TAKING ON THE LEFT, THE RIGHT, AND THREATS TO OUR LIBERTIES
By David Boaz
Cato Institute, $22.95, 334 pages
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PETERSON
The 2008 election plot thickens, the economy wobbles, raising a query: What is libertarianism and how does it sway election and economic thinking? Welcome this book then on and for libertarianism. Libertarianism. What a word, what a mindset.
Mindsetter Boaz has been a big player in the libertarian movement for some 30 years. He is executive vice president of the Cato Institute, author of "Libertarianism: A Primer," translated into nine languages, and editor of "The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman." He has also penned hundreds of essays, op-eds, and other short pieces.
Here, for the first time, many of those pieces from publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reappear as sharp liberatarian thinking au courant on today's political firing line.
A recent Zogby International poll sponsored by the Cato Institute has 59 percent of respondents describe themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal." Mr. Boaz writes that the finding says that America's key political value is freedom, that freedom spans liberty from choosing a school for one's kids to choosing low-spending, low-taxing candidates for office.
"The reality is," writes Mr. Boaz, "Americans aren't as polarized as the pundits say. Most want government out of their pocketpooks and personal lives."
But getting government out proves tough. Mr. Boaz notes that having America switch from 40 years of Democratic control of Congress via what the Republicans in 1994 called its Contract With America was smart. The deal meant citizens could abandon "government that is too big, too intrusive, too easy with the public's money." The charge hit home, winning back Congress for the Republicans and vexing the Clinton White House. So in his State of the Union Address of presidential-election-year 1996, President Bill Clinton said to cheers that "the era of Big Government is over."
Asks Mr. Boaz: Over? Surely Mr. Clinton, who went on to win reelection, was no spending slouch but he met his match in "compassionate conservative" President Bush, No. 43. For on his watch with the Republican Party holding the White House and, until 2005, Congress, what happened? Big Government went swelling on and on.
Federal spending up one trillion dollars in six years. An explosion in pork-barrel projects. The centralization of education. The biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson. A proposed constitutional amendment to take marriage law out of the hands of the states. Federal intrusion into private family matters. Spying, wiretapping, "sneak and peek" searches. A surge of executive power. And a seemingly endless war.
So no wonder Mr. Boaz takes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to task for his idea in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." Counters Mr. Boaz: Justice Holmes had it backwards. Indeed, heavy taxes prove our defeat to attain a fully civilized society. Civilized people win prosperity by peaceful free trade by persuasion, not force per rising federal interventions and taxes.
I hail Mr. Boaz's censure of the War on Drugs with its sorry relations with critical players in our foreign policy such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico, apart from spawning powerful drug-smuggling cartels there and in America itself.
Indeed, America is now shamefully the most heavily incarcerating nation in the world with more than two million of our citizens behind bars and millions more under parole, mainly for drug offenses. So the lesson of Prohibition's gangs, pervasive police corruption, utter failure to get America to go Dry, goes unlearned, unrepented, unremembered.
Mr. Boaz writes, "Prohibition has failed, again, and should be repealed, again." Amen.
But I say Mr. Boaz fluffs the very last three words of his book, when he writes "freedom is winning." If only. I ask: Why so hold in the face of September 11, of our endless warfare in the Middle East, of unrest in atomically-armed client-state Pakistan incurring the recent killing of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, of what looks like value-disruptive, layoff-prone recession ahead, of strong electioneering pressure for more import protection, more nanny-state welfarism, more Big Government? For weak answers, tune in the current crop of Republican and especially Democrat presidential contenders.
What gives? I suggest that our ace libertarian rethink his own words above and wonder if he is not inadvertently encouraging national complacency — i.e. giving into what Milton Friedman called the tyranny of the status quo?
Freedom and such ongoing tyranny, like oil and water, don't mix.
William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar with the Heritage Foundation.