Coalitions & Outreach

In the middle of this holiday season my colleague Stephanie Rugolo over at the Cato’s new project, HumanProgress.org, is spreading cheer by getting out the word about the improving human condition. She offered these thoughts which I’d like to share:

Good News to Share Over the Holidays: The World Is Getting Better

You’ve heard it all before, “The world is becoming increasingly violent,” “Work-related injuries are on the rise,” “Soon, we’ll have no more forests.” As it turns out, pessimism is often at odds with the real world.

Long term trends for nearly every indicator of human progress are positive. For instance, forest coverage in rich countries is increasing in line with the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This trend will hopefully continue in the developing world as it becomes richer.

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According to the International Labor Organization, work fatalities are way down, while economic freedom is on the rise. This should give pause to those who think that free market is synonymous with bad working conditions. Quite the opposite. Economically free countries tend to be richer than economically unfree countries, and richer countries have safer working environments.

 

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Moreover, there has been a dramatic decline in violence. Conflicts between major powers, which used to be commonplace, are non-existent. Deaths due to genocide are way down, too.

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So cheer up and enjoy the holidays!

Post image for Coalition Urges Policymakers to Reform the “Terrible Twelve” of Farm Policy

Action is heating up on the next farm bill, as the Senate Agriculture Committee today completed its markup of their bill which will go to the Senate for consideration.  The House is scheduled to release its markup on Wednesday.  No surprise – the Senate bill is replete with subsidies and support programs that cost tens of billions of dollars.

Yesterday, in anticipation of the markup, eleven taxpayer and policy groups sent a letter to the House and the Senate with its listing of the “Terrible Twelve” – the twelve most egregious farm policies.  The groups urged policymakers to reform or eliminate these costly and distorting programs:

    • Direct payments
    • Federal crop insurance
    • Shallow loss program
    • USDA Trade Promotion programs
    • Sugar program
    • Diary Market Stabilization Plan
    • Target prices
    • Rural broadband
    • Mandatory assessments
    • Cotton program
    • Ethanol’s Feedstock Flexibility Program
    • Biomass Crop Assistance Program

Last week, a coalition organized by CEI sent a letter to policymakers urging reform of the U.S. sugar program, which costs consumers an estimated $4 billion a year in extra costs.

Amendments are likely to be introduced on the floor in both the House and the Senate to reform some of  these wasteful programs.  But the farm programs are a classic example of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.   In addition, because nutrition and food stamp programs make up the majority of the costs of the farm bill, both urban and rural policymakers form an unholy bipartisan alliance to push farm bills through.  Bipartisanship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Post image for Republican National Committee To GOP: Be More Libertarian

If there is one message underlying all the recommendations from the recently released Republican National Committee strategy guide, it is that the Grand Old Party should heed the advice of libertarians: Focus on free-market economics, become more socially inclusive, and work to reform, rather than immediately abolish, the welfare state.

“We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel,” declares the report prepared by a team of GOP strategists. “We are the party of private-sector economic growth because that is the best way to create jobs and opportunity.”

But the party clearly lacks a compelling vision for voters. In the strategists’ meetings with voters, the party was repeatedly called “narrow minded” and “out of touch.” Freedom in both social and economic spheres, the report details, is the only solution. As one local Republican leader told the group, “the key problem is that the Republican Party’s message offends too many people unnecessarily. We win the economic message, which is the most important to voters, but we then lose them when we discuss other issues.”

The numbers of people being driven away by GOP’s narrow and inconsistent messaging are astounding. “The minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050,” the report notes. The GOP also has a huge problem with younger voters. “Mitt Romney won individuals older than 30 by 1.8 million votes; he lost voters younger than 30 by 5 million votes,” it laments.

Although the authors repeatedly state “we are not a policy committee,” they also hint sweeping libertarian reforms are needed to save the party. On economic policy, it boldly declares “we have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare…. When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming.”

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Post image for Stand with State Farm as it Stands with ALEC

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” For decades, that has been the famous slogan for the nation’s largest home and auto insurer, which serves more than 80 million customers.

But State Farm hasn’t just been a good neighbor to its policy holders. It has also been neighborly in supporting a robust public policy debate. While Walmart just became the latest company to cave to pressure from the leftist mob and drop its support from the center-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), State Farm has bravely stood firm in its funding for ALEC. So the large center-right majority  in this country who believe in much of ALEC’s message of federalism and limited government needs to stand with State Farm.

All things being equal, the political demographics of the U.S. should make it a bad business decision for firms to cave to radical left groups like Color of Change in their demands to stop funding center-right groups like ALEC. As National Center for Public Policy Research co-CEO Amy Ridenour notes: ”According to Gallup, 40 percent of the public considers itself “conservative,” and 21 percent, “liberal.” Those who say they are “very liberal” — which the groups pressuring corporations from the left are — represent only six percent. If it comes to a showdown, why would a corporation want to offend 94 million conservative adult consumers to please 14 million very liberal ones?”

Because the problem is that all things are not equal. The right doesn’t apply pressure to corporations that cave as the left does on the firms to cave in the first place. My Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Iain Murray laid out some good ideas on how the free-market majority can respond to Amazon, and my friend Phil Kerpen, who heads the new group American Commitment, has a petition calling on companies to “reject anti-ALEC bullying.”

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One of the teachers at the recently-completed Language of Liberty camps was fond of telling students a certain joke: “Do you know what the most frightening sentence in the English language is? I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

The students in Portugal and Poland didn’t laugh. They didn’t really see the humor in government trying to help people.

We’re in Berlin now. The Sulejow Language of Liberty camp has ended, and we’ve stopped in Berlin for one night before returning home to D.C. The ghost of the wall that once separated this city is eerily memorialized in the fragments still here. The East Side Gallery is a kaleidoscope of political art and irreverent graffiti. The Brandenburg Gate stands solemn, alone, like a doorway to a room that no longer exists.

We have lunch with the director of Berlin think tank. He asks us if we’ve noticed anything interesting about the police in Berlin. “Their priority is de-escalation,” he explains. “That’s what they’re trained for — de-escalating situations before they become violent.” He says policemen try to avoid making arrests whenever possible, even when they’re insulted or threatened. “More or less, they really are just there to help,” he says. “It’s a bit different than in America, no?”

If the American government is a paternal government — a strict, protective disciplinarian — then most European governments are decidedly maternal. They provide care. They nurture. They purport to do for the people what the people cannot or will not do for themselves.

Cities across the European continent are scarred by the vestiges of fascist and communist regimes. There is a real and recent memory here of what it means to be truly frightened of one’s government. There is also a collective memory of revolution. It’s a memory made manifest in monuments, museums, and cemeteries. It’s permanently sewn into the fabric of political language. American Tea Partiers may have taken their name from revolutionaries, but in Europe, revolution is more than a story of national origin. It’s something many of these cities experienced in the 20th century. The memories of oppression and revolution, so patent in the urban landscape of Berlin and other cities, are a constant reminder of what happens when state power ceases to be a tool of the people.

Europe’s history of tyranny is what sets the tone for the current citizen-government relationship here. Governments are careful not to dictate or demand. Instead, they guide; they de-escalate. And with the experience of oppressive paternalism now largely behind them, the new European generation gladly accepts democratic maternalism. The students we met at the Language of Liberty camps think that their governments are flawed, but essentially good. They don’t really understand the anti-nanny-state angst of Americans. Most of these students don’t want to scale back state power; they just want to fix state power. They want to help their governments to better help their people.

This is why there’s a disconnect between American and European political discourse — why the classical liberal movement is floundering in the home countries of Friedrich Hayek and Frederic Bastiat. European governments don’t wear heavy boots anymore; they wear kid gloves. When the people and the state are in tandem — finally happy with each other after an unhappy past — the people are overwhelmingly and dangerously tempted to allow the state to suffocate them with maternal care.

When we left Portugal for the Language of Liberty camp in Poland, we left a wine country for a vodka country. At the supermarket near the campsite in Sulejow, Poland, our host stands in front of several shelves of vodka and tells us what the difference is between each brand. He also picks up a large jar of pickles. “To eat with vodka,” he explains.

But the students at the camp aren’t very interested in drinking. Most are between the ages of 18-23. Over half of them are male. Some of them don’t drink at all. The ones who do drink have a small glass of vodka as they grill kielbasas over the campfire.

For these students, drinking alcohol is not an activity unto itself. It’s a part of their culture. They grow up with it. They take it for granted.

One can’t help comparing their drinking habits with the habits of the average American college student.

The Polish government is not completely laissez-faire in regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol. The minimum drinking age is 18. Many cities have open-container laws. Recently the government banned the serving of alcohol before and during the recent state funerals for the victims of the Katin plane crash.

But the Polish students laugh when I ask if the government enforces the drinking age. Teenagers here are not arrested for drinking. Parents here are not threatened by child services for giving alcohol to their kids.

If the United States government wants future American youths to drink less (or drink differently), they have only to look to European models. Liberalization — not criminalization — is the answer. Here in Poland, a country known for its production of vodka, the youth is completely unimpressed by the idea of drunkenness. One night on the beach at the edge of camp, some of the teachers ask the students if they know any icebreaker games like the drinking games freshmen play in American universities. The Polish students are confused. They don’t know what drinking games are.

On our way to the Language of Liberty campsite in Sulejow, Poland, we were told that religion is the greatest antidote to government power. Our guide, Konrad, is from the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research Education (PAFERE). He was kind enough to take us on the hour-long bus ride from the industrial city of Lodz (pop. 780,000) to Sulejow, a tiny town surrounded by farms and forests.

Konrad told us that Catholicism is what keeps the people of Poland together. He said, the government is afraid of the church, because the church is more powerful than the government. Later, at the camp, we had a beer with a Polish businessman who was here to give a guest lecture on entrepreneurship. He agreed with Konrad. “Even if you don’t believe in God,” he said, “the Ten Commandments give us values. There is a God-value in life, and it is separate from government.”

The Catholicism of the Polish students is interesting. The Catholic Church almost acts like a government itself, yet unlike governments, membership in the Church is voluntary. In a sense, there is competition in Poland between the Church and the State. Almost everyone in Poland is Catholic, thus giving the church great power and influence. Because of this, the church and its members keep government power in check. Even the most skeptical agnostic and atheist libertarians might see some value in this.

This division of power is not a new concept for Poland. For nearly 1,000 years, the Catholic Church, royalty (government), and szlachta (nobility/property owners) were powerful political forces in Poland. Poland has spent much of its history fighting off larger neighboring powers. When the people weren’t being terrorized by Russia, they were being brutalized by Germany. The only constant throughout all of this was the Catholic Church. One student said, “When the communists ruled Poland, the Catholic Church was the center of the resistance. The priests were leaders of the resistance and the churches were the meeting places.”

The communists were fearful of the Catholic Church of its power. When I asked why the communists didn’t abolish the Church, another student smiled and said, “Abolishing the religion was impossible, everyone in the country was a Catholic and you can’t do that.”

Many priests and resistance members were killed by the communists, but the resistance movement was too big to eradicate. The Catholic Church was the main force behind the Solidarity movement and Pope John Paul II (born in Poland) was a huge supporter of Solidarity. The businessman who lived under communist rule in Poland said, “When the Pope visits, it gave us much hope for the Solidarity movement.”

The result of this history is a unique Polish brand of libertarianism. The Polish students at the Sulejow Language of Liberty camp are largely anti-government and believe in the liberating power of capitalism. Unlike the students in Portugal, these students are not interested in political careers. They’re interested in entrepreneurship. They’re interested in money as a medium that improves exchange and thus their lives and their country’s place in the world. Their voluntary membership in the Catholic Church is not only for religious guidance, but also an organization that will resist oppressive and tyrannical government.

Some things at the Porto Language of Liberty camp are lost in translation.

One problem is political labels. They call us “liberals,” meaning classical liberals. The teachers call themselves libertarians. In lectures, some of the teachers criticize “liberals,” meaning leftists. The politically-active students told us they belonged to the equivalent of a Republican Youth group, but their group is Juventude Social Democrata—Social Democrats. They’re the right-wing of Portugal, and they thought we’d understand that better by thinking of them as Republicans. In truth, most of them would be considered moderate Democrats in America. They are right-wing because the rest of the country is far left.

But they are looking for solutions to their country’s problems, and are interested what the teachers at Language of Liberty have to say. In a workshop about education reform, an argument breaks out. Some of the students say that Portuguese schools are failing. They believe the system—in which the best students go to public universities and the worst go to private—is not encouraging the Portuguese youth to be productive and accountable for themselves.

The recurring question this week has been how to make the Portuguese less dependent on the government and more focused on individual economic achievement. One student has said several times that Portugal suffers because the government treats the people like children. Now education reform may be a matter of economic survival for the country. Portugal’s public debt is currently 80 percent of their GDP. The future of Portugal depends on the productivity and independence of their youth.

One student in the workshop says Portugal should reform education by adopting a Swedish model of school choice. But a group of students—who speak softly in rapid Portuguese until the teacher forces them to speak in English—say that a Swedish model may not work for Portugal. “We’re a different culture,” one student says firmly.

A 17-year-old student, the youngest at the camp, agrees. “For example, if you told Swedish students to come to a Language of Liberty lecture at 9:30 am, they’d come at 9:30 am,” he says dryly.

Everyone laughs. The big joke at the camp has been about the Portuguese concept of time. When the lectures are scheduled for 9:30 am, the students come at 10:15; if we schedule at 10, they come at 10:30. “It’s normal,” one student told Glenn Cripe on the first day when Glenn wondered why everyone was late.

Now, the students are half-serious when they talk self-deprecatingly about “Portuguese time.”

“We’re soft,” one student jokes.

“We’re a Latin country,” another amends.

“We need a more disciplined education system.”

“A Fascist system!”

People laugh and start speaking in Portuguese again. The student who first suggested implementing the Swedish school choice model speaks up.

“The reality is we need to change our culture when we change education and change the government. And people will suffer at first. But in the long run, Portugal will be better off.”

The Portuguese Constitution guarantees the provision of many social services, including free health care. The students at the Porto Language of Liberty camp remind us of this several times.

“My party is working on a plan to reform the constitution,” one young man offers when the issue comes up. The other students roll their eyes and say it’s very complicated.
And many of them don’t want to cut social services. Even the more libertarian-minded of them say society would suffer too much without high unemployment benefits, socialized medicine, and a healthy welfare state. The Portuguese people have learned to depend on it. “You try to take these things away, there will be a revolution,” says one economics student. He’s very serious.

Between lectures, two of the students take us on a drive though Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the river. The driver, a lawyer and an elected representative in his town, gives us a brief history of Portugal. He says the North, where we are, is far more open to libertarian ideas than the South, where Lisbon is. Lisbon has the money and the political power; yet they’re influenced by “all things Red.”

“When the communists first came to the South,” the lawyer explains, “the communists killed the farmers. But in the North, the farmers killed the communists. There they still have communists. Here? Not so much.”

In the afternoon at the planetarium, we watch The Call of the Entrepreneur. One of the vignettes spotlights a successful dairy farmer who makes high-quality compost from cow manure. Afterwards, in the discussion, a teacher asks the students why the farmer worked so hard to develop a good product.

“To make the world better?” one student guesses.

The others remind him that the farmer said he worked hard not to create a better world, but to create a better life for himself and his family. Some of the students are laughing, remembering the footage of the farmer’s sons and daughter standing next to long piles of cow manure.

“It’s the American dream,” a guy at the back of the room jokes. The others laugh.

Much later we’re having a post-midnight meal with a couple students and a businessman in his 30s who’s involved in the Republican Youth group. The businessman is speaking somberly about Portugal’s future. This generation will suffer for the nation’s economic problems; yet many in Portugal are reluctant to change their way of life. “The thing is that in America, you have the American dream,” the businessman says. “But here, we don’t have a Portuguese dream.”

On the plane to Lisbon—on our way to our first Language of Liberty camp—I watched the first half of the unwatchable Prince of Persia. Alfred Molina has a small role as an outlaw who runs an ancient gambling house/bar/brothel. As usual, Molina is too clever for the film he’s in. In one scene, he explains that he’s crafted his reputation as a cold-blooded killer in order to escape “the most insidious evil lurking in this forsaken country of ours—taxes.”

Half a day and a train ride later, Drew Tidwell and I sit in a planetarium in seaside Porto as Glenn Cripe—the founder of Language of Liberty—explains Ayn Rand’s argument against taxation to a group of young Portuguese men and women. Glenn has been running programs like this for five years. He works with local organizations around the world to host week-long seminars for students and young professionals interested in learning about classical liberal ideas. He’s recently held seminars in Slovakia, Ghana, and Kyrgyzstan. This trip, he’s going to Portugal and Poland.

Here in Porto, the students are mostly active members of Portugal’s Republican Youth group. They are politically ambitious and curious. Some are lawyers, a few are studying economics, and one is an urban planner.

Many of them are having trouble accepting the libertarian and Objectivist arguments put forth by the teachers. Today is the first day of the camp. Before the Ayn Rand lecture, we had a welcome speech by the deputy mayor of Porto; an introduction to political philosophy taught by a young American; a lecture on the history of classical liberalism by a businessman from Luxembourg; and a viewing of John Stossel’s “Is There Anything Government Can’t Do?,” which provoked an animated discussion among the students about the value of social programs in Portugal.

After Glenn’s lecture, Drew and I step outside to have a cigarette with one of the students, a young lawyer from Porto who speaks in near-perfect English. He says we and the other teachers are far too libertarian for Portugal.

“It’s our tradition,” he explains. He says the Portuguese government has long provided goods and services for the people, ever since the government first started sending tall ships around the world and bringing back foreign goods for the Portuguese market. “For us, the government is like a father,” he says with an apologetic shrug.

But he recognizes some of the faults of a paternalistic government system. Public universities are crowding out private universities in Portugal. All of the medical schools are public. Many Portuguese students go to Spain or elsewhere to study medicine at private universities.

“I think it makes sense that if the government invests in your education, you work for the public health system,” the lawyer says. “But it’s not right that you don’t have a choice.”