Jefferson's democracy

Franklin Jefferson's thoughts on the world

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Liberty and economics

Here is some of my input, from a recent discussion on alt.politics.economics; where I'm trying to define some of the basics of the libertarian argument. Since a lot of people don't understand the libertarian argument, I think it's worth going through it. The discussion here was initially a response to a comment that "the libertarian ideology of a small government is wrong."

There is a difference between "less government" and "no government". Right now, I'd like a little less. Going to the extreme of no government at all is an opinion some libertarians have, but not all. The government rightly has the functions of preserving the people's rights, including life and liberty, and that part shouldn't be diminished.

[replying to "If you take away to much power from government that power it is going to be hijacked by other entities.... power is like gravity. The biggest object attracts the smaller one and becomes bigger...]:

Repression by any other name is still repression.
This is a strong argument for keeping power diffuse, and trying to make sure nobody gains too much of it. That is, giving liberty to everybody, instead of concentrating it.

Or, to quote Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men"

The heart of libertarian ideology is not greed; it's liberty. The theory is that people are the best judges of what they want, and what's good for them, and they should be given freedom to pursue it. The astonishing observation of Adam Smith was that, when you give people liberty, what they tend to do is create wealth; not just for themselves, but for everybody around them.

Moral codes are good. An important point, though, is that people don't become more moral when they act in large collective groups; in fact, I think that there could be a fair argument that large groups become less moral.

If you argue that libertarianism-- which is to say, giving people choice-- will destroy overall wealth due to selfishness, I argue that the loaded word "selfishness" shows the bias of your argument. The hidden assumption here is that when people are given freedom, they will use their freedom to be selfish. I don't necessarily agree with this assumption. People want different things; people will do different things.

Even if you take the position that people will be selfish, again, I will argue that they don't become any less selfish in large groups. If you give people the collective power to take money away from somebody and give it to themselves, they will tend to do it and think of it as being utterly right and fair-- even when, on their own, they'd never think about robbing their neighbor. And then other interest groups go in and say, hey, if these people are getting free money, we deserve free money too! Then, of course, you have to add the fact that, since you're assuming that people in general act selfishly, the people elected to government themselves will be acting selfishly.

So I will argue that you may in fact see less selfish behavior if you give people freedom, and that giving governments more power increases, not decreases, the overall selfish behavior. If people act "selfishly," and that's bad, why in the world would you advocate giving these people a coercive government that they can use as a tool to enhance their "selfish" wealth?

(Even so, the word "selfish" is a loaded term. Does "selfish" mean "I have the knowledge and power to make decisions for myself; I can decide what I want myself, and I'm not qualified to make decisions for other people?" If so, why is this bad?)

You may argue that too little regulation by government allows corporation to go wild, but here we more often have the opposite problem; government regulation is used by corporations to cheat and steal in ways that, if people were free, they wouldn't accept. We have the situation where corporations use the power of governments to create and enforce monopolies, to keep competitors out of business, to vote subsidies to keep them in business despite selling shoddy goods at too-high prices, and to put up trade barriers with the dual effect of raising prices in one place, and keeping people in another place from raising themselves out of poverty.

Adam Smith wrote a lot of things; he was not a one-note demagogue. The main question he asked was, why are some nations wealthy and others poor, and his main answer was, when people are allowed to profit from their labor, and decide what to do and what not to do, this creates wealth. His primary goal was what we could call a liberal one: how do we reduce poverty?

I suppose that the solution of government regulation may, on rare occasions, actually work to the benefit of consumers, but far more often it works the opposite way. Governments don't have an invisible tap to goodness and truth. Letting the consumers have free choice and pick what they think benefits them is a much better solution in the long run. The government "solution" can be far worse than the problem.

A claim was made that "in most cases" people don't use choice wisely. This is the kind of thinking that gives me chills. You're saying other people don't use their freedom wisely, so it's better to take it away from them and have somebody wiser (who? You?) decide things for them.

The argument was made that we've become a nation with lots of "antisocial" people. Some are, some aren't. I'd rather give freedom to all the people, paying the price of also giving freedom to the "antisocial" people, rather than take freedom away from everybody in the foolish belief that if people are antisocial that somehow it's better if their decisions are made collectively.

In extreme emergencies-- lifeboats, wars, natural disasters-- people often accept being organized into authoritarian power structures to deal with the emergency. I don't accept that this is the best paradigm for non-emergency situations, and I am very wary of the fact that politicians always somehow find or create an emergency as an excuse to take away people's freedom.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Current reading

Current reading:
America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy
by Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama is one of the architects of the neoconservative movement; this is his analysis and critique of the Iraq war (an expansion of his article of the same title in the conservative journal National Interest.

The view from abroad: a German interview with Fukuyama (odd that there don't seem to be American interviews on the web...):,1518,407315,00.html

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nowhere to go

At this point, if anybody's reading this, I expect people are saying, ok, another garden variety Bush-basher; why doesn't he join the Democratic party?

The problem is that disliking Mr. Bush hasn't meant that I like the liberal policies any better, and Ted Kennedy is still a stupid, bloated buffoon. My opinions and beliefs really haven't changed; it is the Republicans that seem to be repudiating everything that conservatism really means. The movement of the Republicans away from libertarian principles and toward "big government conservatism" (which is an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) has really left me with nowhere to go, and I resent it. I resent the fact that conservatism has been hijacked, and that politicians talk about defending liberty while taking our freedom away and putting the machinery of dictatorship in place.

I'm not about to turn into a liberal. I want my country back.

Improving Education

I neglected to mention education.

Is the federal government really the right place to reform our schools? Education needs to be done at the local level-- right at the level of homes and families-- and not by big-government mandate. The "no child left behind" laws, stripped of rhetoric, consist of nothing except new government-mandated standardized tests-- another unfunded mandate from Washington that our states and cities have to pay for. Teaching children how to do well on standardized tests-- is what we want to teach our children? When did conservatism start believing that the government in Washington is the right place to run our schools?

Franklin, Jefferson, and many of the Founding Fathers understood the importance of education as a cornerstone of democracy.

I agree with them. The part I disagree with is that education should be run by Washington, and that making federal-government testing mandatory (but not giving states any money to pay for it) helps education.

If you want to improve education, improve the American family. Education starts with the family.

Mr. Bush claims his "no child left behind" action helps education-- I can't see that it does a single thing to help education, but it removes money from schools (it costs more than the tax money allocated to pay for it), makes children take time away from actually getting educated to take the new mandated tests (didn't they already have enough standardized tests?), and adds even *more* layers of federal paperwork to the educational system. Mr. Bush has harmed the education system in the US, and then brags about how he's reformed education. When the federal paperwork requirement reaches the level of eight hours of time spent doing paperwork per teacher per day, I expect people may begin to think that federal government shouldn't be running schools.

Monday, March 20, 2006

George W. Bush is not a Conservative

It is a very simple fact, but nobody seems to have noticed it. George W. Bush is not a conservative.

When you ignore his talk, and looking at what he has actually done, you see that over and over again, George W. Bush has betrayed every ideal that the conservative movement has.

The heart and soul of the conservative thinking is fiscal conservatism: the government should be responsible for how it spends money. The conservative economic view has always been very simple: balance the budget, and quit deficit spending. That idea somehow went out the window when George W. Bush was elected (in fact, suddenly we are even hearing how deficit spending is somehow good for the nation.) What happened to the "lock box," where George Bush said he would put the budget surplus to save it for social security? The instant he got elected, he seems to have forgotten his promise.

The fact is, George W. Bush has run up a record budget deficit-- the largest deficit in history. And, before you say that terrorism and the response to the 9/11 atrocity is the source of the unexpected budget deficit-- look at the data. Only a small portion of the Bush deficit can be tagged to the 9/11 terrorists. Bragging about "cutting" taxes while actually increasing government spending at the same time isn't really a tax cut; it's just increasing the tax next year. America is about our children, and leaving our children and grandchildren in debt is not what we mean by "family values."

The heart of America is our business. Americans aren't afraid to work... but where are the jobs? A conservative president should be a pro-business president, but in fact rather than helping business, American businesses are going out of business; and the ones that are staying in business are shipping jobs oversees. No matter what Mr. Bush's advisors may think, ramping up the deficit is not helping the economy.

Mr. Bush says that education is his priority. This is excellent, but is the federal government really the right place to reform our schools? Education needs to be done at the local level-- right at the level of homes and families-- and not by big-government mandate. The "no child left behind" laws, stripped of rhetoric, consist of nothing except new government-mandated standardized tests-- another unfunded mandate from Washington that our states and cities have to pay for. Teaching children how to do well on standardized tests-- is what we want to teach our children? When did conservatism start believing that the government in Washington is the right place to run our schools?

The conservative world view is that the era of Big Government is over. Ronald Reagan knew that, and for that matter, so did President George H. W. Bush. But the younger Bush just hasn't gotten the message.

Iraq. It goes without saying that America needs to be strong, and that we should use every means of defending ourselves against those who detest our freedom and despise our way of life. Destroying the Taliban, the stronghold of the Al Qaida terrorists, was necessary and unavoidable; it was required for the defense of America. But invading Iraq? Long ago, John Quincy Adams wrote, "Wherever the standard of freedom shall be unfurled, there will [America's] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." It doesn't matter how loathsome a dictator Saddam Hussein was; America should go to war only with great reluctance, and as a matter of last resort. America isn't in the business of nation building.

Once, even George W. Bush understood that. During a debate with then-Vice-President Al Gore in 2000, Mr. Bush said: "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building . . .. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have a kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not." Apparently to Mr. Bush, it depends on what the meaning of "absolutely not" is.

And fear of terrorism is no reason to erode our liberty.

Conservative leader Pat Buchanan said, "It is remarkable how complacent Americans seem to be, as our freedoms are gradually restricted, and more and more power and wealth flow to Big Government to protect us from terrorists." Do we really need the 342-page Patriot Act, to protect us from terrorism by giving the government more rights? Has we finally become a place where American citizens can be picked up and held without lawyer and without charges, indefinitely? It is worth quoting Benjamin Franklin: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security. " When did we decide that we prefer our security to our liberty?

Mr. Bush is that, quite frankly, he is not merely destroying the credibility of the Republican party, he is damaging the credibility of conservativm, period. Is Bush really the person who we want the world to view as the public image of conservatism? For the last twenty years, Ronald Reagan has been the image of conservatism in American. Do we want George W. Bush to be the intellect who will shape conservatism for the next twenty years? Conservatism could have survived a term of Mr. Kerry as president-- it may even have made us stronger and more focussed. But will conservatism survive another term of Mr. Bush?

Bush, a wolf in sheep's clothing, is eroding our economy, our liberty, and the very standing of our nation in the world. His words say that he is a conservative. His actions, on the other hand, say exactly the opposite.

Recommended reading:
Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency, by Pat Buchanan
War without end:
The Case against Empire:
The war party

Confessions of an ex-

A while back, I would have described myself as being a conservative and a libertarian, but over the last few years, I've become more than a bit disillusioned. I'm still in favor of freedom, but I'm at the point where when I hear a politician say the words "liberty" or "freedom," I hold on to my wallet, and wonder about what part of my freedom they're planning on taking away next.

I thought I'd start a blog, to log some of my opinions. I'll start by re-publishing some of my old usenet posts, some of which date back to 2004.