment will turn libertarians into mere tools for specific establishment aims – as exemplified by the case of Rand Paul, who was largely ignored by Romney after achieving the useful (to Romney) goal of splitting the Ron Paul movement by endorsing Romney. Rand Paul was merely given a speech at the Republican National Convention – but that was largely it in terms of his “gains” from the endorsement. The liberty movement certainly did not gain even that much, as no policy victories were won by Rand Paul’s action. Another potential approach, that of overruling the establishment and “taking over” the party, has become close to impossible after the National Convention, and so the only reasonable course of action left to libertarians is to abandon any connection to the Republican Party and act entirely outside of its confines.

On the matter of free speech, Dr. Steele writes about the threat of Jim McGovern’s proposed “People’s Rights Amendment”, which would overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. While this proposed amendment is certainly problematic, I do not see a direct connection between it and Barack Obama. Certainly, some high-profile Democrats support it, but that is no guarantee that it would pass or that Obama would endorse it if he received a second term. As an analogy, numerous Republicans have voiced support for overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on abortion (including through the means of “right to life” Constitutional amendments – and Republican candidates for President have often endorsed this course of action far more vocally than Obama has ever commented on the Citizens United decision. Yet Republicans elected to office are virtually powerless to do anything about Roe v. Wade, due to the vestiges of the separation of powers that remain. There are dire ways in which free speech is being eroded in the United States, but campaign finance is one of the least concerning areas in this respect. I am far more disturbed by the violent suppression of peaceful political protests (e.g., the pepper-spraying incident at University of California Davis in November 2011, for which the University has now offered to generously compensate the victims), as well as the overarching surveillance state which is emerging due to the domestic “War on Terror”. Internet monitoring of the sort contemplated by CISPA and the National Security Agency’s planned data center in Utah would surely have a chilling effect on free expression online. Likewise, the intimidation and harassment that some of Romney’s supporters have directed at supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson certainly are not helping the cause of free speech. As someone who personally experienced such attacks, I would certainly not trust the attackers’ candidate of choice with safeguarding my rights under the First Amendment.

Dr. Steele is also concerned about the purported Democratic opposition to the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Yet the right to bear arms is one area in which liberty has actually made progress over the past decade – and this progress has largely been untouched by Obama during his first term in office. While the Democratic platform may call for some restrictions on gun ownership, even this language is mild compared to the rhetoric of the gun-control movement in the 20th century (particularly prior to the decline of crime rates in the 1990s).  Due to Supreme Court decisions such as Heller and concealed-carry laws in various states, widespread gun ownership has been subject to fewer legal restrictions in recent times, coinciding with the continued drop in rates of violent crime. This recognition that liberalization of gun laws did not lead to crime increases, combined with the extreme strength of interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, should keep at bay any attempts to limit Second Amendment rights at the federal level – no matter which party controls the Presidency. The greatest threat to gun-ownership rights remains at the local level, particularly at educational institutions that attempt to impose “gun-free” zones where not even teachers and administrators can bring weapons that could deter potential shooters and immediately disable any who are not deterred.

Regarding PPACA/Obamacare/federal Romneycare, Dr. Steele responds to my argument that Romney would not veto it by stating that “the PPACA is much hated by the Republican base (for that matter the majority of Americans dislike it).  A repeal would be extremely popular.  It’s simply incredible to think that a President Romney would defy his party and practically 100% of his supporters in order to save Barack Obama’s hallmark program. “ Dr. Steele “can’t imagine anything else he could do that would make him more likely to lose the GOP nomination in 2016.” This assumes, however, that the political base matters to Republicans like Romney to any greater extent than as vessels for whipping up sentiment and winning elections. It is much more likely that the Republican Party strategists will rely on the perceived political amnesia of the masses and will hope that the public in 2016 will have forgotten any promises to repeal PPACA. Romney has already anticipated this behavior and publicly backtracked on his promise to repeal PPACA and stated that there are many portions that he would retain. Most likely, the worst part of PPACA – the individual mandate – which Obama initially opposed but was persuaded by politically powerful health insurers to include, will be among the parts that Romney – being the representative of corporate cronyism that he is – will retain. It is true that Romney might support some partial reforms to PPACA, but if the individual mandate remains, then these reforms would amount to a mere reorientation of PPACA in an even more corporatist direction, rather than a repeal or a movement toward a more free-market outcome. Under Romney, there might be fewer requirements and restrictions regarding the behavior of health insurers – but, in the status quo, those mandates and restrictions largely have the effect of partially (and, in the fashion of Mises’s “dynamic of interventionism”, with severe unintended negative consequences) compensating for the pernicious effects of the individual mandate. A Romney-style amended PPACA might simply enable health insurers to exploit their new captive clientele with few limitations or checks.

Dr. Steele writes that “it’s not clear that Romneycare and Obamacare really are the same thing, despite a similar basic framework. The Massachusetts bill signed by Romney was different from that which was implemented.  Romney used his line item veto on a number of the more draconian parts of the bill.  The Democratic legislature overrode these vetoes, and the bill was implemented by a Democratic governor who further altered it.  Furthermore, at the time Romney signed the bill, the situation in Massachusetts insurance markets was far worse than perhaps anywhere else in the United States.  In this context, Romneycare – at least Romney’s version of it – was arguably an improvement over the status quo in Massachusetts.  Thus when Romney argues that the reform might have been right for Massachusetts but not for America in general, he’s not necessarily being disingenuous.”

The best way to determine how similar or different Romneycare is from Obamacare is to consult the economist who designed both, Jonathan Gruber, who recently stated regarding the individual mandates of the two systems in particular, that “They are very similar […] They aren’t the same exact mandate, but they have the same basic structure.” Because the individual mandate is by far the most pernicious part of PPACA, this is enough of a similarity to make Obamacare and Romneycare fundamentally more alike than not. It is also appropriate to consider the statements made by Romney. As is typical with Romney, he vacillates on the matter of whether Obamacare does or does not resemble Romneycare, but he did praise Obama for incorporating elements of Romneycare into PPACA. In April 2012, Romney even explicitly praised the individual mandate! The distinctions that Romney makes are that (1) Romney’s plan was state-based rather than federal (as if he had a choice as Governor of Massachusetts – and besides, bad ideas have to start somewhere, and Massachusetts was Gruber’s training ground), (2) that Romney’s plan did not raise taxes (which is false; Alex Seitz-Wald points out that the penalties for failing to purchase insurance, which the Supreme Court has now ruled to be taxes, were higher under Romneycare), (3) that Romney’s plan did not cut Medicare (again, a defense of the Medicare status quo on Romney’s part), and (4) that Romney’s plan did not include price controls (but Massachusetts does impose price controls now, as Ben Domenech points out – and this may have been Romneycare’s logical evolution).

Dr. Steele also writes regarding the possibility that Obama would appoint “democratic constitutionalist” justices to the Supreme Court, which would result in the spread of “the notion that our Constititutional rights should not be considered “absolute” sense, but rather subject to international norms.” Dr. Steele believes that “Romney is unlikely to draw from this crowd, and far more likely to draw from judges with at least some sympathy for the new federalism.” While I certainly prefer the interpretation which Dr. Steele calls the “new federalism” over “democratic constitutionalism”, I see this particular clash of interpretations as too many steps removed from the outcome of a Presidential election. To be sure, the President may appoint Supreme Court justices, but that is all. How the justices subsequently rule is out of the President’s hands. Indeed, it was the George W. Bush appointee John Roberts who cast the deciding vote to uphold the constitutionality of PPACA’s individual mandate. The 2005 Kelo v. City of New London eminent-domain decision was joined by George H. W. Bush appointee David Souter and Ronald Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy. And, as I previously pointed out, the Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders decision of April 2012 was entirely the doing of the “conservative” bloc (including Anthony Kennedy). If the “new federalism” of these judges considers strip searches without criminal suspicion or material risk posed by the individual being searched to be constitutional, then perhaps it is not that strong of a safeguard of our liberties after all. But largely, my point is that any given Supreme Court justice is too much of an unknown quantity upon appointment for one to be able to make any decisions regarding the appointer on the basis of whom he might potentially, conceivably appoint – that is, if a vacancy appears in the first place and if the Senate would confirm that appointment.

Regarding which candidate is more anti-entrepreneur, Dr. Steele writes that “Mr. Stolyarov suggests that Romney is anti-entrepreneur in practice, but it is small entrepreneurs who are most hurt by regulation.  Large established firms have teams of lawyers and accountants and frequently can benefit from gaming the rules; in practice, Obama is a greater threat to entrepreneurship.” But it is precisely the large established firms that will be explicitly favored by a Romney administration – as evidenced by Romney’s support for the various bailouts and “stimulus” plans of 2008-2009. (Incidentally, it was Romney who said during the first Romney-Obama debate that “You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans.” This is clearly a statement of opposition to small entrepreneurship and an expression of desire to protect entrenched large financial firms from competition by innovative startups.) The only difference between Obama and Romney is that, while Obama supports subsidies to “alternative” businesses (and financial firms), Romney supports subsidies to “traditional” businesses (and financial firms) – combined with a heavy dose of mercantilist protectionism (evidenced by numerous Romney campaign flyers sent out in Nevada about how Obama is allegedly “selling out” the United States to China by endorsing foreign-made products). Romney is the candidate of politically connected Wall Street firms and large banks (who also hedge their bets by donating large amounts of money to the Democratic Party). If he is elected, these entities will be free to continue to enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense, while socializing their losses. Bailouts and labyrinthine federal rules are key to the continuation of this exploitation of taxpayers by connected financial firms – and Romney is virtually certain to encourage the proliferation of such measures.

Dr. Steele writes that “Romney and Ryan have been willing to put forward the idea that entitlement programs as they exist are unsustainable and must be radically restructured.  Obama assures us this won’t happen.” Yet it is Romney/Ryan whose ads continually denounce Obama for “threatening” Social Security and Medicare and promise that Romney/Ryan will not take those benefits away but will rather “strengthen” those programs. Gary Johnson, when observing the first Romney-Obama debate, repeatedly pointed out that the two candidates were in competition regarding who could make more extravagant promises to preserve Medicare. I agree that the federal entitlement programs are unsustainable, but Romney, like Obama, is happy to argue for their perpetual existence as a way of gaining votes in the short term – at the expense of long-term prudence.

On taxation, Dr. Steele writes that “Obama has stated a clear preference for increases in marginal rates on higher income earners, higher corporate taxes, and an increasing number of tax breaks, this last for purposes of social engineering (a.k.a. buying votes).  Romney has endorsed a reduction in marginal rates and a broadening on the base by eliminating deductions and exemptions.  The latter approach reduces the economic distortions of taxation and also returns it to the purpose of collecting revenue, rather than shaping citizens’ behavior to match politicians’ goals.” While I certainly do not support Obama’s approach (or any tax increases at all), it is not at all clear that Romney’s approach is preferable – especially since, as Dr. Steele acknowledges, we do not know quite what it entails, and Romney keeps contradicting himself regarding its contents. What we do know for certain, though, is that Romney’s planned massive increases to military spending are mathematically irreconcilable with any sensible fiscal policy or any description of Romney’s tax plan. If fiscal responsibility is to be the deciding issue of this election, then Obama might even be preferable to Romney because while Obama’s budget plan aims to increase military spending very slightly, Romney’s plan would lead it to skyrocket. Ultimately, unsustainable foreign entanglements have led to the United States’ budget surplus from the late 1990s turning into a massive deficit. Without significantly curtailing American military spending and engagements abroad, resolving the current fiscal mess is impossible. The Economist points out that, more generally, Romney’s statements are mathematically incoherent, and his tax plan, as publicly presented, would not be able to solve the United States’ fiscal problems without significant tax increases on middle-income-earners.

Dr. Steele concluded his essay with some thoughtful caveats, and I would also like to mention a few of my own, though they cannot be said to arise from any virtues on Romney’s part. First, a Romney victory could galvanize Democrats to behave in a manner more reminiscent of the George W. Bush era, during which many of them actually opposed American foreign entanglements and expressed outrage at violations of civil liberties. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Obama’s election has led many of Obama’s supporters to become blind to the administration’s abuses of civil liberties at home and abroad. Perhaps, if the Democrats again become the party of the opposition, the old civil-liberties sentiments could be revived and strengthened (even if only to be used as a tool of political convenience against the Republicans). Second, Romney and Obama might both be mere figureheads of a larger political establishment: the “bipartisan” consensus – implemented by a federal bureaucracy whose operations do not shift due to a change in leadership, and existing to serve elites whose real power arises from connections and does not depend on particular formal titles. If this is the case, then Obama’s or Romney’s individual presence or influence in office might not amount to much at all. Therefore, the outcomes in terms of policy might be the same irrespective of which one of them wins. Third, interestingly enough, a similar irrelevance might be anticipated if Dr. Steele is correct in stating that “If elections and political processes do anything in this regard [expanding liberty], it will be simply to respond to and formalize advances made by civil society.” In that case, a politician who seeks to retain office would have little choice but to succumb to the pressures of civil society sooner or later, and the party in power does not matter so much, except possibly with regard to the timing and tone of that acquiescence. (An example of this is the recent initially reluctant but subsequently strong expression of support for legalized same-sex marriage by Barack Obama, who originally campaigned against it, but whose hand was essentially forced by the public discourse of the issue.)

Yet, with all this said, I can anticipate one major harm of a Romney victory that might outweigh all possible incidental benefits. That harm is the normalization of lying in American politics. As I discussed above and in Part 1 of my response, Romney is a different breed of politician, in that he does not have a shred of consistency on virtually any issue – and is willing to lie even when lying is not necessary to gain him political advantage. A Romney victory would convey a clear signal to the electorate and to political pundits and strategists that facts do not matter and honesty does not matter in politics. Of course it is true that many politicians today make false promises and selectively portray the truth; Romney is far from the first. But the overt factual falsehoods stated by Romney and Ryan are a different and more egregious sort of lies from the false promises, vague generalities, and dissembling characteristic of more “traditional” American politicians. A Romney victory would complete the transformation of American elections into reality shows with much rhetoric and fanfare, but no substance; it would finalize the disconnect between the basis for the people’s decisions in electing a candidate and the actual policies that candidate implements (based, presumably, on consideration of more reliable and accurate information than the nonsense disseminated on the campaign trail). A Romney victory would cement the unfortunate conviction of many on the political Right in the United States that they are entitled not just to their own opinions, but also to their own facts (which may, in Orwellian fashion, morph into their diametrical opposites based on the political agenda du jour). I am reminded here of Mises’s discussion in Human Action of the errors of polylogism. A Romney victory would create a peculiar sort of “Republican logic” or “conservative logic” that employs “Republican facts” or “conservative facts” that differ from the objective facts which, well, happen to be true. Already, the derision aimed at fact-checking organizations by many on the Right today foreshadows this unfortunate possibility – which would render the entire conservative movement (and any libertarians who ally with it) a historical irrelevancy and laughingstock, but not before it inflicts tremendous human suffering in the manner of virtually every major polylogist movement in history.

This brings me to the last point of discussion with Dr. Steele, the matter (discussed in the comments of my Part 1) of whether the Romney campaign has misrepresented the Obama administration’s approach to work requirements for welfare eligibility. I note that this is a matter on which a wide spectrum of sources are unanimous – including The Washington Post (which leans Republican), ABC News, and NPR. PolitiFact (which also leans rightward) has called the Romney campaign’s statements on this matter “pants on fire” lies.

Dr. Steele writes that “Robert Rector, one of the authors of the original reform act, has given a detailed and careful argument for why he considers the move by Obama’s HHS move a gutting of the requirements.” It seems that Rector actually originated the claim that the HHS memorandum of July 12, 2012, would “gut” welfare reform. This is his blog post of the same day, making that claim. It is clear that, akin to the dynamics of the game of “telephone”, the Romney campaign took Rector’s statements and exaggerated them further to claim that Obama’s administration has already “announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” – when in fact no such plan has been made,  no waivers of any nature have been requested or granted, and the HHS memorandum specifically cautioned against dropping work requirements. Rector (unlike the Romney campaign) at least provides some details for his interpretation, but it appears to be one remote hypothetical possibility among many, at best, and it is at odds with the explicit statements of the Obama administration that work requirements will not be dropped. Another of the authors of the TANF program, Ron Haskins, stated to NPR that “There’s no plausible scenario under which it [the HHS memorandum] really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.” The NPR article perceptively observes: “So why continue beating this drum? Partly because people believe it.” This is a prominent illustration of the cynical and manipulative conduct of the Romney campaign. Facts do not matter to Romney and Ryan; the public appeal of any particular message – even if it is factually false – does.

Dr. Steele also writes that GAO has declared that contrary to what the Obama administration has argued, HHS has overstepped its bounds in this matter and by law must submit the proposed changes to Congress.” Yet the GAO letter does not comment on the practical effects of the HHS’s waiver authority on work requirements. It simply states that the HHS’s attempts to exercise such authority constitute a “rule” under the Administrative Procedures Act, and that this “rule” must be submitted to Congress for its approval. Perhaps it must. Yet this is not, per se, support for the contention that Obama has “gutted” welfare work requirements.

Furthermore, the American Conservative Union article linked by Dr. Steele states that “No state has submitted a waiver request. Nor have any been approved. The GAO report has effectively blocked all Sebelius-led changes to TANF work requirements, but what would have it have done [sic]? The specific changes would vary from state to state, depending on whether a state requests a waiver and whether HHS approves the proposed new methods.“ This is precisely the opposite of the Romney campaign’s contention that the Obama administration “gutted” welfare work requirements. First, no actual waivers have even been granted, so any “gutting” is hypothetical only. Second, if any waivers are to be granted, the specific changes would vary by state and would largely depend on what a particular state requests. Again, it is entirely unwarranted to leap from the ability of a state to request a waiver of certain specific methods to the presupposition that the waiver would entail an elimination of work requirements altogether (which elimination is contrary to federal law in any case).

To conclude, I reiterate my question of why Romney is even emphasizing this non-issue so strongly – when there is a myriad of actual atrocious infringements of liberty by the Obama administration which could be used to legitimately denounce Obama’s first term? The only reason that suggests itself is that Romney would commit more of the same infringements, and any differences with Obama are superficial only.

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The Imperative of Libertarian Rejection of the Two-Party Trap – Stolyarov’s Response to Steele – Part 1 – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 21, 2012
Recommend this page.
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Here I offer the first installment of my response in an ongoing exchange with Dr. Charles Steele regarding the merits (or lack thereof) of various candidates in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, as well as the question of whether or not it is justified for a libertarian to prefer Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

Incidentally, this weekend, I had the opportunity to vote early in Nevada and to cast my vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for President. My hope is that, in this election, Gary Johnson will beat all records in terms of the total votes received by a Libertarian candidate. (See the historical record of votes received by Libertarian candidates here.) This would send a strong signal to the establishment that Americans who love freedom are displeased and outraged at the directions in which both major parties would like to take the country.

For the benefit of my readers, I provide below a list of links to prior installments of this exchange in chronological order.

* “Rand Paul’s Endorsement of Romney Versus Ayn Rand’s and Murray Rothbard’s Historical Grudging Endorsements” – My initial post of September 3, 2012, and a comment by Dr. Steele.

* “Is Mitt Romney Truly a ‘Lesser Evil’?” – My article of September 6, 2012

* “Is It Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil? Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 1” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 2, 2012

* “Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee? – Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 2” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 17, 2012

I begin by addressing Dr. Steele’s response in Part 1 to the philosophical argument regarding the impropriety of voting for a lesser evil. In my next installment, I will discuss in greater detail the specific differences between Romney and Obama that Dr. Steele addressed in his Part 2. Dr. Steele stated that most of his questions are not rhetorical, so my purpose here will not be to disagree with any real or perceived implications of such questions – but rather simply to elaborate upon my answers to them and my related views and understandings of the present political situation.

Dr. Steele writes: When we vote, we vote under conditions of uncertainty about what the candidates will do should they win.  Two reasonable people might differ in their expectations over what opposing candidates might do if elected, even if the candidates are truthful.“

I respond: It is true that people vote under conditions of uncertainty. However, a candidate’s historical record of adherence to his or her promises is a decent indicator of whether this candidate will adhere to his or her promises in the future. Furthermore, a candidate’s record of intellectual consistency can serve as a decent indicator of whether that candidate will flip-flop on issues in the future.

Dr. Steele writes: And candidates are often less-than-truthful about what they will do if elected; sorting out what is and isn’t true is not necessarily straightforward.  Consider a presidential election between A and B.  If candidate A wins the election and what subsequently transpires is counter to what the voter in good faith expected, what is the voter’s moral responsibility?

I respond: This is precisely why it is essential not to support candidates with a record of being untruthful, disingenuous, or prone to reversals of their positions. With a candidate like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, one knows what one is getting, because these men have not materially altered their views or policy recommendations over the course of decades. This is true, also, of certain politicians with whom I have many fewer ideas in common but whom I nonetheless respect for their integrity and consistency – such as Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, and Ralph Nader. Furthermore, these men have histories of actually trying to put their views into practice. The extent of their success may be outside of their full control (because it is subject to the responses and often the resistance of others), but at least they try honestly, and this is apparent to anyone who studies their records.

Sometimes it may also be acceptable to give an untried candidate (for instance, a young and seemingly intelligent and honest politician with little experience in office) a chance if he or she presents a well-supported impression of competence, knowledge, productivity, and integrity. However, in the long term, the records of those people will also speak for them more clearly than their initial presentations, and they are deserving of continued support only if they show through their deeds that they actually meant what they promised.

 On the other hand, a person such as Mitt Romney has a record of repeatedly changing his rhetoric to directly contradict statements he made in the past. Romney is, in essence, a political “weather vane” – seeking to reflect what he and his political handlers consider to be the predominant attitudinal currents of the particular time and place. Furthermore, Romney has a decidedly un-libertarian policy record as Governor of Massachussetts, a candidate, and a private citizen (in his advocacy of bailouts, Medicare expansion, indefinite detention of Americans, and ever-expanding military interventions abroad). Romney’s problem, furthermore, is not so much that he pursues a non-libertarian set of principles (as some respectable politicians might), but that he does not appear to act on any set of universalizable principles whatsoever. Mitt Romney at time X is quite willing to pursue the opposite set of views and policies from Mitt Romney at time Y. Moreover, RomneyX will deny the existence of RomneyY’s views, and vice versa.  Thus, reasonable observers should not expect him to keep his word, or for his word to be worth much in terms of an indicator of his actual views and planned behavior.

Observation and experience have taught me that honesty and dishonesty are fundamental character traits of individuals. Some people find it extremely difficult morally and even inconvenient practically to lie, as it requires the invention of an entire parallel reality that must continually be kept up in order to prevent others from detecting the lie. Others make lying (in either a blatant form or in the form of half-truths) a way of life. People who achieve a measure of material success by means of lying or presenting false impressions will tend to escalate such behavior until it becomes a pervasive, personality-swallowing, and ultimately self-defeating compulsion.  Occasionally, good people may justifiably lie in order to protect themselves against hostile forces that would use the truth as a tool to unjustly and illegitimately harm the truth-teller. However, such situations are rare in the normal course of events, and good people would lie in such situations as an uncomfortable emergency measure of self-defense whose recurrence it is hoped to avoid.

The mark of a compulsive liar is that he lies even when he does not have to – when telling the truth would be fully consistent with his best interests and even his public image. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both have shamelessly distorted facts in their campaign speeches, advertisements, and debate performances. Due to the Internet, these distortions can be readily identified, and the facts can be brought forth to correct them – but Romney, Ryan, and their handlers do not appear to be cognizant of this reality. When their untruths are pointed out to them, they either continue to assert them with a straight face (as in the case of the Romney campaign knowingly using false statements in its advertisements regarding Obama’s non-existent elimination of the work requirement for unemployment-benefits eligibility) or they deny that they made such statements in the first place despite video evidence to the contrary (as in the case of Ryan denying ever expressing praise and admiration for Ayn Rand, or Romney repeatedly asserting that his tax plan either does or does not reduce the tax obligations of the highest income-earners and expressing bewilderment that anyone ever thought that Romney had said the opposite of the assertion du jour). What is astounding is that Romney/Ryan would not have lost an iota of public support by accurately and transparently representing both their own intentions and Obama’s record in office. There are numerous valid criticisms of the Obama administration – enough to occupy any challenger’s time. There is no need to invent facts or engage in distortion in order to address Obama’s genuine blunders in the realms of economic policy, foreign policy, and infringement of civil liberties. Likewise, a full representation of Romney/Ryan’s actual proposed policies would have been far more salutary than a vague set of incoherent and mutually contradictory generic assertions that try to mean everything for everyone.

In short, the problem with Romney and Ryan is not so much what they stand for, but the fact that they can stand for anything and nothing and that integrity and consistency cannot be expected of them based on their campaigning tactics and policy records. More generally, even a halfway-decent judge of character will be able to distinguish between a person of integrity and a habitual liar in politics. All that is needed is a look at the facts – precisely what the habitual liars in politics consider unimportant.

Dr. Steele writes: Further, we also don’t know and will never know what B would have done.  Does that matter?  Might not a vote for what proved to be A’s bad policies have prevented B’s worse ones? In many cases these issues are small, but not always.  And certainly in times of major institutional transitions, or economic crises, or other important changes, they are likely to loom large.”

I respond: This presupposes that A and B are the only genuine alternatives. In fact, since voting is ultimately the result of an aggregation of individual decisions, the conceivable alternatives are numerous, if only people would see them that way. One might consider two-party politics in the United States to be a sort of collective reverse prisoners’ dilemma – in the sense that the political situation would be much better if people simply did not care about how others plan to vote and would simply vote their conscience – based solely on their independent evaluation of the views and records of the candidates running. It is only because voters try to anticipate one another’s preferences and adjust their own accordingly that the two-party oppression of the status quo has come about.

Over the years, the difference between the “greater” and “lesser” evil has become ever harder to distinguish, either in magnitude or in the identity of the “greater” and “lesser”. This is because the strategists in the two parties know that they do not need to present candidates that differ materially in practice anymore. All they need to do is to put up a show and engage in polarizing but utterly vacuous rhetoric – in order to get the electorate to think that enough of a difference exists to justify voting for one wing of the establishment or for the other. The reality behind the scenes is that we are governed by an elite “bipartisan” consensus where there exist occasional minor policy changes because of the shifting dynamics among the myriad pressure groups comprising the elite. However, the fundamental assumptions of that consensus – including massive corporate welfare, systemic restrictions on upward economic mobility for most, the cartelization of much of the economy, various boondoggles for special interests (including military interventions, “homeland security,” and the War on Drugs), and the need to obtain elite permission to make major innovations that depart from the status quo – remain unchallenged within the two-party establishment. This continuity of policy despite rotations of the parties in power has been strengthening over the years. Thus, it has often and justifiably been remarked that Obama’s first term in office is essentially indistinguishable in practice from a third term for George W. Bush.

At the same time, the gulf between the elite consensus and the possibilities of emerging technologies is becoming ever wider – particularly as the elite is composed predominantly of people who do not understand those technologies and try to operate according to assumptions that only work in a pre-Internet world. The elite reaction to the hyper-empowerment of individuals through personal technology is to crack down ever harder. Hence, we have seen in the past decade and especially in the past several years both an accelerating pace of technological improvement and a flurry of bills (COICA, SOPA, Protect IP, CISPA) and treaties (ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) attempting to restrict Internet freedom. Ultimately, this interplay of trends can result only in the amazing liberation of individuals or a more totalitarian tyranny than any which came before.

With regard to Dr. Steele’s reference to major institutional transitions and economic crises, we are indeed in such a time period, but the essence of the transition is precisely the manner in which technology tends to yank influence away from the power elites (often without an explicit design to do so) – and the essence of the economic crisis is precisely the power elites’ reaction in attempting to entrench old, failed institutions (through techniques such as bailouts, inflation, subsidies, modern-day guilds, and barriers to competition) and bar the majority of people from prospering due to the unleashing of technology’s full potential. Neither Obama nor Romney stands on the right side of the institutional transition. Especially in this pivotal time, it is imperative to side with those who aspire for individual hyper-empowerment and to reject the two-party elite.  A key part of individual hyper-empowerment is to vote independently of one’s expectations of how others might vote. Setting an example through one’s own decisions (and one’s vocal discussion thereof) can persuade increasing numbers of people to extricate themselves from the trap of pernicious assumptions created by the “bipartisan” consensus.

Dr. Steele writes: If one votes for a candidate who wins, does one then share responsibility for everything the candidate does?  When we vote for candidate A, we get the ‘entire package.’  We can’t limit ourselves to voting for her/his positions on some issues but not others.  Suppose one agrees with candidate A on fiscal policy, but disagrees on foreign policy, and conversely supports B on foreign policy and opposes his fiscal policy.  In order to decide between candidates, our voter must judge which issue is more likely to be of central importance in the next term, as well as which one is more important for the voter’s overall vision of what should be done.  For that matter, the voter might think that B’s fiscal policy is a more serious flaw than A’s foreign policy, but also believes institutional barriers (e.g. Congress) will largely block B’s fiscal policy while nothing would block A from pursuing the bad foreign policy, and hence reasonably vote B.”

I respond: While it is true that some degree of unpredictability exists with every candidate, there is a major difference between whether that unpredictability is a result of unforeseen contingencies beyond that candidate’s control (e.g., major external events that change the incentives, constraints, and pressures facing a politician) or whether it is a result of the politician simply never intending to form a strong connection between what he says and what he does. Thus, while a person who supports a particular candidate may not be morally responsible for every particular action by that person in office, that person is responsible for helping to elect either a fundamentally honest person or a fundamentally dishonest one. By knowingly electing a fundamentally dishonest person, one essentially writes a blank check for that person to do as he pleases in office, without much connection to any particular intellectually coherent platform or set of ideals.

With regard to weighing the importance of various policy issues, I agree that this assessment may differ based on a voter’s factual expectations as well as his subjective assessment of various areas’ relative significance. However, a fundamentally dishonest politician cannot be expected either to have the same priorities as any given voter, or to fulfill his promise to address particular issues he represents as priorities. In essence, the credibility of a dishonest politician like Romney in communicating particular priorities has already been shattered, and he is therefore an almost unknown quantity in how he would address issues. I say that he is almost an unknown quantity, because whatever Romney does is likely to be strongly biased toward preserving the perverse dynamics inherent in the status quo – i.e., the political trend toward totalitarianism and the further entrenchment of the pressure groups that predominate in today’s “bipartisan” consensus.

Dr. Steele writes: How much difference does one’s vote make, anyway?  The quote from Mr. Stolyarov suggests that if candidate A wins, a person who voted for him shares some responsibility for what transpires.  But suppose A wins with a very large margin of the vote.  In that case, there’s nothing the voter could have done to stop what transpires.  What is her/his responsibility then?

I respond: While any given voter’s moral responsibility may be minor in this case with regard to any particular outcome, there is still some moral responsibility in the sense that the voter permitted himself to be one of the masses who supported the winning candidate despite strong initial indications that the candidate is  dishonest, prone to engaging in deleterious policies, or both. The greater moral responsibility is not even so much for casting one’s vote a certain way, but for abrogating the independence of thought and fortitude of character needed to cast a vote based on an assessment that does not take into account what “everyone else” is doing. In other words, the moral responsibility is for allowing the pressures of social conformity to determine one’s decision even though the conformity does not entail an element of physical compulsion and the individual is fully free in theory and practice to make an entirely independent decision based on principles. In the United States, there is unfortunately a widespread entrenched mentality of supporting “the winning team” – irrespective of whether that “team’s” agenda is in one’s best interests. All too many Americans are so frightened of “losing” in any area where they have invested time and effort, that they align themselves with their very destroyers simply to avoid being in the minority.

Dr. Steele writes: Conversely, suppose instead A loses, so nothing transpires from the vote and presumably no moral responsibility attaches to the voter.  How does anything differ in these two cases, with respect to the voter’s culpability?  I can’t see that the voter has behaved differently in the two cases; shouldn’t moral responsibility be the same?  Perhaps not, but then why not?  And how would the responsibility differ in either case had the voter instead stayed home and not cast a ballot?

I respond: As a consequentialist, I do not believe that a person can have moral responsibility for hypothetical events; only actual harms count. Therefore, a person who voted for a losing candidate can have no responsibility for the decisions and actions of the winning candidate. However, voting for a losing candidate from one of the two major parties may per se be an imprudent action even if there is no moral fault arising from it – because this action shows that one continues to fall into the two-party trap and to expect a decent outcome from supporting one party or the other, despite a long train of disappointments and broken promises going back for decades.

As an analogy, consider two people who drive at extremely fast speeds on the highway. One person causes an accident, and the other does not. The second person may simply have been lucky in that his reckless behavior did not cause an accident, so I do not think that he should have any criminal or even moral culpability. The first person, on the other hand, is morally culpable because his behavior actually resulted in harm to others. However, it can be said that the second person was greatly imprudent and should improve his behavior and assumptions about the world in order to minimize the risk of causing harm in the future.

That being said, the behavior that a person exhibits while campaigning for or against a particular candidate can result in moral culpability irrespective of the outcome. For instance, the disgraceful, dishonest, and sometimes outright violent ways in which supporters of the Republican establishment have treated supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson render the establishment supporters culpable no matter whether or not Mitt Romney wins the election.

As a general rule, people only have moral responsibility for their active decisions which result in harm to others. Because one part of this two-part test is contingent on external circumstances and events, it is quite possible that the same motivations and even the same physical movements by two different individuals may result in different degrees of culpability (or even culpability in one case and lack thereof in another). Furthermore, inaction, while it may be sub-optimal or even callous at times, does not rise to the level of immorality. A person who does not vote therefore cannot be held morally responsible for the actions of the winning candidate. However, he may also justifiably consider it sub-optimal or imprudent not to vote if he could have had an incremental impact in averting some of the negative consequences of the winning candidate’s victory. For instance, some libertarians believe that they should not vote because they do not want to “legitimize the system” in any way. I do not agree with their view, but adherence to it is not immoral, and libertarians of this persuasion maintain their integrity by behaving in a manner consistent with their view. However, the outcome would have been superior if these libertarians had supported Gary Johnson or Ron Paul – signaling to the establishment that the discontentment with the status quo is more widespread than originally anticipated.

Dr. Steele writes: Similarly, in every presidential election in which I’ve voted, I voted in Montana.  In none of these was the vote close enough for mine to have mattered, but that’s irrelevant.  Montana’s three electoral votes simply do not matter for the national outcome, so no matter what happened, my vote had no connection at all to what subsequently transpired.  Does this mean that I’m exempt of all moral responsibility when I vote in a presidential election?  Why or why not?

I respond: Except in extremely unlikely circumstances, no person’s single vote can make the difference in the outcome of a national election. Thus, one’s vote practically matters only to the extent of contributing to the “pool” of votes for a particular candidate. What is more important is the signal that one’s vote sends with regard to whether one is willing to morally sanction an establishment candidate or whether one is willing to voice one’s independent preferences no matter what the social or media pressures might be. Whether one votes in a “swing state” or in a state whose electoral votes are unlikely to make a difference is not so material to this question. Ultimately, one can only control one’s own behavior, and this behavior should be based on adherence to objective principles, rather than the expectation of what others faced with a similar choice are likely to do.

Dr. Steele writes: It’s clear, then, that Mr. Stolyarov is not committing the Nirvana fallacy.  But I still find his point quite problematic.  It is not always obvious what constitutes ‘incremental good/evil’ on net, or how we identify an overall reduction in liberty.  Let’s simplify this case by assuming there’s only one voter and no uncertainty about what candidates will do if elected, so that there are no disconnects between the vote cast and the political consequences.  Again, the voter faces a choice among presidential candidates, but now her/his vote determines the election and s/he knows exactly what political consequences will transpire. If A’s positions on issues X and Y reduce liberty, and his position on issue Z increases it, how is the voter to weight A’s net effect on liberty?  (Assume for sake of argument there are no other issues.)  Is A automatically disqualified because of his position on X and Y?  Or could his position on Z conceivably be sufficiently beneficial for liberty to outweigh the harm done on the first two?  I would think so, and I suspect Mr. Stolyarov agrees.  (Again, I should note that in some cases any reasonable person should be able to weigh these relative harms and benefits and get the same answer.  But in some real world cases reasonable persons might strongly differ.)

I respond: I agree that it is difficult sometimes to evaluate the net effect on liberty of an honest candidate who espouses mixed principles. For instance, if someone like Dennis Kucinich had run for President, I would be greatly concerned about most of his stances on economic policy, but I could see tremendous benefits for civil liberties (in particular, with regard to “airport security” and the misguided “War on Terror”) and foreign policy if he were elected. Which are more important? Because I so greatly care about the physical integrity of my person and property while traveling (much more than I care about my monetary holdings), I am more likely to focus significantly on the civil-liberties aspect. However, an extremely wealthy businessman (who, in this example, earned all of his wealth legitimately) might be able to afford to travel in his personal airplanes and might therefore not care as much about airport security as he does about his economic opportunities. He might justifiably weigh the benefits and costs differently than I do.

However, all of these sophisticated and reasonable discussions about how to weigh relative benefits and harms disappear when the candidate running for office is fundamentally dishonest and has a record of continually shifting his positions and violating his promises. In that case, attempting to anticipate relative benefits and harms is akin to using a wooden ruler to measure the spatial position and diameter of a tornado.

Dr. Steele writes: But also, doesn’t it matter against whom A is running?  If candidate B is worse, much worse, on all three issues, should not the voter choose A over B, regardless of whether the net outcome from A is positive?  (I would think so.) Alternatively suppose instead candidate B drops out of the race to be replaced by C, and C is superior on all three issues.  Shouldn’t that lead our voter to reverse himself and support C?

I respond: The problem with choosing A over B in a situation where both bring about incremental evils is that this concedes the premise that it is sometimes acceptable for a person to actively participate in an incremental evil, if the alternative is perceived to be even more evil. This is precisely the attitude that, when shared by sufficiently large numbers of people, allows politicians to commit evil in the first place, by creating a false dichotomy in the eyes of the people between a moderate amount of increased evil and a more significant amount of increased evil. My view is that one should compare not two hypothetical futures, but any proposed future and the status quo. If a given proposed future is a marginal improvement over the status quo, then one should support it, despite possible imperfections. However, if the status quo is superior to both of the two “mainstream” proposed futures, then one should refrain from supporting either and seek a third way. The people who vote for third parties are attempting to voice support for such a third way. The people who refuse to vote at all are, implicitly, preferring the status quo over either major candidate’s vision of the future. Either of these non-mainstream approaches is preferable to actively embracing a future that is worse than the status quo.

Dr. Steele writes: In our one voter example, suppose candidate A will take the nation slowly towards a totalitarian state, and B will take it very rapidly.  Would it not be preferable to choose A over B, to buy time for countervailing processes to act? All of these examples suggest – at least to me – that a voter might reasonably and morally vote for a candidate who will minimize damage to liberty, even if the voter has only reasonable expectation of this.”

I respond: I do have some sympathy with this argument, as – especially in a time of rapid technological advancement – enabling innovation to occur more freely for even a few years can make a tremendous difference to how free people are in practice. However, in practice, I do not see the two parties as taking us to totalitarianism at different rates. Rather, I see them as taking us toward marginally different flavors of totalitarianism at the same galloping pace. The Republican totalitarianism is more theocratic, militaristic for purposes of “national glory,” and focused on corporate cronyism toward “traditional” industries (including large financial firms). The Democratic totalitarianism is more politically correct, militaristic for purposes of “humanitarian” intervention, and focused on corporate cronyism toward “alternative” or “emerging” industries (as well as large financial firms). Both forms of totalitarianism entail extreme violations of civil liberties, though the Republican form is likely to be more targeted toward minority groups of whom many among the Republican base disapprove, while the Democratic form is likely to attempt to inconvenience and burden everybody in an egalitarian manner. Both forms of totalitarianism are fundamentally hostile to meritocracy, the enrichment of young people through economic opportunity, and small-scale technologically based institutions rising in a competitive market to replace the politically connected “legacy” institutions. Most significantly with regard to the opportunity for countervailing forces to emerge, the elites of both the Republican and Democratic parties are hostile to Internet freedom and willing to side with totalitarian guilds, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to support draconian infringements on indivduals’ use of the Internet. They only subside or backtrack in their support when confronted with massive public outrage.

In this unfortunate situation of competing totalitarianisms, a valid defense of a divided government might be made. If enough friction can be introduced between the two wings of the elite, then neither wing may be able to fulfill its totalitarian vision. In some respects, this is a reason why the march to totalitarianism was slowed somewhat after the election of a Republican House of Representatives in 2010, creating a disconnect with the Democratic Senate and the Obama administration. It has certainly been more difficult for federal legislation of any sort (including the destructive sort) to be enacted in 2011-2012 than in 2009-2010.

Dr. Steele writes [regarding my strategic argument of sending a credible signal of refusing to play along with the establishment]: Maybe so.  I certainly hope so.  But note that this is a strategic argument and quite different from the argument about a voter’s moral responsibility.  I find the moral argument to be unhelpful in this discussion.”

I respond: I see the two arguments as at least somewhat interrelated, in that a voter’s perception of his moral responsibility may constrain and shape his practical choices in terms of strategy. For instance, if a person is held captive by a totalitarian regime – does he choose to appease his captors or to escape? If he believes that he has a moral responsibility not to give into his captors, then he will be more likely to plan an escape and to succeed. In the same way, it is more likely for Americans to escape the two-party trap if they believe that they have a moral responsibility to do so and set up their strategies for doing so accordingly. While the moral and strategic arguments are technically separate, embracing one may aid in the efficacy of implementing the other.

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Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee? – Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 2 – Article by Charles N. Steele

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The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 17, 2012
Recommend this page.
******************************

In his article “Is Mitt Romney Truly a ‘Lesser Evil’?”, Gennady Stolyarov took issue with my contention that a Mitt Romney victory is preferable to another term for Barack Obama from a classical liberal standpoint.  In Part 1 I responded to Mr. Stolyarov’s arguments concerning the moral responsibility one might bear in supporting a bad candidate over a much worse candidate, a “lesser evil.”  Here I make a case that Romney and Obama certainly are not Tweedledum and Tweedledee: Mitt Romney is indeed a lesser evil compared with Barack Obama from a libertarian/classical liberal perspective.

I must emphasize at the outset that I am not arguing one should vote for Mr. Romney.  I am making a case that Romney is the lesser of the two major party evils, not that one must support him.  If in one’s judgment an abstention or perhaps a vote for another candidate, such as Gary Johnson, does more for liberty, then one should act accordingly.

However, I also think that our current political situation is quite precarious; if we confine our vision to the federal government and its policies, America is in an unusually dangerous position today, quite unlike anything I ever expected to see in my lifetime.  If current trends continue, I think there’s some not insignificant chance that the First and Second Amendments could soon have “dead letter” status – formally in effect but no longer valid nor enforced – and that the probability of this is much higher with a continuation of the Obama presidency.  I also think that America is on track for a fiscal and economic disaster unprecedented in modern history, and that the Romney-Ryan ticket is at least marginally superior to Obama-Biden in this regard.

I’ll address four areas in which I believe there are fundamental differences between Romney and Obama: 1. general vision, 2. health-care reform, 3. appointments to the Supreme Court, and 4. economic and fiscal issues.  I’ll close with a few qualifications that temper my argument.

1. General Vision:  This presidential election is not so much a choice between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama as it is between two competing visions of the role of government.  Romney and Obama are both very poor standard bearers for this conflict of visions currently underway, but one would have to be oblivious to American politics of the past twelve years to miss the significance of this election.  There is, for a change, a real ideological difference.  On the one hand, there’s the progressive view that supposes the state is the fount from which all good things and all social advance flow (“You didn’t build that.”), and on the other, there’s the view that government is limited by the rights of the individual, and that most of civilization is built by free people acting in the market.

The progressive vision sees government intervention as the solution to every imaginable problem.  This was perhaps best stated recently in a Washington Post op-ed by E.J. Dionne.  There is no question that Obama and the Democratic Party represent the progressive-left view.  If they are sometimes loathe to admit it, it is simply because it is currently bad politics to do so – the Tea Party backlash was more than they’d bargained for.

Pitted against progressivism is the view that government must be restricted to certain limited functions.  American conservatives, for all their many and various flaws, do tend to understand this.  American voters outside the progressive/left camp certainly do, as the Tea Party arose out of anger over big government: government bailouts, exploding government debt, the general expansion of government in health care.  It was Ronald Reagan who observed that the “heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”  Whether one agrees or not, it is certainly true that conservatives are far more skeptical of government than are progressives.  Currently the Republican Party is the party of skepticism about government.

It would be a simple thing to expose the many cases of Republican hypocrisy on these issues – I often do so myself.  But let me ask this question – which party – Democrat or Republican – is more likely to propose legislation containing more and more interventions, programs, entitlements, and social engineering?  If the reader is genuinely uncertain (I doubt most are), read the respective platforms of the parties (here for Democrat  and here for Republican). The first platform contains proposal upon proposal for expanding the role of government; the latter refers repeatedly to specifics about restricting overweening government.  No one is bound by a platform, but the platforms do give the vision, and these visions are fundamentally different.

Does this matter?  For an example, consider how the two parties have responded to the Citizens United decision.  Republicans have applauded it on free speech grounds.  Conversely, Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic legislators have introduced in Congress a constitutional amendment, the “People’s Rights Amendment,” that would effectively eliminate the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and press.  As George Will put it in Washington Post, “By proposing his amendment, McGovern helpfully illuminates the lengths to which some liberals want to go. So when next you hear histrionic warnings about tea party or other conservative ‘extremism,’ try to think of anything on the right comparable to McGovern’s proposed vandalism of the Bill of Rights.”  (Or, I might add, try to find anything in the Democrats’ platform even mentioning any threat to free speech from our government.  It certainly contains nothing even vaguely rivaling the Republican denunciation of speech codes, Fairness Doctrine, McCain-Feingold, and other restrictions of free speech.)

As another example, consider the right of the individual to keep and bear arms, and the protection of it by Second Amendment.  Republicans are supportive of this, while Democrats generally oppose it.  The Republican platform specifically defends the inherent individual right to keep and bear arms, applauds Heller, and explicitly opposes new gun controls, including the “Assault Weapons Ban.”  The Democrats relegate the right to “an American tradition” and imply it is created by the Second Amendment.  They then call for new gun controls and further restrictions on ownership.  If the Democrats should, at some point, manage to gain control of both houses of Congress and pass a new, more draconian “Assault Weapons Ban” or legislation to “close the gun show loophole” [i] as they promise, who is more likely to veto it – Romney or Obama?  For that matter, we already know that Obama has sought gun controls under the table by supporting U.N. negotiations for a treaty that would regulate and restrict private firearm ownership.  President Obama is more hostile to our rights to arms ownership and to self defense than any other president in history.  Romney’s record in Massachusetts was poor; he signed a state version of the AWB.  But unlike Obama, he has not argued in favor of banning all private ownership of handguns, all private ownership of semi-automatic weapons, civilian concealed carry permits, and outlawing self-defense.  As his base is generally very strongly opposed to an AWB, it is hard to believe he would betray them on this hot-button issue.

Again, it’s not that the Republicans are libertarian – they are far from it.  It is rather that the Democratic Party has gone so far to the left that they are the greater threat to liberty.  They would willingly destroy both the First and Second Amendments.  They’ve sponsored legislation to do it.  Without these two amendments it’s hard to see what checks at all we’d have on government.  It is the Democrats’ progressive vision that is the greater threat to liberty currently.  Romney might be a weak reed, but he’s at least on the side that opposes this progressive vision, and a President Romney would be beholden to his more conservative, anti-big government constituency.

2. Health-Care Reform:  Here’s a good application of my above argument.  The PPACA (a.k.a. Obamacare) is a terribly flawed approach to health-care reform.  It reduces, rather than increases, consumer choice.  It increases, rather than reduces, government interference in the health-care sector.  It will prove to be fiscally irresponsible and is likely to reduce the quality of health care.  If the Republicans manage to hold both houses of Congress, they will almost certainly repeal it.  (The Senate can do so even with a bare majority if Republicans are willing to end the filibuster, something legal scholars across the political spectrum have suggested is reasonable.)  A President Obama would surely veto a repeal.  A President Romney would sign it.

This would likely be the only chance we will have to get rid of this bad legislation, for the longer it stays in place, the more firmly it will be entrenched, with more special interests defending it.  On the other hand, if Republicans fail to repeal the bill, Romney would be far more likely to temper and slow the implementation of PPACA than Obama would.

Mr. Stolyarov has suggested Mitt Romney would veto a repeal because of similarities between the PPACA and the Massachusetts reform, but this makes little sense for two reasons.  First, the PPACA is much hated by the Republican base (for that matter the majority of Americans dislike it).  A repeal would be extremely popular.  It’s simply incredible to think that a President Romney would defy his party and practically 100% of his supporters in order to save Barack Obama’s hallmark program.  I can’t imagine anything else he could do that would make him more likely to lose the GOP nomination in 2016.

Second, it’s not clear that Romneycare and Obamacare really are the same thing, despite a similar basic framework.  The Massachusetts bill signed by Romney was different from that which was implemented.  Romney used his line item veto on a number of the more draconian parts of the bill.  The Democratic legislature overrode these vetoes, and the bill was implemented by a Democratic governor who further altered it.  Furthermore, at the time Romney signed the bill, the situation in Massachusetts insurance markets was far worse than perhaps anywhere else in the United States.  In this context, Romneycare – at least Romney’s version of it – was arguably an improvement over the status quo in Massachusetts.  Thus when Romney argues that the reform might have been right for Massachusetts but not for America in general, he’s not necessarily being disingenuous.  In short, it’s hard to believe that Romney is not key to any chance of repealing the PPACA and not superior to Obama on health-care reform.

3. Supreme Court Appointments: The next president will likely make as many as three appointments to the Supreme Court.  Whoever is president in the next four years will very likely have the chance to change fundamentally the makeup of the Supreme Court.  This might be the single most important reason for preferring Romney to Obama.

Obama and his party are closely associated with the new “democratic constitutionalism” movement in legal theory.  This movement seeks to “take back” the Constitution from “conservatives” and make it once again a “living” document, i.e. one without fixed meaning, permitting progressive politicians and judges to interpret it however they wish to favor their political agendas.  One common doctrine in this thinking is that the distinction between negative rights and “positive” rights is essentially meaningless, and one person’s “right” (to health care, housing, and whatnot) creates a similar obligation on others to provide it.  It’s unclear to me what sort of society would result from consistent application of this doctrine that replaces genuine rights with entitlements, but it would not be a free society, nor would it have a functioning economy.

Conversely, there’s also been a new interest in federalism in legal thought (it’s to this that the democratic constitutionalists are reacting) which favors strict Constitutional interpretation, separation of powers, strict limits on governmental powers, and the idea that individual rights are imprescriptable, rather than gifts from the state.  The movement has both conservative and libertarian aspects, and is in many respects libertarian.  Needless to say, Republicans are more closely associated with this movement than are Democrats.

If Obama selects nominees for the Supreme Court, it is likely that we’ll have justices who are in line with “democratic constitutionalism,” and with the notion that our Constititutional rights should not be considered “absolute” sense, but rather subject to international norms.  Romney is unlikely to draw from this crowd, and far more likely to draw from judges with at least some sympathy for the new federalism.

Ilya Somin of Volokh Conspiracy is worth quoting at length on this issue: “Republican judges are far from uniformly good on libertarian issues. But the Democratic ones are overwhelmingly bad. Moreover, cases such as Kelo and the individual mandate decision have sensitized conservatives to the importance of appointing judges committed to federalism and property rights. That reduces the chance that future GOP nominees will waffle on these issues, as some past ones have.”

“[Also] the younger generation of conservative jurists and legal scholars have been significantly influenced by libertarian thought on many issues. This is far less true of their liberal equivalents. Whether you choose to blame liberals for this situation or libertarians, it’s a crucial point. Other things equal, a party’s judicial nominees tend to reflect the dominant schools of thought among its legal elites.”

On this issue, it’s simply absurd to imagine that Obama and Romney are equal from a libertarian standpoint.  They are not.  Obama is far, far worse.

4. Economic and Fiscal Issues: On economic issues, neither Romney nor Obama is very good from a free market perspective.  But they are not equally bad.  Obama has a much stronger preference for activist regulation, including environmental regulations, health care regulations, labor regulations, and financial regulation.  Obama also is more likely to favor targeted subsidies to special interests – green energy for example.  Conversely, Romney is more likely to rein in regulatory agencies such as EPA, and less likely to favor extensive regulation.  Mr. Stolyarov suggests that Romney is anti-entrepreneur in practice, but it is small entrepreneurs who are most hurt by regulation.  Large established firms have teams of lawyers and accountants and frequently can benefit from gaming the rules; in practice, Obama is a greater threat to entrepreneurship.

On fiscal issues, I think Romney is at least marginally better than Obama.  Neither has any real plan to actually reduce spending.  But Romney and Ryan have been willing to put forward the idea that entitlement programs as they exist are unsustainable and must be radically restructured.  Obama assures us this won’t happen.  Yet it will.  Our entitlement programs are unsustainable and will be cut – it is simply a matter of whether we plan to make these cuts now, rationally, in such a way as to minimize economic disruption, or whether we wait until economic crisis forces the cuts, resulting in economic shock and great disruption.  On this matter I give a slight edge to Romney… although if Obama is reelected and then begins following a more “Republicanlike” path, it would not shock me – the unsustainability of entitlements is not in dispute, except in campaign rhetoric.

On taxation, the fiscal crisis will almost certainly lead anyone in office to seek more revenues.  Obama has stated a clear preference for increases in marginal rates on higher income earners, higher corporate taxes, and an increasing number of tax breaks, this last for purposes of social engineering (a.k.a. buying votes).  Romney has endorsed a reduction in marginal rates and a broadening on the base by eliminating deductions and exemptions.  The latter approach reduces the economic distortions of taxation and also returns it to the purpose of collecting revenue, rather than shaping citizens’ behavior to match politicians’ goals.  Again, Romney is preferable to Obama on this issue.  I fear it might already be too late for the United States to avert a sovereign debt crisis, and the record of politicians from both parties of fiscal responsibility is dismal.  But the approach Romney has laid out it preferable to Obama’s.

So there it is.  I am not a fan of Romney, nor of the Republican Party in general.  But after looking at these four areas, I think it’s clear that Romney is certainly the lesser of two evils compared to another four years of Barack Obama.  It should also be clear why I think the current political situation is dangerous.  Eight years of Bush ’43 followed by four years of Obama have empowered the federal government and put us well on the road to an authoritarian “soft despotism.”  If current political trends are not checked by some countering force, the near and medium future look rather bleak.  If a Romney victory would simply slow the trend and thus buy time for countering forces to take effect, that would make Romney the lesser of two evils.  With either candidate, the immediate political future will be a mess at best, but the mess will be much worse with Obama.

I’ll close with three caveats.  First, unless one votes in a swing district in a swing state, none of this matters anyway since one’s vote does not matter.  Second, it’s been observed that sometimes a politician from political party A finds it easier to pursue party B’s platform than politicians from party B do, because he faces little opposition from within his own party when he does.  Perhaps a second-term Obama will do the opposite of what I suggest above.  I have little reason to believe he would, but cannot rule it out.  The same might occur with Romney, although I suspect his interest in a second term precludes this.  Finally, Mr. Stolyarov notes that a vote for Gary Johnson “could be seen as a social statement, rather than a purely electoral one,” and signal increasing support for libertarian ideas.  In Part 1 I suggested that perhaps there is some merit in Mr. Stolyarov’s “strategic argument,” that voting for a third-party candidate who proves to be a spoiler might send a message to political parties; his “social statement” argument further strengthens this case.  (It is not clear, by the way, whose voters Gary Johnson “steals;” I know one erstwhile Obama supporter who is voting for Johnson as the only anti-war candidate.  I understand some polls suggest this phenomenon may cost Obama Nevada.)  Particularly given the shameful way the GOP treated Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, and its more libertarian members, it certainly deserves a comeuppance.  However, this seems to me an issue separate from whether Mitt Romney is the lesser evil.

I could say more, but this is sufficient.  I thank Mr. Stolyarov for the opportunity to make my case, and look forward to his responses.


[i] In fact, there is no such thing as a “gun show loophole.”  Firearms sales at gun shows are covered by the identical laws that cover sales elsewhere, including background checks for dealer sales.  “Closing the loophole” is progressive-speak for making it illegal for citizens to buy, sell, or otherwise trade firearms with each other; only federally licensed gun dealers would have this right.

Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics.  He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States.  He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.

Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.

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The Vital Importance of Property in Land: Part 2 – An Analysis of the Georgist Land-Value Tax – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 16, 2012
Recommend this page.
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In this second installment of my short series on land and property rights (see my first installment here), I begin to respond to “We Can Have It All: The Beauty of Value Capture” by Edward Miller. In particular, I focus on the idea of the single tax on the value of land, as originated by Henry George. Mr. Miller, a contemporary representative of the Georgist position, states that “We can eliminate taxes and debt, poverty and special privilege. Contrary to the dour pronouncements from the curators of the dismal science, we can have it all.” Mr. Miller advocates doing this by advocating the elimination of “no-strings-attached sovereignty” over land and replacing it with what he calls “Value Capture” and which many others would call a land-value tax. Mr. Miller states that this “is a tax only in the sense that Pigovian ‘Taxes’ are. It is not a tax on production, and thus there is nothing objectionable about it from the perspective of classical liberalism. Indeed, I’d argue that without it, classical liberalism is a cruel joke. Value capture is simply a reconceptualization of who owns the value of the access rights over the Earth.” In this installment, I will focus on the Pigovian/Georgist land-value tax idea in particular. In subsequent installments, I will address what I consider to be a more desirable approach to land in a free-market, classically liberal manner that seeks to facilitate economic growth and the continual improvement of living standards.

I am not a supporter of a land-value tax (however it may be termed) or of Pigovian taxation in general. The idea of a Pigovian tax (however called) seems to me rather contrived, in that it assumes a perfect knowledge on the part of the taxing authority of not just which activities create negative externalities, but also the precise extent to which a particular instance of such activities creates those externalities – and, correspondingly, the precise extent of taxation needed to take the “social cost” of these activities into account. The economic distortions of taxation, relative to a tax-free free-market situation, cannot be avoided in practice, no matter what form the tax takes – though, admittedly, it can be said that some types of taxes produce greater distortions or different kinds of distortions than others. Furthermore, the idea of a Pigovian tax is unworkable in practice, because political incentives and the influence of special-interest pressure groups would surely distort the incidence of the tax to benefit those with lobbying clout. In other words, even if the exact “social cost” of every activity could be calculated, the influence of lobbyists on elected officials would result in the incidence of the tax departing from a proper reflection of that “social cost.”

The elimination of all other possible taxes would be a definite advantage of the Georgist system, though – in practice – attempts to introduce a new type of tax have seldom supplanted existing taxes but have merely resulted in yet another kind of tax alongside all others. In fact, in the United States today, we might consider the current system of property taxation to be a partially Georgist system – but the property taxes are paid alongside income, sales, excise, gift, estate, fuel, and numerous other taxes – not to mention a myriad of fees to fund specific government services.

However, let us assume that it is politically feasible to enact a single land-value tax that supplants all other taxes. Perhaps an added advantage of this simplified approach would be the reduction in the overall cost of administering tax determination and collection – which the most benevolent conceivable government would entirely pass on to the people in the form of a lower tax rate. Even in this ideal situation, why might a land-value tax still be less favorable than other possible taxes?

Consider that certain kinds of taxes can be avoided by a property-owning individual entirely. He only needs to pay an income tax if he earns taxable income. He only needs to pay a sales tax if he purchases taxable goods. He can avoid gift taxes by not giving gifts (beyond the tax-exempt amounts). If he has enough money saved up to live on, grows/produces all of his own goods, and keeps his property largely to himself, he can avoid all such taxes in theory (even though, in practice, he would admittedly be part of a small minority of the population). The similarity among these taxes (no matter their other flaws, of which there are many) is that they do not reduce current wealth kept for personal use. Property taxes are different in that they are able to actually diminish a person’s stock of wealth without that person undertaking any positive action. As long as a person owns a house, or a commercial building, or even a stretch of land for recreational use, he cannot avoid the diminution of his wealth through taxation solely due to the passage of time. An income tax only reduces one’s potential earning opportunities. A sales tax only reduces one’s potential purchasing power if one chooses to make purchases. A property tax, however, reduces one’s existing stock of wealth, no matter what one chooses to do. Thus, with all other things (including the total tax collected) being equal, a property tax is more adverse to an individual because it compels him to engage in positive actions in order to maintain his present wealth, rather than merely discouraging the individual from undertaking certain additional activities that might be taxed to a greater extent than he might prefer.

A Georgist land-value tax is different from the current American property tax in that it taxes the land only and not the manmade improvements on that land. In this respect, the land-value tax is superior. It would probably encourage significant vertical building by landowners/occupants in order to increase the amount of improvements per unit of land. However, it would also probably result in large stretches of land being unoccupied and unused, because there would be a sub-optimal level of interest in developing that land, as the owners/occupants would be responsible for paying tax. This may make the unfortunate phenomenon of urban congestion common even in less populated areas.

Furthermore, one can conceive of a supremely sub-optimal outcome of the single land-value tax, which would be the result of a perverse incentive indeed. This is the scenario where most individuals decide that it is not worth the trouble to own land (or partially own it or “rent” it from the community – however this might be described legally). Instead, large landholding corporations would emerge and purchase most or all of the land. Their owners (probably a lot of dispersed shareholders beholden to an entrenched management and thereby subject to numerous principal-agent problems) would be willing to absorb the costs of the land-value tax in exchange for collecting rents from everyone else who lives and works on that land. Many ordinary people might think that they are getting a good deal by avoiding all legal incidence of taxation – but in reality, the amount of rent they would pay to the landholding corporations would be higher to reflect the taxes those corporations have to pay. In other words, the cost of the land-value tax would be at least partially passed on to the renters/majority of people in the community by the landholding corporations. Economically, this is identical to the scenario that the Georgist proposal seeks to avoid – the situation where (whether or not this is indeed the case) it is alleged that most of people are beholden to a minority of landowners or lienholders by means of payment of rent or repayment of expensive mortgages.

One significant downside of this scenario, relative to the status quo, is that the possibility of “free and clear” ownership of property would be more definitively off-limits to everybody – even in theory. Another even greater concern is that the landholding corporations would essentially behave like supercharged homeowners’ associations – with even more power to micromanage people’s lives and impose arbitrary restraints on the use of personal property and the improvement of land. They would be able to conduct this abuse with impunity, because there would be fewer of them in any given geographical area, compared to today’s homeowners’ associations. This would give the landholding corporations the oligopoly (and sometimes monopoly) power that enables many similar entities to disregard consumer preferences and extract large amounts of unearned money.

The reality is that the market always seeks to correct for economic distortions that are the result of confiscatory or redistributive policies. The correction is always imperfect, because real wealth is in fact appropriated through taxation. However, changing the tax structure cannot, by itself, solve the whole distortion – without addressing how much wealth is kept by private citizens and what they are legally able to do with that wealth. There may, however, be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if this inherently results in a lower total proportion of tax collected, relative to the wealth that exists among the general population. This, of course, depends on the real rates of tax selected for each alternative under consideration. For instance, I would wholeheartedly support (as an unambiguous directional improvement relative to the status quo) a single land-value tax whose entire collections would be a mere 0.5% of the Gross Domestic Product. Irrespective of any concerns about the incentive effects of the tax, those would be dwarfed by the sheer amount of wealth that individuals would be able to keep compared to today’s tax regime. In this situation, though, I would still strongly prefer that the legal concept of full ownership of land be retained and that the land-value tax be administered similarly to today’s property taxes – as opposed to treating the occupant of the land as a “tenant” who owes a “rent” to “the community.”

There may also be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if doing so results in more wealth-generating behavior and increased productivity. However, I cannot find a system that allows for the diminution of current wealth through taxation to be more encouraging of productivity than a system that merely takes a share of future active production or consumption. If one cannot be guaranteed the peaceful and total enjoyment of the wealth one has already earned, then earning more seems less attractive from a psychological (in addition to a purely economic) perspective. Productivity is simply not as enjoyable if one views it as a chore to be done in order to remain in one’s present situation and prevent a decline – rather than an ambitious endeavor of self-improvement and possible enrichment.

Next, I will address how land might properly be approached from a libertarian/classical liberal standpoint, with beneficial practical consequences to most and the avoidance of effects that might stifle economic growth or decrease individual opportunities.

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The Vital Importance of Property in Land: Part 1 – Arguments for Land as Property – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 14, 2012
Recommend this page.
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In this small series on land and private property, I hope to counter the claims of Henry George and his contemporary followers, who generally support a libertarian view with respect to all property except land – which they do not consider to be legitimate property. I, on the contrary, see the ability to own property in land (based on a true Lockean understanding of “mixing one’s labor” with rightfully owned land, or legitimately acquiring it from those who did) as indispensable to the existence of other property rights – as well as, more generally, to the expression of human individuality and the improvement of the human condition.

Why is property in land essential for the exercise of all other property rights? In this first installment, I provide six arguments.

Argument 1: Use of Personal Property: If there is no property in land, one cannot be guaranteed the ability to set one’s personal property in any location for its use and enjoyment. This means, ultimately, the use and enjoyment of one’s personal property is always at the discretion – and with the permission – of whichever governing authority or collective decision-making would supplant the right of private property in land. This is not liberty; the best that it can be is a kind of benign neglect from the persons or committees who have the power to dispose of the land and what is on it.

Argument 2: Complete Ownership: If there is no property in land, then there is never an ability – even in theory – to enjoy the use of land “free and clear” – without paying some sort of rent or “usage fee” to someone. Ignoring property taxes (whose absence is wholly conceivable and would be tremendously beneficial – even if other types of taxes are kept in place), it is possible today for people to pay off any mortgages and liens on their property and to enjoy it outright, without fear of losing the property if they do not pay a continuous stream of money to a third party.  The greatest value of private property comes about precisely when the ownership of that property is absolute – not contingent upon future services or payments rendered to other people.

Argument 3: Opportunity to Choose Leisure or Work: If there is no property in land, and one must continuously and inescapably pay a stream of money to a third party in order to avoid losing the property, then this means that one must continuously earn a sizable income to support that stream of payments. The ability to lead a life of leisure (after having made adequate provision for one’s other needs) is forever closed off to most people (unless they are beneficiaries of trust funds or a fortuitous investment strategy). Whatever the relative merits of work versus leisure might be in any particular situation, a libertarian would hold that the choice to pursue either (or any combination of each) should be up to the individual. Restrictive institutions should not permanently foreclose individuals (in multiple senses of that word) from pursuing one of these alternatives or the other. My own ambition, for instance, is to pay off the mortgage on my house while I am still relatively young. I would continue to engage in paid employment (and hopefully earn decent money) for many decades thereafter, but a lot of the economic pressure would be removed by getting rid of the largest recurring expense, and the same amount of earnings could achieve a much higher standard of living in other respects.

 Argument 4: Incentives for Improvement: If there is no property in land, then there is little incentive (other than sheer benevolence) for the occupant to improve the land by the addition of permanent fixtures, for someone else (or “the community at large”) would capture the values of the improvements, while the occupant would spend his personal resources on the improvements. This is the classic case of a “positive externality” not being realized – or, alternatively, a “tragedy of the commons” situation arising from the community laying claim to a resource that becomes over-exploited and insufficiently maintained. If one wishes for private residential lots to begin to resemble the public roads of a large city in appearance, then doing away with land ownership is an excellent means to that dubious goal.

Argument 5: Individuality: Only through the exercise of the right of private property can a person truly actualize his individual aspirations and distinctive esthetic. True private property enables an individual to act within his own realm as he pleases, as long as he does not infringe on the identical prerogatives of all others with their property. Only private property in land can give an individual the unfettered ability to paint a house with the colors and patterns of one’s choice, to determine the surrounding landscaping, to select the appliances and amenities therein, and to decorate it (which is a right that should not be undervalued, lest we lose it in the age of draconian busybody “homeowners’ associations”). An individual who owns land can truly turn the land and the improvements on it into reflections of himself, rather than just another barren, drab, or cookie-cutter plot (though any of those are within his prerogative as well, if he wishes to be unimaginative). True innovators are always in the minority and always unconventional. If they do not have a sphere where they can act unfettered, then many of their creations may never come to be.

Argument 6: Owned Land versus Land in the State of Nature: While I do not support arbitrary claims of ownership to undeveloped land, I do hold to the Lockean view that a person comes to own land by mixing his labor with it as the first occupant – and only to the extent that he does so. Locke himself argued that a person’s legitimate claim to land extends only to whatever land this person (or others acting on his behalf, through the voluntary exchange or offering of their services) was able to transform with his labor and put to use. Any other (undeveloped) land remains in the state of nature, free for others to claim. This is why Locke opposed arbitrary claims of the King of England to all of the prime forests of that country as the King’s “hunting grounds”. Likewise, one might question whether a Lockean view of property rights would allow national governments today to lay claim to vast undeveloped territories and to preclude development thereon (or sell “development rights” or “resource rights” to those territories). A fully libertarian system of property law would recognize the right of the first occupant and user of a property to be its owner, but only with respect to the land which is truly inextricably involved with such occupancy or use – i.e., land that has been improved and transformed. This is a consistent and universalizable standard for legitimate ownership, and it is a standard that follows directly from the desire to use and transform objects in nature for the improvement of human well-being. Such improvement and transformation are precisely what differentiates owned land from land in the state of nature. Owned land is much more usable and often dedicated to specific purposes, whereas land in the state of nature remains to be adapted to human needs. In practice, the two would look quite different and would enable natural demarcations of private land holdings.

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Rejecting the Purveyors of Pull: The Lessons of “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Business, Culture, Fiction, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 13, 2012
Recommend this page.
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Atlas Shrugged: Part II is a worthy successor to last year’s Part I, and I am hopeful for its commercial success so that John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow will be able to release a full trilogy and achieve the decades-long dream of bringing the entire story of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to the movie screen. The film is enjoyable and well-paced, and it highlights important lessons for the discerning viewer. The film’s release in the month preceding the US Presidential elections, however, may give some the wrong impression: that either of the two major parties can offer anything close to a Randian alternative to the status quo. Those viewers who are also thinkers, however, will see that the film’s logical implication is that both of these false “alternatives” – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – should be rejected decisively.

While the cast has been replaced entirely, I find the acting to have been an improvement over Part I, with the actors portraying their respective characters with more believability and emotional engagement. Samantha Mathis, in the role of Dagny Taggart, showed clearly the distress of a competent woman who is ultimately unable to keep the world from falling apart. Esai Morales aptly portrayed Francisco d’Anconia’s passion for ideas and his charisma. Jason Beghe also performed well as Hank Rearden – the embattled man of integrity struggling to hold on to his business and creations to the last.

The film emphasizes strongly the distinction between earned success – success through merit and creation – and “success” gained by means of pull. The scene in which two trains collide in the Taggart Tunnel is particularly illustrative in this respect. Kip Chalmers, the politician on his way to a pro-nationalization stump speech, attempts to get the train moving through angry phone calls to “the right people,” thinking that all will be well if he just pulls the proper strings. But the laws of reality – of physics, chemistry, and economics – are unyielding to the mere say-so of the powerful, and the mystique of pull collapses on top of the passengers.

As the world falls apart, the film depicts protesters demanding their “fair share,” holding up signs reminiscent of the “Occupy” movement of 2011 – “We are the 99.98%” is a clear allusion. Yet once the draconian Directive 10-289 is implemented, the protests turn in the other direction, away from the freedom-stifling, creativity-crushing regimentation. Perhaps the protesters are not the same people as those who called for their “fair share”  – but the film suggests that the people should be careful about the policies they ask for at the ballot box, lest they be sorely disappointed upon getting them. This caution should apply especially to those who think that Barack Obama’s administration parallels the falling-apart of the world in Atlas Shrugged – and that Mitt Romney’s election would somehow “save” America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is any character in Atlas Shrugged who most resembles Mitt Romney, it is not John Galt. Rather, it is James Taggart – the businessman of pull – the sleek charlatan who will take any position, support any policy, speak any lines in order to advance his influence and power. Patrick Fabian conveyed the essence of James Taggart well – a man who succeeds based on image and not on substance, a man who has a certain polished charisma and an ability to pull the strings of politics – for a while. James Taggart is the essence of the corporatist businessman, a creature who thrives on special political privileges and barriers to entry placed in front of more capable competitors. He can buy elections and political offices – and he can, for a while, delude people by creating a magic pseudo-reality with his words. But words cannot suspend the laws of logic or economics. Ultimately the forces of intellectual and moral decay unleashed by corporatist maneuvering inexorably push the world into a condition that even the purveyors of pull would have preferred to avoid. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, the consequences of economic interventionism are often undesirable even from the standpoint of those who advocated the interventions in the first place. James Taggart is ultimately pushed into accepting Directive 10-289, though his initial plans were much more modest – mostly, a desire to hang onto leadership in the railroad business despite his obvious lack of qualifications for the position. Mitt Romney, by advocating James Taggart’s exact sort of crony corporatism, may well usher in a similar overarching totalitarianism – not because he supports it now (in the sense that Mitt Romney can be said to support anything), but because totalitarianism will be the logical outcome of his policies.

Because, in some respects, Ayn Rand wrote during a gentler time with respect to civil liberties, and the film endeavors to consistently reflect Rand’s emphasis on economic regimentation, there is little focus on the kinds of draconian civil-liberties violations that Americans face today. The real-world version of Directive 10-289 is not a single innovation-stopping decree, but an agglomeration of routine humiliations and outright exercises of violence. The groping and virtual strip-searching by the Transportation Security Administration, the War on Drugs and its accompanying no-knock raids, the paranoid surveillance apparatus of large-scale wiretaps and data interception, and the looming threat of controls over the Internet and indefinite detention without charge – these perils are as damaging as an overarching economic central plan, and they are with us today. While not even the most socialistic or fascistic politicians today would issue a ban on all new technology or a comprehensive freeze of prices and wages, they certainly can and will try to humiliate and physically threaten millions of completely peaceful, innocent Americans who try to innovate and earn an honest living. Obama’s administration has engaged in this sort of mass demoralization ever since the foiled “underwear” bomb plot during Christmas 2009 – but Romney would do more of the same, and perhaps worse. Unlike Obama, who must contend with the pro-civil-liberties wing of his constituency, Romney’s attempts to violate personal freedoms will only be cheered on by the militaristic, jingoistic, security-obsessed faction that is increasingly coming to control the discourse of the Republican Party. There can be no hope for freedom, or for the dignity of an ordinary traveler, employee, or thinker, if Romney is elected.

I encourage the viewers of the film to seriously consider the question, “Who is John Galt?” He is not a Republican. If any man comes close, it is Gary Johnson, a principled libertarian who has shown in practice (not just in rhetoric) his ability and willingness to cut wasteful interventions, balance budgets, and protect civil liberties during two terms as Governor of New Mexico. He staunchly champions personal freedoms, tax reduction, foreign-policy non-interventionism, and a sound currency free of the Federal Reserve system. Gary Johnson was, in fact, a businessman of the Randian ethos – who started as a door-to-door handyman and grew from scratch an enterprise with revenues of $38 million.  And, on top of it all, he is a triathlete and ultramarathon runner who climbed Mount Everest in 2003 – clearly demonstrating a degree of ambition, drive, and pride in achievement worthy of a hero of Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand never meant the strike in Atlas Shrugged to be an actual recommendation for how to address the world’s problems. Rather, the strike was an illustration of what would happen if the world was deprived of its best and brightest – the creators and innovators who, despite all obstacles, pursue the path of merit and achievement rather than pull and artificial privilege. Today, it is necessary for each of us to work to keep the motor of the world going by not allowing the purveyors of pull to gain any additional ground. Voting for Mitt Romney will do just the opposite – as Atlas Shrugged: Part II artfully suggests to the discerning viewer.

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Ending the War on Kidneys – Article by Sanford Ikeda

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The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 13, 2012
Recommend this page.
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The war on drugs can be dated to 1914, although the phrase “war on drugs” was coined in 1972 during the presidency of Richard Nixon.  The war on kidneys began in 1984.

It’s an oft told tale how drug prohibition has led to the promotion of organized crime, skyrocketing violence here and abroad, and a simultaneous increase in potency and decrease in safety.  (See here and here for examples.)  The solution to these perhaps unintended but predictable negative consequences is legalization.  So it is, too, with the sale of organs–kidneys in particular.

Meanwhile in Iran…

Since 1984, under the leadership of Senator Al Gore, the United States government has made it illegal to buy or sell kidneys and in so doing has effectively launched a “war on kidneys.”  Again, the consequences, unintended but predictable, are mostly if not wholly bad.

According to the Human Resources and Services Administration there are currently over 93,000 persons in the United States on the waiting list for a donated kidney.  Another source estimates that the list grows by 3,000 to 4,000 candidates a year.  Between 1988 and 2008 yet another source reports that the number of kidney transplants performed in the United States has ranged from 8,873 (in 1988) to a high of 17,091 (in 2006) for an average of about 13,847 per year.  While that may indicate a dwindling list of candidates, the reality is that the number who die each year still runs into the thousands.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, claims that 18 people die each day waiting for a kidney donor.  That’s 6,570 deaths a year, and though their figure for the waiting list is considerably higher than the HRSA’s, they are in the same ballpark.

Kidney sales are legal in Iran, which offers a mix of private and government financing for kidney transplants.  Not surprisingly, waiting lists there are practically nonexistent (because of a larger supply), and so is the number of people dying while waiting for one.

Moreover, the incidence of black markets and of “medical tourism”—in which relatively wealthy foreigners travel to relatively poor countries to buy local kidneys or have other procedures performed at lower cost than in the United States—would probably fall, much as legalization of alcohol after Prohibition saw the downfall of speakeasies and bathtub booze.

What’s the Downside?

And although some estimate that the cost of a kidney may be as high as $100,000—which would make the total cost of the transplant procedure around $350,000—keep in mind that in addition to the value of the lives saved, the savings from unnecessary kidney dialysis is about $70,000 per person per year.  (See also this article from The Economist.)

Some argue that only the rich would get organs and only the poor would die giving them up.  Existing black markets and medical tourism already reinforce any such tendency by keeping prices high.  Would a free market in organs mean that the relatively poor would supply the relatively rich?  Perhaps.  More generally, would abuses occur?  Yes, they would, just as they do in other aspects of organ transplantation—such as in shabby hospitals or lousy medical care. Nobody suggests banning hospitals or doctors because some hospitals and some doctors occasionally screw up.  The cure lies largely in greater competition, the prerequisite of which is making organ sales legal.

Some are put off by the very idea of a market in kidneys, and many who aren’t might have some reservations about extending the list to other parts of our bodies.  Some of this can be attributed to a socio-ethical resistance to “commoditizing the human body.”  Perhaps this is a valid concern.  Interestingly, there is a legal market for cadavers, so it seems to be OK to pay for bodies but not for organs.

What about other organs or body parts?  The thing about kidneys—or eyes, ears, hands, and feet—is that removing them from our bodies does not entail death or, in the case of kidneys, any significant decline in the quality of life to the donor.  But what about selling something vital such as a heart, which would spell certain death?  That’s a difficult question that we may not have to settle just yet.  Let’s start with kidneys.

The Moral Alternative

I confess to being uncomfortable with the thought of selling off body parts. In the same way, I would never recommend to anyone, including myself, taking cocaine for fun.  But I would stop short of banning cocaine, and my qualms about selling body parts doesn’t keep me from staunchly supporting legalization, especially when a strong case can be made (as in this video by Professor James Stacey Taylor) that banning it would itself be immoral.  Selling body parts for money should be no more illegal than letting people make a living fishing for crabs on the high seas or give up their lives for a cause they believe in.  I may disapprove of a practice that harms the practitioner, but that by itself doesn’t give me the right to stop it, especially if it harms no one else.

Finally, today it’s considered perfectly legal and moral to allow husband A to give up his kidney to his wife B without compensation.  Or, if A’s kidney is not a match for B, it’s okay for A to donate to C, whose husband D could then donate to B.  That is like trading a goat to Jack to get a pile of bricks to trade to Jill for a sack of grain, which is what you wanted for your goat in the first place.  While the Internet and creative websites have made organ bartering of this kind easier than in the past, humans long ago developed another institution that gets the job done much more easily:  buying and selling for money.

Crimalizing activities—whether  drugs, prostitution, or organ sales—typically generates consequences that are usually unintended but, with the aid of some basic economic knowledge, mostly predictable.  After decades and over a trillion dollars spent and countless lives ruined, a summit of Latin-American politicians earlier this year declared that “the war on drugs has failed,” a sentiment echoed around the world.

It’s time that our government ended the war on kidneys, too.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Illiberal Belief #5: Charity Must Be Enforced – Article by Bradley Doucet

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The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
October 13, 2012
Recommend this page.
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Some people feel that charity must be enforced and administered through government welfare programs because private charity would not suffice to meet the needs of the destitute and desperate. If people are not forced to give up half of their salaries to ensure a caring society, then they won’t do it and we will be left with a dog-eat-dog world in which the needy are left to suffer and die in the streets.It is undoubtedly true that very few people would give up anywhere in the neighbourhood of half of their earnings if they were not forced to do so. What is not true is that society as we know it would crumble as a result. Instead, it would flourish. Allowing people to keep more (dare we dream: all?) of their earnings would be a great incentive for people to work harder, because the extra effort would be fully rewarded. On the flipside, knowing that they will not be automatically taken care of is a great incentive for the unemployed who are able but unwilling to work to get off their butts already. As for those recipients of welfare programs who are truly unable to care for themselves, they would be able to rely on the voluntary charity of a society that will be even wealthier than the one we have right now and whose productive members will not feel that they “already gave at the office” to the tune of half of their earnings. There is simply no grounds for believing that the bulk of humanity is so uncaring as to let the truly needy suffer and die when helping them is readily within their reach.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

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Piano Composition #3, Op. 5 (2001) – Video by G. Stolyarov II

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Mr. Stolyarov’s fifth opus, composed in 2001, combines the chords and alternating moods of much of 19th-century Romantic music with the strict meter and rhythm of 18th-century Classical music. It is played in Finale 2011 Software using the Steinway Grand Piano instrument.

Download the MP3 file of this composition here.

See the index of Mr. Stolyarov’s compositions, all available for free download, here.

The artwork is Mr. Stolyarov’s Abstract Orderism Fractal 3, available for download here and here.

Remember to LIKE, FAVORITE, and SHARE this video in order to spread rational high culture to others.

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