Category Archives: Benghazi

The Flight 93 Election

By: Publius Decius Mus
September 5, 2016

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!

Not to pick (too much) on Kesler, who is less unwarrantedly optimistic than most conservatives. And who, at least, poses the right question: Trump or Hillary? Though his answer—“even if [Trump] had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s”—is unwarrantedly ungenerous. The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—immigration, trade, and war—right from the beginning.

But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff. A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.

Continetti trips over a more promising approach when he writes of “stress[ing] the ‘national interest abroad and national solidarity at home’ through foreign-policy retrenchment, ‘support to workers buffeted by globalization,’ and setting ‘tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion.” That sounds a lot like Trumpism. But the phrases that Continetti quotes are taken from Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, both of whom, like Continetti, are vociferously—one might even say fanatically—anti-Trump. At least they, unlike Kesler, give Trump credit for having identified the right stance on today’s most salient issues. Yet, paradoxically, they won’t vote for Trump whereas Kesler hints that he will. It’s reasonable, then, to read into Kesler’s esoteric endorsement of Trump an implicit acknowledgment that the crisis is, indeed, pretty dire. I expect a Claremont scholar to be wiser than most other conservative intellectuals, and I am relieved not to be disappointed in this instance.

Yet we may also reasonably ask: What explains the Pollyanna-ish declinism of so many others? That is, the stance that Things-Are-Really-Bad—But-Not-So-Bad-that-We-Have-to-Consider-Anything-Really-Different! The obvious answer is that they don’t really believe the first half of that formulation. If so, like Chicken Little, they should stick a sock in it. Pecuniary reasons also suggest themselves, but let us foreswear recourse to this explanation until we have disproved all the others.

Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

If your answer—Continetti’s, Douthat’s, Salam’s, and so many others’—is for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets. Indeed, that leftism is truer than conservatism and superior to it.

They will say, in words reminiscent of dorm-room Marxism—but our proposals have not been tried! Here our ideas sit, waiting to be implemented! To which I reply: eh, not really. Many conservative solutions—above all welfare reform and crime control—have been tried, and proved effective, but have nonetheless failed to stem the tide. Crime, for instance, is down from its mid-’70s and early ’90s peak—but way, way up from the historic American norm that ended when liberals took over criminal justice in the mid-’60s. And it’s rising fast today, in the teeth of ineffectual conservative complaints. And what has this temporary crime (or welfare, for that matter) decline done to stem the greater tide? The tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown. All your (our) victories are short-lived.

More to the point, what has conservatism achieved lately? In the last 20 years? The answer—which appears to be “nothing”—might seem to lend credence to the plea that “our ideas haven’t been tried.” Except that the same conservatives who generate those ideas are in charge of selling them to the broader public. If their ideas “haven’t been tried,” who is ultimately at fault? The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation. Conservative intellectuals never tire of praising “entrepreneurs” and “creative destruction.” Dare to fail! they exhort businessmen. Let the market decide! Except, um, not with respect to us. Or is their true market not the political arena, but the fundraising circuit?

Only three questions matter. First, how bad are things really? Second, what do we do right now? Third, what should we do for the long term?

Conservatism, Inc.’s, “answer” to the first may, at this point, simply be dismissed. If the conservatives wish to have a serious debate, I for one am game—more than game; eager. The problem of “subjective certainty” can only be overcome by going into the agora. But my attempt to do so—the blog that Kesler mentions—was met largely with incredulity. How can they say that?! How can anyone apparently of our caste (conservative intellectuals) not merely support Trump (however lukewarmly) but offer reasons for doing do?

One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary.

As does, presumably, the argument that the stakes in 2016 are—everything. I should here note that I am a good deal gloomier than my (former) JAG colleagues, and that while we frequently used the royal “we” when discussing things on which we all agreed, I here speak only for myself.

How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally? If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid. To the extent that you are ever on the winning side of anything, it’s as sophists who help the Davoisie oligarchy rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless war.

All of Trump’s 16 Republican competitors would have ensured more of the same—as will the election of Hillary Clinton. That would be bad enough. But at least Republicans are merely reactive when it comes to wholesale cultural and political change. Their “opposition” may be in all cases ineffectual and often indistinguishable from support. But they don’t dream up inanities like 32 “genders,” elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, “Islamophobia,” and Black Lives Matter. They merely help ratify them.

A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

So what do we have to lose by fighting back? Only our Washington Generals jerseys—and paychecks. But those are going away anyway. Among the many things the “Right” still doesn’t understand is that the Left has concluded that this particular show need no longer go on. They don’t think they need a foil anymore and would rather dispense with the whole bother of staging these phony contests in which each side ostensibly has a shot.

If you haven’t noticed, our side has been losing consistently since 1988. We can win midterms, but we do nothing with them. Call ours Hannibalic victories. After the Carthaginian’s famous slaughter of a Roman army at Cannae, he failed to march on an undefended Rome, prompting his cavalry commander to complain: “you know how to win a victory, but not how to use one.” And, aside from 2004’s lackluster 50.7%, we can’t win the big ones at all.

Because the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us. I will mention but three ways. First, the opinion-making elements—the universities and the media above all—are wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence. (What else are the wars on “cis-genderism”—formerly known as “nature”—and on the supposed “white privilege” of broke hillbillies really about?) If it hadn’t been abundantly clear for the last 50 years, the campaign of 2015-2016 must surely have made it evident to even the meanest capacities that the intelligentsia—including all the organs through which it broadcasts its propaganda—is overwhelmingly partisan and biased. Against this onslaught, “conservative” media is a nullity, barely a whisper. It cannot be heard above the blaring of what has been aptly called “The Megaphone.”

Second, our Washington Generals self-handicap and self-censor to an absurd degree. Lenin is supposed to have said that “the best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” But with an opposition like ours, why bother? Our “leaders” and “dissenters” bend over backward to play by the self-sabotaging rules the Left sets for them. Fearful, beaten dogs have more thymos.

Third and most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.

It’s also why they treat open borders as the “absolute value,” the one “principle” that—when their “principles” collide—they prioritize above all the others. If that fact is insufficiently clear, consider this. Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent. And yet the Left and the junta are at one with the house-broken conservatives in their determination—desperation—not merely to defeat Trump but to destroy him. What gives?

Oh, right—there’s that other issue. The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes. Their reasons vary somewhat. The Left and the Democrats seek ringers to form a permanent electoral majority. They, or many of them, also believe the academic-intellectual lie that America’s inherently racist and evil nature can be expiated only through ever greater “diversity.” The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige. The Republicans and the “conservatives”? Both of course desperately want absolution from the charge of “racism.” For the latter, this at least makes some sense. No Washington General can take the court—much less cash his check—with that epithet dancing over his head like some Satanic Spirit. But for the former, this priestly grace comes at the direct expense of their worldly interests. Do they honestly believe that the right enterprise zone or charter school policy will arouse 50.01% of our newer voters to finally reveal their “natural conservatism” at the ballot box? It hasn’t happened anywhere yet and shows no signs that it ever will. But that doesn’t stop the Republican refrain: more, more, more! No matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same. Just like Angela Merkel after yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack. More, more, more!

This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.

Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them. Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.

Which they self-laud as “consistency”—adherence to “conservative principle,” defined by the 1980 campaign and the household gods of reigning conservative think-tanks. A higher consistency in the service of the national interest apparently eludes them. When America possessed a vast, empty continent and explosively growing industry, high immigration was arguably good policy. (Arguably: Ben Franklin would disagree.) It hasn’t made sense since World War I. Free trade was unquestionably a great boon to the American worker in the decades after World War II. We long ago passed the point of diminishing returns. The Gulf War of 1991 was a strategic victory for American interests. No conflict since then has been. Conservatives either can’t see this—or, worse, those who can nonetheless treat the only political leader to mount a serious challenge to the status quo (more immigration, more trade, more war) as a unique evil.

Trump’s vulgarity is in fact a godsend to the conservatives. It allows them to hang their public opposition on his obvious shortcomings and to ignore or downplay his far greater strengths, which should be even more obvious but in corrupt times can be deliberately obscured by constant references to his faults. That the Left would make the campaign all about the latter is to be expected. Why would the Right? Some—a few—are no doubt sincere in their belief that the man is simply unfit for high office. David Frum, who has always been an immigration skeptic and is a convert to the less-war position, is sincere when he says that, even though he agrees with much of Trump’s agenda, he cannot stomach Trump. But for most of the other #NeverTrumpers, is it just a coincidence that they also happen to favor Invade the World, Invite the World?

Another question JAG raised without provoking any serious attempt at refutation was whether, in corrupt times, it took a … let’s say … “loudmouth” to rise above the din of The Megaphone. We, or I, speculated: “yes.” Suppose there had arisen some statesman of high character—dignified, articulate, experienced, knowledgeable—the exact opposite of everything the conservatives claim to hate about Trump. Could this hypothetical paragon have won on Trump’s same issues? Would the conservatives have supported him? I would have—even had he been a Democrat.

Back on planet earth, that flight of fancy at least addresses what to do now. The answer to the subsidiary question—will it work?—is much less clear. By “it” I mean Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. We Americans have chosen, in our foolishness, to disunite the country through stupid immigration, economic, and foreign policies. The level of unity America enjoyed before the bipartisan junta took over can never be restored.

But we can probably do better than we are doing now. First, stop digging. No more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures. We have made institutions, by leftist design, not merely abysmal at assimilation but abhorrent of the concept. We should try to fix that, but given the Left’s iron grip on every school and cultural center, that’s like trying to bring democracy to Russia. A worthy goal, perhaps, but temper your hopes—and don’t invest time and resources unrealistically.

By contrast, simply building a wall and enforcing immigration law will help enormously, by cutting off the flood of newcomers that perpetuates ethnic separatism and by incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace. These policies will have the added benefit of aligning the economic interests of, and (we may hope) fostering solidarity among, the working, lower middle, and middle classes of all races and ethnicities. The same can be said for Trumpian trade policies and anti-globalization instincts. Who cares if productivity numbers tick down, or if our already somnambulant GDP sinks a bit further into its pillow? Nearly all the gains of the last 20 years have accrued to the junta anyway. It would, at this point, be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice—only to ensure that it and eight of the other nine go first to the government and its rentiers, and the rest to the same four industries and 200 families.

Will this work? Ask a pessimist, get a pessimistic answer. So don’t ask. Ask instead: is it worth trying? Is it better than the alternative? If you can’t say, forthrightly, “yes,” you are either part of the junta, a fool, or a conservative intellectual.

And if it doesn’t work, what then? We’ve established that most “conservative” anti-Trumpites are in the Orwellian sense objectively pro-Hillary. What about the rest of you? If you recognize the threat she poses, but somehow can’t stomach him, have you thought about the longer term? The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three. Oh, and, I suppose, for those who like to pour a tall one and dream big, a second American Revolution that restores Constitutionalism, limited government, and a 28% top marginal rate.

But for those of you who are sober: can you sketch a more plausible long-term future than the prior four following a Trump defeat? I can’t either.

The election of 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test—of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation. If they cannot rouse themselves simply to vote for the first candidate in a generation who pledges to advance their interests, and to vote against the one who openly boasts that she will do the opposite (a million more Syrians, anyone?), then they are doomed. They may not deserve the fate that will befall them, but they will suffer it regardless.

This essay first appeared on the digital edition of the Claremont Review of Books.

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My Presidential Choice

I periodically get asked who should be in the White House.

Since I’m a policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I generally sidestep the question.

Though it probably isn’t too hard to figure out my preference if you peruse what I’ve written about previous presidents.

I’m a huge fan of both Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge, for instance.

But I’m definitely not partisan. I’ve also said nice things about John F. Kennedy and even Bill Clinton.

And to further demonstrate my independence, it’s time for me to endorse another Democrat.

Yes, you read correctly. The person I want in the White House is….(drum roll, please)…the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

He’s mostly famous for being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms (he won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1992). And perhaps also for marrying a 21-year woman while in the White House.

But he should be remembered instead – and with great fondness – for his belief in classical liberal principles.

Let’s start with this blurb from his Wikipedia page.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. …He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. …Cleveland used the veto far more often than any president up to that time.

Perhaps his most glorious moment came when he rejected the Texas Seed Bill.

After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. …the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Wow, can you imagine any President saying these words today?

President Cleveland’s steadfast behavior and sound principles have garnered him some well-deserved praise.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily back in 2011, Paul Whitfield opined about Cleveland’s track record.

If free-market advocates could resurrect a U.S. president to deal with today’s problems, many would choose Grover Cleveland. …He vetoed hundreds of spending bills, refusing to succumb to political temptation whether it was wrapped in patriotism or sob stories. …Union military veterans had become a powerful special interest group. Expenditures on their pensions increased about 500% over 20 years… When Congress passed a bill granting pensions to veterans for injuries not caused by military service, he vetoed it. …He vetoed 414 bills during his eight years — 1885-89 and 1893-97 — in the White House, forcing Congress to curb its appetite for spending.

President Cleveland even had a libertarian approach to overseas entanglements.

Cleveland had a simple approach to foreign policy. He said America should “never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked.”

Let’s go back even further in time. Here’s some of what Lawrence Reed wrote in 1996.

I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland… Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. …Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them. …He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.

The article points out that Cleveland wasn’t perfect.

Indeed, the squalid Department of Agriculture was elevated to the Cabinet during his tenure.

But, on net, he pushed for liberty. Heck, look at this quote from President Cleveland, which Lawrence Reed shared in an article from 1999.

When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and the expense of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.

Wow. Taxation to fund beyond limited government equals “ruthless extortion.” That warms my libertarian heart!

Robert Higgs, the great economic historian, shared another great quote from President Cleveland.

Cleveland believed in keeping government expenditure at the minimum required to carry out essential constitutional functions. “When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance,” declared Cleveland, “he acts immorally by the people.”

Let’s begin to wrap up with some wisdom from Burton Folsom, who wrote about President Cleveland for the Freeman back in 2004.

For a U.S. president, one test of this courage is the willingness to veto bad bills— bills that spend too much money or that contradict Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. In that test of character, perhaps no president passed more convincingly than Grover Cleveland… During Cleveland’s first term (1885–1889), he vetoed 414 bills, more than twice the total vetoed by all previous presidents. …Over half of Cleveland’s vetoes involved pensions to Civil War veterans. Congressmen, especially Republicans, were increasingly trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to unqualified veterans in hopes of capturing “the soldier vote.”

Sadly, politicians today not only go after the “soldier vote,” but also the “farmer vote,” the “elderly vote,” the “urban vote,” etc, etc, etc.

And we don’t have principled leaders like Grover Cleveland with a veto pen.

Let’s look at some historical budget data to understand how truly lucky the nation was during Cleveland’s era. During the 1880s, in his first term, total primary spending (which is total outlays minus expenditures for net interest) averaged just 1.7 percent of GDP.

And this was before the income tax was enacted. After all, there was no need to have a punitive levy when the fiscal burden of government was so small.

P.S. Barton Folsom was the narrator of the superb video from Prager University on government-controlled investment.

Reposted from International Liberty

Tax-the-Rich Delusions from Hillary and Bernie

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are basically two peas in a pod on economic policy. The only difference is that Sanders wants America to become Greece at a faster rate.

Folks on the left may get excited by whether we travel 60 mph in the wrong direction or 90 mph in the wrong direction, but this seems like a Hobson’s choice for those of us who would prefer that America become more like Hong Kong or Singapore.

Consider the issue of taxation. Clinton and Sanders both agree that they want to raise tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers. The only difference is how high and how quickly.

Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute has a must-read column on this topic in today’s Wall Street Journal.

He starts by speculating whether there’s a rate high enough to satisfy the greed of these two politicians.

Here is a question to ask Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: What is the best tax rate to impose on high-income earners…? Perhaps they think it is 83%, a rate that economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez hypothesized in 2014… Or maybe it is 90%, which Sen. Sanders told CNBC last May was not out of the question.

He then points out that there were very high tax rates in America between World War II and the Reagan era.

…the U.S. had such rates in the past. From 1936 to 1980, the highest federal income-tax rate was never below 70%, and the top rate exceeded 90% from 1951 to 1963. …The discussion of these rates can easily create the impression that the federal government collected far more money from “the rich” before the Reagan administration.

But rich people aren’t fatted calves awaiting slaughter. They generally are smart enough to figure out ways to avoid high tax rates. And if they’re not smart enough, they know to hire bright lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants who figure out ways to protect their income.

Which is exactly what happened.

The effective tax rates actually paid by the highest income earners during the 1950s and early ’60s were far lower than the highest marginal rates. …In the 1960s, for example, the average rate paid by the top 0.1% of tax filers—the top 10th of the top 1%—ranged from 26.5% to 29.5%, according to a 2007 study by Messrs. Piketty and Saez. Even during the 20 years after the Reagan tax cuts, the top 10th of the top 1% paid an average rate of 23.7% to 33%—essentially the same as in the 1960s.

Gee, sounds like Hauser’s Law – a limit on how much governments can tax – is true, at least for upper-income taxpayers.

And Winship provides some data showing that high tax rate are not the way to collect more revenue.

When average tax rates went up from 27.6% in 1965 to 34% in 1975, revenues went down, from 0.6% to 0.5% of the sum of GDP plus capital gains. When average tax rates declined to 23.7% over the second half of the 1970s and the ’80s, tax revenues from the top went up, reaching 0.8% of GDP plus capital gains in 1990. …in the early 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised average tax rates at the top, and revenue from the top 0.1% eventually skyrocketed. But the flood of revenue overwhelmingly reflected not the increase in rates but the stock market’s takeoff… Consider: If the higher top tax rates had caused the growth in revenue, then revenues should have fallen when Mr. Clinton cut the top tax rate on capital gains to 20% from 28% in 1997. But revenues from the top 0.1% kept pouring in.

And if you want more detail, check out the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that rich taxpayers paid a lot more tax when the top rate was dropped from 70 percent to 28 percent.

That was a case of the Laffer Curve on steroids!

No wonder some leftists admit that spite is their real reason for supporting confiscatory tax rates on the rich, not revenue.

But what if the high tax rates are imposed on a much bigger share of the population, not just the traditional target of the “top 1 percent”?

Well, even hardcore statists who favor punitive tax policy admit that this would be a recipe for economic calamity.

Mr. Piketty said, “I firmly believe, that imposing a 70% or 80% marginal rate on large segments of the population (say, 25% of the population, or even 10%, or even a few percentage points) would lead to an economic disaster.” In other words, sayonara increased tax revenue.

Heck, even the European governments with the biggest welfare states rarely impose tax rates at those levels.

And when they do (as in the case of Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate in France), they suffer severe consequences.

Which is why the real difference in taxation between the United States and Europe isn’t the way the rich are taxed. Government is bigger in Europe because of higher tax burdens on the poor and middle class, specifically onerous value-added taxes and top income tax rates that take effect at relatively modest levels of income.

In other words, the rich already pay the lion’s share of tax in the United States. But not because we have 1970s-style tax rates, but because the tax burden is relatively modest for lower- and middle-income people.

Which brings us to Winship’s final point.

Proposals to soak the rich by raising their tax rates are unlikely to yield the revenue windfall that Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton are dangling before voters. Leveling with the American people means…admitting that they will have to raise the money from tax hikes on middle-class voters.

Though he “buried the lede,” as they say in the journalism business. The most important takeaway from his column is that the redistribution agenda being advanced by Clinton and Sanders necessarily will require big tax hikes on the middle class.

Indeed, the “tax-the-rich” rhetoric they employ is simply a smokescreen to mask their real goals.

Which is why I included that argument in my video that provided five reasons why class-warfare taxation is a bad idea.

Reposted from International Liberty

Socialism: Evil and Stupid

Of the 4,000-plus columns I’ve produced since starting International Liberty in 2009, two of the most popular posts involve semi-amusing stories that highlight the failure of socialism, redistributionism, and collectivism.

The Tax System Explained in Beer” is the third-most-viewed post of all time, and “Does Socialism Work? A Classroom Experiment” is the fourth-most-viewed post. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think these columns are popular because they succinctly capture why it’s very shortsighted and misguided to have an economic system that punishes success and rewards sloth.

For those who want details, I have dozens of columns about real-world socialist failure, looking at both the totalitarian version in places like Cuba, China, Venezuela, and North Korea, as well as the majoritarian version in nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

And for those that want to get technical, I even have several columns explaining that the pure version of socialism involves government ownership of the means of production (government factories, state farms, etc), whereas the “democratic socialism” in Europe is actually best viewed as extreme versions of redistributionism (while the pervasive interventionism favored by the left actually is a form of fascism).

Yet notwithstanding the horrible track record of every version of socialism, we actually have a presidential candidate in America who actually calls himself a socialist. Though, as pointed out by my colleague Marian Tupy in The Atlantic, he’s more of a redistributionist than a socialist.

Socialism was an economic system where the means of production (e.g., factories), capital (i.e., banks), and agricultural land (i.e., farms) were owned by the state. …Sanders is not a typical socialist. Sure, he believes in a highly regulated and heavily taxed private enterprise, but he does not seem to want the state to own banks and make cars. …Senator Sanders is not a proponent of socialism, and that is a good thing, for true socialism, whenever and wherever it has been tried, ended in disaster.

Here’s an article about real socialism by Mark Perry that’s more than 20 years old, but its analysis is just as accurate today as it was in 1995.

Socialism is the Big Lie of the twentieth century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery. …Socialism does not work because it is not consistent with fundamental principles of human behavior. …it is a system that ignores incentives. …A centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where property is owned by the state, is a system without an effective incentive mechanism to direct economic activity. By failing to emphasize incentives, socialism is a theory inconsistent with human nature and is therefore doomed to fail.

Ben Domenech, writing for Commentary, analyzes the current version of socialism, which – particularly in the (feeble) minds of young people – is simply more middle-class entitlements financed by high tax rates on evil rich people.

Sanders holds massive events populated by kids who think what he is preaching is very cool. …When did it become acceptable for Americans to back an avowed socialist? …For Americans today, the visible and unmistakable connection between socialism and totalitarianism has faded dramatically. …For America’s young, socialism’s definition isn’t to be found in the desperate, sad reality of peoples held captive by regimes that proudly declare themselves socialist. It’s more of a vague ideal… This makes it easier for someone like Sanders to say that socialism just means middle-class entitlements… It is…Barack Obama…that we have to thank for socialism’s rise in 2016. Republicans…have been describing President Obama’s domestic program as socialist… The takeaway for today’s younger voters seems to be: If everything Obama is trying to do is socialism, …then perhaps we need to go full socialist to actually get things done.

The final part of the excerpt is very insightful.

Young people have no idea about the real nature of socialism. They don’t know that communism was an ideology of international socialism. They don’t know Nazism was a form of national socialism.

Heck, they don’t even understand the modern-day failure of socialism in Venezuela or North Korea.

To them, socialism is simply bigger government.

Which is very offensive to people who actually have suffered under socialism. Garry Kasparov, the chess champion turned Russian dissident, doesn’t mince words in his response to the Sanders crowd.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CcuxVg3WEAAanAw.jpg

Let’s close with something amusing. Or at least ironic.

It’s the socialism version of this communism image.

And it’s something young people should think about because socialism fails every place it is tried. As Mark Perry explained, it’s grossly inconsistent with human nature.

That’s true whether we’re looking at the totalitarian version of the majoritarian version.

The latter version is preferable, of course, though the end result is still economic misery.

P.S. Here’s a very clever video that asks college kids whether they would like a socialist grading system. Unsurprisingly, they say no. Though the video was put together before Bernie Sanders attracted a cult-like following, so perhaps today’s students would answer differently.

P.P.S. Speaking of videos, I’m guessing this bit of satire won’t be very popular with Bernie’s supporters.

P.P.P.S. There are several rather amusing Obama/socialism cartoons. You can see my favorites here, here, and here.

P.P.P.P.S. You can also use two cows to teach about socialism, as well as other theories.

 

Beating the VAT Horse Until It’s Dead

This is a very strange political season. Some of the Senators running for the Republican presidential nomination are among the most principled advocates of smaller government in Washington.

Yet all of them have proposed tax plans that, while theoretically far better than the current system, have features that I find troublesome. Marco Rubio, for instance, leaves the top tax rate at 35 percent, seven-percentage points higher than when Ronald Reagan left town.

Meanwhile, both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (now out of the race) put forth plans that would subject America to value-added tax.

This has caused a kerfuffle in Washington, particularly among folks who normally are allies. To find common ground, the Heritage Foundation set up a panel to discuss this VAT controversy.

You can watch the entire hour-long program here, or you can just watch my portion below and learn why I want Senator Cruz to fix that part of his plan.

Allow me to elaborate on a couple of the points from my speech.

First, a good tax system is impossible in a nation with a big welfare state. If the public sector consumes 50 percent of economic output, that necessarily means very high marginal tax rates.

Second, all pro-growth tax reform plans tax income only one time, either when earned or when spent, which means those plans all are consumption-base taxes in the jargon of public finance economists. Which is also just another way of saying that these tax plans get rid of double taxation.

On this basis, a VAT is fine in theory. Moreover, it could even be good in reality (or, to be technical, far less destructive than the current system in reality) if all income taxes were totally abolished.

Third, since Cruz’s plan leave other taxes in place, I’m worried that future politicians would do exactly what happened in Europe – use the new revenue source to finance an expansion of the welfare state.

Proponents of the Cruz VAT correctly point out that the plan simultaneously will abolish both the corporate income and the payroll tax, which sort of addresses my concern.

But keep in mind this is only an acceptable swap if you think, 1) the plan will survive intact as it move through the legislative process, and 2) the VAT won’t raise more money than the taxes that are abolished.

I’m not sure either assumption is valid.

Last but not least, proponents of the Cruz VAT plan keep denying that the plan includes a VAT. If you recall from my remarks, I think this is silly. It is a VAT.

To bolster my argument, here’s what Alan Viard wrote for the American Enterprise Institute.

Cruz’s proposed VAT would have a 16 percent tax-inclusive rate, and Paul’s proposed VAT would have a 14.5 percent tax-inclusive rate. Both VATs would be administered through the subtraction method rather than the credit invoice method used by most countries with VATs. The use of the subtraction method would not alter the fundamental economic properties of the VAT. A VAT is equivalent to an employer payroll tax plus a business cash flow tax.

Let’s close by citing some very wise words from Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!). Here are the key parts of his column for Forbes.

Conservatives are worried about national consumption taxes for several reasons, principally: these taxes’ ability to raise large sums of revenue and the ease with which politicians can raise the rates. Because national consumption taxes are efficient and can be applied to a larger base than is typical of state and local sales taxes they can raise large sums of money. While liberals think this is a plus, conservatives are rightly wary of taxes that could supply government with more money. More importantly, conservatives are suspicious of the semi-hidden nature of consumption taxes and the ability to raise them incrementally.

Bingo.

The bottom line is that even if we decide to call the VAT by another name, it won’t alter the fact that some of us think it’s too risky to give politicians an additional revenue source.

Reposted from International Liberty

Katrina, Flint, and the Practical Case for Federalism

Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

Reposted from International Liberty

Yes, We Should Clip the Wings of the Federal Reserve’s Philosopher Kings

We’ve been suffering through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Labor force participation hasn’t recovered and median household income is stagnant.

So how are our benevolent and kind overseers in Washington responding?

Are they reducing the burden of spending? Nope, they just busted the spending caps (again).

Are they cutting back on red tape? No, they’re moving in the other direction.

Are they lowering taxes? With Obama in the White House, that’s not even a serious question.

But that doesn’t mean all the people in Washington is sitting on their collective hands. The folks at the Federal Reserve have been trying to goose the economy with an easy-money policy.

Unfortunately, as I argue in this recent interview, that’s not a recipe for success.

At best, an easy-money policy is ineffective, akin to “pushing on a string.” At worst, it creates bubbles and does serious damage.

Yet if you don’t like the Fed trying to manipulate the economy, you’re often perceived as a crank. And if you’re an elected official who questions the Fed’s actions, you’re often portrayed as some sort of uninformed demagogue.

I explored this issue today in The Federalist. In my column, I defended Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz…deserve credit for criticizing the Federal Reserve. …This irks some folks, who seem to think Fed critics are knuckle-dragging rubes and yahoos with a superstitious fealty to the gold standard.

This isn’t a debate over the gold standard, per se, but instead of fight over monetary Keynesianism vs. monetary rules.

The dispute isn’t really about a gold standard, but whether the Federal Reserve should have lots of discretionary power.  …On one side are the advocates of…the monetary component of Keynesian economics. Proponents explicitly want the Fed to fine-tune and micromanage the economy. …On the other side are folks who believe in rules to limit the Fed’s powers…because they believe discretionary power is more likely to give us bad results such as higher price inflation, volatility in output and employment, and financial instability.

And the Joint Economic Committee is on the side of rules. Here’s an excerpt from a JEC report that I cited in my article.

Well-reasoned, stable and predictable monetary policy reduces economic volatility and promotes long-term economic growth and job creation. Generally, ‘rules-based’ policies reduce uncertainties and facilitate long-term planning and investment. …Conversely, activist, interventionist, and discretionary monetary policies have been historically associated with increased economic volatility and subpar economic performance.

I then mention various rules-based methods of limiting the Fed’s discretion and conclude by commenting on the legitimacy of those who want to curtail the Federal Reserve.

Paul and Cruz may not be experts on monetary policy, just as left-wing senators doubtlessly have no understanding of the intricacies of discretionary monetary policy. But the two senators are on very solid ground, with an illustrious intellectual lineage, when they assert that it would be a good idea to constrain the Fed.

Now let’s expand on two issues. First, I mention in my article the gold standard as a potential rule to constrain the Fed. I’ve previously shared some analysis by George Selgin on this topic. He’s concluded that governments won’t ever allow its return and probably couldn’t be trusted with such a system anyway, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article by George. Read the entire thing, but here’s the part that matters most for this discussion.

…the gold standard was hardly perfect, and gold bugs themselves sometimes make silly claims about their favorite former monetary standard. …the classical gold standard worked remarkably well (while it lasted). …it certainly did contribute both to the general abundance of goods of all sorts, to the ease with which goods and capital flowed from nation to nation, and, especially, to the sense of a state of affairs that was “normal, certain, and permanent.” The gold standard achieved these things mainly by securing a degree of price-level and exchange rate stability and predictability that has never been matched since.

And Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation touches on some of the same issues in a new column for Forbes.

Several candidates suggested the gold standard was a good system, and they’re all getting flak for talking about gold.

But here’s the most fascinating revelation from Norbert’s column. It turns out that even Ben Bernanke agrees with George Selgin that the classical gold standard worked very well. Norbert quotes this passage from Bernanke.

The gold standard appeared to be highly successful from about 1870 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the so-called “classical” gold standard period, international trade and capital flows expanded markedly, and central banks experienced relatively few problems ensuring that their currencies retained their legal value.

Both Norbert’s article and George’s article have lots of good (but depressing) analysis of how governments went off the gold standard because of World War I and then put in place a hopelessly weak and impractical version of a gold standard after the war (the politicians didn’t want to be constrained by an effective system).

So here’s Norbert’s bottom line, which is very similar to the conclusion in my column for The Federalist.

Many who favor the gold standard recognize that it provided a nominal anchor as opposed to the discretionary fiat system we have now. Maybe the gold standard isn’t the best way to achieve that nominal anchor, but we shouldn’t just dismiss the whole notion.

The second issue worth mentioning is that the best way to deal with bad monetary policy may be to have no monetary policy.

At least not a monetary policy from government. This video explains the merits of this approach.

Gee, maybe Friedrich Hayek was right and private markets produce better results than government monopolies.

Reposted from International Liberty

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