The audacity of ego

Mitt Romney has, so far, reportedly spent $35 million on his failing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Just think about it for a moment — $35 million. Inhale deeply, put your pinky finger up to your mouth a la Dr. Evil and say with me: Thirty-five meeeellion dollars!

What else could Romney have done with that money? He could, of course, have plowed it back into his entrepreneurial efforts and made lots of people lots more money — returns four times better than the S&P 500 if the Bain & Co. promotional materials are to be believed.

But apparently he wants to “help” people, not just make them money. Well, with $35 million he could have helped send more than 3,000 low-income children to private school from kindergarten through the 8th grade. The number would actually be higher because the money could be invested and the pot could grow even larger while the kids worked their way through school.

Or, he could have expressed his deep love for the faith of his fathers by giving the dough to the LDS welfare services operation, which assists the victims of disaster all over the globe. Sticking with education, he could have handed the money over to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, on the condition that it go to pay full freight for Mormons from low-income families.

Or, he could have used it to help the National Multiple Sclerosis Society — “the single largest private sponsor of MS research in the world” — fund efforts to find a cure for the disease that his wife Ann has so courageously battled.

Or … whatever. I’m not normally in the habit of telling obscenely rich people how to spend their money, but the truth is that nearly any use of the money would have made more sense, and been more laudable, than the purpose to which it has gone. Not only has Romney wasted $35 million (so far) on a broken political sector that cannot be “transformed” by a single man — yes, even the president — but he has done it in service of ideas that make “garden variety” seem exotic by comparison.

(New Jersey’s Jon Corzine is even guiltier of this offense, spending more than $100 million of his fortune to win a Senate seat and then the governorship. Wow, a liberal Democrat governing New Jersey? There hadn’t been one of those since … the guy who immediately preceded him!)

One could argue that a rich man pouring money into a political candidacy in service of an idea that otherwise won’t get a fair hearing — Steve Forbes pushing a flat tax, Ross Perot stressing fiscal discipline — is doing something to, in an inchoate fashion, nudge the national debate in a different direction. I’m not sure political campaigns are the best way of promoting out-of-the-box ideas, but at least a plausible case could be made.

But the hallmark of Romney’s campaign has been his painfully awkward lurches to grab hold of the most widely shared and worst ideas the Republican Party has to offer — everything from doubling the size of our illegal detention camp in Guantanamo Bay to impeding promising scientific research to building a wall in a vain effort to stop peaceful people from crossing an imaginary line to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Thirty-five million dollars. What an enormous waste of scarce resources, and done in the name of helping people. That amount could supply 2,500 pumps to bring clean drinking water to African children, one of whom dies every 15 seconds from a water-related disease. Instead, Romney spent $35 million to buy TV ads to tell voters why he has recently come to support the National Review’s line on the issues.

No, it is worse than that. Because the truth is that the differences between Romney and McCain are not significant. Both support a war without end in Iraq. Both (now) support building a wall on our border without doing anything to make legal the freely exchanged labor of people without the proper government permission slips. He has steadfastly refused to criticize the spectacularly terrible Dubya & Co. except in superficial, technocratic terms. So, what excuse does Romney have left to explain why he wasted $35 million on politics when it could have been put to manifestly nobler ends?

The answer: ego. Mitt Romney is apparently the kind of man who looks at the $3 trillion federal budget and says, “The only thing wrong with this mess is that someone else is in charge of it.”

The notion that what the country needs is the same old government-centric approach to solving problems but someone just a little bit smarter to implement it is profoundly and tragically misguided, but Romney’s delusions of grandeur are especially laughable given his mediocre record in political office.

After all, the signature achievement of his governorship in Massachusetts is that he helped give a tax, spend (and spend again!), mandate and regulate approach to health care a Republican imprimatur.

Whether Romney’s decision to waste $35 million (so far) on politics is driven more by a disturbing distrust of civil society, a naive faith in the power of government, or a truly alarming and totally unjustified messianism is unclear. I do know this much: He could have bought a lot of magic underwear and hair gel with that money. It would have been money much better spent.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of Angry Blog.)

Google’s new motto

Apparently, it’s “Don’t be evil afraid to use the threat of government prosecution to intimidate the competition.” I guess it replaces their most recent slogan, “Don’t be evil showing Chinese users how their government is censoring the Internet.”

After Microsoft announced its $41 billion offer for Yahoo! in a bid to remain relevant online, Google was quick to send its top lawyer to the blogosphere to man the barricades. And so we get this entreaty for politicians across the globe to please stop Microsoft from grabbing a truly frightening 30 percent share of the search market. Unfortunately, some Congress critters are only too happy to oblige.

Here is Google, which every day is pointing the way toward a Web-based form of computing that could render the operating system obsolete, engaging the same tired Microsoft scaremongering that was demolished 10 years ago.

The Cato Institute’s David Boaz recently lamented Google’s opening a lobby shop in D.C., complaining of “how the government lured Google into the political sector of the economy.” Looks to me like they’re taking to politics like a fish takes to water.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

Rooting interests

The only way for a libertarian who is also a political junkie to get through a presidential campaign is to develop some kind of rooting interest. This usually involves rooting against the most odious person in the race.

The libertarian side of me is constantly making mental calculations about the leading presidential contenders and how their election might affect the perennial struggle between individual liberty and government power. Picking between the Democrat and the Republican on this basis is sort of like trying to choose between a turtle and a snail about who will add the most to your track team. Both will be terribly lousy, so it’s just a matter of degree.

With only minimal policy differences to differentiate the contenders, my political junkie side, the human side, develops very superficial opinions about who I simply won’t be able to stomach watching on my TV for at least the next four years.

Since becoming a libertarian in 1994, these interests have usually coincided. It was easy to root for Dole against Clinton in 1996, as Dole had both the policy and personality advantages going for him.

You’ll recall that Dole, while always a moderate, was proposing major tax reform and was set to work with a GOP Congress which at that point had not completely sold out its limited-government ideals. In fact, they’d just shut down the government in a bruising budget battle with Clinton. Dole’s wicked sense of humor, curmudgeonly personality and constant references to himself in the third person made him easy to like on a personal level.

He certainly was not as smarmy, self-satisfied, duplicitous and odious as Bill Clinton, who was fresh from likening those who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building to Republicans who favored slowing the growth of spending on Medicare. He also had passed an entirely symbolic semiautomatic gun ban, raised taxes, and attempted to have the government “manage competition” in the health insurance industry. By election time, he was running on supporting school uniforms.

In 2000, it was a very tough call. Bush was clearly running away from the ideas of free markets and smaller government, while Gore was running on obnoxious “people vs. the powerful” theme. He was a liberal technocrat’s wet dream, and on the personal level I still held against him his despicable 1996 Democratic convention speech where he used his sister’s lung-cancer death to score political points. His obnoxious debate performances only confirmed how insufferable he would be to have as president for four years.

Bush, with his frequent malapropisms, would make excellent fodder for the late-night comics, I thought. So I gave him the very, very slight edge.

By 2004, Bush had already established himself as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history for self-evident reasons. His awfulness on policy filled me with so much rage that I could hardly generate a chuckle at his occasionally stupid and embarrassing remarks.

Kerry was no prize on personality, and you’ll recall that on the war he argued not that it should be ended but that he could fight it better. I suspected, though, that he would be much more likely to pull out were he elected. And indeed, he’s since come to favor withdrawing from Iraq. More than anything, I hoped a Kerry victory would be seen as a rebuke of the idea of pre-emptive war. In the time since, the course of the war itself has become such a rebuke.

And how about now? Normally, I’d be rooting for a Republican under the assumption that the Democrats will retain Congress and it’s best to aim for divided government and gridlock. But it seems likely the GOP nominee will remain committed to a forever war in Iraq and that the Democrats won’t be able to get a veto-proof majority to stop it. And the war is sort of a binary issue, and one the president will determine. So that means I’ve to root for a Democrat.

Also, I think George Will is right to note that it is almost certain that a Democrat will win the presidency this year:

Today, all the usual indicators are dismal for Republicans. If that broad assertion seems counterintuitive, produce a counterexample. The adverse indicators include: shifts in voters’ identifications with the two parties (Democrats now 50 percent, Republicans 36 percent); the tendency of independents (they favored Democratic candidates by 18 points in 2006); the fact that Democrats hold a majority of congressional seats in states with 303 electoral votes; the Democrats’ strength and the Republicans’ relative weakness in fundraising; the percentage of Americans who think the country is on the “wrong track”; the Republicans’ enthusiasm deficit relative to Democrats’ embrace of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be nominated.

So which one should I root for? Which one should libertarians root for?

First, the policy argument. Barack Obama was right on the war, and I believe he is more likely to follow through with his promise to end it. While Obama’s far from a noninterventionist, he is not the hawk that Hillary’s proven herself to be over time (remember the Kosovo war she got Bill to start as a price for standing by him after the Lewinsky fiasco?).

Both Hillary and Obama are terribly liberal, and both want to dramatically increase government control of health care. But I think that tactically, Hillary may be far preferable on policy. Obama — a magnetic, likeable and fresh face — could very will win a sweeping victory that goes all the way down the ticket, giving Democrats a much larger margin in Congress.

The Republicans are clearly flummoxed about how they could attack him. Their only hope would be a major foreign-policy crisis that they could use to highlight his allegedly slim resume (which is relative, I say; he has more foreign-policy experience than most governors or mayors).

Hillary, on the other hand, is deeply hated by Republicans and not much liked by independents. The trends would still carry her to victory, but it would be a much smaller victory. And once in office, I believe it would be much harder for her to marshal support for the many, many, many grandiose schemes she has in mind. Her mandate will be minimal, compared to the 55% or even better popular vote I think Obama could easily win.

Then again, I cannot stand the woman. Her voice irritates me. Her disdainful attitude toward those who disagree with her is disgusting. She literally cries, “Woe is me.” She shares all of her husband’s flaws and none of his charm. Once she is endowed with the terrible and expansive powers of the modern presidency (for which she’s expressed an alarming fondness), I’m quite sure my hatred for her will grow even stronger.

But, given the likely and frightening alternative of a popular, effective liberal president such as Obama, I guess this grinch may be rooting for Hillary after all.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of Angry Blog.)

“Politicians don’t amount to much. Ideas do.”

Thus spake Ron Paul, in today’s surprisingly fair piece in The New York Times. I don’t agree with Paul about everything, and reporter Christopher Caldwell is certainly right to note that he attracts a lot of nuts.

But if you don’t like nuts, stop being a libertarian now because it’s just part of the package.

I like the guy. Note that whenever Paul is asked about why he’s getting so much attention, he says something along the lines of, “People are interested in the freedom message.” It’s always about the message, not about him.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

The Iraq war was never prudent at any juncture

Randy Barnett’s Wall Street Journal column, “Libertarians and the War,” makes two indisputable points: Ron Paul is not the be-all and end-all of libertarianism, and not every libertarian opposes the Iraq war. At the same time, it lays bare the fantastical chain of logic a libertarian must traverse to come down in favor of this tragic misadventure.

On the first point, Ron Paul is a conservative libertarian of a certain stripe. I think he’s very wrong on immigration, for example. If his recent notoriety had come thanks to his strident opposition to birthright citizenship, I too would probably be writing missives noting that “Ron Paul doesn’t speak for all of us.”

It is a demonstration of how little understood libertarianism is — and how much disagreement there is among libertarians — that we are so concerned that a single figure could forever freeze in amber the public’s perception of what it means to be a libertarian. The truth is that anyone who insists on judging the whole of a political movement by the beliefs and character of one person is probably uninterested in really understanding libertarianism.

Comprehending this movement of ours means appreciating the diversity of viewpoints on even the most apprently black-and-white issues of the day, such as the Iraq war. But then why would we expect anything different? Liberals disagreed about Iraq, and so did conservatives. If it does nothing else, Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” illustrates that libertarians are a motley crew.

So when Barnett asks, “Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war?” the “No” answer should be pretty uncontroversial, in spite of Justin Raimondo’s contention that Barnett is a “fake libertarian.”

Even Jim Henley, in his harsh assessment of Barnett and other pro-war libertarians as, simply, “morons,” never denies them their libertarian credentials. Henley is on the right track, though. Barnett rightly notes in his column that “devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.”

It was clear to most libertarians in 2002 and early 2003 that attacking Iraq was not a prudent form of self-defense and that in fact it was more likely than not to greatly add to the anti-American terrorist problem. Back then, the waters were muddied by baseless assertions that the Hussein regime was actively collaborating with Al Qaeda — really the only grounds on which a prudent libertarian would have jumped aboard the Iraq war express.

Any libertarian worth his salt asked, “Where’s the evidence?” and when it was not provided simply disregarded the argument. Barnett avoids that line, which by now has been so thoroughly debunked that he cannot even give voice to it on the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page. Instead he opts for the Iraq-the-model line. OK, so it’s a theory. I’ll give it that much. I don’t believe it is inherently inconsistent with libertarianism.

But that theory asks libertarians to ignore or discount the certain dangers of war — greater government spending, the deaths of soldiers and innocent civilians, blowback from at least a solid minority of the country — in exchange for the slim possibility that an invasion will yield a peaceful liberal democracy and reliable ally.

Real dollars paid by real taxpayers go to fund these wars. Real soldiers die. Real innocents are massacred. There’s no such thing as a free war, and you’ve to meet an incredibly high threshold before committing to the prospect. Elective war is a speculative act, and libertarians are not usually in the habit of supporting massive and deadly government programs for no better reason than … Gee willickers, they just might work!

The point is not that Iraq was bound to fail spectacularly, but that like any war it was a crap shoot and very well could blow up in our faces. And so it has — literally and figuratively. And why do that — why take that risk — for no damn good reason?

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

Mother of exiles

It’s estimated that about one-tenth of Iraq’s population has fled that most dangerous place on Earth since the United States & Co. liberated it in 2003. In the last seven months, The Wall Street Journal reports, the U.S. has admitted 69 Iraqi refugees.

Since 2003, the U.S. hasn’t even come close to admitting 1,000 Iraqi refugees in a single year. Why such pitifully low numbers, given that the U.S. helped unleash Iraq’s bloody civil war?

The refugee wave is tricky for an administration eager to portray the recent troop “surge” as a boost to improving security and curbing the sectarian killings in Iraq. There’s also genuine concern that encouraging large-scale flight from Iraq will compound the coutnry’s many challenges, by luring its most talented citizens to the U.S.

Uh-huh. Well, this is no surprise. So it has ever been. The asylum program has played second fiddle to the politicians’ foreign-policy whims since time out of mind. What’s especially galling is this notion that talented Iraqi individuals ought to be, for all intents and purposes, sacrificed for the hypothetical good of Iraq as a whole.

Wasn’t that the kind of idiotic dogma Dubya & Co. were hoping to dethrone in their quixotic, tragically misguided effort to socially re-engineer the entire Middle East?

Dubya is likely to sign a refugee bill that will increase to 500 a year the number Afghan and Iraq military translators allowed to come to America. A Democratic-sponsored bill to welcome a measly 15,000 Iraqis a year hasn’t even been scheduled for a vote. Not only are the Democrats unwilling to stand up to Dubya on the war itself, they won’t even vote on a bill to do a small favor for just a few of the people whose lives their own votes helped to make a living nightmare.

Hawks are fond of arguing that regardless of one’s prospective position on the war, since the U.S. government invaded Iraq it took on a moral obligation to help the country transition into a place resembling something other than the eighth circle of hell. I’d say we’ve already given them plenty of opportunities, including repeated elections that were largely free and fair, to determine their own course. Whatever obligation the U.S. took on has been discharged, in my view, especially given that two-thirds of Iraqis want American troops out.

But if there is some kind of moral obligation incumbent on the U.S. today, doesn’t it include opening its doors to at least a few of the huddled masses yearning to breathe this country’s free and peaceful air?

Or should they have to sneak in through Mexico?

(Title reference explained; also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)


Bryan Caplan writes that Tyler Cowen’s Cato essay, which I addressed earlier, may be the worst advice ever given to libertarians. To wit:

But what about Tyler’s argument that prosperity and the growth of government are a “package deal”? Again, it’s hard to make sense of this. There’s got to be more to being a “package deal” than the fact that two things both happened. …

With statist preferences, more wealth brings more government. How is that a reason to quit arguing against statist preferences? You could just as easily tell an atheist that more wealth brings more religion — and he’d naturally respond, “It wouldn’t if people knew the truth — and I aim to tell them.”

I wonder, by the way, whether Cowen would accept Michael Tanner’s list of Dubya’s contributions to the welfare state as part of the package deal that libertarians ought to just get over.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

Faulty packaging

Tyler Cowen is a brilliant, brilliant man and one of contemporary libertarianism’s brightest lights. His scholarly and bloggerly contributions are far above my poor powers to add or detract. Which is why it comes as a surprise that his mini-essay contribution to the Cato Unbound discussion of Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” is shockingly, embarassingly bad.

I can only imagine that the giant holes with which he so generously littered his contribution were left unplugged due to the enforced brevity of the Cato Unbound format. Cowen begins by correctly noting the movement of policies in a more libertarian direction (lower inflation, less confiscatory tax rates) and the death — or at least persistent vegetative state — of many of our bete noires (Marxism, central planning) in the last 30 years.

Then, bizarrely, he unfurls the so-called “libertarian paradox”:

Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.

I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

The old formulas were “big government is bad” and “liberty is good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — “liberty is good” — is the more important. And the older story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by “advances in liberty bring bigger government.”

Libertarians aren’t used to reacting to that second story, because it goes against the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into our brains. That’s why libertarianism is in an intellectual crisis today. The major libertarian response to modernity is simply to wish that the package deal we face isn’t a package deal. But it is, and that is why libertarians are becoming intellectually less important compared to, say, the 1970s or 1980s. So much of libertarianism has become a series of complaints about voter ignorance, or against the motives of special interest groups. The complaints are largely true, but many of the battles are losing ones. No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

The germ of a decent idea — or at least a position that could be cogently defended — is buried in here somewhere, but Cowen goes off the rails pretty quickly. Yes, it is true that greater wealth is usually accompanied by greater welfare spending but it must not necessarily be so. (And it is more accurate to say that government growth is accompanied by … the spinning of the globe. Always and everywhere government has grown; it is the rare exception when the friends of liberty succeed in rolling it back a little bit.) Even if we concede that some form of welfare statism is appropriate, if we accept it as part of the “package,” left undetermined is the contours of that welfare state.

There is a difference between government growth in the sense that we pay more each year for certain programs in order to keep up with inflation and, say, expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs (price tag: $1.2 trillion). There is a meaningful, important distinction to be drawn between limited, state-run welfare programs for the sick and the poor and the who-needs-means-testing-and-long-term-fiscal-sustainability-anyway federal behemoth we have today. What should we accept as part of the package, exactly?

What difference would it make to the economic growth rate if we could cut government spending by half, and taxes by half? (This is not to mention the boosting effect of a libertarian program of deregulation and tax simplification.) What if our growth rate were reliably 7% or 8% instead of 3% or 4%, thanks to those changes?

There is a pretty direct correlation there between “big government is bad” and “liberty is good” — that smaller government and a faster-growing economy means more money in the hands of individuals would surely add to the “positive sense of greater life opportunities.” Otherwise, why not just be France?

Furthermore, there were certainly a heck of a lot of folks back in the ’70s who — before stagflation, Reagan and Greenspan proved them wrong — thought that “modernity” indeed meant super high tax rates and wasteful stimulus spending and price controls and all the rest. Why wasn’t that part of the package? Why weren’t those losing battles?

A time of crisis caused by big government policies came, and libertarian ideas helped ease that crisis and the make the world a better place. Cowen argues that the next crises are not likely to break down along such neat libertarian lines: global warming, natural disasters and contagious diseases, and nuclear proliferation. He may be right, and he certainly has a case in arguing that those are the kinds of issues that governments are uniquely suited to addressing and that libertarians ought to take them up with vigor and with an ideological blank slate. (That said, his Russian roulette argument on global warming is beyond facile. See this excellent Glen Whitman post to learn why.)

But while those are issues may some day hurt us in a big way, we know that a huge welfare state, oppressive regulation, a godforsaken tax system, failing government schools and an irredeemably stupid drug war are hurting us right now. (Oh, yeah, and Iraq.)

Moreover, the next crisis most likely will be the impending bankruptcies of Medicare (2019) and Social Security (midcentury at the latest). If we libertarians follow Cowen’s suggested course on the welfare state — like it or lump it, suckers — we could again wind up with confiscatory tax rates in order pay for dwindling benefit packages that will leave the poor destitute in old age and with inadequate health care. The most devastating effect of all will be on economic growth — you remember, that force that always seems to drive welfare spending.

Cowen is aware of all of this, I know. I will assume he was just being a little too glib in his essay. Not much else could explain it.

(Originally posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

Put on a grin and start right in

Brian Doherty’s 741-page “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” was a long time coming, but it is well worth the wait. Doherty says the idea was first suggested to him by Chris Whitten — founder of the much-mourned Free-Market.Net — back in the early 1990s. The decade-plus Doherty took to research and write the book was well spent, because it not only brings to life the visionaries, oddballs and enigmas who built this country’s libertarian movement but it unearths material that is likely to surprise even the old hands. Doherty’s years in the archives at the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Institute for Humane Studies and more did not go to waste. The footnotes alone — almost 100 pages — are nearly worth the book’s purchase price!

After a somewhat perfunctory chapter summing up the precursors to America’s modern freedom movement — Jefferson to Nock, more or less — Doherty dives right in with Mises and Hayek as the first two of the five giants he views as having molded 20th-century libertarianism. The other three — Rand, Rothbard and Friedman — come as no surprise and yet Doherty’s decision to frame the book this way was an excellent narrative decision. He drops storylines as appropriate — there’s that 14-year gap between “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” for example — and picks them up later without so much as a hiccup.

A boatload of other characters come shining through in Doherty’s telling. There’s Leonard Read’s mystic free-marketeering, Robert Lefevre’s peculiar pacifist libertarianism, David Koch’s enigmatic philanthropy, and Karl Hess’s back-to-the-woodshed leave-me-the-hell-aloneism. There is so much more, and Doherty covers it all with grace, color, and evenhandedness. We know Doherty writes for Reason magazine, for example, and not Backwoods Home Magazine, yet he doesn’t obviously pick a dog in the various internecine battles he chronicles.

Nonetheless, he seems to take the most delight in chronicling Murray Rothbard’s never-ending search for a purist cadre of believers who won’t sell out to the allure of mere Friedmanism, all the while searching for a larger political movement through which he could smuggle his brand of anarcho-capitalism.

The book is imperfect, as by nature it must be. Jeff Riggenbach spots a few minor errors at this extensive personal take in Rational Review and says Lefevre is the one person who doesn’t get a fair shake. I, for one, hope future editions include photos of the major players and a corrected index.

“Radicals for Capitalism” is a great read for libertarians, though I’m a little mystified by who else would enjoy reading it. I don’t know enough to say whether political scientists, anthropologists or whomever would find this useful as a study of fringe 20th-century American political movements. But for libertarians, it is not only a fascinating peek into our past but a chin scratcher too.

Doherty bookends his tale with Dubya’s early 2005 push to inject some choice into the Social Security system. To start the book, it’s a sign of how far the libertarian movement has come. Our idea to remake and perhaps eventually remove the New Deal’s tragic legacy was getting a prime-time sales job from a newly re-elected president. How far we had come from the dark days of the Depression when anybody who cared about freedom corresponded with every other person who thought the same. These men and women were out of place and out of time. To close the book, the dismal failure of Dubya’s push — whatever its cause — is a heartening lesson (as if we needed one) of how much farther we have to go.

Still, today, we are looking for a place. We are no longer comfortable with the increasingly theocratic, war-mad, anti-immigrant, big-government right yet uneasy and unwelcome with a left that hikes the minimum wage at first blush and whose leading presidential candidate’s biggest accomplishment by libertarian lights is that she succeeded peerlessly at making the idea of nationalized health care a political dead end.

Doherty ends with a quote from Rothbard, who says libertarians “should remain of good cheer” because “history is on our side.” I am not so optimistic as that, though it is obvious that we ought to take a long view of things if only because the short-term view is too depressing. Each of us American libertarians is lucky to be where we are, when we are. We stand on the shoulders of giants, Doherty’s fine history makes plain. And we have so much work left to do. We might as well whistle while we work.

(Originally posted at Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

The Friedman biodoc stunk

Thanks to work, I wasn’t able to make it over to the memorial service held in honor of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago yesterday. So I was really looking forward to watching “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman” on PBS last night. The program started off with a tedious examination of life in post-Soviet Estonia that had the peculiar virtue of being almost entirely Milton-free, and it never got much better.

Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this picture, but I wanted to see old film of Friedman at his feisty best testifying in Congress, being interviewed on TV and lecturing around the world. I wanted to hear other economists talk about the impact Friedman’s scholarship had on their thinking, how it shaped economic policy, and how certain ideas such as ending drug prohibition or breaking up the government education monopoly seem to have hit roadblocks. There was very, very little of that. Instead, there was an overlong segment about the Chilean wine industry.

The filmmakers clearly were trying to ape the success of the “Free to Choose” series by illustrating Friedman’s impact in different areas of the world, but without Friedman there as our enthusiastic guide these segments came off looking like they were produced by the local chambers of commerce.

Moreover, the actual discussion of Friedman’s ideas was so spare that I defy anyone whose only knowledge of them was this documentary to tell me (1) what monetary theory is and (2) why untrammeled inflation is so dangerous to economic growth and human liberty.

On the personal level, there were a lot of interesting facets that were left unexplored. What impact did Milton’s poverty-stricken, son-of-immigrants childhood have on his worldview? How was he able to form such strong working relationships with women, both his wife Rose and Anna Schwartz, during an era of rampant sexism? How did Friedman balance the dual roles of economic scholar and advocate for freedom? How was he able to maintain such a friendly disposition toward his intellecutal opponents while advocating radical views?

The only Friedman book I’ve read is “Capitalism and Freedom,” so it’s not as though I’m an expert on his work and so bound to be disappointed by a TV documentary. The filmmakers had a whole hour and a half to cover this material, and they fell down on the job plain and simple. A real disappointment.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)

Yes, we were all wrong … but you were wronger!

Megan McArdle writes that even though she and her fellow hawks were “100% wrong” about the likely consequences of the elective U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, she won’t engage in the ritual self-flagellation that “doves” demand because as wrong as she was about what a success it would be, the anti-warriors were just as wrong about how it would fail.

That may not actually be true, as Julian Sanchez and his commenters point out. Let’s take me, for example. I’m a dim bulb in the libertarian/noninterventionist/anti-Iraq war firmament, but back in April 2002 I rehearsed what seemed to me at that time to be pretty straightforward, common arguments about why spreading the war on terror to Iraq was unnecessary and unwise (i.e., wrong and stupid).

But, as Marge Simpson says, no one likes a gloater. Now is not the time for folks who opposed the Iraq war to brag that they were right about how things went awry in this paricular foreign adventure, but for those who supported it to reflect on how things can go disastrously awry in any foreign adventure. And, given that, avoid adventurism at all costs! Once upon a time, this quaint notion was known as conservatism.

My crystal ball was cloudy, too, by the way. What I feared most was not a quagmire in Iraq, but the triumph of “an overarching ideology of American messianism which is inherently dangerous to American liberty.” So, I was wrong about that. The idea that pre-emptive war is a sensible foreign policy — Dubya’s fluffy talk about Iran and Syria aside — is dead.

The thing about elective wars is that they’re all good and dandy until you screw one up. Unfortunately, we got an administration so incompetent that it struck out with just one swing of the bat [sorry for the baseball analogy, Tim].

(Cross-posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)