Rotten to the Core

William Tucker is certainly right about "Rent Control Rot" (Feb.). I am a transplanted Detroiter who doubled his salary and now pays twice what he paid for a one-bedroom apartment in Detroit for a room in a welfare hotel (or SRO, as it's euphemistically called). Still, I don't think his gloomy forecast of rent control spreading through the nation is necessarily so. After all, just before I moved, Ann Arbor, the Berkeley of the Midwest, thumpingly defeated a rent control ordinance. If it couldn't pass there, where could it?

James J. O'Meara
New York, NY

Talking Taxes

The March cover article by Richard McKenzie ("Capital Flight") presented an interesting interpretation of a declining rate of growth in U.S. government spending as a share of GNP and of the general Western trend to lower income taxes. Even though these trends are very encouraging, they should not be confused with shrinking government spending. The combination of income taxes and our social security taxes still leaves us with a heavy federal burden and increased pressure on state and local governments.

The Bastiat article ("Our Secret Desires") is particularly interesting when considered with the McKenzie article. Our esteemed legislators seem to have overlooked the tax which best meets their expressed goals (as bad as they may be) of discouraging imports, promoting saving, encouraging investment, assisting exports, and spreading the tax burden to nonvoters when it cannot appear to be loaded entirely on a small percentage of the population: the retail sales tax. It is collected on domestic and foreign goods equally and costs nothing until an expenditure is made for consumption within the jurisdiction.

Robert W. Hughes
Houston, TX

Flight of Fiction

Peter Samuel ("Over and Out," Feb.) compares the fare of the Los Angeles–San Francisco route and that charged on "the regulated, but otherwise comparable, Baltimore-Washington run." The distance between Baltimore and Washington is about one-tenth the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I don't know of any scheduled air carrier service between Baltimore and Washington. Other than that, the two routes may be comparable.

Brian C. Lewis
Seabrook, MD

The editors reply: Oops. Who would even want to fly between Baltimore and D.C.? Mr. Samuel clarifies that the famous comparison was Los Angeles–San Francisco and Boston-Washington.

Inexcusable Envy

Virginia I. Postrel makes an important point concerning the elusiveness of the concept of greed ("Thou Shalt Not Covet," Editorials, Feb.). Greed is often defined as an excessive "graspingness" for things. Yet clearly at least some degree of grasping is required simply to maintain life. We cannot say that greed is when you acquire more than you currently need, for unless some people possess wealth greater than their immediate needs, no investment for future growth can even occur. We cannot define greed as "acquiring things unscrupulously," for that is simply theft. Let me suggest a realistic definition: when we attribute greed to others, it means that their success is so great as to cause us to suffer intense envy.

Some thinkers have portrayed greed and envy as twin evils. One such is Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice. This allows an ideologically neutral conclusion, since the critique of envy leads inescapably to a free-market position, while the critique of greed must lead to calls for powerful state regulation. But this "immoral equivalence" is bogus, an attempt to evade the laissez-faire conclusion one is led to upon perceiving the enormous harmfulness of resentment and envy. While some degree of the "selfishness" or "graspingness" inherent in greed is needed to stay alive, any degree of the malicious spite that envy directs toward another's success is inexcusable. A civilized person must have zero tolerance for envy.

Robert Sheaffer
Monte Sereno, CA

Off-Base Point

You compromised an otherwise fantastic editorial, "Sell Those Bases" (March), when you stated that increased property taxes would be one advantage to selling unneeded military bases to private enterprise.

Jack Allard
Tacoma, WA

Wright Wrong

Your inclusion of Henry George among the predominantly socialist heroes of Frank Lloyd Wright ("Wright and Wrong Ideas," March) may mislead readers into thinking that George himself was a socialist. Rather, this indicates Wright's muddled thinking on economics.

Far from a socialist, George was a friend of freedom, going so far as to advocate the abolition of all taxes save a tax on land, which would be taxed at its full rental value. George realized that all other taxes discourage the production of whatever it is that is taxed. Land taxes, on the other hand, encourage more efficient land use and discourage urban sprawl. Although he was self-educated, most economists today acknowledge George's basic premise.

David Kahn
New York, NY

Whither Libertarians? The Debate Goes On

Richard Dennis's article ("Libertarian Is an L-Word, Too," March) seems mostly to be an attempt to rebut the free market. For example, he argues for government redistribution of income from "a well-established consensus that a minimum level of income is essential to a civilized society." The conclusion does not follow at all. May I humbly suggest that voluntary organizations like the Salvation Army and the innumerable soup kitchens and "city missions" could do the job at least as well. They spend far less on administrative overhead and are more responsive to real needs. And perhaps they would have the resources to handle the problem on the scale the government does if the government were not soaking up so much of both the perceived need and the available funds.

Similarly, Mr. Dennis justifies regulations such as those for auto safety on the grounds that in the "real world" businesses are run not by the owners, whom he implicitly concedes do have the appropriate incentives, but by hired managers. Large corporations do often rate employees by simplified and somewhat arbitrary standards. But supervisors and subordinates usually recognize this and treat official "performance criteria" accordingly. If not, the company will eventually find itself out of business, just like any other enterprise that fails to satisfy its customers. And in any case, the "cure" Dennis defends is to replace arbitrary rules set by the board of directors with even more arbitrary rules set by the government.

On the other hand, the one area where I do see a call for government intervention is in the traditional laws against robbery, rape, and murder. But here Mr. Dennis declares that providing legal protection to the most innocent and helpless among us, unborn babies, is an assault on freedom. Mr. Dennis and others like him apparently believe that "freedom" means that they have the right to kill innocent babies if they find their existence inconvenient, but to suggest that the local car dealer and I be allowed to make any mutually satisfactory deal is carrying the idea of freedom to absurd extremes.

Mark Johansen
Xenia, OH

The essay by Richard Dennis should be rejected out of hand as a serious discussion of libertarianism. Even the title, "Libertarian Is an L-Word, Too," is misleading. When politicians today discuss liberals in a negative sense, they are not referring to classical, economic liberalism but rather to the 20th-century American liberalism of the Democratic left that preaches a political agenda diametrically opposed to classical liberalism. The liberal left in 20th-century America stands first and foremost for the redistribution of wealth through high taxes and for the acquisition of political power by distribution of tax monies to support a fuzzy kind of social engineering.

Further, Mr. Dennis's statement, "I am a libertarian because I too believe that rights generally exist without responsibilities," is not the mouthing of a free man, nor even one who believes in freedom. Freedom, pure and simple, cannot exist without each individual taking upon himself certain obligations and responsibilities. Anyone who believes that rights exist without responsibilities is clearly of the opinion that government should do it all, that "society" is responsible for every individual's actions. If it is our right to be fed by government, then it becomes government's right to tell us how and what to eat.

Lawrence D. Skutch
Westport, CT

Eric Garris ("Libertarians Belong in the GOP," March) and Richard Dennis offer sound advice about abandoning third-party political efforts. However, I differ with them on one major point. The established parties should be viewed not as organizations but as lines on a ballot, mere petrified fossils of the 19th-century parties.

The Democratic and Republican ballot lines are controlled by government. Neither party stands for any particular philosophy. Each party stands for whatever its winning primary election candidates say it stands for.

Libertarian political activists should take advantage of this by running under whichever major-party ballot line is most convenient in a given election. They should stick to their principles, while working with sympathetic people of whatever label.

If libertarians are fortunate, this could ultimately lead to a "nonpartisan" libertarian "party"—a private political organization that ignores state-sponsored ballot labels, wins elections, and challenges the state.

Eric O'Keefe
Cottage Grove, WI

The suggestion that libertarians join the Republican or Democratic party is a bad idea of nightmarish proportions. It is possibly true that libertarian ideas would initially gain some attention and libertarians might have some influence, but the long-run effect would be dilution, fragmentation, and compromise, until (ideologically) libertarians would no longer exist.

Both parties can appeal on particular issues, but their overall philosophy is unacceptable and would be the destruction of libertarians. As David F. Nolan suggests ("Is the Party Over?"), libertarians should remain steadfast and look for ways within the party to advance their ideas.

Shirley K. Clacher
Cary, NC

David Nolan's suggestion that the Libertarian Party abandon partisan politics and focus on initiatives and ballot issues might make sense in some areas, but certainly not in South Carolina, which does not allow initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Since most new libertarian activists come to the party because of campaign-related issues or events, it would be foolish in this state for libertarians to drop out of political sight. Interest in our ideas usually picks up around elections.

David C. Morris, M.D.
Treasurer, South Carolina LP
West Columbia, SC

I do not support these new scrub-the-Libertarian-Party opinions that have sprung up after Ron Paul's disappointing presidential election showing. Suddenly, all these people are looking to 1980, the LP's peak year, with tears in their eyes, preaching of how the Republican or Democratic party is not so bad after all.

I joined the Libertarian Party last November, and I am glad I did. Since I am 20 years old, I can only run for a few select offices. The point is that when I run for, say, the state legislature, I am going to campaign to win.

Many LP members run for office, but how many sit at home thinking, "I've put my name in, that's enough." Libertarians could be elected if they campaign hard and run for offices that they have a chance at. Don't you think Ron Paul would have a strong chance of winning if he ran for his old congressional seat? Or if Russell Means ran for Congress in his home state? State and local offices are nothing to be ashamed of.

Charles T. Tatum
Minot AFB, ND

What disturbed me most about the series of articles was the absence of any suggestion that the Libertarian Party simply redirect its efforts to achievable political goals. Something on the order of $3 million was spent by the LP at all levels in 1988. Is this not enough to win anything? It is quite common for state house seats to be won with less than $50,000. Had the LP's $3 million been spent on such races, libertarians would surely have won some of them, probably a great number. And if so, would anybody now be talking about folding the LP?

Jon Osborne
San Francisco, CA

I have been actively involved in politics on local, state, and national levels for 20-plus years with both the Democratic and the Libertarian party. I found all of the articles demonstrating what I see as one of the main problems with the libertarian movement in general—a lack of willingness to confront the "powers that be" on a local level.

In the South Carolina Libertarian Party we have found that by working on the local level and forgetting about all the philosophy and national politics, on a gut level we can win issues if not yet win elections. We can win friends and "smite our enemies." And eventually we will win elections, simply because we will convince enough people that they do have a choice, the Libertarian Party.

John B. Heaton
Aiken, SC

Many of the points raised in David Nolan's article were dependent on his economic analysis of the high cost of winning votes. He stated that the average cost is $5.00 per vote and that to achieve a statistically significant number of votes (3 million, or 3 percent) would require $15 million.

But the average cost includes fixed costs such as ballot access, campaign headquarters, equipment, and basic staff. The relevant question is the marginal cost of winning votes. The money spent on actual campaigning and advertising more accurately describes this marginal cost. For example, R.W. Bradford estimates the cost per voter gained from local TV advertising as low as $1.00. Political scientists are also well aware that the marginal productivity of such expenditures is very high for minor parties, independents, and challengers.

Mark Thornton
Finance Chairman, Alabama LP
Auburn, AL

I can't emphathize with the boredom and discouragement voiced by those who say the third-party approach "isn't working." In all the discussion, one very important function of the Libertarian Party seems to have been overlooked. About 400,000 people voted for Ron Paul in 1988. For them, the party provided an opportunity to cast a vote for someone with whom they agree. Isn't that worth something—maybe even the $5.00 per person it costs?

Tom Little
Hyattsville, MD

I was particularly struck, in comparing the Republican and Democratic libertarians, by a feature of the libertarian movement that is, I believe, something of a weakness but also something of a strength. Although to some libertarians the two major parties seem like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they are actually temperamentally quite different. The GOP is the party of hard heads and the Democrats the party of soft hearts (or, for fans of Dr. Thomas Sowell, of the constrained and unconstrained vision).

What is curious about libertarians is that they come in two very distinct flavors, one practical and the other idealist. Practical, Republican-oriented libertarians tend to think that greater liberty would remove a few of the more pointless irritations in life, while idealistic, Democrat-oriented libertarians tend to believe that without the evil government, life would truly be transformed. I urge libertarians to ponder this split in the movement, armed with Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions. We ought to discuss this sort of thing so we know who we are and where we are going.

John S. P. Robson
Austin, TX