BPR Interview: Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon

Roger Pilon is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Cato Institute. He spoke with BPR Interviews Director Chris Wilbur on the meaning and future of modern libertarianism in America.

Brown Political Review: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of limiting the growth of government and share your thoughts on what government looks like to you today?

Roger Pilon: The benefits of limited government were no better understood than by America’s Founders. Most who came to these shores sought to escape tyranny of one kind or another and to find freedom. They wanted to plan and live their own lives, free especially from government control. That kind of freedom has been all too rare in human history.

In seeking to articulate and secure their liberty, the Founders drew on the natural law tradition stretching back to antiquity, but especially on the natural rights strain that emerged from the English common law, the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the writings of classical liberals like John Locke. The seminal self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence elegantly summarize that vision: we’re all born with equal rights to pursue happiness as we think best; and we create government to secure that liberty, its just powers derived from the consent of the governed. With that vision before them, the Framers then drafted a Constitution to authorize, institute, empower, and limit that kind of government, giving it only limited powers, leaving most power with the states or, still more, with the people.

And we lived under that limited government, more or less, for 150 years, up until the New Deal. It wasn’t perfect, to be sure. To ensure union, for example, the original Constitution recognized slavery, at least obliquely. The Framers knew that slavery was inconsistent with their founding principles. They hoped it would wither away in time. It didn’t. It took a civil war to end slavery and the passage of the Civil War Amendments to “complete” the Constitution, at least in law, by providing for federal remedies against state violations of our rights. Thus, the principles of the Declaration were incorporated at last in the Constitution.

Just to be clear, however, there’s never been a “Golden Age” of liberty in practice: ideals are one thing, history another. But looking back we can see certain markers in the course of our liberty; and the clearest marker, at least from the perspective of the growth of ubiquitous government, was the rise of Progressivism early in the twentieth century, the ideas of which were instituted systematically by the New Deal Court in 1937 and 1938. Progressives rejected fundamentally the limited government ideas of the founding and subsequent generations. Drawing from European models and from the social sciences, they were social engineers who thought that elites trained in those disciplines could order human affairs far better than the “invisible hand” of the free market could. Thus, the limited government the Constitution authorized had to be overturned.

How that was done is a long story But in a nutshell, during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term the Supreme Court had rejected several of his schemes as beyond the authority of Congress to enact, so after the landslide election of 1936 he threatened to pack the Court with six new members. Not even Congress would go along with that. Nevertheless, the Court got the message and began systematically turning the Constitution on its head. Thus, the floodgates were opened for the modern regulatory and redistributive state we know and love so well today – the state that is fast bankrupting us. The idea that you would turn to government for your retirement security, your health care, for rules about who and how you can hire and fire, and on and on would have been anathema to the Founders. But that’s where we are today, and there are many who have no idea of how it could be otherwise, of what it would mean to live in a truly free society.

So you ask about the benefits of limiting the growth of government? Where to begin? At the most general level, doing so leaves individuals free to live their own lives, to be responsible for their own choices, to prosper – or to fail. The more “we’re all in this together,” as we hear so often from the White House, the more we prosper or fail not as individuals but as a nation. And the more we become dependent on government, the more we find ourselves in a Hobbesian war of all against all, trying to get “ours” before the other guy gets “his.” We’ve seen that for some time now. It’s captured in the frequently heard comment that we’re a deeply divided nation.

BPR: Libertarian ideas have had a lot of traction with young people as a result of Ron Paul’s campaigning. Do you see that development impacting libertarianism in the future in a positive light?

RP: Absolutely, because notwithstanding what I just said, there are also many people, especially young people, who do have an idea of what it would be like to be truly free. Often, however, they’re unschooled about liberty and they confuse truly libertarian solutions to issues of the day with political solutions that seem to be libertarian because they help some people to be “free” – but do so at the expense of other people. Do we need any better example than the recent case of Sandra Fluke, the pathetic Georgetown Law student who had her 15 minutes of fame at the Democratic National Convention after she protested that Georgetown, a Catholic school, might not want to subsidize the cost of her contraceptives? No one was denying her any right. She was perfectly free to buy her own contraceptives. But the Obama administration did want to restrict the liberty of Georgetown’s officers by forcing them to act contrary to their religious beliefs. There you have a perfect example of how you can expand one person’s putative “liberty” – to have “free” contraceptives – but only by taking the legitimate liberty of someone else.

But if young people are often confused over simple examples like that, it’s hardly surprising that they’d be far more confused about the more complex issues we find in the modern welfare state. Take Obamacare, or the Wall Street bailout, or any other such example: Dig deeply and you’ll discover that almost all involve efforts by government to correct the mess that was created by earlier governmental efforts to solve some felt problem. When Ron Paul talks about the Fed or Paul Ryan talks about Medicare, they’re trying to explain how more government isn’t the solution to problems created by government in the first place. But those are often complex arguments about how, for example, we don’t really have a free market in medical care, or how crony capitalism has sold out true capitalism. And to be understood, they require a certain basic understanding of economics and economic relationships – which, regrettably, many students today don’t have.

That’s the kind of learning that has to be done if we’re to get to the heart of the matter. Yet on that score I’m quite excited by what I see going on just below the surface, at places like the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Fund for American Studies, the Institute for Justice, the Reason Foundation, the Federalist Society, and elsewhere, all across the country, to say nothing of what’s being done by organizations like Students for Liberty. At Cato we have a very active program for students. In fact, it’s harder to get a summer internship at Cato than it is to get into the Harvard Law School. We have about 1300 applications for about 20 to 30 spots. That’s a great sign of the growth we’re seeing.

From a broader perspective, however, we saw how young people responded to Obama’s siren song in the last two elections, notwithstanding that he’s doing nothing about entitlements, the costs of which are falling so plainly and in so many ways on young people, who on our current course will never enjoy those “entitlements.” There are several explanations for that seemingly irrational attraction – not least the inability of the Republican Party to get its act together. But we cannot discount the role that academia plays, where so many young people spend their formative years. Note how often, for example, that Obama spoke at college campuses during the campaign. And why not? The political culture on most campuses couldn’t be more receptive for him. At Princeton, for example, a staggering 99 percent of direct presidential contributions by faculty and staff went to Obama; only two people contributed to Romney, a visiting engineering professor and a custodian. You have to really go out of your way to create so one-sided a climate.

I know this from personal experience. In 1979 I was denied an appointment in the philosophy department at Georgetown. The crestfallen department chairman called to tell me the reason: it was that strong letter of recommendation in my dossier from Milton Friedman. (This was after he’d won the Nobel Prize in economics.) In fact, the faculty meeting was so acrimonious, he said, that they decided not even to fill the position that year. I have other personal examples, as do many other libertarians and conservatives. When I speak and debate for Federalist Society chapters at law schools, I see the problem up close. It varies, of course, but most schools have at best one or two conservative or libertarian professors. Some have none. At those the chapter either has no faculty advisor or, sometimes, an ACLU affiliated professor serves as the advisor, because he wants to have a little debate at the school, which the Federalist Society affords. That’s what we’re up against, and it explains, partly, why the youth vote is as skewed as it is.

BPR: What do you think about the Libertarian Party being a third party, or would libertarian values be better off absorbed in one or both of the major political parties?

RP: The Libertarian Party came into being in the 1970s when the Republican Party was worse than useless in resisting the growth of government – essentially “Democrat light.” When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, however, we finally had someone who stood for limiting government – not everywhere, of course, the war on drugs being one of the prime exceptions. But at last there was a real choice – and a real contrast between the two parties. And because of our first-past-the-post political system, we are, let’s be honest, a two-party country.

Given those factors, my view today is that the Libertarian Party, on balance, is not a good thing. I know, there are libertarians who will not suffer Republicans in their midst, and often for good reason. Some, in fact, are so “pure” that they belong to churches with congregations of one. In the real world, however, we have to strike the best deal we can. Libertarians have sometimes cost the election for good candidates; and in closely divided legislatures, that’s no small matter. So my answer is that it’s better to work with the two main parties – including the Democrats on some issues.

BPR: What do you think Rep. Ron Paul has done for the popular image of libertarianism?

RP: That’s hard to say. For many Americans he came across during the Republican primary debates as something of a kook. Yet he did inspire a loyal following, and he put in play a number of libertarian issues that otherwise might never have been heard, like our role in the world, or tolerance for gays. But his candidacy also illustrated how difficult it is to raise complex issues – like the role of the Fed – in the political climate we live in today, and that’s a continuing problem for libertarians who often think “outside the box.” Some of the new people may be better at communicating those messages, people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Ron Paul’s son Rand Paul.

BPR: You have commented in the past about media bias. How deep is media bias and what has been the effect on the American public?

RP: It’s extraordinarily deep. Like academia, the media is self-selected – and its members like to be with people like themselves. How things got this way is a long and complex story, rooted ultimately, and again, in the moral crusading of the Progressive Era. Suffice it simply to say that, like all crusades, Progressivism was a collective undertaking, an elite corps marching forward to “make the world safe for democracy,” among many other such projects. Today, “we’re-all-in-this-together” captures a mindset in which those who aren’t with us are against us. Thus the evolution of the “mainstream” culture, reflected in education at all levels, in the media, the major foundations, the mainline religions, the world of entertainment, fashion, even in corporate America and the sciences. (Note the treatment of those who question global warming.) And although this culture has always been “political,” over the years it’s become increasingly so. Take humor: I’m old enough to remember the humor of the 1950s up to the mid-’60s or so, comedians like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and many others. It was rarely political, and it certainly wasn’t all sex and drugs. Not that I’m a prude, mind you. The point, rather, is that today politics infuses or is just below the surface in almost everything.

And the major reason, I submit, is because government is so ubiquitous – even to the point today of having government media in the form of PBS and NPR, if we want to talk about influencing the public. The Progressive crusade was all about doing “good,” at least as they saw it – not doing so privately but through government programs. And they’ve succeeded: They’ve created programs to address every sin under the sun, real and imagined – for all the “good” it’s done us as we cruise into bankruptcy. To stand outside the mainstream culture, then, is to be a pariah. Look at Fox News, or the tea party, the subjects of regular media ridicule. In many ways this is all a reversion to the ancien régime, when state and church (mainstream culture) were one. It’s all quite extraordinary – and often quite insufferable.

BPR: Where do you see the United States in 50 years? Are you optimistic?

RP: I’m congenitally optimistic. Still, I’m troubled by polls showing increasingly that the American ethos as we’ve known it for the better part of 200 years seems to be shifting. When you have half of the population paying no income taxes, and ten percent of the population paying most of the taxes, you’re in a parlous situation, because the incentives are so skewed. It then becomes much easier to remain dependent on government.

A good illustration is the unemployment insurance program under which coverage has recently been extended to two full years. Why would you give up your unemployment check to take a job that pays $12 an hour if it doesn’t equal what you get on unemployment? Not that I’m suggesting that a person ought not to take full advantage of what he’s entitled to, whether unemployment insurance benefits, or tax breaks, or what have you. Rather, we ought not to have programs that make it so easy to become dependent and to develop attitudes and habits of dependency.

I’m speaking here of cultural issues, of course, which are the soft underbelly of any political system. All we have to do is look around the world to see that culture matters. It’s fashionable in many circles today to disparage both the individualism that has underpinned the American experiment in ordered liberty from its inception and the idea of “American exceptionalism” that is so often misunderstood. But if that cultural substructure goes, no constitutional parchment will sustain us. So, yes, I’m optimistic, but not without reservations.

BPR: What are the effects of regulation and taxation on entrepreneurs and on society as a whole?

RP: Libertarians are not opposed to regulation and taxation as such. We need regulations to flesh out our rights and the many proper functions of government, and taxes to support that government. We do oppose government that goes beyond the limits authorized by the Constitution – and the regulations and taxes that attend that illegitimate expansion of government. That’s the problem today, of course. Too many people and the politicians they elect think that the purpose of government is to solve their problems. If that were so, the Framers could have written a much shorter Constitution. They didn’t because they understood the nature of the problem

And here it is, at least in a nutshell. When you have effectively unbounded regulation and taxation, over time you get a viciously downward spiral because people respond to incentives (That, together with scarcity, is the fundamental premise of economics.) If the government provides goods and services, the demand for them goes up because they’re seen as “free.” They’re not, of course. They’re paid for first by taxes. But except things like user fees, there’s ordinarily no real correlation between those who get the goods and those who pay for them. Before long, however, the taxation becomes graduated, and those who pay the most realize they’re getting the short end of the stick. So they object to ever increasing taxation. Politicians then turn to borrowing to satisfy the ever growing demand for “free” stuff.

Unlike with demand, however, there are natural limits to both taxation and borrowing. Just as entrepreneurs change their behavior in the face of regulation – legitimate and illegitimate alike – so too taxpayers and lenders change their behavior when taxes become too high or lending becomes too risky. And we see that in practice. Look at New York, Illinois, and California – fiscal disasters. People are leaving – not the tax takers but the tax payers. Or look at France. When new French President François Hollande recently raised the income tax rate to 75 percent, the country’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, moved to Belgium. So did movie star Gérard Depardieu. And as for borrowing, do we need any better example than Greece and other European countries that have promised far more “stuff” than they’ll ever be able to tax or borrow to pay for? But the problem is perfectly generalizable, and it was put no more succinctly than by Margaret Thatcher: The trouble with socialism (which is what we’re talking about here) is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. And that pretty much describes where we’re headed here in America too. Libertarians aren’t the only ones saying it, but we were among the first to say, “Wake up America, we’re going broke, and here’s why.” Back to Friedman: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”