Tired of the corruption, high crime, and poor state of the economy in Venezuela, students and other citizens are taking to the streets to protest. What kind of ideas inspire regular citizens to risk so much in the face of a tyrannical government?
The anti-government protests and demonstrations in Ukraine have been flooding the news lately. But what is it all about? What ideas inspire these people to stand tall against their oppressive government?
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“I mean let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful.” – Leonard Read
The United States has laws in place to limit the number of immigrants granted entry. How many immigrants should be allowed to call America home? Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, argues that the United States should have open borders. Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University, argues that there need to be limits on the number of immigrants.
In this clip, Prof. Ting argues that open borders would result in an enormous increase in the number of immigrants to the United States. He points out that there are so many opportunities here that people would come in huge numbers from less developed countries. The strain on the United States infrastructure and environment could be enormous.
In his response, Prof. Caplan argues that the fact people would want to come in such great numbers is, in his mind, an argument favoring open borders. People should be living in places where they can achieve their potential. For many people around the world, this means they need to move. Would this have effects on the U.S. economy? Absolutely. Prof. Caplan argues that in the short run, housing prices would probably increase, for example. In addition, we may see a move to having personal servants, as many of the low-skilled workers in the world have skill sets that fall below the lowest-skilled workers in the United States. To offset pressures on the environment, Prof. Caplan recommends increasing costs for pollution and other environmental hazards.
What do you think? Do you think the fact that many people would want to immigrate to the United States is an argument in favor or against opening the borders?
The question of how to address poverty in the United States is complicated. Steven Horwitz, chair of the department of economics at St. Lawrence University, and Jeffrey Reiman, professor of philosophy and religion at American University, debate the level of government assistance that should be given to help the poor.
In this clip, Prof. Horwitz suggest that the least amount of government necessary should be involved in alleviating U.S. inequality. He discusses the use, for example, of charitable donations from private entities as a way to help the poor without government involvement.
Prof. Reiman, in contrast, suggests that poverty and inequality is a matter of justice. That is, everyone is entitled to a certain standard of living, a certain level of equality in outcome. He argues that charity hurts the dignity of the recipient. When it is a gift, the recipient is made to feel that he does not deserve the charity, that he is made lower than the giver. Instead, he argues, assistance given to the poor should be something they receive because they have a right to it. They should not have to feel that it is undeserved. This is an interesting philosophical question tucked inside a larger debate about the role of government in helping the poor. What do you think?
This LearnLiberty debate presents arguments for and against more government assistance to help the poor in the United States. Prof. Steven Horwitz argues that the government has created too many problems and that lifting government-imposed barriers to the poor will go a long way toward solving the problems of inequality in the United States. Prof. Jeffrey Reiman takes the view that government, while not perfect, will have a key role to play in creating better programs to help the poor. What do you think?
Literature and legend often reflect their culture. Some themes, like that of rulers imposing coercive power, or of individuals rising up against tyrants, are as relevant today as they were in antiquity. Suzanne Collins drew on Greek mythology’s story of the Minotaur and on the legend of Spartacus in ancient Rome as she created the Hunger Games series. Her hero, like the heroes in these stories, does not seek her own power or profit but is standing up against a violent and tyrannical government. “People everywhere yearn for the freedom to pursue their own goals and dreams,” says Prof. Amy Sturgis. Even though the themes are ancient, stories like the Hunger Games resonate with readers because the anxieties and fears they portray are real and relevant. “These stories aren’t just entertainment,” Sturgis says. “They are reflections of who and what we are.” Do the themes in these stories resonate with you? Why?
Is it possible the war on drugs is to blame for increased potency in marijuana and for how crack ravaged inner cities in the 1980s? Prof. Adam Martin explains how the drug war has altered incentives for both drug buyers and sellers, leading them to favor higher potency drugs. This is what economists call the potency effect. As penalties for purchasing marijuana go up, for example, the cost difference between high- and low-potency marijuana decreases and people may think that if they’re risking a fine or jail time anyway they may as well buy the stronger drugs. Similarly, cartels and dealers have shifted their focus to high-value, high-potency drugs like cocaine as a result of the steeper fines and penalties for drug trafficking. The potency effect is just one of many economic forces that make markets so complex. Public policies that alter the incentives people face—as the war on drugs does—can lead to unintended and even dangerous consequences.
The 14th Amendment guarantees liberty and equal protection to every American. Do state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violate that amendment? Is the federal government’s refusal to recognize a marriage that is legal in a state federal overreach? The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide the answers to these questions by the end of June 2013 in two cases related to same-sex marriage.
Professor Dale Carpenter provides a brief explanation of the two cases before the Court. In 2008, California voters passed Prop 8, which bans same-sex marriage in the state. This law is being contested on the grounds that the equality principle is violated because opposite-sex couples have rights that are denied to same-sex couples. It is also contested on the grounds that every American has a fundamental right to marry. A similar case centers on the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996. This law limits federal recognition of same-sex marriages, thereby denying same-sex couples more than a thousand benefits otherwise available under federal law. This means that even when a couple is legally married according to the state, the federal government does not recognize the marriage.
There are many possible outcomes in both cases. In the DOMA case, for example, Prof. Carpenter argues that “there is no legitimate federal interest in denying recognition to validly married same-sex couples.” He has submitted a brief to the Court asking it to strike down DOMA on federalism grounds. But will the justices agree? What do you think about these cases?
Fewer than half of 1 percent of Americans are in state and federal prisons. That sounds like a small number. But when the U.S. prison population is examined by race, we find that the effects of the criminal justice system in the United States are unequally distributed in society. While whites make up 64 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 31 percent of the incarcerated population. In contrast, Blacks represent 14 percent of society but 36 percent of prisoners. Similarly, Hispanics represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of the prison population.
While fewer than 1 in 100 Americans are in jail, among the population of young black men, the ratio is closer to 1 out of 4. A young black man is more likely to be imprisoned than to get married or go to college. Professor Daniel D’Amico argues that while the causes of this trend are complicated and multicausal, perhaps part of the blame should be placed on the U.S. criminal justice system.
He points out problems with the perverse incentives politicians and bureaucrats have in developing laws. Although laws about drug prohibition, for example, are ostensibly color blind, people with different levels of wealth face different costs and benefits to participating in the drug trade. Minorities are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. In light of this, Prof. D’Amico argues that radical changes to the system might be necessary and preferable to the status quo.
What if libertarians and classical liberals were wrong and the free-market system actually did make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Would that change their support of those ideas? Professor Matt Zwolinski expects that it would. This implies that most proponents view how the poor fare under free-markets as more than just an attractive selling point for the free-market system. It is a crucial element in justifying market-based policies.
Who ends up with what in terms of money, jobs, or opportunities is affected by the legal and social rules under which people operate. We have rules defining and enforcing property rights, rules of contract, taxation, and so on. Prof. Zwolinski says, “Rules like these don’t determine exactly how any particular person in society will fare compared to anyone else, but they do affect the overall patterns of distribution in society.”
The famous egalitarian John Rawls said that “a just society’s rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well off classes.” Prof. Zwolinski argues that while we may disagree on the means to achieve this end, free-market proponents can agree with this statement. We can embrace a theory of social justice without believing the state has to do anything to directly promote the welfare of the least well off. Prof. Zwolinski believes that when it comes to social justice, supporters of a traditional concept of social justice and free-market proponents have much to learn from one another.
Many argue that we should do more for the poor as a matter of social justice. In some cases, they mean we should use our own time and resources to assist those in need, but more often they mean the government should enact policies that try to help the poor in various ways. Meanwhile, many classical liberals and libertarians reject the idea of social justice, finding it immoral, impractical, or even, as Professor Matt Zwolinski discusses, conceptually confused.
The term social justice typically refers to a moral assessment of the way wealth, jobs, opportunities, and other goods are distributed in society. Some may think wealth should be distributed equally; others may argue that it is more important for opportunities to be equally distributed. Unfortunately, there is no central distributor in a free society able to enforce this type of equality.
In fact, Prof. Zwolinski argues, we are all distributors. When we make decisions, like which grocer to buy from, what to study in school, or where to live, we affect the distribution of resources. None of those decisions is inherently just or unjust. As Prof. Zwolinski says, “If there’s no [single] agent responsible for the distribution of wealth in society, then how can that distribution be just or unjust?” For libertarians and classical liberals, the only meaningful concept of social justice is one focused on the legal and economic rules of societies. Many think this focus is incompatible with the political left’s concept of social justice. Stay tuned to the next LearnLiberty video by Prof. Zwolinski to find out why he disagrees.
In this video, Professor Munger reminds us of the difference between democracy and majority rule. Democratic constitutions establish not only the process by which decisions will be made, but also the limits on kind of things can be voted on. This prevents the majority from deciding everything. He warns, however, that these limits on what can be decided democratically have been slowly eroded in American courts of law.
One example of a weakening of limitations on democracy is the Supreme Court ruling in the 2005 case Kelo v. New London. When Miss Kelo refused a private real estate developer