Category Archive: Government

  1. Bret Weinstein: Left and Right Libertarians Should Unite

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    Bret Weinstein, evolutionary biologist and former professor at Evergreen State College, makes the case that those who value liberty—whether we lean right or lean left—should unite in its defense.

    Excerpted from Spiked Magazine’s ‘Unsafe Space Tour’ panel discussion at New York Law School.

  2. The politics of “The Last Jedi”

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    The Last Jedi  — the latest installment in the Star Wars series — premiered to mixed reactions from critics and fans last weekend. The film has many impressive scenes and action sequences. But critics argue that the plot is flawed in various ways.

    The movie’s treatment of political themes deserves similar mixed reviews. Unlike most previous Star Wars movies, this one at least implies that institutions matter, not just individual heroics. But it also perpetuates Star Wars’ longstanding confusion about what exactly the “good guys” are fighting for. The series may belatedly value institutions, but it still gives no indication what institutions are valuable.

    As The Last Jedi begins, the villainous First Order has almost completely vanquished the New Republic. Only a small Resistance led by Princess (now General) Leia Organa still opposes it, and even that remnant is on the verge of being wiped out.

    The situation is in many ways similar to that which existed at the start of the original Star Wars trilogy: a small band of rebels oppose an overwhelmingly powerful empire led by Dark Side Force users — with Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren seemingly assuming the roles formerly played by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.

    If anything, the Resistance may even be worse off than the original Rebellion was at the start of Episode IV. At that time, the rebels had a substantial fleet, and controlled a number of important star systems and planets. In The Last Jedi, they have been reduced to a much smaller force and suffer further attrition throughout the movie.

    Institutions are more important than heroes.

    Aaron Ross Powell of the Cato Institute describes this setup as a “betrayal” of the original trilogy, since all of the work of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo has effectively been undone. But it can also be seen as a lesson in the importance of institutions. Despite their courage and skill in overthrowing the Empire, our heroes failed to set up effective political institutions that could forestall the emergence of a similar menace in the future.

    The New Republic seems just as dysfunctional as the old, and it allows the First Order to amass enormous power right under its nose, just as the Old Republic failed to address the threat of the Sith.

    Despite his impressive mastery of the Force, Luke Skywalker failed to establish a new Jedi Order that can prevent powerful Force users like his nephew Ben Solo from going over to the Dark Side. His efforts to train Ben on his own end in dismal failure, as a result of which Ben defects to Snoke and becomes Kylo Ren — a development that parallels Anakin Skywalker’s becoming Darth Vader. Luke’s efforts to train Rey — the powerful new Force user introduced in The Force Awakens — are only modestly more successful.

    No amount of individual ability and heroism is an adequate substitute for good institutional design.  This message is further underscored by the chase scenes in which the remains of the Resistance fleet try to escape the First Order.

    Leia and her second-in-command Admiral Amilyn Holdo repeatedly rebuke ace pilot Poe Dameron for his reckless “flyboy” ways, and his refusal to respect the chain of command. Holdo, by contrast, is praised for being “more interested in protecting the light than she was in seeming like a hero.”

    As I have explained in earlier writings on Star Wars, earlier Star Wars films tended to neglect institutional considerations, and implicitly convey the message that we should put our faith in heroic figures like Han, Luke, and Leia, and that concentrated power is only dangerous if placed in the wrong hands. The Last Jedi at least partly corrects that tendency. It suggests that heroes aren’t enough. The Galaxy will not have peace, happiness, or freedom without a functional republic, and perhaps also a new and better Jedi Order.

    We still don’t know what the Resistance is fighting for.

    But if Episode VIII offsets the flaws of its predecessors in some ways, it perpetuates them in others. Like the rebels who opposed the Empire, the Resistance has little notion of what they are fighting for, other than simply opposing the First Order.

    One Resistance fighter says that the movement will win “not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” But what do they love, other than perhaps their friends and fellow fighters? Two lengthy movies into this new Star Wars trilogy, we still don’t know.

    Is it the restoration of the feckless New Republic — the same one that failed so dismally? Is it some new type of political  system? We do not know. Perhaps the Resistance members do not even know themselves.

    Similarly, Luke Skywalker ultimately promises that he will not be the last Jedi. But what does that mean? Will Rey, or some other successor, establish a new Jedi Order? If so, how will it avoid the catastrophic errors of its predecessor?

    The Resistance’s — and the filmmakers — neglect of such questions is  paralleled by all too many real-world rebels, who sought to overthrow oppressive regimes without giving sufficient thought to what might come after — or to the possibility that it could be even worse than the current tyrants. Even in established liberal democracies, voters too often react to a flawed status quo by embracing “change” candidates without sufficiently considering whether the their proposed changes are actually likely to improve the situation, rather than make it worse.

    Both many real-world rebel movements and those of the Star Wars universe also do little to question their own behavior. The Last Jedi is yet another Star Wars movie that largely ignores the glaring hypocrisy inherent in the fact that the rebels (and now the Resistance) are simultaneously freedom fighters and slave owners. They seek liberty for themselves, yet treat droids as slaves, even though the latter are as intelligent as humans, and clearly capable of feeling emotions such as hope, pain, and fear.

    Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who at least recognized that their ownership of slaves was at odds with their professed principles, the Star Wars “good guys” seem oblivious to the issue — as – it seems – are all too many of the filmmakers and viewers.

    I find your lack of continuity disturbing.

    In addition to the renewed attention to institutional issues, The Last Jedi has a number of other interesting plot twists. Both Rey and Kylo Ren’s characters develop in surprising but effective ways. On the other hand, the sprawling plot has a number of turns that seem pointless, yet take up a lot of screen time.

    In addition, there are some significant problems with world-building and continuity. For example, the first six Star Wars movies established that even highly talented Force users need extensive training to use their abilities effectively. But Rey demonstrates remarkable skill with the Force, despite having almost no training at all. Similarly, Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker and Snoke use the Force to communicate with each other over vast interstellar distances that greatly exceed any previous such abilities that we have seen.

    There are also discontinuities in military and technological development. The bombers used by the Resistance in the opening battle are not only more primitive than the craft we see in the original trilogy (set decades earlier), but even seem slower and less sophisticated than World War II-era bombers were. Either the filmmakers laid an egg here, or they want to suggest that the galaxy has gone through a period of severe technological regression!

    And, if the Resistance seems to have no coherent agenda, neither does the First Order. Despite his pivotal role in the plot, we learn virtually nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke, his goals, or how and why he came to lead the First Order. We cannot even rule out the popular fan theory that he is really Jar Jar Binks in disguise.

    Such flaws may not bother casual viewers, but might well annoy more committed science fiction fans. They remind us that Star Wars is less committed to careful world-building than rivals such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones. This problem may be related to the failure to think carefully about what it is that the rebels are fighting for, and why it matters.

    Despite notable flaws, the Last Jedi is still an entertaining and in some ways compelling movie.  And, like much of the rest of the Star Wars franchise, it teaches us some useful lessons about what not to do.

  3. There’s No Such Thing As An Unregulated Market

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    We all want the safety and dependable quality that “regulation” is supposed to provide. Government can provide it to some extent, but markets can do it better, if we let them. Howard Baetjer of Towson University explains.

  4. Economic Freedom by the Numbers

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    What’s the evidence that economic freedom is beneficial for society? Prof. Antony Davies shows charts of the free market’s effects on unemployment, inequality, poverty, and even child labor.

  5. What is Section 702?

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    A panel of experts from TechFreedom, the ACLU, R Street, and the US Naval Academy discuss Section 702, the controversial warrantless mass-surveillance provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

  6. Life isn’t fair, but can government help that?

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    Luck egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that inequalities in life prospects resulting from luck are unjust. (There’s a lot to nit pick about that characterization, but it’s a start.) If Amy has better job opportunities than Bob because she happened to have parents who could afford to send her to a fancy private school, that’s unfair.

    You might even think it’s unfair that Rob Gronkowski makes so much more money than, say, me simply because he was gifted with 6’6” height and fast-twitch muscle fibers that enable him to run a 4.68 40 yard dash. Even if we both work equally hard at our crafts, Gronk will earn more than me because his natural talents are more marketable than mine. But it’s not like Gronk earned those talents; he just got lucky and won the genetic lottery. So it’s wrong for him to make so much more money than I do.

    Suppose, for argument’s sake, this account of distributive justice is correct. What institutional conclusions follow? Luck egalitarians suggest that the income disparities between people like me and Gronk show that free markets are unjust. It’s the job of the state to correct for these kinds of market-generated inequalities via regulation and redistribution.

    As I detail in my book, luck egalitarians (and fellow travelers who might not apply the label to themselves) are nearly unanimous in their rejection of free market regimes. Here’s a small sample:

    • “Laissez-faire capitalism (the system of natural liberty) secures only formal equality and rejects both the fair value of the equal political liberties and fair equality of opportunity.” (John Rawls)
    • “Market allocations must be corrected in order to bring some people closer to the share of resources they would have had but for these various differences of initial advantage, luck and inherent capacity.” (Ronald Dworkin)
    • “Desert as a principle of justice, then, rather than justifying the distributional consequences of free market choices, requires precisely the elimination, or at least the minimization, of the differential brute luck that characterizes the free market […]. The adoption of desert as a principle of justice seems to result in a much more demanding requirement, as far as its implications for the regulation of the market are concerned, than a commitment to voluntariness as a legitimating condition for the imposition of obligations, even when this is suitably revised so as to square up with a defensible account of voluntariness and force.” (Serena Olsaretti)

    I could go on, but you get the point: the market generates luck-based inequalities and the state reduces them.

    One problem with this argument is that you don’t clinch the luck egalitarian case against free markets by simply showing that they create luck-based inequalities. What you need to do is show that the alternative is better. To use an old analogy of mine, showing that Steph Curry misses over half of his three point shot attempts doesn’t justify benching Steph Curry. To justifiably bench Steph Curry, you’d need to show that his replacement would do better. Similarly, luck egalitarians need to show that a highly regulated market with extensive redistribution will have less luck-based inequality than a libertarian regime.

    Here’s a reason for doubting that claim: those who benefit from inherited wealth, elite education, and natural talent in the market also benefit from those factors in politics. Put very roughly, political power will concentrate in the hands of the rich—the very people the political power was created to regulate and restrain. Thus, we might naturally expect such power to be used to increase rather than decrease the advantages of the rich.

    Interestingly, this is Rawls’s own view. He says that a

    “reason for controlling economic and social inequalities is to prevent one part of society from dominating the rest. When those two kinds of inequalities are large, they tend to support political inequality. As Mill said, the bases of political power are (educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination, by which he meant the power to cooperate in pursuing one’s political interests. This power allows a few, in virtue of their control over the machinery of state, to enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.”

    By Rawls’s own lights, the rich will use their “(educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination” to acquire political power and “enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.” But now we can see a problem for Rawls’s view. The people that Rawls wants the state to control (those with property, education, and so on) are the same people that Rawls thinks control the state itself. So how can the state control the rich if the rich control the state? Shouldn’t we instead expect state intervention into the economy to favor the rich? Indeed, this is exactly what we see in many cases: subsidies, licensing, trade restrictions, housing regulations, and so on tend to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

    Of course, we cannot definitively establish a conclusion about the effects of regulation and redistribution on luck-based inequalities by doing a priori institutional analysis. But at a minimum, luck egalitarians shouldn’t rule out libertarianism as a viable institutional option at the level of philosophical theory. Perhaps libertarianism and luck egalitarianism are compatible after all.

    Originally published at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

  7. College and Housing Bubbles

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    Remember the mid-2000s housing crash that wiped out homeowners? Well, there’s another bubble getting ready to pop, and this one’s in student debt. Prof. Antony Davies explains.

  8. 10 Myths About Government Debt

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    Myth 1 is that the government owes “only” $20 trillion. (In reality, it’s much more.) But luckily, Myth 10 is that there’s no way to fix this problem…

  9. DEBATE: Incarceration in America

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    Why does America put so many people in jail? Is it because we have lots of guns? Lots of criminals? Or lots of laws turning nonviolent people into criminals? Watch this UNSAFE SPACE debate featuring Heather Mac Donald and Prof. Thaddeus Russell.

    UNSAFE SPACE is a live show and podcast where comedians do standup on controversial topics, then have a discussion with experts and the audience. See more at UnsafeSpaceShow.comTo view the debate in its entirety, see the full episode here.

  10. FEMA should not favor zoos over houses of worship

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    When a disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) swoops in to provide assistance. Like many readers of Learn Liberty, I get nervous when someone says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    When the government makes a benefit generally available, it cannot discriminate against religious citizens or institutions. However, according to attorneys from Becket, a public interest law firm, FEMA does exactly that.

    FEMA’s Public Assistance Program provides relief to a wide range of private nonprofit organizations that sustain damage from natural disasters. Institutions such as museums, libraries, and zoos are eligible for relief. According to the same Becket document, “FEMA’s policy provides that “facilities established or primarily used for…religious…activities are not eligible.”

    Ironically, FEMA has recognized that “the local church, the local synagogue, the local faith based community, [and] the local mosque” are often among the first responders to disasters. Indeed, one of the three churches challenging FEMA’s policy is still being used as a “shelter for dozens of evacuees, a warehouse for disaster relief supplies, a distribution center for thousands of emergency meals, and a base to provide medical services.”

    FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and constitutional law

    It is bad public policy to exclude houses of worship from this sort of aid. And, according to attorneys from Becket, it is unconstitutional in light of last summer’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer.

    This United States Supreme Court case involved a state program that provided safe playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Forty-four nonprofits applied for the program. Trinity Lutheran Church Preschool Learning Center’s application was ranked fifth, and 14 grants were awarded — but Trinity Lutheran’s application was rejected. It was denied solely because of Missouri’s constitutional provision prohibiting state funds from going to religious entities.

    Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, contended that the “Free Exercise Clause ‘protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment’ and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for ‘special disabilities’ based on their ‘religious status’.” In this case, Missouri discriminated against an entity simply because it was religious, and it made no effort to explain why it had a compelling interest in doing so. This sort of discrimination against an organization “simply because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution” and so it “cannot stand,” Roberts wrote.

    Many court-watchers expected the decision to be 5-4 and were shocked when it was decided 7-2 in favor of the church. Most justices, though, understood the bedrock American principle that governments cannot discriminate against religious citizens and institutions.

    FEMA’s role in religious discrimination

    No one is arguing that churches have a right to government funding — only that when a program is made generally available, governments cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

    In this case, however, FEMA does not only discriminate against religious institutions. Indeed, the relevant policy reads in full: “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities are not eligible” for funding. FEMA might reasonably argue that a whole range of facilities, not just religious ones, are excluded from its program. Such an argument may well withstand constitutional scrutiny.

    Still, there is something wrong with a federal program that treats zoos more generously than it does churches, synagogues, and mosques.