Market Entrapment

Your article ("Viva La Evolution," Aug./Sept.) was the most accurate portrait of Cuba I have seen. Usually the news media say that the Cuban people are happy and tirelessly working for communism, or that the government is on the verge of collapse. Neither is true.

I have a disagreement with the article, though. Cuba will never try real market reforms. I was in Cuba a few months ago, and my relatives and their friends told me that Fidel uses free-market reforms as entrapment. For example, say selling drugs in the United States became legal, and I decide to sell drugs. After a few months the government could make it illegal to sell drugs again and drag me into jail and demand that I tell them who my suppliers are.

In a communist country the government owns everything. If you are in business for yourself, you have to buy your products from someone. That someone is stealing from the government. Pretty soon the Cuban government will repeal all market laws, haul everyone into jail, and demand that the businessmen turn their suppliers in.

Richard Marin
Weehawken, NJ

Hitting the '80s

While I have yet to read Richard McKenzie's What Went Right in the 1980s, in "Hits of the '80s" (Aug./Sept.) he has misdiagnosed the negative reaction to his book. Greed, he seems to have forgotten, is a moral concept, not an economic one. In particular, it is a way of characterizing the aggressive pursuit of self-interest as evil. What the Left sensed about the "Reagan Revolution" was that his administration was trying (and even occasionally succeeding) to make it easier for creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs to make money.

The moral critics of the '80s hate that decade not despite, but because of, its successes. They have constructed a morality tale whereby the morality they despise—the morality of self-interest—leads inevitably to all our country's problems. Mr. McKenzie's work subverts that moral. But it does not subvert the morality behind the moral. To do that, the engine behind what went right in the '80s—the creative entrepreneur in selfish pursuit of his values—needs to be held up as a symbol of moral virtue, rather than of vice, in our culture. To the extent that his work at least covertly suggests this, the reaction of the intellectual left was to be expected.

James Lennox
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA

Apologists for Reaganomics never use the most straightforward data to make their point. They never quote the broadest overall assessment of the economy, real Gross Domestic Product growth. Here's why. The GDP grew slower in the '80s (2.4 percent per year) than in the '50s (4.1 percent), the '60s (4.0 percent), and the '70s (2.9 percent). Recall that the '70s included an OPEC oil embargo, the demoralizing loss in Vietnam, and the worst financial markets since the Great Depression. Contrast that with all the positives that benefited the economy in the '80s, including the collapse in oil prices, the historic bull markets in stocks, bonds, and real estate, and the unprecedented levels of peacetime deficit spending. But even with all those '80s advantages, Reaganomics produced the slowest growth in four decades.

Another key statistical series shows that the average worker ended the decade making less. Real average hourly earnings for workers in manufacturing and services actually fell during the Reagan years. Today those earnings are at 1966 levels. These facts support the popularly held view that the Reagan economic record was a bust.

Michael G. Caracappa
Haddonfield, NJ

I lived in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, where I saw the American steel industry collapse. The mills have now been razed, the high-tech manufacturing sites we were promised never materialized, and now the only growth industry in Pittsburgh is prisons. There is no way that Mr. McKenzie is going to convince me that U.S. industrial production rose in the '80s—unless he's being disingenuous and including companies owned by U.S. corporations but located outside the country.

Edward Pervin
Indialantic, FL

Mr. McKenzie replies: I remain fascinated by people who criticize the 1980s and who refuse to read views that might be at odds with what they believe to be the case—and then admit that their minds can't be changed no matter what the evidence shows. There is not much I can say to them other than read what I have written, evaluate the entire argument as I have tried to present it, and then consider the possibility that I have tried to deal with claims of the critics as openly, fairly, and completely as reasonable.

I have said it before, but I will stress it here once again. My book What Went Right in the 1980s is not intended as a defense of Ronald Reagan or Reaganomics. I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I have no formal party allegiance. I give Ronald Reagan far less credit for what happened during the decade than do many others. If pressed to do so, I would give far more credit to the microchip (and to the international competitiveness inspired by technological developments) for the renewed prosperity (which was impaired by the reversal of the inflationary spiral of the 1970s) than to any set of federal policies. In my view, the success of the economy during that decade largely occurred in spite of what went wrong in Washington. In the end, I have tried in my book to deal only with what happened, not with what caused events to unfold as they did. As it happens, my findings stand in sharp contrast to many prevailing views.

Let me also add that I have in no way meant to suggest that everything went right in every part of the country during the last decade. A number of things went wrong during the decade, and my book recognizes them. I have shown that far more went right in the American economy than the critics, who are joined by two of the letter writers, have suggested. My admonition is simple: Read the book.

Engler's Briar Patch

The tone of Derek Green's "Engler's Angle" (Aug./Sept.) suggests that it is desirable to remove the public education funding debate from the cities and towns and centralize it at the state level for more uniformity and manageability, as if taxpayers have no right to craft local variations on some universal entitlement to the government/NEA version of a good education.

It's certainly not the poor taxpayer who will find Michigan's new school funding arrangement more manageable. He might find the time to campaign and lobby in his behalf in his own community but can seldom break away for even a day or two of inexpertly trying to be heard in the halls and corridors of the state capital.

Obviously Gov. Engler and company have tossed Br'er Rabbit (the Michigan Education Association) right into the briar patch, where their well-paid lobbyists can curry favor all year long with key legislators, without the worry of taxpayer involvement. The prior struggles over education funding were evidence that the taxpayer still had a fighting chance against the behemoth school lobby and its scary vision of ever-growing management and control of America's youth.

Now, thanks to Engler, less-resistible state taxes can be raised and raised and raised some more to feed the public-school lobby's insatiable demands. Any domestic peace attending these hikes will signal not public satisfaction, but the soulless surrender of a host organism to its overpowering parasite.

Jim McClarin
Nashua, NH

Mr. Green replies: Mr. McClarin correctly points out that one risk of centralizing public-school funding at the state level is some loss of local control over, as he puts it, the "right to craft local variations" in the type of education that schools offer students. I mention the problem (and other, more serious ones) in the article.

But in concluding that Gov. Engler and company have given the MEA even wider lobbying power (it's hard to imagine how anyone could have done that), Mr. McClarin misses some important points. First, Michigan's plan attempts to compensate for the effect of centralized funding by opening the way for a comprehensive, statewide charter school program. Charter schools offer a practical way for designing entire schools that fit local needs. Further, Michigan taxpayers are still able to levy property taxes on themselves in those districts that wish to raise funds beyond the state allowance. And mandatory tax caps and a shift from property to sales taxes make it unlikely that taxes will be any worse that they were before in Michigan.

Finally, Mr. McClarin suggests that poor voters will be less able to lobby at the state level than at the local level. That may be true. But all the local campaigning and lobbying in the world doesn't do much good when a school district has no money. That's one grievous inequity a centralized funding system, though far from perfect, can help relieve.

Property Fights

Rick Henderson accurately portrayed the fear and loathing spread by the environmental movement in our nation's capital ("Bill Killers," Aug./Sept.). Outside the Beltway, state capitals across the United States are also becoming property rights battlegrounds, with the greens pulling out all the stops to defeat regulatory reform measures.

Over the past two years, almost 100 bills to protect property rights have been introduced in 37 states. Ten states have passed such bills. The route these bills must travel to become law, however, is long and treacherous.

One of the unlucky bills that failed is from Mississippi. It would have compensated property owners if their land was devalued by 40 percent or more by state regulations. The greens finally killed it through a technical maneuver, but not before they dragged it and the whole takings debate through the mud—charging it would turn back the clock on race relations, bankrupt state treasuries, and allow big business to pollute the state at will (much the same arguments heard in D.C.). Environmentalists seized the opportunity to chirp up a deceitful rumor campaign to attack the bill. They were even successful in converting a prominent conservative Christian organization to their side by convincing them that the bill would allow the owners of topless bars to claim a taking if they were forced to close. The bill would not have had this effect.

The fact that legislators across America are introducing property rights legislation proves the issue is of great concern. Indeed, it is the civil rights issue of the 1990s and beyond. While advances have been made, the regulatory apparatus still deprives people of their right to own and use property responsibly.

David W. Almasi
Director of Media Relations
Defenders of Property Rights
Washington, D.C.

Involuntary Smoke

As one who has recently found himself in a position in which smoking was a free choice only to the extent that breathing was a free choice, I take exception to Jacob Sullum's argument ("The Rule of Lawton," Aug./Sept.) that "it doesn't matter that smoking is a free choice." Being a passive smoker has made me unable to sleep on transatlantic flights when I really needed the sleep. And flight attendants and waitpersons (I can't believe I used that word!) often have the far-from-easy choice of choosing between breathing or eating when their work requires passage through smoking sections.

Smoking is more of a health hazard than generally believed because many of the studies of its dangers calculate the relative health of active smokers versus passive smokers and express the results as if they were differences between the health of smokers and nonsmokers. There aren't many nonsmokers around, although I, for one, would love to be one.

Marshall E. Deutsch
Sudbury, MA

Mr. Sullum replies: I am a bit confused by the beginning of Mr. Deutsch's letter, since I did not argue that "it doesn't matter that smoking is a free choice." On the contrary, I took issue with a product-liability law that seems to be based, in part, on that assumption.

Space does not allow a discussion of the evidence concerning the health effects of secondhand smoke. Suffice it to say that I do not find the evidence as convincing as Mr. Deutsch does. But even if we accept the idea that secondhand smoke is a health hazard, the risks involved are trivial. For example, the EPA estimates that being married to a smoker raises a woman's risk of getting lung cancer by 19 percent. That is a small increase in a very small risk; an insignificant concern for someone who lives with a smoker for many years, let alone someone exposed to secondhand smoke on an airplane or in a restaurant.

Of course, Mr. Deutsch may worry about possible health risks even when they are infinitesimal, and he may in any case be annoyed by tobacco smoke (as I sometimes am). Those are things he should consider before patronizing an airline or a restaurant that allows smoking. If he nevertheless chooses to fly on an airplane or eat in a restaurant where smoking is permitted, he has consented to exposure. To say that choices have consequences is not to say that choices do not exist.