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Monday, August 14, 2017

In Defense of Liberty

The articles on this blog are about the economic problems in Wyoming, and what we can do to solve those problems. With a large and steadily growing readership, I am thrilled to be part of this very important conversation.

At the same time, I also realize that my articles from time to time get technical and - yes - a bit boring, precisely thanks to their technical content. Those articles are necessary, because they address economic and legislative issues that are often overlooked, ignored or left to the "nerds". I believe that everyone should be part of the conversation about those issues, simply because everyone who votes and pays taxes needs to understand the conditions under which our economic problems have come about, and how we can solve them.

The only problem with these technical articles is that they sometimes distract from the "bigger picture". It is easy to get lost in the minutia of personal-income growth, property-tax millings, the percentage of jobs gained or lost in a given county, et cetera. Sometimes it is important to take a step back and discuss the principles behind the fight to save Wyoming and restore prosperity to our great state.

Therefore, let me take a step back today and make that case. Let me explain why our fight for liberty and prosperity in Wyoming is so important.

I apologize in advance for the length of this article, but it is necessary to communicate the point I want to make.

For anyone doubting the compelling economic arguments for limiting government here in Wyoming, I kindly refer to the 180-article strong articles archive (and, of course, to coming articles). Assuming, for the moment, that we all agree on those arguments, the argument over limited government is an argument over principles. Those principles, in turn, fall into two major categories: liberty and egalitarianism.

The egalitarian argument regarding the role of government is, unsurprisingly, the argument that government should re-engineer the society and the economy that we all create, maintain and evolve through our daily lives. At the heart of egalitarianism is the argument that no two people shall differ in terms of outcomes in life; it is the role of government to eradicate differences in outcomes between individuals, especially but not exclusively economic differences.

The liberty argument starts from the point that life is sacrosanct, and that this sacrosanctity extends from the individual's physical person to his actions and his accomplishments. To take a simple example, if a man catches a fish, the full proceeds of his work - the fish - is as inviolably his as his very life. Nobody can take the fish, now his property, from him anymore than they can take his life.

This argument is often criticized for being antithetical to equality. It is not - it is indeed an argument for equality, namely equality in opportunity. Everyone is free to try to catch a fish, and if they do, they own it by means of the same unabridged property right.

Liberty and egalitarianism are separated by an unbreakable demarcation line. You cannot pursue egalitarianism without replacing the intrinsic value of liberty with a conditional value; for the sake of reasoning, let us call it utility.

Egalitarianism, claiming that everyone should be equal in outcomes, not in opportunity, requires the redistribution of income or consumption between citizens, from those who have high incomes and consumption levels to those with little income and low consumption. Since this means the forceful removal of property - income or wealth - from one group of people, and the giving of that property to another group who have not acquired it according to the principles of liberty, it is logically impossible to unify egalitarianism with liberty. Instead, the protection of property is demoted to utilitarian status, where redistribution from "rich" to "poor" takes place based on - yes - utilitarian calculations. If the poor are better off by a larger margin than the rich are worse off, then redistribution has utilitarian merit. If redistribution has utilitarian merit, then government's protection of property is terminated for that portion of property which is calculated to produce a net increase in utility. 

In addition to the loss of intrinsic liberty, the implementation of egalitarianism means that someone has to create a system for utility calculations. That system, in turn, has to be in the hands of government: by legislation, government estimates how much utility "rich" people experience from their property, and how much utility "poor" people will experience from receiving the same property. 

That utility-calculating legislation is not just a theory - it exists already, in the form of our tax code and our entitlement programs. It is the instrument by which egalitarianism demotes property rights and the incentives system of the free market to conditional status; redistribution and the pursuit of economic equality are elevated to intrinsic status. 

Today's Wyoming politics exhibits strong character traits of the removal of liberty and the adoption of utility in its place. So long as the legislature spends more time trying to raise taxes than roll back the size of government, it is by default pursuing egalitarianism over the restoration of liberty.

Once we have made the transition from holding liberty as an intrinsic value to giving that status to egalitarianism, we have also removed all principled obstacles in the way of the pursuit of absolute egalitarianism, namely the society where there are no economic differences between individuals. As I explain in my upcoming book The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America, over time any other form of egalitarianism than the absolute version fall to the wayside. As a result of the removal of intrinsic liberty as the protector of property, any pursuit of egalitarianism becomes the pursuit of absolute egalitarianism.

Unfortunately, there is limited if any understanding of this process among America's conservatives and classical liberals, also known as libertarians. I could give numerous examples of how conservative and libertarian institutions have given in to egalitarianism, accepted its premise and rescinded their defense of liberty as an intrinsic value. In order to not make this article longer than it needs to be, I refer those interested in this particular issue to my recently published paper on paid family leave.

I will, however, make one exception. In an August 9 article, Brink Lindsey, Vice President and Director of the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center* tries to make the case that libertarians and conservatives should embrace the welfare state and, so to speak, get on with the program. Lindsey's arguments put words on sentiments and opinions that are widely shared in circles of self-proclaimed conservatives, a fact that makes it worth the while to examine his reasoning in the context of the disjunction between egalitarianism and liberty. Explains Lindsey:
Opposition to the welfare state has been a defining element of libertarian thought—and one that in recent decades has had an enormous influence on the American conservative movement. The notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers is regularly voiced, not just by libertarian activists, but by Republican congressmen and Fox News commentators.
 With this rhetoric as a backdrop, let us note that the Niskanen center sells itself as a libertarian outfit. On the "about" page on its website, the center explains that its "focus on policy change complements the work of existing libertarian organizations". In other words, it adds to, not contradicts or counter-argues, what other libertarian institutions do. By its own definition, it is, plainly, a libertarian organization.

Since libertarianism gives liberty intrinsic value, the paragraph that opened Brink Lindsey's article directly contradicts his employer's claimed libertarian value base.

Anyway. Back to Lindsey's article, which is a rhetorical Oktoberfest in egalitarian discernment:
For radical libertarians who believe that only a minimal state or outright anarchy is consistent with our natural rights to property, the matter could not be simpler: taxing rich Peter to pay poor Paul is theft, full stop. Few conservatives go this far. Most [conservatives] grudgingly recognize a government role in helping the poor and insuring against various hazards of life. Nevertheless, small-government, libertarian-leaning conservatives regularly argue that the welfare state has grown out of control and is in bad need of serious pruning. Indeed, this is the position more than any other that adds the modifiers “small-government” and “libertarian-leaning” to conservatives of the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus stripe.
 This is bombastic nonsense, yet so typical for progressives, liberals and others who have fallen for the lure of economic redistribution. If resistance to the welfare state is as widespread as Brink Lindsey suggests, then how come the federal government has never repealed a single entitlement program without replacing it with another, at least as costly and expansive? How come, after eight years, Republicans in Congress feel emboldened enough to keep Obmacare, apparently free of fear of voter reactions?

Lindsey's point about "outright anarchy" is also straight out of the leftist playbook. A minimal-state society is well ordered for two reasons:

a) people want order and predictability of the future - it is good for business; if Lindsey needs literature on this, I have a mile-long list of academic references I can share with him;
b) government still exists even if it does not engage in economic redistribution; law enforcement and an independent judiciary provide protection of life, liberty and property.

The fact that someone has to point this out to Brink Lindsey tells me that he and the Niskanen Center have drifted deep into egalitarian waters. 

Back to Lindsey's essay in appreciation of the welfare state:
I believe that, in the world we live in, a robust welfare state is a necessary element of a healthy free society. Contrary to usual libertarian assumptions, I see overwhelming evidence that government social programs greatly improve outcomes in key dimensions of human welfare.
Lindsey is welcome to present that evidence. He does not provide a single reference to defend his viewpoint. I, on the other hand, do not have to go farther than to my own research: the welfare state is slowly but inevitably grinding the economies of the Western world to a halt. We are approaching the end of prosperity, and we are doing so in the name of the egalitarian ideology that slowly but relentlessly works its way into the deepest caverns of libertarian and conservative intellects.

Then comes this left hook from Lindsey:
I see no reason to think that there is any invisible hand that could guide the voluntary nonprofit sector toward matching or improving on the government’s record. I therefore conclude that a purist libertarian program of severely reducing or completely zeroing out the welfare state would result in disastrous increases in human suffering.
Brink Lindsey makes exactly the same kind of argument that we hear from welfare statists here in Wyoming: if we cut government, we will leave a chasm in its place, into which everyone dependent on government will fall and suffer as if swallowed by a Sarlacc

This is, of course, nonsense. In two recent articles I have explained and exemplified the principles of a structural reduction in government. It is really not that hard to grasp this concept; if Brink Lindsey needs a deeper study, he can buy a copy of my book Ending the Welfare State: A Path to Limited Government That Won't Leave the Poor Behind. Please note the bold section of the book title.

Then comes the egalitarian home run:
The brute fact that confronts libertarians and their conservative sympathizers is that most of what modern government does is highly popular. Americans are, to employ the usual formulation, “philosophically conservative and operationally liberal.” In other words, while majorities will tell pollsters in general terms that the government is too big and does too many things, when it comes to specifics they typically say government should do more of just about everything
 In other words, Lindsey would be a libertarian if it was popular. But because the welfare state is popular, Lindsey likes the welfare state.

This argument is as intelligent as suggesting that math should be taught by popular vote. If a majority of the kids in a classroom say that 2+2=5, then it is pointless to try to convince them that 2+2=4 and the teacher should mark the popular answer as "correct" on the next test.

Brink Lindsey then pays lip service to the alleged libertarian profile of his employer and actually produces a small set of policy reform ideas that look like a reduction of the size of government. He points to four types of regulations that he wants to eliminate:
Massive subsidies for excessive risk-taking generate megafortunes in the financial sector. Excessive protections for patents and copyrights pad fat profits for Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Big Pharma. Occupational licensing helps to jack up doctors’ and lawyers’ incomes far above international averages. And increasingly restrictive land-use controls, especially in the big coastal cities, boost housing wealth for lucky insiders while stymying opportunity for everybody else.
Again, Lindsey plays the popularity drum. His first area of deregulation may be worth considering; a bank should fail if it fails, not be bailed out by government. That said, bashing Wall Street is very popular among the left, and removing bailout protection laws and regulations will not reduce the tax burden on the shoulders of the American people.

The second regulatory reform, to end or erode copyrights and patents, is also an attempt to become the popular high school kid for a day. Among trash libertarians, it is very popular to want to allow anyone to rip off other people's intellectual inventions and productions. Never mind that an author spends two, three years working on a book - the prevailing opinion among lazyheads is that anyone should have access to that book for free. (Lindsey apparently has a new book out. Is he giving it away?)

Likewise, the hard working scientists in the pharmaceutical industry should apparently work for - what? The welfare state? Never mind that it takes up to eleven years to develop a new medical drug - the Brink Lindseys of this world want to get their hands on that new drug before those who toiled in the labs (and actually did the work) can cash any kind of reward for their contributions to a better world.

Brink Lindsey represents a growing segment of supposedly right-of-center talking heads whose contributions to the public policy debate consist of helping egalitarianism cross the finishing line to become the uncontested defining principle of modern America. From the think-tank ivory towers in the nation's capital to the state legislatures, acceptance of egalitarian principles is spreading like a political virus. 

If we shy away from the moral debate; if we forget the principles upon which this great country was founded; then it is only a matter of time before we lose the debate - and the country. Fighting back; restoring liberty to its intrinsic status; takes courage and hard work. But if we shy away from that challenge, our children will pay a price far higher than most people realize. 

If egalitarianism wins, we will be the generation that represented the turning point in American history. Our standard of living will mark the peak point of American excellence. Coming generations will find themselves on a downslope where parents see their children grow up to a life slightly less prosperous, filled with fewer opportunities, than they had. 

If we allow the welfare state to once and for all eclipse liberty, we will lose liberty for good. With liberty, prosperity will be gone as well.

The fight to restore liberty, and to end this mad pursuit of egalitarianism, begins here in Wyoming. It begins with a solid NO to higher taxes; it begins with unrelenting focus on structural reductions in government. Our fight to turn our country around begins with turning our state around. It means drawing a line in the sand and defending it. It means ending the conversation where government - the welfare state - is the default solution to both private and public problems. 

It means defending liberty, day, night and weekend. It means understanding that when we try to give and take between liberty and egalitarianism, liberty gives and egalitarianism takes.

It means courage and commitment: courage to stand up for better solutions, even in the popular headwind; commitment to seeing this fight through, to be in it for the long haul.

Thank you for reading all the way through. 

God Bless Wyoming, and God Bless America.
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*) I hope it is only a coincidence, but the name "Open Society Project" is eerily reminiscent of a project that George Soros has been running since the 1990s under the "Open Society Institute". Hopefully, there are no financial or other connections between Soros and the Niskanen Institute.

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