Monday, August 31, 2009

Compassionate Liberalism

At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux shares a letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Times:

You join legions of others in describing Ted Kennedy as having been compassionate (”Ted Kennedy, America’s conscience,” August 30). Aware that I’ll come across as low-brow – as unable to appreciate the transformative magic of politics – I must ask: What’s compassionate about spending other people’s money and minding other people’s business?

Suppose Mr. Kennedy were my neighbor. One day he arrives at my door with a handful of other neighbors (all carrying concealed weapons) and demands some of my money and tells me that he’ll regulate what I eat, drink, and smoke. “And I’ll stop your teenage son from being employed if no employer offers him a wage at least as high as one that my friends here and I determine is appropriate.”

I gaze at him aghast. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assures me. “Because my undying dream is to help others, I’ll spend the money that I take from you in ways that will help you. But I’ll also spend much of it helping people on the other side of the tracks. And any restrictions that I impose on your behavior are ones that, you can be sure, spring only from my compassion for you and others.”

Should I regard neighbor Kennedy as great and compassionate – as a gallant champion of the interests of others? Or should I regard him as an arrogant bully, as fraudulent as he is dangerous?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Hope

In the Washington Post, George Will profiles 2010 CA gubernatorial candidate Tom Campbell.
Because California’s calamitous present — creative accounting as a rickety bridge to the next budget crisis, coming soon — might prefigure the nation’s future, next year’s gubernatorial election is portentous. An especially intriguing candidate in a colorful field is Tom Campbell. Colorful he is not. “Talk softly and carry a small calculator” could be his motto. What glitter, however, are his resume and agenda.
He has a Harvard law degree and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, where his faculty adviser was Milton Friedman. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Working in the Reagan administration in 1983, in the wake of a severe recession, he assumed Reagan would lose in 1984 (“proof of my political acumen,” he says; Reagan carried 49 states) and accepted a professorship at Stanford’s law school. He represented Silicon Valley in Congress for five terms. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Senate in 1992. He won the nomination in 2000 but lost the election. His third statewide run might work because, after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childlike faith in personality as the conqueror of problems, blandness may be charismatic.
I remain skeptical of all politicians, this one included, but Campbell does for now seem to be better than the rest. A Chicago economist seems like the ideal (viable) candidate for understanding what the government should and should not do to ensure a healthy economy (answers: less and more, respectively). His stances on social issues aren't perfect, but he seems as libertarian as one can hope for from a major-party candidate for Governor of California.

George Will says that Campbell's two biggest rivals for the Republican nomination will likely be former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner. In general, I trust entrepreneurs and business leaders much more than politicians to solve the world's problems. But I'm not so sure that great entrepreneurs make great seems like their confidence in their past successes might lead to an overoptimistic idea of what they can solve as government officials. I don't want politicians trying to think of new, innovative ways to give away healthcare and subsidize farmers; I want them to realize the limits of government and leave the innovation to the private sector. A Chicago economist (I hope) would know enough to let the government do what it's best suited for: staying out of the way. It's just a thought and I have nothing to back it up with, but if you can think of an example supporting or undermining it, let me know in the comments.

Who knows...if Campbell impresses me enough, I might actually vote this time around!

Monday, August 17, 2009

"What is Real Freedom?"

Arnold Kling has an answer at EconLog:

Consider the following definition of freedom: the absence of monopoly.

The absence of monopoly means that you can exercise exit, even if you cannot exercise voice. The presence of monopoly means that, at most, you can exercise voice.

Neither my local supermarket nor any of its suppliers has a way for me to exercise voice. They don't hold elections. They don't have town-hall meetings where they explain their plans for what will be in the store. By democratic standards, I am powerless in the supermarket.

And yet, I feel much freer in the supermarket than I do with respect to my county, state, or federal government. For each item in the supermarket, I can choose whether to put it into my cart and pay for it or leave it on the shelf. I can walk out of the supermarket at any time and go to a competing grocery...

If you lived in North Korea, which would you rather have--the right to vote or the right to leave?

In fact, if we had real competitive government, then we would be no more interested in elections and speaking out to government officials than we are in holding elections and town-hall meetings at the supermarket. I repeat: real freedom is the absence of monopoly.