Category Archives: Political Animals

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.


The Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act

This week Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act, which would reduce the president’s authority to unilaterally enact new tariffs by citing national security concerns. The Senate sponsors are Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). The Democratic co-sponsor in the House is Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI).

Their bill contrasts with Rep. Sean Duffy’s (R-WI) bill to increase President Trump’s tariff authority, which I have written about before.

For reasons politically expedient at the time, Congress delegated some of its taxing power away under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. In light of current abuses of this authority, it is time to restore taxing authority to Congress, where it belongs under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

The Congressional Trade Authority Act would implement one of the planks of CEI’s new agenda for Congress, and has attracted a large, bipartisan group of co-sponsors. It has also garnered significant outside support. The National Taxpayers Union, along with more than three dozen other groups, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have sent a coalition letter to members of Congress urging them to rein in Section 232 abuses.

As recent tariff hikes begin to hurt the economy and obstruct the U.S. government’s foreign policy objectives, many politicians are realizing that trade is one area where sound policy is also sound politics. For a more thorough case on why tariffs are economically harmful, see Iain Murray’s and my paper “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Anthony de Jasay – The State

Anthony de Jasay – The State

This book consists of five chapters. The first imagines what society would look like without any state at all; the last imagines a total state. The chapters in between look at in-between states. De Jasay shares deep insights in social contract theory. For example, states compete with each other in a Hobbesian state of nature, even if individuals no longer do.

Jasay is also skeptical of utilitarianism as a guide to public policy. Because interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible, it is impossible to honestly tell other people what is best for them. This is a major impediment to well-intentioned arguments for state intervention.

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan

One of the earliest and best expositions of social contract theory. Hobbes also had a more accurate view of human nature than Locke or especially Rousseau, with whom he is often contrasted. The third and fourth parts of Leviathan are bogged down by theology and needless definitions of terms, and Hobbes’ royal absolutism is based more on arguments by assertion and authority than on reason or empiricism. Still, Leviathan has earned its place in political philosophy’s canon.

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

I read this as part of an attempt to understand populism. Burke, an 18thcentury Englishman, favored the American Revolution, but opposed the French Revolution. This seems strange at first glance. But it actually makes quite a bit of sense.

Burke saw the American Revolution as a restoration of traditional British values, such as the rule of law. The French Revolution consciously rejected tradition and tried to create a brand new man from scratch. The result was the rule of the mob, not the rule of law, and the Terror.

The parallels to today’s rise of populism on the left and especially the right during the last few years make Burke quite relevant; suffice it to say that despite, or perhaps because of his conservatism, he would not be a Trump supporter.

Burke overemphasizes tradition in my opinion, and takes a few ugly stances in the book common to his time, especially regarding Jews. But he is a perceptive analyst, and his arguments are as powerful against today’s populist threats as they were against the ones in Burke’s time.

Best Books of 2018: Suicide of the West & Enlightenment Now

Re-posted from

Review of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy (Crown Forum, 2018) by Jonah Goldberg and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018) by Steven Pinker.

Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West” is a literate, snappily written, and often humorous defense of Enlightenment values and a broadside against populism. Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” has a similar theme, backed by an astounding collection of empirical data.

The cooperative social norms that make mass prosperity possible are completely unnatural, Goldberg argues. They are also the best thing that ever happened to humanity, as both argue. The current populist trend is a primal yawp from our baser instincts. It is also the biggest danger the Miracle faces, as Goldberg terms the post-1800 wealth explosion. The average person has gone from three dollars a day to more than 100 dollars a day, at least in countries that more or less adopted Enlightenment values and institutions.

If you doubt the degree of human betterment that has happened over the last two centuries, and how tightly intertwined they are with liberal values and institutions (liberal in the correct, classical sense), even a cursory skim of the first 345 pages of Pinker will show you in great detail. It really is a Miracle, and the most important development in human history since the invention of fire.

Readers who focus on the authors’ criticisms of President Trump are missing the bigger picture. The populist mindset, or rather emotion-set, and not this or that politician, is the biggest threat facing the modern Miracle. President Trump and his analogues in Italy, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere are temporary. But the gut-level impulses that make them electable are part of human nature. That is the concern here, not a president who will evanesce from the political scene after a term or two.

Populism is not a left or right phenomenon. It is an anti-Enlightenment worldview based on the immediate, the concrete, and the emotional. A lot of people feel that living standards are declining, and that people aren’t getting a fair shake. The data say otherwise, but a lot of people just feel that way, and form their beliefs accordingly. As Goldberg puts it:

Populist movements do tend to be coalitions of losers. I do not mean that in a perjorative sense but an analytical one. Populist movements almost by definition don’t spring up among people who think everything is going great and they’re getting a fair shake. (p.367)

For many people, their reptile brains override the more analytical parts. If you want to see populist emoting in action, a typical political argument on Twitter, Facebook, or cable news will do. Confirmation bias is rampant, contrary evidence is dismissed, language gets strident, and sometimes things get personal. The flames are as hot as they are shallow, whether they blow from the left or the right. But people still get sucked right in. We’re wired to behave that way.

Populism is having a moment right now, just as it did during the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, and in the German romanticist movement in the century before that (though that movement was redeemed by some beautiful art and literature). Populism will have more moments in the future. The question is if its latest yawp is merely a blip, or a longer-run rejection of the ideas that make progress and modernity possible.

Like populism, Enlightenment thought works outside of a left-right framework. But unlike populism, it operates on a longer, more cool-headed time horizon. This type of liberalism—again, in the correct sense of the word—is more concerned with abstract cultural values and long-term institutional structures. Having the right long-term process matters more than immediately getting the right immediate results.

Pinker and Goldberg both argue that this patient, abstract approach also explains classical liberalism’s limited appeal. Even when our heads often know better, our hearts are still in hunter-gatherer mode.

It is hard to write news stories about the long-term trends the Enlightenment approach emphasizes. A struggling hometown business with a dozen employees is more emotionally compelling than the fact that worldwide, 137,000 people climbed out of absolute poverty today. One of these stories is rather more important than the other. But it doesn’t fire up people’s reptile brains, so it flies under the radar. Pinker illustrates this phenomenon with graph after graph on a relentless array of policy issues, and Goldberg shows how this affects the quality of both political debate and the politicians in that debate.

Goldberg and Pinker are not alone. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc are other quality entries in the genre. Both authors, especially Goldberg, acknowledge the influence of CEI Julian Simon Award winner Deirdre N. McCloskey and her Bourgeois trilogy.

Readers interested in primary sources will find some of the best Enlightenment thought in Adam SmithDavid HumeThomas JeffersonF.A. Hayek, and James Buchanan. Populists, knowingly or not, draw from sources ranging from Jean-Jacques RousseauGoethe, and Nietzsche up to twentieth century progressives such as Louis Brandeis and Ralph Nader, as well as right-wing populists such as Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon. Pinker argues that President Trump’s world view is, probably unknowingly, eerily similarly to Nietzsche and Rousseau. Understanding them imparts a better understanding of what makes the current administration tick.

If you don’t have the time to read both books, Reason’s Nick Gillespie had an enlightening conversation with Goldberg in June, and Pinker gave a lecture at the Cato Institute in March. There is some overlap between the two books, but they are far from redundant. The authors’ different personalities and different emphases make for two different, complementary, and important works.