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Enhance Prosperity and Improve Health: Slash Regulations, Please

Steve H. Hanke

Productivity and economic growth continue to surprise on the downside in most countries. While there is a great deal of handwringing over the so-called productivity puzzle, little attention is given to the real elixir: freer markets and more competition. Indeed, the policy tide is moving in the opposite direction in most places.

With an appeal to the facts, the productivity puzzle is easy to solve. Just slash regulations by mimicking best practices.

To get a grip on the productivity puzzle, let’s lift a page from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Yes. There is nothing better than a hard look at empirical evidence to see if it supports those who espouse freer markets or those who embrace the regulatory state as models to enhance our prosperity and health.

The World Bank has been rigorously measuring the ease of doing business (DB) in many countries for over ten years, producing a treasure trove of empirical evidence. The Bank publishes its results identifying levels of economic freedom (read: regulatory freedom) each year in a volume entitled Doing Business. Ten sets of indicators that capture important dimensions of an economy’s regulatory environment are quantified. The accompanying table defines each of the ten quantitative indicators. These are each measured by using standardized procedures that ensure comparability and replicability across the 189 countries studied. For each indicator, the scores range from a potential low of ‘0’ to a high of ‘100’.


Using the DB scores, we can determine whether there is a relationship between a freer regulatory environment (a high DB score) and prosperity as measured by GDP per capita. The accompanying chart shows that there is a strong, positive relationship between DB scores and prosperity. For example, the United States’ DB score is 82.15 and its GDP per capita is $55,836, while Indonesia’s DB score is only 58.12 and its GDP per capita is $3,346. All the remaining 187 countries are plotted on the chart. There are only four countries that are “outliers”, with outsized GDP per capita relative to their DB scores: Qatar, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway.


In addition to the strong, positive relationship between regulatory freedom (ease of doing business) and prosperity (GDP per capita), deregulation yields increasing returns. That is, each increment increase in the DB score yield larger and larger gains in GDP per capita. With each improvement in the DB score, there is a more-than-proportionate improvement in prosperity. This explains why post-communist countries that embraced Big Bang economic liberalizations, like Poland, have done so much better than the gradualists. The Big Bangers literally got more for their buck.

Economic prosperity is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. The relation between income growth and life expectancy is, of course, complex. Economic prosperity affects life expectancy through many channels: higher individual and national incomes produce favorable effects on nutrition, on standards of housing and sanitation, and on health and education expenditures. While it is true that reductions in mortality have sometimes been the result of “technological” factors, in the larger sense, it is clear that sustained economic growth is a precondition for the kinds of investments and innovations that, over time, significantly reduce mortality. The evidence on this point is abundant and unequivocal.

So, knowing that a freer regulatory environment is associated with higher levels of GDP per capita, we should observe that a freer regulatory environment (a higher DB score) is associated with higher life expectancies. Sure enough, it is. The accompanying chart shows a strong and positive relationship between DB scores and life expectancy — albeit one characterized by diminishing returns (given additional increments in DB scores yield smaller and smaller gains in life expectancy.)


Many of the 189 countries reviewed in the Doing Business 2016 report are far away from adopting “best practice” policies when it comes to the regulatory frameworks they impose on businesses. In consequence, prosperity and health are inferior to what they could be. Just how can that be changed? The easiest way is the simplest: just mimic what is done where “best practice” policies prevail. This is an old, tried-and-true technique that is used in industry, particularly when competitive markets prevail. Just copy what the “good guys” do. If you do so, you will become productive and competitive. These lessons about the diffusion of “best practice” and how it improves productivity are documented in great detail in a most insightful book by William W. Lewis: The Power of Productivity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. The same strategy can be used by governments to slash regulations.

For example, until 2009, those seeking to import and sell pharmaceuticals in the Republic of Georgia faced the same regulatory review process as one would if the drugs were produced domestically. Applicants would pay a registration fee and file a two-part form with the Departmental Registry of State Regulation of Medical Activities at the Ministry of Labor, Health, and Social Protection. The subsequent review involved both expense and delay, with a fair amount of back-and forth between applicant and bureaucracy as technical examinations led to agency demands for corrections. This process was not intended to exceed about six months, but often took far longer. In addition, the government required all importers to obtain trade licenses from foreign manufacturers, adding to their costs.

In October 2009, however, the Georgian government did something remarkable. Recognizing that its regulatory machinery was, in fact, unnecessarily duplicating that in many developed countries, it adopted a new “approval regime.” It compiled a list of foreign authorities with good regulatory track records (including, for example, the European Medicines Agency and drug administrations in the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand), and pharmaceuticals that were approved for sale by those entities could henceforth gain automatic approval for sale in Georgia. In addition, the registration fee was slashed 80 percent for brand name drugs and packaging regulations were greatly simplified under a new “reporting regime.”

This regulatory outsourcing compressed the time and greatly reduced the expense required to compete in the Georgian pharmaceutical market. The hope was that this would put significant downward pressure on prices and improve access to drug therapies in the domestic market. It did so very quickly. (These results are documented in Steve H. Hanke, Stephen J.K. Walters, and Alexander B. Rose. “How to Make Medicine Safe and Cheap.” Regulation, Fall 2014.)

To grasp the huge potential for increasing productivity, prosperity, and health, let’s look at Indonesia. The accompanying table shows Indonesia’s DB score for each of the ten indicators. Each is compared to the score of the country with the best DB score in that indicator. For example, Indonesia has a deplorable score on enforcing contracts. Indeed, the gap between Indonesia and Singapore, which scores the best on that indicator in the 189 countries studied, is huge. So, the potential improvement for Indonesia by adopting the best practice for enforcing contracts is enormous.


Just what overall improvements in Indonesia’s regulatory regime would do for prosperity is displayed in the last table relating incremental DB score improvement to GDP per capita. Indonesia’s current score is 58 and its GDP per capita is $3,346. So, if Indonesia attempts to slash its regulations and move closer to best practice — let’s say it improved its DB score by 10 points, yielding a score of 68 (the same as Greece and Serbia) — Indonesia’s GDP per capita would be expected to jump by $4,999, or 2.5 times.


With an appeal to the facts, the productivity puzzle is easy to solve. Just slash regulations by mimicking observed best practices.

Steve H. Hanke is a professor of Applied Economics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

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The Haunted House That Guns Built

Trevor Burrus

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture
By Pamela Haag
Basic Books, 2015, $29.99, 528 pages

Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, and William’s father Oliver was the pater familias of the Winchester gun company. Oliver died in December 1880, and William succumbed to tuberculosis four months later. Two months after that, Sarah’s mother died. By mid-1881, Sarah was essentially alone. But she also held 48 percent of the stock for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And the stock paid dividends, between 21 and 79 percent of profits every year from 1869 to 1914.

Upon William’s death, his wealthy widow got on a train in New Haven and went west until she couldn’t go further. She ended up in San Jose, then a burgeoning town still feeling the aftereffects of the gold rush. She bought some land and began building a house—and kept building, and building, and building. When she died in 1922, the house was still under construction: a confusing, ad hoc, and immense mansion of 160 rooms filled with inscrutable architectural choices. Doors open onto walls; staircases go nowhere; halls wind back and forth; rooms are built within rooms. The whole disorienting, labyrinthine mess is now dubbed the Winchester Mystery House.

Did a marketing campaign trick Americans into loving firearms?

Why did Sarah build it? Well, there’s the legend and there’s the truth.

Here’s the legend: Distraught by the deaths of the people closest to her, Sarah became heavily involved with spiritualism. A medium told her the family was cursed by everyone who had been killed by Winchester guns, and that she should go west to build a house for the spirits. If construction ever stopped, the medium said, Sarah would die as well. The house is built in a convoluted fashion in order to throw off the spirits, who apparently were easily confused by switchback hallways and oddly placed doors.

The truth? No one knows. Sarah left no journals, she was obsessively reclusive, and very few records exist.

But for Pamela Haag, the legend in some sense is the truth. In The Gunning of America, her contentious and aggravating but still ultimately interesting book, the Yale-educated historian traces the stories of American “gun capitalists,” most prominently the Winchester family, and the businesses they built. “We hear a great deal about gun owners, but what do we know about their makers?” she asks. Haag tells Sarah’s story because “Oliver Winchester produced the rifles that contributed to many a gun legend; and, through her creation, Sarah became a counter-legend to the gun legends.…Oliver’s mad ambition and Sarah’s mad conscience belong to the same story and culture.”

More bluntly, she tells the legend because it fits her narrative. Haag believes that companies like Winchester did not merely manufacture guns but manufactured the demand for them; if this created a crisis of conscience for Sarah, Haag feels, so should it now for the nation.

Although Haag often papers over the factual lacunae in Sarah’s tale with words like “may have” and “perhaps” and “probably,” she doesn’t always do so. Readers have to be astute to differentiate between solid facts and Haag’s guesswork, as during a bizarre multi-page foray into what Sarah’s visit to a Boston medium “may have” looked like. And even when she includes such caveats, she can really lay it on: “Sarah may have heard the cogs of justice click into place. The spirits had exacted retribution against Sarah—and the Winchester name—by taking Will’s life, and Annie’s, and the lives of all her babies, to atone for those killed by their rifles.” She should have added, “or at least that’s what some unsubstantiated and biased sources say.” Hundreds of passages could have used a similar disclaimer.

Haag’s book is not an anti-gun diatribe. But from the outset, she confesses that guns are foreign to her; she admits to having never owned or shot a gun when she began working on the book, and many of her word choices—a reference to America’s “intractable gun problem,” for example—betray her queasiness with such tools. This unfamiliarity with guns helps explain the central thesis of her book: that America hasn’t historically had a “gun culture.” Instead, she suggests, corporations gave that culture to us. “Gun markets and demand could never be taken for granted,” she writes. “It was the gun business’s business to create them.”

The Gunning of America is fundamentally an informative industrial history that unsuccessfully tries to be a trenchant social commentary too. Haag is fascinated and confused by American gun culture, and her argument that it was “manufactured” should, she thinks, have some effect on the gun debate. Americans don’t have a “unique and special relationship to guns,” she writes—or, if it is unique, it is a product of forced rather than natural demand.

This is the Hypnotoad theory of advertising and control. Hypnotoad, for those not aware, is the star of a fictional TV show, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, within the cartoon comedy Futurama. In the Futurama world, set 1,000 years in the future, one of the most popular programs is a running loop of a toad with multi-colored, mesmerizing, oscillating eyes, accompanied by a pulsing industrial drone. You can’t look away. Viewers are spellbound, held in rapt attention by the bewitching stare and the thick, oddly mellifluous hum, which combine to hack the audience’s minds. Fans chant, “All glory to the Hypnotoad!”

Hypnotoad theories are bigger than politics yet still inexorably tied to the political. Have you ever ranted against the “corporate music” consumed by “the masses”? Have you ever lamented the tragedy of American consumerism and the relentless cacophony of mass marketers cajoling their dupes to buy, buy, buy? Then you’ve embraced your own Hypnotoad narrative, complete with the wonderful sense of self-satisfaction you get from knowing that, despite being surrounded by a thick web of impenetrable control, somehow you have emerged untainted.

Although Haag’s language is more measured than that—she doesn’t describe anyone as a “dupe”—it teems with those implications. At one point she writes, “One answer to the question ‘Why do Americans love guns?’ is, simply, that we were invited to do so by those who made and sold them at the moment when their products had shed much of their more practical, utilitarian value.” It may be just an “invitation,” but, apparently, by accepting it, we were unwittingly becoming part of an unnatural market invented by “gun capitalists.”

Haag also writes: “Earlier, sales had meant ‘satisfying wants’—wants that existed independently of advertisement—but in a consumer culture where demand ideally kept pace with faster production, sales meant, ‘the actual creating of wants in the minds of the purchaser, and the building up of desires.’” Here she echoes the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose 1958 book The Affluent Society described the alleged process by which “production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.” To Galbraith, if a person’s desires were not “original with himself,” then there was something unseemly about them. Thus, he reserved a special scorn for advertising, which he compared to being assailed by “demons” which create “a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash.”

In Haag’s view, the domestic American gun market was created by the “visible hand of the gun industrialist,” which “sat heavily on the gun market and orchestrated it.” In the 1910s and ’20s, Winchester’s team of salesmen fought to push into new markets by using different strategies to create new gun-buying demographics. One prominent ad said that every “real boy” wanted a Winchester rifle. Through these and other methods, Haag contends, gun sales were pushed “beyond the natural inclinations of the customer or market demand”; the gun became “a thing that served psychological needs more than the pragmatic ones of war, ranching, the conquest of Native Americans, or the rural economy.” At a time when Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and other Western icons were beginning to achieve their legendary status, gun manufacturers capitalized on that mystique.

Haag makes a reasonable case that such marketing campaigns contributed to the consumer demand for guns. But whether that new demand was “natural” is a question the Hypnotoad theory of advertising isn’t well equipped to answer. People who embrace that theory seem to forget New Coke, Coca-Cola’s disastrous attempt to discontinue and replace Coke’s original recipe. Or the Edsel, or OK Soda, or any of the countless failed products that enjoyed millions of dollars in advertising backing. Far from being able to invent demand, they spend most of their time trying to figure out what it is.

Haag’s narrative about the “making of American gun culture” ultimately reflects her personal puzzlement about why people own guns at all. Ask a “gun nut” why America has a “gun culture” and he’ll say it’s because guns are awesome. Ask Haag, and it’s because gun capitalists made people think that guns are awesome. Is there really a difference? Introspectively, I have no idea what my “true” desires are and which have been foisted on me. I do know that when an ad shows me something I want but previously didn’t know about, my reaction is not to feel violated.

What do we achieve by arguing that parts of American culture are somehow fake? The music industry took a band called the Pendletones, renamed them the Beach Boys, recorded a few dozen songs about surfing, and then pushed a saccharine vision of California beach culture. Movie makers added Beach PartyBeach Blanket Bingo, and many more insipid Frankie and Annette features for good measure. Should California surfing culture therefore be looked upon with skepticism? Can the “fake” ever turn into something “genuine”?

The Gunning of America is mostly interesting, readable, and enjoyable. Haag discusses the invention and perfection of Winchester’s famous Henry rifle, the trials of establishing a domestic market for a highly durable good in a rapidly urbanizing country, the gun industry’s experiences during the Civil War and in selling weapons to regimes abroad, how the industry cashed in on romanticized notions of “the West,” and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s eventual downfall (at least as a family-owned business) after World War I. All these are interesting stories that are well-told, and Haag’s asides about “inventing demand” are intermittent rather than constant.

But occasionally we get tales like the legend of Sarah Winchester, where Haag essentially tries to write a novel and forgets to write history. She tries to justify her embrace of the Winchester Mystery House legend by comparing it to gun legends. The house “became a tourist attraction, advertised by a ghost story that—exactly like the western gun legends—grew more lurid, yet more confidently ‘factual,’ with each retelling, but this does not mean that there was never a core of truth to it,” she writes. Possibly, but one wonders how much Haag tried to find that “core of truth,” especially when the legend was so useful for injecting “conscience” into her narrative.

There is some evidence that Sarah was involved with spiritualism and that her house’s idiosyncrasies are somehow tied to those proclivities. But Haag’s attraction to the legend leads her to ignore competing theories about the heiress’s behavior. In Captive of the Labyrinth, one of the very few biographies of Sarah, the De Anza College historian Mary Jo Ignoffo challenges the story that Haag embraces. Ignoffo doubts her involvement in spiritualism, her mission to cleanse her conscience, and her desire to fool ghosts with a convoluted house. Sarah, she argues, was just a rich, reclusive, and eccentric Gilded Age widow who lived in high society but didn’t care what other people thought of her. She built the house to give her life purpose, Ignoffo concludes, as well as to satisfy her lifelong interest in architecture, a profession that was not readily open to women at the time.

Haag makes only two references to Ignoffo’s theory, both confined to footnotes. The only substantive one is bizarre and dismissive: “Captive of the Labyrinth focuses on the more worldly aspects of Sarah’s time in California and calls spiritualism a ‘mistaken legacy,’ although to some extent all legends are by nature mistaken, yet, for their own reasons, believed.”

Haag wanted to write a book that would affect modern debates over gun policies, and so she infused an otherwise interesting history with dubious notions about “natural markets” and grieving widows. She’d have been better off sticking to the facts.

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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Let’s Not Start a War on Cash

James A. Dorn

Some prominent economists are now advocating getting rid of most cash payments. Kiss $100, $50 and $20 bills goodbye if they get their way. The most visible proponent is Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and currently a chaired professor at Harvard. In his just published book, “The Curse of Cash” (Princeton University Press), he argues that the U.S. economy would benefit if the government withdrew larger denomination bills from circulation, further restricted cash withdrawals and deposits, and limited the size of cash payments in retail trade.

Launching a war on cash, however, would further empower government, violate private property rights and undermine individual freedom. Expropriating cash regardless of whether it was obtained legitimately or not smacks of socialism. There is an implicit assumption made by Rogoff that it is only criminals that want higher denomination notes.

Although Rogoff recognizes the privacy issues surrounding his proposal, he argues that there would be net benefits from strictly limiting cash transactions — including shrinking the underground economy, increasing government revenue and increasing the effectiveness of monetary policy. Reducing crime and corruption, and filling government coffers, presumably would trump any loss of freedom. As Rogoff argues, “The tax and crime angle is reason enough to shred the world’s mountains of paper currency.”

A crusade against cash would limit the range of choices open to individuals, thus attenuating economic freedom and increasing uncertainty.

Under the Rogoff plan, people would not have the option of converting their demand and saving deposits into Federal Reserve Notes unless they wanted to carry away bushels of $1, $5 and $10 bills, and any large cash withdrawals would be prohibited. The Fed would then “be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession.” Doing so, however, would further reduce bank profitability and thence bank lending, which in turn would undermine any recovery.

Negative rates penalize savers and encourage risky investments; they are not a panacea for real economic growth. Zero and negative interest rates have not stimulated private investment, but they have increased leverage, jeopardized pension funds and encouraged government profligacy. Any wealth effects from higher asset prices are temporary and will largely disappear when rates return to normal. A crusade against cash would limit the range of choices open to individuals, thus attenuating economic freedom and increasing uncertainty.

The real danger in Rogoff’s plan is that while it is aimed at limiting cash transactions, it may supply a precedent for even more draconian measures that increase the size and scope of government and virtually destroy financial privacy. The war on cash could then turn into yet another futile yet destructive crusade.

Money is property, and in a free society, the function of government is to protect persons and property. In 1792, James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, wrote, “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, whichimpartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” Depriving people of the right to keep and use larger denomination bills, which are legal tender, would further erode what F. A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty.”

Of course, money today refers to pure fiat money, not the commodity money that the framers of the Constitution had in mind. A $100 bill is convertible into nothing more than a freshly minted Federal Reserve Note stamped with the same denomination or some other combination amounting to $100. One unintended consequence of Rogoff’s plan, were it implemented, may be to cause a popular uproar against the Fed’s monopoly on currency — and thus incentivize the search for alternatives to government fiat money.

Instead of turning to social engineering and central bank manipulation of interest rates, Rogoff and others supporting his plan would be better off focusing on the true causes of slow growth, crime and corruption. Thinking of ways to increase, not decrease, economic freedom — and to restore limited government and sound money under a just rule of law — would offer a brighter future for freedom and prosperity than waging a war on cash.

James A. Dorn is Vice President for Monetary Studies and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

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Healthcare Reform Can’t Succeed Because We Still Want to Keep the Plans We Like

Josh Blackman

The greatest flaw in the Affordable Care Act is not structural, but cultural. In selling the law, President Obama made an unkeepable promise that we could keep the plans we like. When insurers began to cancel policies—in compliance with the government’s mandates—the Administration continued to assure the public that Obamacare could expand coverage without inflicting any costs on the insured. This was a fantasy. Until the administration frankly addresses the cost of covering the poor and uninsured, we are stuck with the same Obamacare paradox we started with: The American people are not interested in sacrificing their own coverage so that others will benefit. Because there was never true buy-in for healthcare reform, the law cannot accomplish its transformational goals

Before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Americans with insurance liked their plans. From 2001 and 2008, Gallup annually surveyed the insured on how they would rate the quality of their personal health care. Consistently, year after year, more than 80% of respondents rated it as good or excellent. A February 2007 poll by CBS News found that 85% of people were satisfied with the quality of their own health insurance. A September 2009 Quinnipiac University poll found that 88% of respondents were satisfied with their coverage. As I discuss in my new book, Unraveled: Obamacare, Religious Liberty, and Executive Power, people who had insurance overwhelmingly liked it.

Yet, despite the fact that Americans were happy with their own coverage, they also recognized that the health care system did not serve everyone equally. For example, 59% of the respondents in the CBS survey were very dissatisfied with the cost of insurance for the country as a whole. Further, 90% said the U.S. health care system needed fundamental change. The CBS pollsters observed a contradiction: “Americans think the U.S. health care system needs major fixing, though they are generally satisfied with the quality (but not the cost) of their own health care.” During the July 2008 NetRoots Nation Conference, future Vox-founder Ezra Klein referred to this tension as a “paradox.” Roughly the same percentage of the insured wanted to keep their own coverage, but simultaneously improve everyone else’s care. You can’t do both.

The like-your-plan-keep-your-plan pitch was not only disingenuous, but was also self-defeating.

Fifteen years earlier, HillaryCare was defeated because of this paradox. The famous “Harry & Louse” advertising campaign warned Americans that healthcare reform would reduce their choice of doctors—and the messaging worked. According to marketing expert Paul Rutherford, the yearlong advertising campaign was seen as a “catalyst” in “grabb[ing] control of the debate” over health care reform. In less than a year, surveys showed that Americans who thought the bill would make them worse off jumped from 21% to 37%. Americans did not have much of an incentive to support reform that would alter the status quo, even if it would help millions of the neediest and sickest Americans gain access to insurance.

This paradox was well understood by the Obama administration. President Obama recalled that during the debates over healthcare reform, “pollsters” showed him surveys suggesting that “85 percent of folks at any given time had health care and so they weren’t necessarily incentivized to support” reform. His staff was worried that pushing for reform “could scare the heck out of them … even if they weren’t entirely satisfied with the existing system, [because] somehow it would be terrible to change it.”

For President Obama, the paradox raised a dilemma: how to sell the American people on a transformational change in health care without scaring them away because of the necessary sacrifice. The marketing pitch for health care reform, which sought to eliminate any concerns about altering the status quo, was reduced to one sentence: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” But accomplishing both goals was impossible.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers could no longer charge higher premiums, or deny coverage because of preexisting conditions. By far, this was one of the most popular aspects of the ACA, if not the most popular provision. A September 2009 Kaiser survey found that 80% of respondents supported this ban — that included 88% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans. Among those supporters, however, only 56% still favored the provision if it resulted in higher premiums; 36% would oppose it. Supporters likely did not realize that requiring insurers to cover sick people would necessarily shift the cost onto everyone else.

The insured who previously were able to get by with cheap insurance, or none at all, would now be forced to pay more to subsidize the coverage of poorer and sicker Americans. At its heart, the ACA was a form of redistribution. MIT economics Professor Jonathan Gruber — before he became an unintentional celebrity — stated the issue bluntly: “Americans want a fair and fixed insurance market … . You cannot have that without some redistribution away from a small number of people.” But the White House steadfastly refused to explain to the American people that this was how the law would operate.

President Obama’s long-time strategist David Axelrod conceded this critical contradiction of selling Obamacare. “We’ve created a sense that everyone can expect to win,” Axelrod admitted, where “nobody has to sacrifice.”  William M. Daley, who served as President Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, explained, “Redistribution is a loaded word that conjures up all sorts of unfairness in people’s minds.”  Daley feared that Republicans would wield it “as a hammer” against Democrats, adding, “it’s a word that, in the political world, you just don’t use.”

Public polls reflect this misperception of how the law was sold. In February 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed whether people would be willing to sacrifice their own health insurance policies in order to achieve national health care reform. The majority answered no: 56% of respondents said “if policymakers made the right changes, they could reform the health care system without changing the existing health care arrangements of people like yourself.” This is impossible. In contrast, only 37% acknowledged “making any real reforms to the health care system will probably require people like yourself to change your existing health care arrangements.”

The Obama administration understood this dynamic, but was not forthright about how the law would alter the landscape. The New York Times observed that the theme of redistribution had “been hidden away to make the Affordable Care Act more palatable to the public and less a target for Republicans,” even though “the redistribution of wealth has always been a central feature of the law.” At bottom, the American people were rationally self-interested on the question of health care reform, and did not support change if it meant altering the coverage they were happy with. And more importantly, they understood that the ACA would not affect their coverage.

This misconception was aided and abetted by the White House’s misinformation. Instead of admitting the inconvenient truth, the president repeatedly lied about the cornerstone of the law. Obama told Congress and the American people in September 2009, “If you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance … nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.” There was booming applause in the chamber. “Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have,” the president exclaimed. This is a promise the president made at least three dozen times between October 2008 and October 2013. The clearest statement was in a high-profile speech to the American Medical Association, an essential constituency for reform: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”

Only four years later, and after millions of policies were cancelled, would the extent of this deception become clear. Politifact would shame the pledge as the “Lie of the Year.”  In 2013, the best Obama could muster was this half-hearted apology: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” This promise was how Obama dodged the paradox that defeated all presidents before him. This promise, which was essential to securing the necessary votes in the House and Senate, could not be kept — and the administration knew it. Without this promise the Affordable Care Act would have never been enacted.

But even when the policies were cancelled in the fall of 2013, the President’s response was to once again indulge Americans in the fantasy that the ACA allows them to keep their policies. Through the so-called “administrative fix,” the federal government permitted people to renew plans that would otherwise be cancelled through 2016. They were not charged the individual mandate penalty for having inadequate insurance. This executive actions, designed to mollify upset customers, had the perverse effect of keeping more people out of the insurance market. Though the administrative fix provided a short-term analgesic to people who had lost coverage or who could not afford new coverage, the modifications further skewed the risk pool toward older and sicker customers. The paradox continues.

The like-your-plan-keep-your-plan pitch was not only disingenuous, but was also self-defeating. So long as people believe that their own coverage will not be disrupted—through higher premiums, smaller networks, larger deductibles—healthcare reform cannot succeed. If the United States is to in fact embrace health care as a “right,” beyond mere platitudes, the government must be frank about the immense sacrifice this entails. Unless that happens, the Affordable Care Act cannot survive the rational self-interest of people who still want to keep the plans they like.

Josh Blackman is a constitutional law professor at the Houston College of Law, and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the author of Unraveled: Obamcare, Religious Liberty, and Executive Power.

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Two Candidates, Two Bad Responses to Terrorism

A. Trevor Thrall

The arrest of Ahmad Rahami, a naturalized American citizen from Afghanistan who moved to the United States with his family when he was 7 years old, has poured new fuel on the debate about immigration and national security. On Monday, Donald Trump argued that “These attacks, and many others, were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system … Immigration security is national security.”

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, warned against indicting an entire religion but promised to “smash ISIS” through intensified airstrikes.

Tragically, neither presidential candidate is offering solutions that make much sense.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are overreacting in ways that would hurt American security.

Trump’s tough talk feels good when emotions are running high, and in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, Trump’s calls to use profiling, to halt immigration from Muslim-dominated nations and to increase police surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods sound reasonable to many people. Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., probably summed up how many people feel about the threat posed by refugees and immigrants when he compared it to a bowl of Skittles. If he had a bowl of Skittles and three of them were deadly, he asked on Twitter, would you take a handful?

Though clever, the poisoned candy analogy is overly simplistic and highly misleading. As a recent study published by the Cato Institute makes clear, the Skittles bowl in this case contains millions of candies — in the past 41 years, 28 million foreigners have entered the country for every one who has managed to kill someone in a terrorist attack.

Throwing away millions of candies because a few of there are dangerous might sound reassuring, but it comes at far too high a cost. Tourism and immigration bring tremendous benefits to the United States including billions of dollars in economic activity. Americans routinely take far greater risks in their daily lives even just for entertainment purposes. If the right answer to every risk were to eliminate it entirely, the United States would have to ban driving tomorrow.

Further, the idea that the United States could successfully monitor foreign-born residents and/or Muslims living in America is ridiculous. There are 40 million foreign-born people living in the United States. There are roughly 1 million police officers in the United States, most of who presumably are pretty busy as it is.

Even if it were constitutional to single out one group of citizens for such scrutiny, how exactly would it work?

Efforts to limit the problem through profiling won’t work either: There is simply no way to know who will become radicalized or carry out a violent act in the future. Moreover, since statistics show that immigrants are less likely than American-born citizens to commit violent crimes, any effort to focus attention on immigrants would inevitably give other would-be criminals more room to operate.

Hillary Clinton’s proposed solution to the situation — smashing ISIS over in the Middle East — is unfortunately no better. First of all, though it may turn out that Rahami himself had some connection to an Islamist terrorist group, since 9/11 it is almost entirely lone wolves who have conducted terrorist attacks in the United States. These people have drawn inspiration from Islamist groups, but they have had no direct connection to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Thus, although there is no question that these lone wolves represent a threat to the safety of Americans, attacking the ISIS stronghold in Syria and Iraq will do nothing to reduce their number here in the United States.

In fact, many have argued that it is the American intervention in the Middle East that provides a great deal of the motivation and justification for these attacks in the first place. If this is the case, then Clinton’s approach would simply result in more angry people and more domestic terrorism.

The hard truth is that there is no perfect solution to the problem of domestic terrorism. Terrorism remains thankfully rare, but perfect safety is an illusion that can warp national security policy in dangerous ways. Neither harsh homeland security measures nor aggressive military action abroad can ensure that a single citizen — of whatever background or religion — won’t detonate a bomb on a crowded city street.

Instead, Americans should develop a realistic and resilient mindset regarding terrorism. We must accept that a few attacks will succeed despite the best efforts of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And when attacks do occur, the correct response is not the panic or overreaction that terrorists seek but instead the calm determination to apprehend and punish those responsible.

A. Trevor Thrall is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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Say No to NATO’s Expansion Parade: Adding Georgia, Finland, and More Would Make America Less Secure

Doug Bandow

NATO, the alliance informally known as North America and The Others, remains committed to expansion. Powerhouse Montenegro, with 2080 men in uniform, will be the next entrant. Other governments knocking at the alliance door include Finland, Georgia, and Serbia.

Adding these states would violate the purpose of an organization intended to increase American security. Past NATO expansion made the U.S. worse off by multiplying Washington’s military guarantees. Newer accessions would do the same, without providing any countervailing benefits. Candidate states range from military nullities, such as Montenegro, to conflict carriers, such as Ukraine.

The transatlantic alliance was created in 1949 to protect war-ravaged Western Europe from the Soviet Union, an opportunistic predator after its victory over Nazi Germany. The threat to America reflected both Moscow’s control over Eastern and Central Europe and the U.S.S.R.’s role as an ideologically hostile peer competitor.

The end of the Cold War changed everything. The Soviet subject nations were freed, a humanitarian bonanza. More important, the successor state of Russia went from hostile superpower to indifferent regional power. NATO lost its essential purpose, since the U.S. no longer needed to shield Western Europe from Moscow.

Yet the alliance proved to be as resilient as other government bureaucracies. NATO officials desperately sought new reasons to exist. Explained Vice President Al Gore: “Everyone realizes that a military alliance, when faced with a fundamental change in the threat for which it was founded, either must define a convincing new rationale or become decrepit.”

The latter was viewed as inconceivable, not even worth considering. So the alliance expanded both its mission (to “out-of-area” activities) and membership (inducting former Warsaw Pact members). Washington’s military obligations multiplied even as the most important threat against it dissipated.

Objections to this course were summarily rejected. Not a single Senator voted against admitting the three Baltic states. Then no one imagined that the U.S. might be expected to fight on their behalf. The alliance was seen as the international equivalent of a gentleman’s club, to which everyone who is someone belongs. Those who pointed to possible conflicts with Moscow were dismissed as scaremongers. Expansion was expected to be all gain, no pain.

The alliance—at least led by the U.S.—is obsolete.

Alas, Russia did not perceive moving the traditional anti-Moscow alliance up to its borders as a friendly act. Despite coming from the KGB, Vladimir Putin originally didn’t seem to bear the U.S. or West much animus. However, NATO compounded expansion with an unprovoked war against Serbia, a traditional Slavic ally of Moscow, and proposals to include Georgia and Ukraine, the latter which long had especially close historical, cultural, economic, and military ties with Russia. Over time Putin, as well as many of his countrymen, came to view the transatlantic alliance as a threat.

Russia’s aggressive confrontation with Kiev set off near panic in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They, along with Poland, have been pressing for “their” allied, meaning U.S., garrisons. And the Obama administration obliged, committing $3.4 billion to a “European Reassurance Initiative” and an armored brigade for deployment in Eastern Europe.

Last month Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, where he declared: “I want to make it absolutely clear to all the people in Baltic states, we have pledged our sacred honor, the United States of America … to the NATO treaty and Article Five.” That is, the Obama administration is prepared to take the nation into war against nuclear-armed Russia over three countries which are irrelevant to U.S. security. Since America’s safety should be the most important objective policy of any alliance, NATO expansion has turned out to be really stupid policy.

So much for all gain, no pain.

Yet U.S. officials learned nothing from the past. Montenegro already has been invited to join. At least it faces no threats, so it isn’t likely to drag America into war. The country simply is irrelevant. With just 2080 men under arms, Podgorica won’t be rushing troops to America’s defense any time soon. Yet Washington undoubtedly will be paying dearly—financial aid to professionalize the Montenegrin military, at least—for the privilege of welcoming the alliance’s latest Balkan member.

Who will come next? When it comes to NATO, the aspirants fall among the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Counting as good are the most ludicrous ideas, since they aren’t likely to occur. For instance, there have been proposals over the years to add Russia (what is an alliance that brings in the country against which it was formed?) and China (what security interests does the rising Pacific power share with the “transatlantic” club?). Had both joined NATO could have been renamed the North Atlantic-North Pacific Treaty Organization.

Three years ago there was a brief boomlet for Colombia—yes, the country located in the north of South America. That campaign died out: it was a bit hard to imagine, say, the Netherlands rushing troops to save Colombia from an invasion by bankrupt, chaotic Venezuela. Australian accession rated support from Rupert Murdoch a number of years ago. Israel also has its partisans, though as a nuclear-armed regional superpower it doesn’t need support from anyone. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq some pundits proposed that nation as well as Egypt, though the catastrophic outcome of America’s Mesopotamian invasion appeared to end that campaign.

Counting as bad would be the Balkans, which is filled with more plausible, but equally useless, applicants. Macedonia, with all of 8000 men in uniform, wants in, but has been blocked by Greece, which objects to Skopje using a name associated with the former in ancient times. Bosnia’s ambitions remain hindered by internal division and discord. The Serbian government is moving toward NATO, despite that country’s traditional friendship with Russia and role as NATO target for 78 days of bombing in 1999.

There is congressional support for Kosovo’s membership, a step backed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who supported her husband’s earlier “splendid little war.” Pristina’s membership remains hindered by continuing tensions with Serbia, from which Kosovo split with NATO support, and a reputation as a gangster state run by former terrorists. None of these nations is likely to start a war with Moscow, but none would enhance U.S. security as an alliance member.

Accession by Cyprus has been broached as a means to encourage a negotiated settlement to the island’s division, which dates back to alliance member Turkey’s 1974 invasion. However, Nicosia’s participation would be of little military value, since Russia has no significant naval presence in the Mediterranean and Greece already offers the alliance naval facilities. Turning NATO into an incentive in other geopolitical disputes would further dilute the alliance’s defensive purpose.

More substantive are candidates Finland and Sweden. Both were neutral during the Cold War, with the former enjoying its independence at Moscow’s sufferance. Both have moved closer to NATO in recent years, becoming formal partners (a relationship which can lead to membership) of the alliance. Their militaries aren’t significant, but at least the two nations have greater economic sophistication and military potential. Yet they, like the other aspirants, would expand America’s security commitments without offering countervailing benefits. Although the likelihood of a Russian attack on either country is de minimis, Moscow almost certainly would respond to their accession with hostility.

Indeed, the main case for Scandinavian membership is to back up the Baltics. Explained Aaltola Mika of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, “What is needed from Finland, is for Finland to be able to stop the Russian use of its airspace and maritime areas to support military incursions into the Baltic.” But Helsinki would take on Russia only if America was prepared to back Finland in a war. Such a conflict obviously would not be in Washington’s interest.

NATO has indicated that its door is open to Ireland, which also long has followed a neutral policy despite (or perhaps because of) its long, difficult relationship with Great Britain. Dublin has participated in NATO-led operations and there is some public support for accession, but the government shows little interest in joining the alliance. And Dublin’s participation would do little to augment alliance military capabilities.

Finally, there is the ugly: Georgia and Ukraine, both promised eventual membership in April 2008. Tbilisi long has had its partisans, including the George W. Bush administration, which promised Russia’s small neighbor alliance membership. The Europeans always have been less enthusiastic, though they have hesitated admitting that NATO’s promise was merely pretense. David J. Kramer and Damon Wilson of the McCain Institute and Atlantic Council, respectively, wrote about “Georgia’s frustration,” but the latter is of no concern to the U.S. or Europe. So long as alliance membership is about security rather than charity, the issue is the interest of existing members.

And the latter would be foolish to induct Tbilisi. Georgia’s ever-irresponsible President Mikhail Saakashvili triggered a short war with Russia in August 2008. Moscow may well have welcomed the opportunity to punish Saakashvili for his anti-Russian perspective, but outside observers reported that Georgian forces started the shooting. Saakashvili is gone—now serving in the Ukrainian government—but his successors also hope to join the alliance. Argued Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “Between a pragmatic foreign policy outlook and a capabilities oriented approach to defense, Georgia is slowly but surely overturning a reputation as a liability into that of an asset.”

However, to bring such a state, even under presumably more rationale leadership, into NATO would offer America no substantial security benefits: Tbilisi’s contributions to U.S. missions to Afghanistan and Iraq were welcome but not worth a military guarantee against Moscow. The fact that “Georgia contributes more to international operations than most existing members of NATO,” in Kramer’s and Wilson’s words, illustrates the paltry nature of others’ efforts, not the bountiful role played by Tbilisi. Georgia does not even meet NATO’s minimal standard for military spending of two percent of GDP.

Nothing at stake with Georgia should cause America to risk conflict with Moscow. Putin’s Russia looks like pre-1914 Imperial Russia, concerned with international respect and border security. That explains Moscow’s aggressive behavior toward Tbilisi, which does not warrant an American willingness to threaten war against a nuclear-armed power. Georgia’s advocates warn that the country might move toward Russia if rejected by NATO. Why should that concern Washington?

A majority of Ukrainians have come to favor alliance membership and President Petro Poroshenko said that accession remained a “strategic goal.” However, Kiev is an even poorer candidate for membership. Ukraine is involved in an active conflict involving Russia. Fear of NATO acquisition of the Crimean naval base at Sebastopol was an important reason for Moscow’s annexation of the former Russian territory. Ukraine matters much more to Moscow than America in every way; as a member of NATO Kiev would be seen as a potential security threat to Russia. Thus, Moscow always will take far greater risks and endure far greater costs in terms of relations with Kiev. That would not change if Ukraine joined NATO; only the dangers for the U.S. would increase.

Of course, the decision on alliance expansion is NATO’s alone. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared: “no one else has the right to interfere or try to veto” alliance membership, referring to Russia. However, since NATO is supposed to increase U.S. security, it would be foolish for Washington to ignore Moscow’s likely reaction.

The alliance—at least led by the U.S.—is obsolete. The Europeans collectively have a larger economy and population than America, and vastly larger than Russia. There is no reason for Washington, which is very busy in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, to continue defending its prosperous, populous cousins across the Pond.

At the very least the U.S. should halt NATO expansion. If the European members of the alliance want to defend weak, distant states, that should be their decision and responsibility. However, Washington should declare No Mas! The alliance was created to augment American security. Not risk U.S. lives and resources for no good reason.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

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This Is Why It Will Be Very Hard to Prosecute the Cop Who Shot Terence Crutcher

Jonathan Blanks

At the end of last week, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby. Video released by the department shows Crutcher walking away from police officers with his hands up while moving toward his vehicle, which had apparently broken down on the road. As he approached the door of his car, one officer deployed a taser on Crutcher and officer Shelby fired her weapon.

Despite repeated public outcry in highly publicized cases like this one, data shows that police officers are in fact very rarely charged or successfully prosecuted for on-duty shootings or other uses of force. According to a Washington Post investigation, between 2005 and 2015, just 54 officers were prosecuted for shootings. Assuming that the almost 1,000 police shooting deaths recorded in 2015 wasn’t a statistical outlier, that’s 54 cases out of nearly 10,000 fatal shootings.

The reasons for so few prosecutions are many, of course. And it’s often the case that shootings are both justified and arguably necessary.

A fraught 1989 Supreme Court decision makes it very tough.

But there is one protection that shields officers from prosecution and civil liability for killing even unarmed people: the case of Graham v. Connor.

A landmark Supreme Court ruling that still features prominently today in determining the propriety of officer use of force, Graham was decided in 1989. This case involved Dethorne Graham, who had been seen running out of a convenience store in Charlotte, North Carolina. A police officer who thought Graham was a fleeing thief detained Graham, roughed him up, and injured him in the process.

In actuality, Graham was diabetic and trying to get sugar to counter an insulin reaction, and the line at the store was too long, so he abruptly left. He sued under federal civil rights law, accusing the officer of using excessive force.

The court ruled that to be held liable under federal civil rights law, a police officer must have acted in a way that was “objectively unreasonable” to other officers in similar situations. In other words, because the officer believed that a crime may have occurred and that his actions were generally in line with encountering criminal suspects, the officer was not held liable.

In use of force cases, this evolved into what has been colloquially dubbed the “reasonably scared cop rule.” That is, if the officer can reasonably articulate that he was in fear of his life, the use of force will likely pass muster with prosecutors and investigators. The upshot of the rule is alarming, as Scott Greenfield explained on his blog Simple Justice:

As long as the question is whether the cops can piece together vague excuses to justify their fear as being objectively reasonable, particularly in light of the great deference paid the police by the courts and public, there will be no incentive to not kill when the opportunity presents itself.

The background notion is that if the law places a heavier burden on police before pulling the trigger, they will hesitate when faced with a true threat and, in at least some instances, lose the race to survival. The flip side, of course, is that they will shoot first, shoot prematurely. They will shoot not because of an actual threat, but because of the fear of a potential threat, a huge step removed. Yet, the ability to craft a viable excuse for fear is all that’s required as a matter of law to protect the cop from culpability for his kill.

Put simply, a fearful police officer is a very dangerous one. If he can articulate a plausible narrative that he believed he or his life was in danger?—?often involving the suspect making a “sudden” or “furtive movement,” or “reaching for his waistband” as if for a gun any lack of actual danger or dangerous weapon is not relevant to the officer’s legal culpability. Absolved of criminal or civil responsibility by investigators, the officer may keep his job and go back on the streets.

The real problem with the “objectively reasonable” standard of accountability is that it’s actually much closer to “subjectively reasonable.” The perspective of sympathetic officers who can imagine themselves shooting someone in a potentially life-or-death scenario given a set of stipulated facts effectively trumps the individual rights of an unarmed person shot to death.

In practice, such a standard can provide an abundance of caution in favor of the officer’s safety at the cost of the lives of people they are sworn to serve. In some circumstances, officer caution can save a suspect’s life in critical situations. But Graham protects officers who may overreact to a perceived threat so that they shoot first and look for a weapon later. Putting officer safety first and foremost subverts the protections that the government is supposed to provide to its citizens. While officer safety is undoubtedly important, it is also important to remember that there is no officer safety exception to the Constitution.

Almost 30 years since Graham, it remains the crucial ruling that governs the actions in so many police shooting cases. Given the actions of Terence Crutcher in the critical moments before his death, it will likely be invoked again.

Jonathan Blanks is a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice and managing editor of

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Is the Libertarian Party the Moderate Alternative in Today’s America?

Ted Galen Carpenter

The 2016 US presidential campaign, already noteworthy for the flamboyant and controversial ability of Donald Trump to capture the Republican Party nomination, is markedly different for another reason. The Libertarian Party (LP), which has been on the fringes of American politics since its formation more than four decades ago (typically winning about 0.5% of the vote in presidential elections) is playing a much more significant role this time. Depending on how the questions are phrased and the makeup of the survey sample, the ticket of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld poll between 7-13%, usually clustering around 9-10%.

Most political observers attribute that much stronger support to two factors. One is that the LP has nominated two figures with serious records of achievement instead of some of the rank (and occasionally bizarre) outsiders that it chose in other years. But that factor cannot fully account for the surge of support. After all, Gary Johnson was the party’s nominee in 2012 (with a different running mate) and although he did better than previous LP candidates by receiving 1.2 million votes, he narrowly failed to pierce the 1% level. Clearly, something has changed.

The majority of experts attribute the sharp rise of support for the Johnson-Weld ticket to the unprecedented level of public dissatisfaction with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Polling data may support that thesis, since the disapproval rating for Clinton has risen to 58, while for Trump it has remained around 64%. There is indeed a lot of public disgust with the nominees of both major parties, and that undoubtedly contributes to the search for a third-party alternative. With two very respectable figures on their ticket, the LP was well positioned to take advantage.

It is possible that it represents the cutting edge of a new political coalition — a new moderate force more in tune with the wishes of the American people.

However, there are indications that public dissatisfaction goes much deeper than the revulsion over the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. The two major parties are increasingly polarized on some key domestic issues, making the concept of political compromise almost unthinkable. Abortion is the most obvious issue, but the polarization has bled over into an entire range of social and economic issues. Appointments to the Supreme Court, and increasingly even lower courts, are now subject to strict political and ideological litmus tests. The idea of nominating a quality jurist who will simply do his or her best to apply the law as the facts of a particular case indicate, has now become a quaint, obsolete notion for the dominant elites in both major parties. Yet, except for movement zealots, that is likely what a majority of Americans seek. The LP offers the hope of fresh appointees without the extensive baggage of political and ideological obligations.

A different kind of polarization has taken place on the issue of national security. While prominent Republicans and Democrats will happily engage in partisan sniping, the reality is that there is very little difference in the substance of the policies that the elites of both parties embrace. Although Trump himself has made some statements suggesting that he is a bit of a maverick (calling NATO “obsolete”, for example), most of the GOP and the bulk of the Democratic Party leadership remain firmly wedded to the status quo. And that status quo is one of high levels of military spending, maintaining (and where possible, expanding) Washington’s alliances, and intervening militarily around the world in conflicts that have little or no connection to America’s vital interests. Moreover, one must wonder about Trump’s supposed maverick tendencies when he pledges a new campaign to destroy ISIS in record time and end the budget sequester provisions so that the already generously funded Pentagon can get even more money. Conversely, less than one-third of the public supports increased military spending.

The American public has been increasingly frustrated with the so-called bipartisan interventionist consensus. Polls show that Americans believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake, and they want to avoid similar quagmires. Although panic about a high-profile terrorist incident can generate temporary support for US military action in the Middle East, that support tends to fade, and it is always notable for a lack of enthusiasm for extended occupations or nation-building missions.

The GOP and Democratic elites are also out of touch with the American public on the issue of alliances. Trump was able to tap into a reservoir of anger about the allies not bearing their “fair share” of the collective defense burden. In fact, the public shows manifest reluctance to defend allies like Taiwan and South Korea, even though Washington has a long-standing commitment. A willingness to shed American blood for the likes of NATO allies such as the Baltic republics is far from certain either.

Johnson and Weld have been far less definitive than previous LP tickets in repudiating interventionism. For example, they would not necessarily have the United States withdraw immediately from NATO. They would, however, push for lower military spending, rather than higher, and the days of the US military being the first responder to every crisis in the world would not be part of their foreign policy. For a war-weary American public, that is an appealing message.

Finally, support for the LP may compel the Republicans and Democrats to address economic (especially budgetary) policies in a more serious fashion. Both major parties talk about reducing the alarming, chronic annual federal budget deficit, but their actions belie their words. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama added more to the US national debt than all previous presidents combined. And one is hard-pressed to figure out how to stem the tide of red ink when candidates promise to give the Pentagon more to spend or want to provide free tuition for anyone who wishes to go to college. The LP points out the blatant contradictions in the positions of the GOP and its Democratic competitor and, as on the issue of war, a worried public may be ready to listen.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact the Libertarian Party will have on the 2016 election and beyond. The Johnson-Weld upsurge could be merely a one-time phenomenon brought about by the selection of especially unsavory nominees by the two major parties. But it is also possible that it represents the cutting edge of a new political coalition — a new moderate force more in tune with the wishes of the American people.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books and more than 600 articles on international affairs.

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Primed against Primacy: The Restraint Constituency and U.S. Foreign Policy

A. Trevor Thrall

In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” Albright’s view was anything but unique to her or to the Clinton administration. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of frequent American military intervention has reigned in Washington. Even President Obama, who came into office calling for greater restraint than his predecessor, expanded the “war on terror,” engaged in regime change in Libya, and extended the mission in Afghanistan — America’s longest war. Facing vocal critics who seek to increase American intervention not just in the Middle East but also in conflicts throughout the world, Obama was unable to implement many of the more restrained policies he advocated.

Looking ahead, the greatest danger to the case for restraint is the interventionist habit of America’s political leaders.

The American public, however, is far less supportive of an interventionist foreign policy agenda than political elites. Given this, a critical task for the next president will be to navigate between the interventionist tendencies of the right and the left, while embracing the “restraint constituency.” An analysis of polling data from both CNN/ORC and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reveals that this constituency, which cuts across party lines and represents roughly 37 percent of the public — exhibits a reliable disposition toward foreign policy restraint, opposing the use of military force in all but a few cases. That contrasts with an “interventionist constituency” that represents about a quarter of the public and supports much more aggressive efforts to promote American interests abroad. Since neither constituency’s core followers represent a majority, the deciding voice between intervention and restraint in foreign policy debates belongs to the 40 percent of the public that falls somewhere between the two camps.

Though the restraint constituency enjoys an advantage on many important foreign policy issues, public fears about terrorism and other global conflicts will continue to be a significant challenge for restraint-minded policymakers. Framing world events as “other people’s business,” reminding the public of the costs of major war, and pursuing an active noninterventionist counterterrorism strategy can help policymakers encourage public support for a more restrained foreign policy.

The Restraint Constituency

In the broadest sense, most Americans agree that the United States should play some sort of role in world affairs. The most commonly asked poll question on this topic asks whether the United States should “take an active part” or “stay out” of world affairs. The proportion of respondents who say “take an active part” has ranged between 60 percent and 70 percent since the mid-1980s. What such surveys do not communicate clearly, however, is what exactly people mean when they answer them. In the case of military intervention, taking an “active part” could mean anything from contributing to a peacekeeping mission to frequent full-scale regime change of a hostile regime, while “stay out” could mean anything from cutting ties with allies to rejecting responsibility for resolving foreign conflicts.

We can develop a more complete picture by assessing people’s beliefs on two key fundamental questions regarding intervention and the use of force. The first question concerns how much effort the United States should make to solve the world’s problems. The second concerns how often the United States should turn to military force to promote national interests. Figure 1 provides a snapshot of Americans’ underlying attitudes along these two dimensions.


With these answers in hand we can begin to identify competing predispositions towards foreign policy. Some Americans — those we label here the restraint constituency — feel that the United States should not seek to take the leading role among all nations to solve the world’s problems. They believe that the United States should rarely use military force. The interventionist constituency, on the other hand, are those who answer the opposite. This group believes the United States should take the leading role and support the frequent use of military force to promote American interests. Figure 2 combines responses to both questions, helping identify and measure four distinct postures toward foreign affairs.


These predispositions toward restraint and intervention are just that — under certain conditions, even restrainers will support intervention and interventionists will not. At any particular moment, Americans’ opinions reflect not only these predispositions but also information coming from political leaders and the news media about the world. More recent polling on the Islamic State, for example, illustrates that support for an aggressive response has risen considerably across all groups as concerns about the threat posed by the Islamic State have grown.

The Politics of Restraint Today

The shifting context of international security and domestic politics provides both opportunities and challenges to policymakers trying to chart a restrained path in foreign policy.

Today, three major factors work in favor of restraint. The first is war fatigue. Large majorities remain convinced that both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were mistakes. With over 7,000 U.S. military personnel killed and many thousands more wounded, and trillions of dollars spent killing terrorists and “exerting influence” in the Middle East and elsewhere, many Americans are simply convinced it is time to spend more time focusing on domestic concerns. A 2016 Pew survey found, along these lines, that 70 percent of the public wants the next president to focus on domestic issues compared to just 17 percent who want to see a focus on foreign policy. One possible interpretation of this finding is that a growing number of Americans may see little connection between military intervention and American security, especially given how few terrorist attacks have occurred on American soil since 9/11. As a result, fewer may now believe such efforts are worth the high costs in lives, money, and in the lack of attention paid to domestic issues. Such poll findings establish a high burden of proof for future intervention. Those seeking to repeat a troop-intensive intervention in the Middle East not only will have to explain why the security risk justifies such an action but also must reassure the public that the next Islamic State will not emerge in its aftermath.

Second, the American public continues to find serious military intervention justified in relatively few situations. As surveys from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs repeatedly illustrate, a majority of the public opposes most potential uses of U.S. ground troops, with two key exceptions: humanitarian intervention (including preventing genocide) and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The emergence of the Islamic State also represents a significant challenge to a restraint-minded president. The group’s barbarism, along with the attacks in Europe, San Bernardino, and Orlando, have driven public support for an aggressive response to levels not seen since the early days after 9/11, though support for sending American troops remains low.

Finally, looking beyond the temporary effects of global events, the situation today reflects generational shifts in public opinion. The data reveals that the restraint constituency has been growing as younger and less intervention-minded Americans start to replace older, more interventionist Americans. The Millennial generation, born between 1980 and 1997, is the most restrained yet, with both Democratic and Republican Millennials more likely to fall into the Restraint Constituency. Figure 3 illustrates the generational shift toward restraint.


The Road Ahead: Priming the Restraint Constituency

Continued clashes between the restraint and interventionist constituencies are inevitable. Both camps can rely on a core of followers to support their positions and both have illustrated the ability — on different issues — to command majority support. The key questions thus become under what conditions will the restraint constituency win the day? And how can policymakers help make that happen? Restraint-minded policymakers can make the strongest case possible in various ways.

Most important, policymakers should assert a “civil conflict” frame when discussing the situation in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and any future failed or troubled state. Historically, the restraint position has been most compelling when Americans believe they are being asked to intervene to resolve other nations’ internal problems, while interventionist arguments have been strongest when Americans are asked to take action against a group or nation that poses a direct threat to the United States. In reality, of course, public perception often depends in large part on how the president, other political leaders, and the media frame that issue in the first place.

The Syrian civil war provides an excellent illustration of this dynamic. In 2013, the popular perception was that, although tragic, the situation was above all a civil war and primarily Syria’s problem. As a result, 68 percent of the public told pollsters that the United States did not bear responsibility for Syria. A similar majority opposed sending troops or even providing aid to the rebels fighting Assad. Yet by 2015, a large percentage of the public saw Syria not only as a civil war but as a battlefield on which to confront the threat of terrorism, largely thanks to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

Restraint-minded policymakers should also invoke the length and cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the chaos that both created, including the birth of the Islamic State. Even as Americans indicate a desire to move more aggressively against the Islamic State, they remain extremely wary of a full-scale ground war. To the extent that political leaders can keep the public focused on the dangers of any military engagement, they can reduce the appeal of calls for more intervention.

Finally, policymakers, especially the president, should emphasize noninterventionist strategies for counterterrorism. It is clear that the fear of terrorism is the most likely cause of future American intervention abroad in the near to medium term. And though nothing can completely eliminate calls from the interventionist constituency to play whack-a-mole abroad to combat terrorist groups, the majority of the public traditionally prefers exploring nonmilitary means of solving problems to the use of force. By highlighting an active program of nonmilitary counterterrorism efforts, the next president could blunt calls for military intervention.

Looking ahead, the greatest danger to the case for restraint is the interventionist habit of America’s political leaders. Under either a President Clinton or a President Trump, it seems extremely likely that the United States will continue to suffer from what Christopher Preble calls the “power problem.” Thanks to the exceptional security and overwhelming power the United States possesses, it enjoys too great a temptation, to intervene abroad in pursuit of all kinds of foreign policy goals that have nothing to do with national security.

A. Trevor Thrall is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

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North Korea: Friendly Proliferation May Beat a Nuclear Umbrella

Doug Bandow

The Obama administration is debating a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons. Some Asia specialists fear the resulting impact on North Korea. But dealing with Pyongyang is a reason for Washington to encourage its ally South Korea to go nuclear.

Washington has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. No one doubts that the U.S. would use nukes in its own defense.

However, since then Washington has extended a so-called “nuclear umbrella” over many of its non-nuclear allies. For instance, the U.S. long has threatened to use nuclear weapons in its NATO allies’ defense, though the precise circumstances under which the U.S. would act were not clear. The U.S. also holds, probably, a nuclear umbrella over at least some of its Mideast allies.

Dealing with nuclear weapons is never easy. Washington’s best alternative may be to withdraw from Northeast Asia’s nuclear imbroglio.

Northeast Asia is the region where nuclear threats seem greatest. Japan and South Korea are thought to be snuggled beneath America’s nuclear umbrella, which has discouraged both from acquiring their own weapons. Other possible claimants include Taiwan and Australia, though, again, no one quite knows what Washington would do when.

The “umbrella” obviously is defensive, that is, to protect American allies against the first use of nukes. However, Washington also could — and, it appears, would, if necessary, whatever that might mean — use nuclear weapons first to stop a conventional attack. While Russia and China might not be particularly friendly with America these days, they aren’t likely to attack the Republic of Korea or Japan. More plausible is a North Korean invasion of the ROK.

Extended nuclear deterrence always has been risky for the U.S. It means being willing to fight a nuclear war on behalf of others, that is, Americans would risk Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles to, say, defend Berlin and Tokyo.

At least bilateral deterrence among great powers tends to be reasonably stable. Dealing with North Korea is potentially more dangerous. Kim Jong Un’s judgment and stability are problematic. He might start a war inadvertently.

Yet the DPRK eventually may gain the ability to strike the U.S. by developing long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons. The North isn’t likely to attack first, but it still could lay waste to a major U.S. city.

Which would be a bad deal indeed. Yet advocates of extended deterrence are criticizing proposals for an American pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons. Writing for NK News, analyst Robert E. McCoy argued: “It is imperative that Kim Jong Un is made to understand that he faces the destructive power of our entire weapons arsenal at all times when it comes to threatening the U.S. or its allies.”

Yet that is precisely the problem. It is one thing for Washington to use nuclear weapons, including pre-emptively, to protect America. It is quite different to do so for allies.

Alliances are a means, not an end — that is, a mechanism to help defend the U.S. A North Korean attack on South Korea would be awful, a humanitarian tragedy. But American security would not be directly threatened. Certainly there is no threat warranting the risk of nuclear retaliation on the U.S.

Of course, those being defended have configured their security policy and force structure in response. But future policy should not be held captive to the past.

Washington’s chief responsibility should be America’s security. Backers of the status quo act like there is no alternative to leaving South Korea (and Japan, which faces a real, though less direct, threat from the DPRK) vulnerable to attack.

However, Seoul is well able to deter and defeat the North. The ROK possesses around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, as well as a vast technological lead and an extensive international support network. Japan, which long possessed the world’s second-largest economy, also could do far more.

The South is capable of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, polls show public support for such an option today. Opposition to nuclear weapons is stronger in Japan, but an ROK weapon would put enormous pressure on Tokyo to conform.

Obviously, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose proliferation, even among friends. However, the current system is entangling Washington in the middle of other nations’ potential conflicts. The result is to make America less secure.

Dealing with nuclear weapons is never easy. Washington’s best alternative may be to withdraw from Northeast Asia’s nuclear imbroglio. Then America’s allies could engage in containment and deterrence, just as America did for them for so many years.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.