Sunday, December 13, 2009

David Boaz in Camelot

I just returned from David Boaz's talk at the Foundation for Economic Education. Mr. Boaz is co-founder and Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute in Washington. I drove down to Irvington-on-Hudson, which is a two hour drive, and I thought it was very much worth it. Mr. Boaz is an excellent speaker, brilliant and wise. He is surprisingly optimistic. He noted that the long term trend has been toward greater freedom. He noted that there is more freedom for blacks and Jews today than there was in the era of laissez-faire. Also, the degree of government intervention is less now than it was in the past. For instance, he noted that while 75% of the nation favored nationalization of banking in the 1930s, only 35% favors it today.

I enjoyed the talk but experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance with respect to all the optimism. While we are better off than we might have been had it not been for people like David Boaz, today we pay 50% of our incomes in taxes, when you include property, sales, state income tax and social security tax. If we do not have the freedom to dispose of half of our earnings I don't see how we can consider ourselves to be free. In the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s Pennsylvanians were ready to overthrow Washington over a small tax on whiskey.

I suppose optimism is psychologically preferable to pessimism. Nevertheless, Mr. Boaz reminded me of the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur cuts off one of his arms, and the black knight says "'tis but a scratch." He cuts off the other arm and the black knight says "just a flesh wound". King Arthur proceeds to cut off both of the black knight's legs and he says "I'm invincible!" (see below).


vakeraj said...

I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Boaz several times while interning at the Cato Institute this fall. I was wondering what you opinion is on the Mises-LRC/Cato split in the libertarian movement? Personally, I wish we could all just get along.

Mitchell Langbert said...

I am not a follower of the inside libertarian movement. I respected the late Murray N. Rothbard's intellect considerably (I met him twice and edited a book review he wrote when I was book review editor of the Columbia Journal of World Business)but he was not a man of the world. His insight in founding the Libertarian Party and the Cato Institute were tremendous, but his practical execution was not perfect. There was a pitched battle in the NY Free Libertarian Party a year or two before I joined. My friend Howard S. Katz had accused Rothbard of something and Rothbard and others got mad at him and then there was a break up.

I looked up LRC on Google because I had always thought LRC refers to "lighting research center" (just kidding). I have heard of Lew and have, like you, met Boaz and Ed Crane once (they let me visit them in their offices) but I do not know the distinction between them and Lew Rockwell.

Listening to Boaz I suspect that he might be more socially "liberal" than Rockwell, but I have absolutely no knowledge of either one's views in any detail.

I would say that the Libertarian (capital "L") movement suffers the same malady as the extreme left of the twentieth century. There are few of them; they are excessively fastidious about their views; and they are fanatical in their devotion to pie in the sky ideological positions.

That said, without knowing the details of the dispute that you describe, I would say that a failure of what I would term interpersonal virtue (I teach something called managerial skills at Brooklyn College and sometimes at NYU) exists in the libertarian movement, which is why it is small.

To become large, political movements have to exercise consumer-based marketing. They need to pander to voters. Libertarian (capital "L") activists do not do this, and so have limited effect on policy. Better they would enter the fray and nudge things in a better direction. The current approach seems to me a total failure.

Perhaps that is part of what was wrong with David Boaz's optimism (I think he's a very intelligent and capable guy and very much worth listening to even though I disagree a bit).