Back To Buchanan

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A while back, I blogged a note about the online magazine Cato Unbound, whose first issue included an essay by Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan that laid out three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The replies–by Cato's Bill Niskanen, Yale legal eagle Akhil Reed Amar, and Judge Alex Kozinksi–are now in, and a lively conversation has ensued. I was especially taken by the opening of Kozinski's first rejoinder to Buchanan:

There is, alas, a lingering nostalgia for the vision of the minimalist state as a purer form of government, one that advances everyone's economic well-being while maximizing personal freedom. While I have a romantic attachment to this vision, I'm far from convinced that it would achieve the goals set for it–that we'd be living in a better world today if only we repudiated the New Deal, or had never adopted it in the first place. Whenever I try to imagine what such a world would look like, I look at the world we do live in and recognize that we don't have it so bad at all. We have the world's strongest economy by far; we are the only superpower, having managed to bury the Evil Empire; and we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history. We must be doing something right.

His whole bit here. And more here.

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  1. Does anyone actually believe that small government “advances everyone’s economic well-being?”

    Everyone’s? There wouldn’t be winners and losers to a small-government revolution? There wouldn’t be any tradeoffs – everyone would be richer?

    It seems awfully naive to think that way. Either that, or a very collectivist method of analyzing the situation, to simply ignore the bad outcomes to those individuals who come off worst, because such a reform would have positive impacts overall.

  2. Well obviously government employees may not be better off if their “services” were no longer needed, welfare bums (corporate and otherwise) also wouldn’t be better off, but vast majortity of the rest us would be.

  3. joe,

    the clear net losers would be those that get something for nothing, but I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Overall it would be a net positive IMO.

  4. Does anyone actually believe that small government “advances everyone’s economic well-being?”

    A little early in the thread for the straw man. That seems awfully naive. Of course there would be losers. The small government argument does not say anything to the contrary. Are you actually saying that there are not generations of losers in the welfare state?

    What classic liberalism gives you is self determination. Kind of like what the Constitution says we are already endowed with.

    Wealth is not a zero sum game. Just because Bill Gates gets a big slice of pie does not mean other people get less. The pie grows. But bullshit like the New Deal and the Great Society takes what could be unbelievable prosperity and retards it.

    It’s not a revolution it’s a devolution.

  5. OK, swill, just so you know, it’s not my straw man, it’s Kozinski’s.

    matt, Ape, I guess if you define everyone who would be worse off as, by definition, a bad actor, than it becomes much easier to ignore bad outcomes.

  6. joe,

    You’re quoting someone who DISAGREES with the proposition that smaller government would be better, so it’s hardly fair to hold that up as an exammple of the thinking of those who WANT smaller government.

    That said, there’s no public policy platform that can guarantee that its aderents won’t exaggerate its usefulness at times. You’re right. Libertarian policies are not a magical panacea. THAT said, most of us here do believe that smaller government would lead to a richer society overall, which put in a very loosely expressed way, would make everyone richer. Technically, no, there would likely be some folks who are less well off. But then, utopia is not an option, so pick your poison.

  7. Well that is the problem at the center of all problems, isn’t it? Everyone loves Big Brother.

  8. “…more freedom than any other people anytime in history.”

    Incorrect. Americans in the late 19th century were far freer than we. If you don’t count non-whites, that is.

  9. I’m glad things are going well for Kozinski. There are an awful lot of people who have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of government gobbling up the fruit of our labor. For people who want to escape poverty, the government has made the slope is still much steeper than it needs to be …for an awful lot of people who are nowhere near as well of as Kozinski.

    …I’m not particularly glad to hear that Kozinski is satisfied with my level of success.

    Does anyone actually believe that small government “advances everyone’s economic well-being?”

    It might not advance the economic well being of federal bureaucrats.

  10. I’m disappointed in Kozinski. I generally like his writing and jurisprudence, but the “and we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history” is so patently false as to demonstrate either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (unlikely) or is trying his hand at being a politician (more likely, given his often stated desire to be a Justice). One need go no further than our incarceration statistics to know that this statement is a steaming pile…

  11. Ed,
    What about non-males?
    non-protestants?
    non-land owners?
    Non-adults?

    Not that I wouldn’t chuck the entire New Deal in the dustbin of history. Just saying, a just government enacted by the people for the soul purpose of securing the inalienable rights to the people has a duty to secure the rights of all the people. The fact that the state began ensuring some peoples rights only in conjunction to massive expansions of power, does not make it a prerequisite.

  12. For a case that constitutional amendments rarely make much of a difference, see
    http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/e94e45ffd5ce3c2d

    The main point is obvious: amending the Constitution to do X is so difficult (normally, two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states must agree) that if you can do it, there probably is such an overwhelming consensus in favor of X that the amendment isn’t necessary in the first place (except to suppress a few deviant “anti-X” jurisdictions). If conservatives and libertarians had enough support to pass a constitutional amendment to roll back the New Deal, it would mena that we would be living in such a different society that such an amendment would be superfluous.

  13. David T:

    Despite being too lazy to go read your link, I’ll express my skepticism here. Did the 16th Amendment (income taxes authorized) really make no difference? If the 18th Amendment made no difference, how do you account for the 21st? (Or does that one not matter either?) Women in some states could vote before the 19th was passed, but not all — irrelevant? Or how about procedural changes — most states elected their Senators in the legislature, not directly; that change (17th) has had enormous influence.

  14. Warren, you forgot scientists, musicians, dwarfs, funny people, serious people, businessmen, housewives and sword-swallowers. The point made is that we Americans as a whole are burdened with far more restrictions on our freedoms than our ancestors could ever have dared imagine 100 years ago.

  15. Warren, you forgot scientists, musicians, dwarfs, funny people, serious people, businessmen, housewives and sword-swallowers. The point made is that we Americans as a whole are burdened with far more restrictions on our freedoms than our ancestors could ever have dared imagine 100 years ago.

    Unless you’re an “unlawful combatant”, or fill in a drainage ditch on your ‘wetland’, or live next door to a pot dealer, or …..

  16. Folks in the late 19th century had more economic freedom, but they had less social freedom (for lack of a better term). Porn, interracial marriage (in many states), homosexuality, & “deviant” heterosexuality are among the things that are legal today but were illegal 105+ years ago. There were a lot more vague, catch-all crimes back then.

  17. Warren, you forgot scientists, musicians, dwarfs, funny people, serious people, businessmen, housewives and sword-swallowers. The point made is that we Americans as a whole are burdened with far more restrictions on our freedoms than our ancestors could ever have dared 100 years ago.

    I was making a point about state-sponsored oppression. I’m not aware of any nineteenth century prohibitions that kept scientists or sword-swallowers from voting say. Certainly wealthy white men enjoyed greater liberty, I’m not so sure that I’d extend that to “Americans as a whole”. I do concur with your main point about the copious minutia of modern regulation being unimaginable to those of an earlier time, and a burden to us now.

  18. The great mitigator is the market. Even though in many respects we are less free than we once were, the government cannot keep up with innovation. They cannot stifle imagination quickly enough to snuff us. We had a big head start with the freedoms we were given 200 years ago and it has snowballed to the point where we the citizens outpace the jack-booted thugs much of the time. Unless you’re a catchy that is.

  19. Shelby: Strauss answers these objections. For exmaple on the Sixteenth Amendment: there would have been an income tax even without it. The decision is *Pollock* was by a closely divided court, was hard to reconcile with past cases by the Court, and was subsequently interpreted narrowly by the Court (a corporate income tax was allowed on the theory that it was a tax on the privillege of doing business as a corporation, etc.). In short, *Pollock* had all the earmarks of a case likely to be overruled. On the Seventeenth Amedndment: state after state was already having “advisory” popular elections of senators; state legislators had to pledge to abide by these results or else it would be specifically noted on the ballots for state legislative elections that they refused to do so. Not surprisingly, few dared to refuse to take the pledge. For the Nineteenth Amendment: more and more states were adoptng women’s suffrage, and Strauss argues that the amendment just made it universal a few years earlier than it would otherwise have been. Anyway, you’ll just have to read Strauss for the details.

  20. How bad were things a century ago? Well, let me tell you: I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.

    (But you try telling that to young people today–they won’t believe you!)

  21. Wow, is anyone actually reading the posts they’re responding to, here?

  22. Let’s not forget all the other minor ways we’re restricted now in which people haven’t been for most of history. In most places and times, the government hasn’t demanded a complete accounting of your economic activity every year, hasn’t told you that an addition to your house had to be pre-approved, hasn’t said that the fruit and vegetables you sell have to meet an arbitrary minimum size standard, etc. But then again, you could often be put to death for adultery, or whipped for failing to bow low enough to one of your “superiors”. So I think you have to take these comparisons very carefully…but a blanket assertion that we are definitely more free than ever is horse-hockey. I think some of the nature of freedoms great and small has to do with wealth: as a culture spins off more surplus wealth, it can support more useless little parasites like a floral examination board, and these parasites’ bread and butter is a multitude of tiny laws.

  23. David T:

    pass the chateau de shassily.

    Eric 1/2B:

    no. they’re not. as usual.

  24. The point made is that we Americans as a whole are burdened with far more restrictions on our freedoms than our ancestors could ever have dared imagine 100 years ago.

    Ah how I long for the days when you could blind rubes with patent medicines, burn to death searching for a fire escape, smack your wife for asking to vote, hire 9-year-olds to dig your coal, lobotomize your schizophrenic sister, get your head bashed for asking for a raise and hang a nigger for looking at your daughter.

    Man those were the days.

    Life today is just so damn restrictive.

    God damned meddling government killjoys.

  25. When I talk about how well our mixed economy is doing and has done for us, my LP friends are quick to point our that it’s always been more a free market than not. When I point out current and historic problems, they’re quick to point out how tainted our Market has been by the evil hand of government interference.

  26. In 1886 America had an open hand to the rest of the world. America didn’t fear anyone and no one feared America. Today Americans live in a state of siege.

    The idea of invading the Philippines or bombing the Sudan or intervening in Nicaragua or overturning a government in the Dominican Republic or starting a war with Iraq would have seemed ludicrous to the American people in 1886. As John Quincy Adams put it, America didn’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Today America has troops in over a hundred foreign countries.

    In 2003 the maximum personal income tax rate is 35%, plus 15% for Social Security tax. In 1886 the maximum income tax rate of any kind was 0%.

    In 1886 taxes at all levels of government consumed less than 7% of the national income. In 2003 taxes take roughly half the national income.

    In 1886 the federal government spent $242 million. In 2003 the federal government will spend over $2 trillion ? 10,000 times as much.

    In 1886 the federal debt was $1.40 per person (adjusted for inflation to dollars of 2002 value). In 2002 the federal debt was $21,564 per person.

    Many of you have seen it before, if not you can read the rest of it here.

  27. “When I talk about how well our mixed economy is doing and has done for us…. When I point out current and historic problems….”

    Why do you contradict yourself so? 🙂

  28. The idea of invading the Philippines or bombing the Sudan or intervening in Nicaragua or overturning a government in the Dominican Republic or starting a war with Iraq would have seemed ludicrous to the American people in 1886.

    I’m dubious. About 40 years before that date, the US had forcibly taken territory from Mexico, and about 15 years after that date, the US militarily occupied the Philippines. In between, the US forcibly kept several states from forming an independent government and then militarily occupied those states until 1875.

  29. I look at the world we do live in and recognize that we don’t have it so bad at all. We have the world’s strongest economy by far; we are the only superpower, having managed to bury the Evil Empire; and we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history. We must be doing something right.

    And perhaps all that is in a more precarious state then ever before as well.

  30. I’m dubious. About 40 years before that date, the US had forcibly taken territory from Mexico, and about 15 years after that date, the US militarily occupied the Philippines. In between, the US forcibly kept several states from forming an independent government and then militarily occupied those states until 1875.

    And don’t forget the Barbary Wars. The 19th century version of the War on Terror?

  31. joe has the simplest solution of all.

  32. we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history

    BS. A gov’t that consumes about 50% of GDP is a dead weight no matter how you slice it. And each day it grows ever more clear that ours is a gov’t intent on ruling.

    The whole idea of a limited government “there only to serve” is dead and gone. So is the Bill of Rights. What we still have of these things, we have only because we’re running on inertia. It’s obviously winding down.

    people are often too quick to think they have the answers to absurdly complicated questions, e.g. what is the best system of laws?

    That’s a true story too. But even if everybody was thinking, it still would also be true that nobody was agreeing.

    We need a better solution to the problem of government than anybody has come up with yet.

  33. “we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history”

    Where does he get this crap?

  34. Kozinski’s out of his fucking mind.

    Every scoiety’s going to have winners and losers, be it small-government or large-government or no government. Our present large-government system locks up most of the losers losers so that they’re out of the view of the winners, but that’s hardly what I’d call “doing something right”. It certainly allows us some sort of hubristic comfort along with the opportunity to create even more losers out of thin air (i.e. the war on drugs).

  35. Kozinski chooses to advertize his lack of imagination. The normal argument you hear is that we would not be in a utopia if only we had repudiated the New Deal. Kozinski doesn’t go there, he simply says that he can’t envision any other way to do things. Great.

  36. If we define “freedom” and “wealth,” as so many of you do, above;

    And if the post-tax income of people in 2005 is higher than the post-tax income of people in 1890;

    Then people in 2005 are freer than people in 1890, no matter how high taxes are.

  37. In 1886 America had an open hand to the rest of the world. America didn’t fear anyone and no one feared America.

    Well, except, you know, negroes. And Indians. And probably Mexico. And . . .

  38. Forget 100 years ago. The USA is demonstrably less free than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And not just because of the big easy-to-spot federal regulatory crapola Local and state governments are probably worse offenders, dollar for dollar.

    And, frankly, wealth or the lack thereof is not the only justification for libertarianism. Liberty is always preferable to the alternative, unless you are the oppressor, not the oppressee.

  39. joe,

    wealth=freedom???

    Who the hell ever said that???

    Tell that to a billionaire behind bars!!!

    Wealth (assuming access to it) does give one options that one would not otherwise have, all other things being equal.

    But wealth clearly does not have a one to one correspondence with freedom. I doubt anyone has really defined it that way, but rather than search for your phantom who did so, why don’t you tell us all WHO said such a thing?!?

  40. Well, crap.

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