Compassion, it seems to me, is better as a retail than as a wholesale virtue. No doubt there are exceptional individuals who are able to feel genuine compassion toward vast populations or categories of humans, but I think they are few. The more widely a person’s compassion is cast, the thinner it tends to be spread, until we begin to suspect that it is not genuine compassion at all, but a pose or an exhibition of virtue—in short, mere humbug, at best an aspiration, at worst a career move. How we think of individuals is necessarily different from how we think…
The New York Times recently reported that in 2006 a German executive at Volkswagen gave a presentation on how the company’s cars could evade emissions tests. Who was the German executive at the root of a scandal that will cost VW shareholders tens of billions? The New York Times stated that it could not identify him or her because of German privacy laws.
This example nicely illustrates how privacy laws undermine liberty. Their direct harm to liberty is clear. Because of fear of liability in Germany, the New York Times cannot exercise its free speech rights in the United States to name a key executive in a story about one of the most important business scandals of the decade.
The harm to society is clear as well. Executives in companies (and officials in government) are likely to behave better if they fear exposure. Indeed, privacy laws will reduce the number of investigate reporters trying to uncover malfeasance. Newspapers are naturally more interested in running stories where names are attached than stories about faceless executives or bureaucrats, because they are more likely to interest readers.
But the laws also impose more indirect, but pervasive costs to liberty. By reducing the power of private social norms to restrain bad behavior, they make a more intrusive state necessary. The less civil society governs itself by decentralized, informal means, such as by circulating information, the more there will be a need for the heavy handed enforcement mechanisms of a top-down bureaucracy.
A few years ago Eugene Steuerle (Brookings) and his colleague Tim Roeper developed a “fiscal democracy index.” It measures the extent to which revenues are already claimed by permanent programs—the big entitlement programs, and interest payments on the debt. The remaining “discretionary” portion has to pay for the entire government’s operations, from defense to roads to education to the DoJ. The trajectory over the past half-century looks like this: Note how in this as in many other respects, the Clinton years look pretty darn good. And note how the index turned negative in 2009. The picture going forward doesn’t look much…
When the Secretary of the Treasury announced that Andrew Jackson would be replaced on the face of the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman, responses from conservatives were lively.
The traditional—or at least doctrinaire—response of conservatives and libertarians to the phenomenon of income inequality has been, “So what?” The common attitude of many on the Right is that, in a free-market economy, individual differences in ability, skill, and effort will lead to inequality of income. James Madison summed up the sentiment nicely in Federalist 10 when he stated that the “first object of Government” consists of “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” which “immediately results” in “the possession of different degrees and kinds of property.” In a free society, it is often believed that unequal results are inevitable—for some, even desirable.
There is a debate about how innovative are Tesla’s new cars, but the company is indeed trying to do something new in the way it sells them. Tesla wants to sell directly to consumers without the use of dealers. Unfortunately, however, many states are trying to prevent direct sales. These laws are outrageous exercises in economic protectionism in favor of special interests.
When it comes to keeping down the costs of distribution, a manufacturer is the consumer’s BFF. Both the manufacturer’s and the consumer’s interest is the same—having the most efficient and cost-effective form of distribution. An efficient distribution allows the manufacturer to sell more cars, because the total cost of the product is lower. It also benefits the consumer, because the distribution is incidental to the enjoyment he or she gets from the product.
Some legislators argue that dealers are necessary because they can provide important services to consumers. But the manufacturer takes the level of service into account when deciding whether to sell directly. Optimal service helps the manufacturer’s bottom line as well, because it gains a reputation for cars that are well serviced and thus last a long time.
In the 1970s, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress with the requisite two thirds supermajority and then went to the states for ratification. The proposed Amendment then quickly secured numerous ratifications (ultimately securing 35 of the requisite 38 state ratifications) and looked sure to pass. But then the momentum for the Amendment stopped and it never secured the necessary ratifications. A big part of the arguments against the proposed Amendment were that it would lead to certain consequences, which were generally regarded at the time as extremely unattractive. While opponents of the Amendment argued it might or…
The people of Brazil confront the impeachment of their President for the second time in 25 years. It is always a traumatic event. What does it mean? Is it true that President Dilma Rousseff is under attack because our elite can’t stand a popular government, as the members of her Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) say? Or is it a constitutional and necessary step to get rid of a thoroughly corrupt government?