(Burlington, NC, May 5-7) (Link)
Hello! My name is Mike Munger, and I am a Libertarian. (sounds like Alcoholics Anonymous: “Hi, Mike!”)
I went to vote in Primary, on Tuesday, May 2.
Walked up to the volunteer at the desk at the precinct, and said hello.
Told him my name, my address.
He asked, “What party are you?”
I said, and I said loud: “Libertarian party!”
He looked nonplussed. Some other people looked over at us, because I had said it pretty loud. “That’s not one of the choices.” He said that, yes he did.
I said, “Oh, I see now. What you mean is, ‘Which of the state-sponsored parties did I sign up for? Which of government-run parties did I show my little ID card for, and get the government’s permission to take a stand on political issues that won’t threaten anybody or change the status quo.’!” I said. Yes, I did.
He was looking a little flustered now. He was just a nice old man, volunteering at a polling place at 2:30 in the afternoon. He wasn’t expecting the bloody Spanish Inquisition.
He said, as if speaking to a child: “Your choices are Democrat, Republican, or….”
But I interrupted again. “Or ‘none of the above’? Is that my only alternative? Either I can accept one of the state-run parties, or else I have to vote none of the above? I guess I’ll be ‘unaffiliated’ then.”
Now, think about that. Think how many times you have heard someone say, “It would be easier if you would just…” and then something about voting for state-sponsored parties, or let the government do it, or something like that.
Of course it WOULD be easier, for those who want a docile, obedient public. Much simpler if we would expect dependence on the nanny state.
Now, in many ways, the news in the last year or so is very, VERY good for libertarians. Many of our worst predictions about the consequences of relying on the nanny state have come true. There is a growing sense of distrust of government, and of the people who govern us (since we are not allowed to govern ourselves). All good news for libertarians, right?
Well, not really. The prescription in the public mind, the solution to the problem of bad government, is always reform. Get better people in office. Build better government institutions.
But we have fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem.
The real problem is this: today, a group of Americans decide there is a problem. And they work on it. They start, though, by saying, “What should we do?”
My question is, “Why the hell do you think there is a ‘WE’”?
I have obligations, and responsibilities. And you have obligations and responsibilities. But why would we start out, as a first step, with the idea that WE have anything at all? That WE have an obligation to the state? Why would it be that our bodies, our money, our property, are OWED to the state, or are contingent on the state’s sanction?
The sense of the obligations of the individual, and the value of the individual, is something that is in danger of disappearing in American society. The independent, free and responsible citizen is disappearing.
This time right now, this moment, is our greatest opportunity, as libertarians, if we can see our chance clearly and grab it! Libertarians are the only remaining heirs to the classic American virtues. Self-reliance, independent self-protection through the responsible possession of fire-arms, independent communities, and education of children in independent values.
The problem is not that government is corrupt, not badly led, not full of bad people. Coercion is the basis of most policy. It is inherently dangerous and abusive. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Any government large enough to give you what you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.”
Edmund Burke had it right when he said, "In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!" (Liberty Fund Edition of Vindication of Natural Society).
This may be the key distinction, the test of whether someone is “really” a libertarian. If you believe government is good, but you hate abuse, you are not really a libertarian. The thing, the state itself, is inherently a threat to liberty. It may be a necessary threat, something we have to live with, but it is a threat nonetheless.
It is really a matter of nature. Think about it: you can’t blame a dog for eating out of the garbage. That is what dogs do. Can’t ask yourself, “Why? Why isn’t my dog a good dog? I can imagine a good dog, one that doesn’t eat out of the garbage. Can’t we just get a better dog?”
No, no you can’t. All dogs eat out of the garbage, and all states coerce unjustly. It’s what they do.
Sometimes I wonder what the "state" is. There is this guy, George Bush, who in many ways runs the state, but my statist friends hate him. The state must be something else. It could be Louis XIV, of course, because he said as much "l'Etat, c'est moi!" But my friends don't really think Louis XIV was the ideal form of government. What is the answer? What is the state?
I am proud to say that I have found the state: It is Cherrail Curry-Hagler, of the DC Transit Police. The story comes from the Washington Post (July 30, 2004). The facts, (remarkably) are not in dispute.
About 6:30 p.m. July 16, 2004 Stephanie Willett, EPA scientist, age 45, was riding the escalator down from 11th Street NW to the subway station, and eating a "PayDay" candy bar. Cherrail Curry-Hagler, D.C. transit policewoman, was riding up on the other escalator. Officer Curry-Hagler warned Willett to finish the candy before entering the station.
Willett nodded. But she kept chewing the PayDay as she walked through the fare gates. Curry-Hagler, who had turned around and followed Willett, warned her again as she stuffed the last bit into her mouth before throwing the wrapper into the trash can near the station manager's kiosk, according to both Willett and the officer.
Curry-Hagler ordered Willett to stop and show ID. Willett refused, and retorted "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" Admittedly, this may be seen as rude, since her mouth was still half full of PayDay bar. The scientist rode a second escalator down to catch her Orange Line train.
At this point, according to Willett, the officer grabbed her and searched her, running her hands under Willett's bra and around her waist. She put Willett into the back seat of a police car, took her to the 1st District station, and locked her in a cell. At 9:30 p.m., after she paid a $10 fee, Willett was released to her husband.
Got it? Okay, now consider:
1. Ms. Willett was on a DOWN ESCALATOR. She couldn't turn around.
2. She was already chewing the candy bar. She couldn't spit it out, without littering. I'm a libertarian extremist, but even I think you should be given a ticket if you spit chewed-up food on a public escalator.
3. When Willett got to the bottom of the escalator, she put the last bit into her mouth, threw the wrapper into the trash can, and continued on toward her train.
There is no way that Ms. Willett could have obeyed the instruction not to eat in the station, unless she had run back up the escalator, or spit out the candy bar. The difficult part, for the "let's have the state be our nanny" tribe, is this: Given the laws on the books, Ms. Willett had committed a crime. You can't take food into a station, and you can't eat in the station. It's the law. The officer had not, in fact, abused the system; Ms. Curry-Hagler, and all the other Transit Police in DC, are supposed to keep their gimlet eyes peeled for offenses exactly like these.
You think that's wrong? Fine. But don't blame Cherrail Curry-Hagler, D.C. Transit cop. She was simply doing her job. So is the TSA employee who makes my kid take off his shoes at the airport and who makes me show my boarding pass four times. So is the cop who gives me a speeding ticket for going 38 in a 35 mph zone.
Is there an alternative to these zealous examples of pettiness? Sure. We could give discretion to bureaucrats and the police. And that is a ticket on the train to tyranny, folks. Discretion allows the representative of the state to indulge racism, or sadism, or blankism. That won't fly (and it shouldn't!) in a democracy. So we are stuck with legislation that must be foolishly blunt and mindlessly enforced. It is the nature of the state, not a perversion of it.
It is tempting to think that competition is the answer. But, there is good political competition and bad political competition. The fundamental human problem is to foster the good and block the bad. So, as I argued in my Presidential address to the Public Choice Society in 1988, the fundamental human problem comes down to the design and maintenance of institutions that make self¬interested individual action not inconsistent with the welfare of the community.
One example of a set of institutions that accomplish that reconciliation of selfish individuals and group welfare is the market, Adam Smith?s ?invisible hand.? We still can?t accurately predict the exact circumstances or times when markets might work as he described, but it is definitely not always true that self ¬interest leads to the welfare of the community, even in market-like settings. Nonetheless, by and large we know that competition in markets serves the public interest.. The question is this: under what circumstances is competition good in politics?
Good political competition is where ambition checks, or at least balances, opposing ambition. When President Bush tried to push through the domestic spying program, some senators and representatives, and some citizens, objected on the merits. But even more objected on the grounds that the president was usurping judicial authority and personal liberty. Our political rules have to create situations in which politicians’ ambitions are opposed, in which attempts by one group or person to grab all power are always frustrated.
Bad political competition is what public choice theorists call rent seeking. In my classes, I ask students to imagine an experiment that I call a George Mason lottery. The lottery works as follows: I offer to auction off $100 to the student who bids the most. The catch is that each bidder must put the bid money in an envelope, and I keep all of the bid money no matter who wins. So if you put $30 in an envelope and somebody else puts $31, you lose the prize and your bid. When I play that game I sometimes collect as much as $150. Rent-seeking competitions can be quite profitable. In politics, people can make money by running rent-seeking competitions. And they do.
What are all those buildings along K Street in Washington, DC? They are nothing more than bids in the political version of a George Mason lottery. The cost of maintaining a D.C. office with a staff and lights and lobbying professionals is the offer to politicians. If someone else bids more and the firm doesn?t get that tax provision or defense bid or road system contract, it doesn?t get its bid back. The money is gone. It is thrown into the maw of bad political competition.
Who benefits from that system? Is it the contractors, all those companies and organizations with offices on K Street? Not really. Playing a rent-seeking game like that means those firms spend just about all they expect to win. It is true that some firms get large contracts and big checks, but they would be better off overall if they could avoid playing the game to begin with.
My students ask why anyone would play this sort of game. The answer is that the rules of our political system have created that destructive kind of political competition. When so much government money is available to the highest bidder, playing that lottery begins to look very enticing. The Republican Congress has, to say the least, failed to stem the rising tide of spending on domestic pork-barrel projects. Political competition run amok has increased spending nearly across the board.
In a perfectly functioning market system, competition rewards low price and high quality. Such optimal functioning requires either large numbers of producers or low¬cost entry and exit. Suppose that Coke and Pepsi not only had all the shelf space for drinks, but asked in addition if they could make their own rules outlawing the sale of any other drink unless the seller collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to be allowed to sell cola. The Federal Trade Commission would not look favorably on the request, or the industry.
But in our political system, we have an industry dominated by two firms. Republicans and Democrats hold 99 percent of the market share and have undertaken actions at the state and national levels to make it practically impossible for any other party to enter. How did we come to have such a system, with outside competition for office nearly closed off, but with inside competition for access to the public purse organized as a kind of expensive ritual combat, where Congress keeps all the bids?
I believe that the perverse competition in the political system is a direct consequence of the so¬called progressive reforms. First, reformers systematically hamstrung the ability of political parties to raise funds independent of individual cults of personality. Parties are actually necessary intermediaries. They solve what my colleague John Aldridge calls the collective action and collective choice problems by giving voters a shorthand by which to identify and support candidates whose opinions they share. Campaign finance reform cut out soft money, thus weakening parties’ ability to support new candidates, but doubled hard money limits to members of Congress.
Second, progressive campaign finance reform surrounds incumbents with a nearly impenetrable force field of protection. Any equal spending rule or equal contribution rule benefits incumbents, who can live off free media and other publicity. Any rule that restricts contributions or makes them more expensive, such as reporting requirements for contributions, benefits those with intense preferences and deep pockets. So restrictions on contributions ensure that only the most hard-core competitors?those along K Street?participate in the political bidding wars.
The hidden problem is that politics actually abhors a vacuum. If real grass-roots parties are denied the soft money they need to mobilize people and solve the problem of collective action and collective choice, organized interests will fill that vacuum. Because no individual can influence government, stripping away intermediary organizations of individuals makes the remaining organized groups more powerful.
The problem is not our inability to reform. The problem is precisely the extent to which we have reformed the system. Our reforms killed healthy political competition at the citizen level. And now all real political competition takes places in the offices on K Street. That’s the kind of political competition that is antithetical to the interests of the community.
The problem, then, is that the first step citizens take is to ask “what should WE do?” But presuming an organic “we” means that we are already lost.
To achieve change, we need to make the case to the American public that the problem is not corruption, not poor leadership, and not a lack of budget. The problem is that stated so clearly by Edmund Burke: “In vain you tell me…government is good, but that I fall out only with the abuse. The THING! The thing itself is the abuse.”
April 10, 2006: [Podcast/Audio File] Ticket Scalping and Opportunity Cost. With Russ Roberts
April 3, 2006: A Fable of the OC
January 9, 2006: Unintended Consequences 1, Good Intentions 0
August 1, 2005: Everybody Loves Mikey
March 7, 2005: The Thing Itself
January 10, 2005: Democracy is a Means, Not an End