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Tuesday
Feb022010

A 3 Sentence Litmus Test For GOP Candidates

At the Republican winter meeting in Honolulu last week, GOP leaders rejected a so-called “purity test” that would have either qualified or disqualified candidates from receiving national GOP funds.  Had the rule passed, to receive GOP support, candidates would have needed to agree with eight of the ten resolutions below.

(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;

(2) Market-based healthcare reform and oppose Obama-style government-run healthcare;

(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap-and-trade legislation;

(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing "card check";

(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing healthcare rationing and denial of healthcare and government funding of abortion; and

(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership.

Republicans decided against adopting this litmus test for candidates and—in true United Nations fashion—passed a watered-down, non-binding resolution instead.  From a political standpoint, a litmus test is probably a bad idea.  But instead of a non-binding resolution, why not force candidates before receiving GOP funds to sign their name to a statement like this:

I, ________________, as a representative of the Republican Party, believe in the principle of limited government.  If elected, I will underscore my actions with the wisdom of the founding fathers who, having better judgment than I, enacted an open system through which free Americans created the most just, decent, and prosperous society on Earth. 

Cursed be my descendants if I do anything to weaken the limited government principle that made my country great.

 

Signed,

 

______________________

 

 

Okay, so the last line was a bit over-the-top, but you get the point.   In my estimation, there really is only one principle upon which all Republicans must agree—limited government.

Like it or not, the Republican Party is the home of the Conservative movement.  The Conservative coalition—originally a hodgepodge of libertarians, anti-Communists, and traditionalists[i]—is held together by a shared belief in the dignity of the individual and a common distrust of government.  Now, as Conservatives unite against the dangers of big government, we can only afford to nominate those who share our purpose.

 


[i] See Alfred S. Regnery, Upstream:  The Ascendance of American Conservatism, (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2008).

Friday
Jan292010

On Liberty, Part II

Democratic governments are created to protect the liberty of citizens.  Democratic citizens, though, need to be prepared to protect liberty from the government.  The problem is, though, that citizens forget what they mean by “liberty.”  They remember that liberty was a good thing, something that is worth fighting for, even dying for, but they can’t quite recall what it was all about.  Without even realizing it, they start using the word “liberty” when they mean other things: prosperity, safety, peace, and more.  “Liberty” becomes the rallying cry for all manner of wonderful things, but liberty itself gets lost in the shuffle.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

It really comes down to what our conception of liberty should be.  In the political context, there are two basic ways of thinking about liberty: positive and negative.  One has positive liberty to do something if they have the affirmative power to do it.  One has negative liberty to do something if no one is stopping them from doing it.  In other words, if you want to buy a house in a fancy neighborhood you can only do it if it’s legal for you to do so (negative liberty) and you have enough money to buy it (positive liberty).

In order for liberty to have any real effect, it’s clear that we must have both positive and negative liberty.  The key is, government cannot create liberty – either kind.  For the negative kind of liberty, that seems obvious: negative liberty is the lack of obstacle, the lack of intervention in our lives, so the less government does, the better.  Government’s duty, more than anything else, is to guard against encroachments on negative liberty.  Sometimes government acts proactively to protect our negative liberty, like when it puts up safeguards to make it difficult to take our liberty away (like the writ of habeas corpus or the public defender system).  Still, these actions protect our ability to act without intervention from government or other citizens.

Positive liberty cannot be created by the government either, at least not for everyone.  When the government tries to enforce positive liberty, it has to give the ability to act (usually money) to someone who doesn’t have it.  This brings with it all manner of problems, including the need to determine (often arbitrarily) who will get this benefit and who will not, who will be paying for it, how to make them pay for it, and how to keep the program going into the future.  Many, if not most, of the United States’ attempts at creating positive liberty for people have been mismanaged, causing new inequalities at new cutoff points, treating different citizens as though they are not equally valuable, and driving America into debts so deep that we will be paying for them for generations.

Government may not be able to create positive liberty, but it still has a responsibility to protect positive liberty.  It may be legal for you to buy that fancy house, but if the finances and private property you will use to purchase it are not protected, you will be out of luck!  When government sets fair, clear rules for operating in society and in the market, and when it protects you and your property from those who would threaten them with violence, fraud, or law, then government is protecting your ability to act.

This brings us to the moral of the story:  negative liberty begets positive liberty.  Trying to ensure positive liberty artificially, by creating it with government policy, leads to unforeseen injustices that also need to be corrected, and the whole thing can spin out of control very quickly.  However, protecting negative liberty, getting out of the way of the people, lets them create and prosper for themselves.  It moves society forward – in whichever direction society naturally decides is “forward” – without the arbitrary direction of mere politicians.  Best of all, when people don’t have government in the way, they can prosper, and prosperity is positive liberty. 

Ultimately, liberty is a concept with many facets, but when people say they want to be free, usually they just mean that they don’t want the state to stop them from doing what they want to, and the people will take care of the rest.  There are times when government must step in and provide means for citizens to avoid severe injustice, but those are the outlying cases, the extremes.  If we citizens want to prosper, and want each other to prosper, then we must focus the power of government on increasing our negative liberty, and protecting our positive liberty.  Then, we can move forward with vigor and hope, as only a free society can.

Thursday
Jan212010

On Liberty, Part I

"Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books... Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, “I’m free – to think and to speak.  My ancestors couldn’t.  I can.  And my children will.” 

- Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

America’s Great Experiment, our great democracy, our whole society, from the first colonist who stepped onto a ship to look for a better life outside Europe, to the first patriots who died to rid us of the English King, to the Great Emancipator who wrested our embattled lands from the horrors of slavery, from the brave ones who marched abroad to win an end to tyrants, to the brave ones who marched at home to win an end to injustice and inequality – all of it has been in pursuit of this one powerful thing: liberty.  Sure, there are other things – important things – that Americans have fought and sweated for all these years.  Things like equality, the rule of law, prosperity, love, religion, pride, honor, achievement, and science – even baseball.  But at the heart of everything American, you can find a deep love for liberty.  Why?  What is it about liberty that makes it so much of who we are as a nation?

Liberty is bigger than just an idea.  It’s almost tangible.  It’s a truth. The truth that all people should be allowed to determine the course of their own lives, that no one has the right to make others subservient. The truth that every man’s thoughts are his own, his to express as he wants to anyone who will listen, his to believe what he chooses.  The truth that the individual must be protected, or the collective will be oppressed.  The love of liberty runs through every part of our culture – usually without anyone realizing it.  That is, until somebody tries to take it away.  The uproar and fury that rises up when the liberty of the American people is threatened has toppled nations – and many a politician, too.


And yet, we take it for granted.  When expanding empires attack our harbors, when terrorists destroy our buildings, when our enemies attack our friends, we know how to fight.  And when we fight, woe to those who would harm us.  But when, with best intentions, our own leaders chip away at the liberty we love, we acquiesce.  We say to ourselves, “This cause is worth losing a little freedom!  Just a little!  After all, won’t we all be a little safer?  A little richer? A little more happy?” I only hope that we don’t wake up one day and wonder where all of our liberty has gone.

Of course, the alternative, anarchy, is unacceptable.  As much as our society is founded upon liberty, we are also founded upon the notion that government is necessary to protect our liberty, to protect each man’s rights against his neighbor.  Endless liberty, unlimited freedom, and anarchy lead a society to just as much oppression as a tyrant – only this way people are oppressed by their neighbors, not the state.  We need to curtail liberty to protect liberty.  That much is clear.  The only question, then, is, “how much?”

How much liberty must we give up to ensure that we may live in a free society?  What causes are important enough to sacrifice liberty?  Some of the answers are easy:  we want the state to protect us from crime, fraud, and foreign threats, and we’re willing to give up some freedom to ensure that security.  We happily allow the state to settle our disputes for us, in the courts and by setting rules about property and public safety, and we give up our rights to vigilante justice in the process. 

Most of the time, however, the problems of our society are less clear.  After all, there are a great many causes that compete with liberty for our attention, wealth, and power.  Some want to ensure that no one has to live in poverty.  Some want to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare.  Some want to ensure that everyone lives a moral life.  Some want to ensure that science flourishes.  Some want to ensure that no one can ever attack us.  The problem is that every one of these goals is wonderful!  Every one is a worthy cause.  But each one requires us to give up a little liberty, if the state is to accomplish it. 

Among all the great ideals and causes that swirl around the world of politics, we must never forget that liberty is the greatest.  In the political context, liberty alone is the value that allows each of us to pursue the ends we deem best.  Liberty alone allows two men who disagree to pursue incompatible goals without subjecting one another to the coercive power of the state.  Liberty alone allows us to live without a state that picks winners and losers, enforcing advantages and disadvantages based on the arbitrary determinations of men who are no more special than those they rule. If you want a man to avoid poverty, protect his freedom to produce, work, and earn without obstacle, fraud, or arbitrary or uncertain rules.  If you want a man to be equal, treat him equally by protecting his liberty from the neighbors who might oppress him.    If you want a man to have healthcare, protect the liberty of those who would provide it to him, and give him the liberty to choose what’s best for him.  If you want a man to live morally, then give him the liberty to choose what he believes, and protect the freedom of others to try to show him a better way.  If you want a man to make discoveries, give him the liberty to research and to reap the benefits of his efforts.  If you want a man to be safe, fight for him, and never forget that it is liberty that you fight to preserve, not just his life.

There will be other times to discuss how and why (and if) liberty works more efficiently in ordering society and moving nations forward.  There can and will be millions of pages written about when and where to temper the liberties we have for the sake of other causes.  For now, though, I think this is enough: that when we protect the liberty of each person, then every man or woman has a chance to change their situation if they don’t like it.  Circumstances can seem insurmountable sometimes, and disasters and evil can be discouraging to the point of breaking, but when the state does not say, “you must always be in this situation we have determined for you,” then every person has a chance to try to make things better.  With no one in the way, everybody has a shot at finding a better way.  And that audacious thought shows us this final truth: that liberty begets hope.  

Saturday
Jan092010

Two Reasons We Must Defend Private Property

Those who support liberty cannot do so without supporting the individual right to private property.  We take for granted the right to own that which we cultivate, but, if we fail to understand why private property rights are essential to our liberty, we leave ourselves vulnerable to politicians willing to trade our well-being for popularity.

To that end, I thought it helpful to introduce two economists and fervent defenders of private property rights, Ludwig Von Mises (1881-1973) and Thomas Sowell.  In the 20th century, Von Mises was a leading thinker in the Austrian School of economics and a widely respected defender of free market economics.  Sowell, a popular modern day economist, author, and commentator has dedicated his life to combating economic fallacies of the left.   Below excerpts underline two plain truths about the necessity of private property in a free and prosperous society.  Hopefully, in an age where leftists demean private ownership and daily interfere with individual decisions, these thoughts can help the conservative defend this basic principle.

First, Von Mises explains how private property is a check against the encroaching power of government.

“To control everything, to leave no room for anything to happen of its own accord without the interference of the authorities—this is the goal for which every ruler secretly strives.  If only private property did not stand in the way!  Private property creates for the individual a sphere in which he is free of the state.  It sets limits to the operation of the authoritarian will.  It allows other forces to arise side by side with and in opposition to political power.  It thus becomes the basis of all those activities that are free from violent interference on the part of the state.  It is the soil in which the seeds of freedom are nurtured and in which the autonomy of the individual and ultimately all intellectual and material progress are rooted.  In this sense, it has even been called the fundamental prerequisite for the development of the individual.”[i]

Second, Sowell explains why countries with established private property rights far exceed the prosperity of countries that do not respect individual property.

“For economic activities that take some time, property rights are a prerequisite, so that those who farm or invest in business can feel assured that the fruits of their activities will be theirs.  Even people who own no property have a large stake in property rights, if they are to be employed in an economy made prosperous by the presence of property rights…

Many of the great corporate enterprises of the world began at an extremely modest level, such as those already achieved by innumerable entrepreneurs in the Third World.  The Hewlett-Packard corporation, for example, began in a garage that was rented with borrowed money; the J.C. Penney department store chain was begun by a man who grew up in worse poverty than most people on welfare today; the NBC broadcast network was begun by a man who had to support himself as a teenager by hawking newspapers on the street.  The list could go on and on.  But all these people without money lived in a society where they had access to other people’s money, as a result of a legal system where property rights facilitated the transfer of money from those who had it to those who had entrepreneurial talents but no money.”[ii]

 


[i] Von Mises, Liberalism:  The Classical Tradition, (Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund, 2005),  43-45.

[ii] Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, (New York:  Basic Books, 2008), 200-202

Wednesday
Nov252009

What is 'Limited Government'?

By: John W. Simmons

As Congress debates yet another bill that is several thousand pages long, and which no member of Congress will read thoroughly, I feel the need to examine the purpose of government, and its scope.  In this environment of ever-expanding government, many Americans are calling for more limited government.  This is nothing new. The call for “limited government” has echoed through American political discourse throughout our history.  I add my own voice to that chorus, but these days I’m finding that “limited government” is a term with so many different meanings that it has become nearly useless.  It surely means “NOT the status quo,” but what is the principle we can strive toward?  Are advocates of limited government simply trying to “put on the brakes?”  No!  Are they trying to eviscerate the law, to approach anarchy?  Certainly not!  Yet the range of views on what “limited government” may mean is broad enough to encompass both of these opposites. 

That broad range exposes a fundamental issue: there is a lack of philosophical unity, even on the political right, about what the most basic purpose of government is.  I suggest that we turn to one of America’s favorite literary and philosophical figures, Walt Whitman, for the principle we ought to follow.  The following is from an editorial he wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, from July 26, 1847.

In plain truth, ‘the people expect too much of the government.’  Under a proper organization, (and even to a great extent as things are,) the wealth and happiness of the citizens could hardly be touched by the government—could neither be retarded nor advanced.  Men must be ‘masters unto themselves,’ and not look to Presidents and legislative bodies for aid.  In this wide and naturally rich country, the best government indeed is ‘that which governs least.’

….While mere politicians, in their narrow minds, are sweating and fuming with their complicated statutes, this one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government: to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men. [Italics in original] [1] 

Whitman has outlined the basic principle for us: governments are established not for happiness or wealth, but to protect rights.  Government is not equipped for anything else, or so we claim.  But those on the left will point to the millions of Americans whose livelihood has been salvaged from calamity by government; whose lives are sheltered from the ravages of poverty by Uncle Sam’s purse.  And there we have the crux of the matter:  “limited government,” as Walt Whitman has described it to us, sounds right, but what about all of the good that government does apart from simply defending rights.  Are we to simply throw all of that away? 

That line of reasoning is understandable, but it’s wrong.  The principle that Whitman articulated does not throw the poor to the wolves, but it does reflect the reality of what government is and what government can do.  The nature of government is coercive.  Everything that government does is coercive.  When the government makes a law, it must be followed by everybody, or there will be consequences.  The power of the government to rule is in its ability to use force, in varying degrees, to ensure that its policies take effect. 

Government’s coercive power works best when it is employed against something, rather than for it.  You can use a gun to fight off an intruder, but you’ll have a hard time building a house with it.  Governmental power is like that.  It works when it’s used to stop people from doing bad things to each other, like violence or fraud, because government power is designed to coerce people toward a direction that they don’t necessarily want to go. 

On the other hand, when government tries to employ its power to increase somebody’s happiness or wealth, it can only do so by coercing somebody else.  Governments don’t create anything.  If government wants to give anything to anyone, it has to take it from somebody else by force of law.  When government spends money on benefits, that money is taken from other citizens.  When one business is given preferential access to a market, another business necessarily has its opportunity taken away.  Every one of those programs that seem to do good for some carries with it the unseen negative effects forced upon other citizens.

Many economists tell us that free markets do a better job of eradicating poverty and giving people hope than government programs can ever do, but limiting government is not just about prosperity.  The fact is that if government is not limited to defending rights, as Whitman urged, then it has to force one person down for each one it lifts up.  It has to make distinctions between citizens to decide who deserves the favor of government and whose rights will be forced aside to pay for it.  Government has to treat people unequally to try to achieve its ends.  Then, unintended consequences drive it to enact more laws to correct for new injustices, and government naturally grows and becomes more complex with every new bill Congress passes. 

I find it far more palatable morally for government to limit its actions to defending rights, treating each person equally under the law.  Under such a limited government, distinctions between people are not made arbitrarily or enacted with force.  I’m not suggesting that every public social program be canceled, but we need to be clear about the cost of expanding the role of government.  Citizens, unlike government, can create wealth and happiness.  If they’re going to have an opportunity to do it, though, the law has to get out of their way, and somebody’s going to have to protect their rights.  That is what government is for.  Those who think otherwise, as Whitman pointed out, are expecting too much from government.

 

[1] Issues of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle may be found by date at http://eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org.