Hayek In the Rear View Mirror

Friedrich Hayek is one of the patron saints of modern libertarianism. He wrote a book in 1944, called The Road to Serfdom, that predicted that western societies were going to fall sway to totalitarianism. He said that any level of economic planning would not work and so would require greater and greater government control, until inevitably, the government would completely take over.

It is a theory that is profoundly wrong, as even the most casual observation of the events since World War Two show, but one that still drives a great deal of modern conservative politics. Both Rand Paul and Paul Ryan are fans of Hayek, and both have stated that any government involvement in the economy is doomed to fail.

I analyzed this topic from the book in some detail in a recent article in Alternet. My title was Hayek in the Rear View Mirror, but they changed it to: Big Economic Theory Underpinning Libertarian Economics Is Total Baloney. Their title is more to the point, but mine was more poetic.

Does Government Only Worsens the Problems it intends to fix?

“Government intervention never works but in fact prolongs and worsens the problems it is intended to fix.” Senator Rand Paul

I came across this quote recently while doing some research on Republican’s views of “The Road to Serfdom,” by Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is the intellectual forefather of much conservative thinking on government intervention into the economy. Paul’s statement was published in an essay he wrote for The Intercollegiate Review, a magazine for college Republicans. It is available on line at Rand Paul’s Challenge to Students.  The essay is a year old, but it seems to encapsulate Senator Paul’s hostility toward the government.

So how accurate is Paul’s statement? Does government intervention make things worse? There is no doubt that government can often be ineffective and bumbling. We see examples in the paper every day. But does that mean that government only makes things worse when it tries to fix a problem?

Let’s think about a couple of examples here in the United States, to test this theory.

After the Second World War, President Eisenhower decided that the nation had a transportation problem, and he proposed a government program to fix it. The problem was that it was extremely difficult to drive from one side of our country to another. Eisenhower had recently commanded a military force that pushed from the shores of France deep into Germany, and done much of that on Europe’s road system. Eisenhower decided that the United States needed something similar, and proposed our interstate highway system. This system is now fully built. Did it worsen the problems of national transportation?

There’s no doubt that highways have created a bunch of unanticipated problems. These range from expanding urban sprawl to the demise of small towns as commerce moved to the nearest Interstate exit. But did the government intervention into the national transportation system “prolong and worsen the problem it intended to fix” as Paul flatly states. Nope, not even close.

Here’s another example. During the creation of the nation the founders felt that it was important for the government to establish a system to protect inventors and creators, to allow them to profit from their creations as a way to spur innovation. And so they included a provision in the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson established the United States Patent Office. Did the patent office “worsen the problem it was intended to fix”? Not even remotely. The United States has the most dynamic and innovative economy in the world, largely because of the way we protect intellectual property.

But clearly these aren’t the kinds of things that Paul and other conservatives are talking about when they condemn government action. Mostly they’re talking about welfare and economic regulations. So, do these programs make things worse? It’s hard to analyze if you only focus on this country, but far more clear if you look at all the nations of the world.

Put simply, those nations with robust welfare systems have far less poverty than those nations that don’t. Just compare Western Europe with South America, or Africa. And well regulated economies are far more productive than lightly regulated economies. Compare the OECD countries (the 20 richest countries in the world) with most of the rest of the world.

Obviously there are outliers. There are a few remaining communist countries, like Cuba, Burma, Cambodia, and North Korea, and their economies are in shambles and their people in poverty. Clearly total government control of the economy as a means to ameliorate poverty does not work. But modern Western economies, with sensible regulation, are doing extremely well.

I’m sure conservatives will say I’m cherry picking positive examples, or creating a straw-man argument. But Paul said “government intervention never works.” He didn’t qualify it. I’m just holding him to his own words.

One of the knocks against Conservatives is that they are clueless about history. But they don’t seem to know much about the modern world either. Are they really unaware that countries without welfare systems are third world nations mired in poverty? Don’t they realize that countries without effective governments are chaotic failed states? Don’t they ever look at the world and see that countries with welfare systems have far less poverty than countries that don’t? Or don’t they see that the economies of the richest nations are regulated, while unregulated economies are pathetic?

I think that there are at least two causes to this problem. The first is that Fox News doesn’t do much international reporting. So Senator Paul doesn’t ever learn what goes on in the rest of the world. And he knows that his supporters don’t know either, so he can get away with making these statements. The other problem is the idea of American Exceptionalism, which allows conservatives to ignore the lessons from rest of the world. But the rest of the world exists, and it can teach us many valuable lessons. And one of those lessons is that government can fix problems.

Doom … Doom I Say

Rand Paul

I’ve been listening to conservatives cry doom – doom, we’re all doomed – like a deranged Ghost from the “Christmas Carol” for most of my adult life. Conservatives have been saying for as long as I can remember that our society, or culture, our economy, our nation, all are doomed.

Carter must be defeated, or all is doom. 1980 was the first year I was able to vote for President, so I remember that pretty well. And since the election of Reagan in 1980 conservatives have cried doom … doom … all is doom. If liberals and liberal policies are not stopped, the nation, the economy, society, all of it is doomed. If Clinton is elected, we’re doomed. If Obama is elected, we’re doomed.

In the 1980’s we were doomed to defeat by the Japanese. In the 90’s we were doomed by rising China, and now were doomed by a mature China and the other rising BRIC countries.

But what’s happened since 1980?

Think about the modern economy, and what technologies dominate the modern world: computers, smart phones, the internet. Guess what: all were created in the United States (and to some degree in other supposedly ossified, sissified, corrupt Western nations – important advances in smart phone technology came out of Canada and Norway.) The modern economy was made in the United States. Virtually every modern advance was created in a nation that conservatives said was rotten and decaying.

The cries of doom over the last 35 years are as constant as night following day. Every few years a new doomsayer comes along. In 2010 it was the Tea Party, and their most prominent standard bearer, Rand Paul. Now there’s a new voice in the Republican Party, David Brat, the “economic” professor who defeated Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. The singer may be different, but they’re singing the same old song: if liberals aren’t stopped, we’re all doomed.

It’s comical because it’s not only consistently wrong, but monumentally wrong.

Rand Paul and Groucho Marx

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was recently selected as on of Time Magazine’s 100 most Influential People. There was a brief blurb written about him by fellow Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. Paul also came up on a page with various “tools” used by a few of the Time 100, which included Rand Paul’s scalpel. Before becoming a U.S. Senator, Paul was an ophthalmologist and frequently performed eye surgeries, including removing cataracts, and he noted the satisfaction in restoring a patient’s sight. But he also noted that being a doctor taught him the value of evaluating problems and symptoms objectively, and said that he tried to be as objective in his approach to politics. He even quoted Groucho Marx.

“In medicine we try to diagnose a problem and then look for a solution. There’s a Groucho Marx comment that politics is sometimes the opposite–politicians misdiagnose problems and apply the wrong solutions. But being an eye surgeon reminds me to take a more analytical approach.”

More analytical? Like blindly following disproven theories?

I laughed, but not because of the Marx quote. Rand Paul is an adherent of what is known as the Austrian School of economics. The Austrian School is an extreme form of free market fundamentalism that believes that economic markets should be nearly totally unregulated. It is called the Austrian School because the early developers were Austrian economists, including two named Fredrick Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Many conservative politicians are enamored by the Austrian School, but curiously enough very few real economists, even deeply conservative economists, follow the Austrian School. This is probably because it has never worked in the real world, and most real economists know this. If you look at the world you can see that there are nations with highly unregulated economies. Those nations are often grouped as Third World nations. There is obviously too much regulation or government control, as every former communist country realized and as many European countries also realized before scaling back. But those countries that let the wealthy avoid taxes and let businesses avoid economic, environmental, and work place safety regulations, are not thriving. So the Austrian School of economics is pure theory.

Rand Paul’s views on foreign policy are what some have called neo-isolationist. His father (Congressman Ron Paul, R-TX) was a total isolationist, but Rand is much more nuanced. But his foreign policy views trouble most main-stream politicians, including many Republican and Conservative politicians. They rightfully note that this nation tried to disengage from international affairs after the First World War, with disastrous results. So Paul’s foreign policy views are based not on a rational analysis of the real world, and its myriad problems, but on a petty and truculent disdain for the rest of the world. It is a view based on a fantasy world, and not a rational analysis of the real world.

Paul’s views of history are also based more on a fantasy version of history than real history. Not long ago Senator Paul went to Howard University and lectured the students on why they should be Republicans. The main reason was that Lincoln (the first Republican President) freed the slaves and that many of the early advocates of the Civil Rights movement were Republicans, particularly from the northeast. He also noted that it was largely Democrats who opposed abolition, back in the middle of the 19th Century, and Southern Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights movement in the middle of the 20th Century. All of this is absolutely true, but Paul seemed to have forgotten Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which was designed to turn southern Democrats into Republicans based on racial resentment. Paul didn’t know this but his audience at Howard, one of the jewels in the crown of historically black colleges, knew modern history very well. They knew very well that Republicans used to be for civil rights, but the modern Republican Party, since Nixon, has been home to racists, and has aggressively pushed to end programs that help minorities including blacks participate in society, including attempts to scale back the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and to restrict black voting. So Paul’s views on history are also not based on a rational analysis of fact, but on a rigid adherence to theory.

It was interesting that he quoted Groucho Marx, because his statement was comical.

The Two Faces of Rand Paul

Senator Rand Paul has taken umbrage at the idea that he should have to answer for every crackpot idea of one of his supporters, allies, or intellectual forbearers. In an article in today’s New York Times, Paul was quoted as saying in an earlier interview “It loses its sense of proportion if you have to go through and defend every single person about whom someone says is associated with you.” [Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance, The New York Times.] There is a certain truth to that statement, although I should not that guilt by association has long been the stock in trade of political parties, and a tool particularly beloved by Republicans and conservative commentators. It is standard fair for FoxNews to suggest that any transgression by a Democrat somehow implicates every Democrat.

Senator Paul was particular upset by the fact that some people were suggesting that he somehow endorsed the racist views of a staffer (Jack Hunter AKA The Southern Avenger), even though he hired him knowing his views and record, and kept him on his staff for a while after his noxious views became public.

It is amusing, therefore, to see that while Senator Paul doesn’t want to take it, he can sure dish it out. While it is wrong, in his view, to level guilt by association, it is perfectly fine for him to use it as a sword. On Meet the Press today Senator Paul said that Hillary Clinton should be judges as a candidate and a politician based on what he called Bill Clinton’s predatory behavior towards Monica Lewinsky. [Rand Paul: The Clinton’s Should be Judged]

So it is wrong, wrong I tell you, to try to prove guilt by association against Rand Paul, but absolutely right for Senator Paul to tar Hilary Clinton by association. As Big Daddy once said, “mendacity.”

Through The Looking Glass

When Alice went through the looking glass she met a giant egg named Humpty Dumpty. After a brief discussion of their names, and what their names must mean, Humpty Dumpty informed Alice that “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Conservatives call Obamacare “socialism.” The main component of Obamacare is the health care exchange, which is a web site where consumers can select insurance policies offered by a group of private insurance providers. The health care exchange is a marketplace of private insurance policies, and was developed as a conservative idea based on free market principles. Socialism began as the idea that the government controls the means of production, but has morphed into the idea that the government provides services once provided by private enterprise. Many countries have a national health service where the government runs hospitals, and therefore provides health services. That’s socialized medicine. A government website for private health insurance is little different than a city government providing a place for a farmers market. The fact that the Lexington Farmers’ market takes place at the city owned Cheapside Park doesn’t make it a socialist endeavor, any more than “Obamacare” is socialized medicine.

Many Republicans, including Representative Andy Barr, said that it was President Obama that shut down the government. This runs directly counter to recent history, which must be known to anyone who pays attention to the news. Conservative Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said for months that they could extract concessions from President Obama by tying changes to the Affordable Care Act to the fight over funding the government. They explicitly talked about shutting down the government months ago. And then when it happened they blamed Obama. “We’ll shut down the government” became “he shut down the government.” Not only is that supreme chutzpah, it also makes mush of words.

The health care exchanges under Obamacare went live on October 1. On October 3 Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul published an Opinion piece in the Kentucky business magazine the Lane Report, with the headline, “Kentuckians Not Buying Obamacare.” In the on-line version of the Lane Report the very next headline read: “Kentuckians file nearly 11,000 applications for health care coverage on kynect.” Kynect, in case you don’t know, is the Kentucky exchange set up under Obamacare. How does thousands buying coverage become “not buying”?

It seems pretty clear that Republicans’ words have no relationship to reality.

Imagine trying to live in a world where words have no fixed meaning. But we don’t have to imagine. We live in a world where the free market health care exchange is socialism, where “we’ll do it” become “he did it,” and where “not buying” means that thousands are buying. Buying is not buying, capitalism is socialism, up is down, black is white. As Alice said, it gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

But it’s not just amusing. There are serious problems when words lose their meaning. How can you agree on anything when the words you use have no fixed meaning? Precise definition of words is the foundation of the law, of contracts, and of most business relations. And, as many conservatives will tell you, a world where rules and values are subject to varying meanings is a dangerous world indeed. Conservatives often complain about moral relativism, or the idea that moral values have no fixed meaning but are relative to the situation or the person. How can values be absolute when the words that define those values are changeable? They can’t be.

Is it possible that Representative Barr and Senators McConnell and Paul are relativists? Anything is possible when you go through the looking glass into a world where capitalism is socialism, where black is white, and where right is wrong.

A Deep Fear of Human Nature

Yesterday Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave a speech at Liberty University where he warned against eugenics, or the use of scientific biological engineering to selectively breed people. He said that the combination of abortion and advanced medical technology could allow people to selecting “out the imperfect among us.” Paul Warns About Eugenics

It was typical Paul hyperbole, and amusing since it turns out that he lifted much of the speech from the Wikipedia page for the movie Gattaca, which he referenced in his speech. Paul Lifts Anti-Abortion Speech

Paul made the remarks while campaigning for Virginia Attorney General, and gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli. Most of the commentary about the speech accused Paul and Cuccinelli of being anti-science. They noted that Cuccinnelli sued the University of Virginia under state anti-fraud laws to stop research on climate change. There is no doubt that Cucinnelli is anti-science, as is most of the modern Republican Party, and it is more than a little likely that Senator Paul is also anti-science.

But the real issue, in my view, is what this says about Paul’s view (and by implication Cucinelli’s view and the beliefs of much of the conservative movement) about human nature. Paul doesn’t just fear science. What he fears is that people will misuse science. In fact, Paul seems convinced that, given a tool, scientists will misuse it. This shows a deep disdain for human nature. This deep skepticism of human nature is a common current running through much of, if not most of, conservative thought. They are tough on crime because they believe that most people, if given the opportunity and believe that they can get away with it, will commit crimes. They fear government because government is run by people. They fear government most when it is run by liberals, whom they are predisposed to believe are inherently evil.

Most conservative policies are defined by this belief that people are inherently bad. And the one thing that seems to unite all segments of conservatism, from libertarians to free-marketeers to Christian conservatives to the members of the Tea Party, is a deep and abiding fear of humanity.

Rand Paul Flips the Flip and Flops the Flop

Apparently Rand Paul likes to tell one group of people one thing, and another group of people something different. And apparently, through the power of the Internet, some people are able to keep track of these, how shall we say, Flip Flops.

Here’s an article from Salon about what it calls Code Switching.

But its not just the national liberal media that is starting to pay attention. The local media is catching on as well. Here’s an article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, that includes video clips of Senator Paul saying one think one day, and another thing (often nearly the opposite) the next day.  Does Paul Change his Message?

Rand Paul on Drones

So Senator Rand Paul went from his famous filibusterer objecting to the Obama administration’s drone policy to publicly endorsing the use of drones in law enforcement within the United States.

Remember just a few weeks ago, when Senator Paul took to the floor of the Senate and said: “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, … That your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

Well, last night, on the Neil Cavuto show on Fox News, Paul said: “I have never argued against any technology being used against having an imminent threat, [or] an act of crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash I don’t care if a Drone kills him or a policeman kills him.”  Excerpt From Cavuto Show on Raw Story

So much for the moral high ground.



The Hobgoblin of a Little Mind

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay Self Reliance

Senator Rand Paul took boyish delight in pestering Senator John Kerry at his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State over the fact that as a candidate Barack Obama had said “the president doesn’t have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack.” But as president he did something much different in his support for NATO action in Libya in support of anti-Gadhafi rebels.

He sounded giddy when he asked: “I’d like to know if you agree with me and candidate Barack Obama, or if you agree with President Barack Obama who took us to war in Libya without Congressional authority unilaterally?”

See, he had caught Obama being inconsistent, which apparently, to Senator Paul, proves something deep and disquieting about Obama.

But what does inconsistency prove?

Have great statesmen ever been inconsistent?

Well, here are a couple of examples of inconsistency from the founding period.

Alexander Hamilton left the Constitutional Convention in disgust on June 30, 1787, saying that the document they were creating would ruin the nation. He returned in early September, and signed the final document, though he noted his disapproval of some measure. He then went on to be the coordinator and chief author of the Federalist Papers, which were fundamentally important in the ratification of the Constitution. What a flip-flopper.

James Madison, during the debate in the First Congress over the bill to charter the first Bank of the United States, said that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the understanding of men who wrote it. During other debates he said that the meaning of the Constitution was the meaning as understood by the men who ratified it in the states, and not by the Framers. During the debate over the second Bank of the United States Madison said that the meaning of the Constitution was determined by actual use and public acceptance. Finally, after he had retired from public life, he was asked about Constitutional interpretation and said that the understanding of the actual framers was unknowable and irrelevant. That dude was all over the place.

Thomas Jefferson ran for President in 1800 against President John Adams. Jefferson noted that many of Adam’s actions exceeded the scope of Presidential powers, and he said that the powers granted by the Constitution should be strictly construed. Then, in 1803, when France was having a fire sale on foreign territory to fund their European wars, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territories, despite admitting both at the time and later, that this clearly exceeded his powers as president and violated express provisions of the Constitution. What a hypocrite.

So, what does this say about Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson?

And what does it say about Senator Paul?