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New Adventures, New Opportunities

After nearly 30 years in various roles with the Cato Institute, it is time to move on to new adventures and new opportunities.  Actually, I was prepared to gently slide into retirement, but it turns out that I still have important things to say.  So, today (April 3) I will take up a new position as a senior fellow with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP).  In this capacity I will be continuing to speak out on the issues of poverty and inequality that are important to me.

FREOPP is a non-partisan thinktank, firmly committed to free markets, individual liberty, and limited government, but one that looks at public policy exclusively through a lens of how those policies impact those with wealth or incomes below the U.S. median.  Readers of my book, The Inclusive Economy, will recognize a holistic approach to fighting poverty, that encompasses issues ranging from criminal justice and education reform to housing policy, welfare reform, and economic development. It offers a bridge between left and right on ways to create greater and more widespread opportunity for those who are struggling most today.

I am deeply appreciative for my time at Cato. I had an opportunity to work with some of the finest scholars I know and believe I helped bring about important changes to both policy and public perceptions.  But all good things come to an end, and now I have an opportunity to tackle fresh challenges and bring my message to different audiences.    

I look forward to sharing this new adventure with you, my readers.  Onward and upward!


The Human Heart Still Sings for Liberty

Not so very long ago, many astute observers thought that liberal democracy was in decline globally. Enlightenment values of individual rights, liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, and constitutional government were outmoded, irrelevant to the needs of modern society, and threatening to long held beliefs and traditions.  Populist authoritarianism was in ascendence and providing a new model for the world.  Counties like Russia and China were increasingly seen as providing a more efficient mechanism for “getting things done” without all the messiness of individual choice and democratic rule. 

Yet, if one looks around the world today, authoritarianism is being challenged everywhere.  The struggle for – and desire for – liberty is seeing a rebirth. 

In Ukraine, a liberal democracy, admittedly flawed but fundamentally embracing ideals of liberty and self-determination, has proven more than a match for the authoritarian behemoth that invaded it.  The Ukrainian success, of course, owes much to western aide and Russian incompetence.  But the ultimate key to the Ukrainian fortitude we are witnessing in the face of hardship and atrocity has been the belief that they are fighting for freedom and independence.  Compare that to Russian conscripts forced to fight for a system that they neither care about nor cares about them.  

Meanwhile, women and others have risen up in Iran in the wake of the death of of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student likely murdered by the regime’s infamous morality police.   The authorities have responded with brutal force, arresting thousands, and killing more than 300.  Yet, the protests have continued for nearly four months, if anything growing larger, under the slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom.”

Even in China, long considered the epicenter of the authoritarian alternative, is now experiencing unprecedented protests that have sprung up across the country.  The protests, small by international standards, have not been seen since in China since the 1989 protest in Tiananmen Square.  These latest protests started in opposition to the country’s draconian “zero COVID” policy, but now the demonstrators are calling for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and “the democratic rule f law.”  Some have even called for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to relinquish power. 

Of note, in this country, voters in the midterm elections largely rejected the most extreme candidates and delivered a strong rebuke to those who flirt with anti-democratic norms. 

Of course, to differing degrees, all these pro-liberal movements may fail.  It seems unlikely but Russia could get its act together enough to complete its conquest of Ukraine.  The Iranian protests may fizzle out the way others have in the past.  China’s demonstrations are almost certainly not going to topple Xi.  In the US, troubling strains of extremism remain among both political parties.  New threats to freedom will arise, and old ones will have their triumphs.

Yet, successful or not, we are seeing that the desire for liberty is unquenchable.  We should have understood this.  After all, we’ve been through dark times before. We’ve fallen short of our ideals and seen liberty stumble and be momentarily eclipsed.  But always the spark has rekindled.   

We should remember.  We should continue to fight the good fight and to support those who share our struggle.  And we should be optimists.  In the end, liberty will triumph.

Some Thoughts about the War in Ukraine

War is always a horrible thing – and the war in Ukraine is bringing that home to us in a way that is impossible to ignore.  Moreover, I have friends and people I have worked with, fellow libertarians, in both Ukraine and Russia.  As the war grinds on, and the Ukrainian people continue to suffer, I think it time to offer a few thoughts.

The case for staying out of the conflict is not an unserious one, and the concerns shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

To start with, it takes more than a bit of gymnastics for the U.S. to claim the moral high ground on matters of war and peace.  It’s not just the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is decades of propping up dictatorships and/or supporting regime change in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  Even now, we continue to provide military support for Saudi Arabia’s barbarous war in Yemen. 

And, we probably should have been more sensitive to Russia’s geopolitical concerns in our race to expand NATO.  Russia may be paranoid, but that’s a long-standing condition of Russian foreign policy, and we knew it going in.  Moreover, there are still questions about whether the defense of Europe might better be accomplished through some-sort of EU-linked force rather than through an organization that by its nature threatens to drag the United States into a wider war.

Nor is our assistance to Ukraine cost-free.  The most recent package of military and economic aid runs to $40 billion on top of what we’ve already spent.  We will almost certainly end up spending even more before it’s all over  That’s real money, even by Washington standards.  The Biden administration may spend like there’s a magic money tree out behind the White House – but there’s not. 

Finally, the risks of our being drawn into a direct, shooting conflict with Russia are real and could be catastrophic.  If Russians and Americans start shooting at each other, the road to Armageddon beckons. 

But despite these legitimate concerns, I still favor aid to Ukraine for reasons of both morality and national interest.

Let’s be absolutely clear, whatever we’ve done wrong in the past, there is no justification for Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine.  Not only is the invasion unprovoked in any realistic sense, but it is being executed in the most criminal way.  Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians, destruction of Ukrainian culture, and other war crimes are not something that can be ignored.  The idea, pushed by some on the far right, that Putin is conducting some sort of noble crusade against wokeness is a vile calumny that should not be entertained by civilized people.

Most wars are painted in shades of grey.  This one is far less so.  Ukraine was undoubtedly imperfect before the war, but there is a clear aggressor here.   Moreover, as noted above, the Russians are carrying out their aggression in a particularly heinous fashion.  I don’t believe that as a nation (or as individuals) we can turn away from helping the Ukrainians defend their country.

Moral outrage by itself is probably insufficient to justify U.S. intervention.  After all, horrors are being committed all around the world.  The U.S. cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.  Most often, that type of intervention not only fails to solve the original problem, but it can also generate more bloodshed and expand the conflict (see, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria…).  The U.S. should only intervene if its national interests are at stake.

That appears to be the case in Ukraine.  Russian aggression has destabilized the post-war geopolitical and legal order in a way that threatens to invite other conflicts.  The outcome and the price inflicted on Russia and Putin will be watched carefully by dictators everywhere.  Moreover, Putin gives every indication that his aggression is unlikely to end with Ukraine.  Certainly, Moldova is in his sights, but so is much of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and elsewhere.  I’m generally skeptical of appeasement analogies, but this looks like a situation where it applies.

Under the circumstances, it seems more than reasonable to provide the Ukrainians with the support that they need to defend themselves – including weapons.  The Ukrainians are not asking for U.S. troops – I would oppose that – but are doing the fighting themselves – bravely and effectively.  Of course, we cannot give Ukraine a blank check.  At some point, we will have to discuss the differences between their interests and ours.  But for now, we should do what we can.

And regardless of what side of the larger debate about U.S. government policy you come down on, I urge all my readers and friends to contribute voluntarily to those charities and other organizations supporting the courageous Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and independence. 

Slava Ukrayini!

Fusionism No More

During the 1950’s, the threat of Soviet communism and an overweening domestic state as typified by the New Deal, brought together a very diverse coalition on the American right: fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, national defense hawks, and what would eventually become known as libertarians.  Frank Meyer, an editor at National Review, was perhaps the most ardent proponent of the concept know as fusionism, which attempted to bring these unlikely allies into a single philosophical framework.  The idea was that, even if we disagreed on the destination, for the moment we were traveling in the same direction.

Despite Meyer’s efforts, libertarians were always, at best, uneasy members of the coalition.  After all, Frederick Hayek, one of the most important libertarian philosophers, famously wrote an essay entitled, “Why I am not a Conservative.”  Even so, libertarians have long been broadly identified as part of the American Right. 

For most of my political life, I was comfortable with this.  Of course, I had my differences with conservatives, but the right seemed like a reasonable default home.  I wrote for National Review and other conservative outlets and tended to vote Republican if there was no Libertarian on the ballot.  Long ago, I even ran for office as a Republican.  I took seriously Ronald Reagan’s statement that “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Whether or not those sentiments were once justified or I was just politically naive, it is clearly no longer the case. Today’s conservatives no longer have even a tangential relationship with libertarianism. The slide from traditional small government conservatism, even with its baggage on social issues, to Trumpism, with all its nationalism, jingoism, racialism, and the rejection of the values of enlightenment liberalism, has made the break complete.   Even on traditional conservative issues involving taxes, spending, or reducing the power of the federal government, today’s conservatives have abandoned the field.

After all, what does it mean when I agree with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on as many if not more issues than I do with even a so-called “liberty conservative” like Rand Paul.  No, I haven’t lost my mind. AOC and her colleagues on the left still have little to no understanding of — or appreciation for — economics.   They need to be kept far away from the federal budget. They too often believe that government power can be used for good if only they are in charge of it.  But on important issues like immigration, civil liberties, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBQT issues, police reform, war and peace, Trump’s legacy, and many others, AOC is more libertarian than many self-professed libertarians.

I am a libertarian because I believe in certain basic values: chief among them individual liberty, free markets, limited government, and peace.  I believe that these values are essential to human flourishing, and I believe that big government is generally inimical to those values. I believe that low taxes and tolerable regulations are the key to wealth creation and that wealth creation is necessary (if not sufficient) to reducing poverty.  I believe that most government programs are counterproductive and that entitlements are bankrupting the country.  None of that has changed.  I’m not going to turn into an AOC clone any time soon.  

But I no longer believe that there is any natural affinity between libertarianism and conservatism.  We are no longer headed in the same direction.  Fusionism is dead.

The End of the Trump Era

If there is any mercy in this world, this is the last time I will ever have to write about Donald Trump.  I consider myself an objective analyst, and Trump makes it almost impossible to discuss him in an analytical way.  Still, as the Trump era ends, I think it is important to reflect on the last four years and to try to evaluate him in context. 

Looking strictly at policy, I would probably consider Trump a typically disappointing president, perhaps in the lower half of the disappointing presidents of my lifetime. 

He certainly had some successes. Justice Gorsuch was a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, and while Justice Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were less inspired, both are solid originalists and will come down on the right side of cases more often than not.  With a few conspicuous and sometime hysterical exceptions, his lower court picks have also been solid.  

And, before the pandemic hit, the economy was doing well – unemployment down, the stock market booming, wages rising.  There is room to debate the degree to which Trump’s policies are responsible (he inherited an economy rebounding from the recession), but I think it is fair to say that tax cuts, deregulation, and the president’s relentless boosterism was an important factor.  On the other hand, he too often championed crony capitalism and big spending, while ignoring the threat of a growing national debt.  Even before the multiple bailouts attributable to the pandemic, Trump was presiding over trillion-dollar deficits.  He steadfastly remains opposed to any serious reform of the entitlement programs that are threatening to bankrupt this country.

As with fiscal policy, Trump’s record on defense and foreign policy issues has been a mediocre mixed bag.  He helped midwife some important peace deals between Israel and its neighbors, and he gave rhetorical support to the idea of finally ending our “endless wars,” promising to bring troops home from places like Afghanistan and Syria.  But we ended up with more troops in the Middle East than before he took office, and he continued the Obama and Bush policies of bombing and indiscriminate drone strikes. Undoing the Iran Deal made the world less safe, and his back and forth diplomacy toward North Korea led nowhere. Until the very end, he saw Russia as some sort of quasi-ally. And far too often he coddled dictators and authoritarian rulers. Human rights didn’t just take a back seat to other interests, they didn’t seem to be part of the conversation at all.  Climate change remained unaddressed.

ll be the first to admit that my positions on these issues – in favor of unilateral free-trade and nearly open borders – is the minority view.  Still, it’s worth pointing out that the free movement of goods and people is both sound economics and a fundamental human right.  But even if one were to agree with Trump on these issues, he achieved surprisingly little.  He built less than 80 miles of new border wall in areas that didn’t have a wall before.  His trade war with China cost American consumers, farmers, and businesses billions of dollars, and still resulted in a net loss of manufacturing jobs. He picked trade fights with our friends like Canada, Europe, and South Korea that accomplished little, but alienated allies, and actually strengthened China’s role in the world.  His rewrite of NAFTA amounted mostly to tinkering that made trade slightly less free.

Trump’s response to the COVID pandemic, as measured by policy rather than his rhetoric, has not been as bad as sometimes portrayed by his opponents or the media. He was very slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem, but in fairness so were many of his critics.  Operation Warp Speed achieved a scientific miracle.  Yet leadership in a crisis matters, and here Trump was AWOL.  Failing to set an example for things like social distancing and wearing a mask was bad enough, but he allowed those things to become political issues which made it much worse.   There are reasonable debates about the effectiveness of broad shutdowns, but Trump didn’t debate them, he simply abdicated responsibility.   He seemed to act as though COVID was an afront to him personally rather than a threat to the American people.  There is no way he can escape at least partial responsibility for the virus’s catastrophic death toll.   

For most presidents I would stop there.  But policy was not the whole of the Trump presidency – it was not even the most important part.  There was also the petty feuds, bizarre tweets, and continuous stream of untruths. While pettiness and dishonesty are hardly unique to this president, Trump seemed determined to take those qualities to, dare we say, “Trumpian” levels. The same is true of his all too frequent attacks on our democratic institutions, particularly the free press.

But most importantly, there is no way to evaluate the Trump presidency without considering the ways in which he gave aid and comfort to racists, misogynists, Islamophobes, and anti-immigration zealots. This is not just one factor balanced against others. Trump’s casual affinity for racism and other prejudices was a fundamental affront to the American ideal. There is no way that people of color, women, the transgendered, gays, immigrants, and other minorities can feel like they are full participants in the American project while they are under attack from the highest office in the land. It is a stain, not easily erased, and it threatens both the unity of this country, and the hard-won progress that we had made.

And finally, there was his conduct since losing the election.  There is no need for me to go into the details of his refusal to concede, his peddling of bizarre conspiracy theories, and finally his incitement of an insurrection designed to overturn the Democratic process.   This country was divided before he was elected, but Trump manipulated those divisions for his own benefit.  In doing so, he did profound damage to this country.  That behavior alone should consign Trump to the trash bin of history. 

I expect to have more than my share of disagreements and disappointments with President Biden.  You will undoubtedly get to read about many of them here. But I for one look forward to a return to normal disappointment — rather than despair.

About Systemic Racism

In their victory speeches, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pledged to make fighting “systemic racism” a priority of their administration. But what does “systemic racism” mean — and how should libertarians respond to it.

The term “systemic racism” has become politically contentious. There is widespread misunderstanding that leads some to take it as an indictment of themselves. They conclude that systemic racism means a system full of racists, but in fact the term means almost the exact opposite.

Most Americans, themselves, harbor no bad intentions toward people of color, nor do most people they know. They’re not wrong about that. Of course, they recognize that there are actual racists out there and that there are sometimes racist incidents, but they see those as occurring on the fringes of society, not something that implicates them.

But systemic racism is not about individual intent or behavior, nor even about whether someone is a good person or personally prejudiced.  Indeed, it has little to do with us as individuals at all. Rather, as NAACP president Derrick Johnson explains, systemic racism is “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.” Or, as the Aspen Institute puts it more broadly:

[Systemic racism is] a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity….Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.

History Informs the Present

America’s 400-year history of racial abuse, from slavery, to lynching, to Jim Crow, and beyond, is undeniable.  But even more insidious was the philosophical, cultural, and even theological development of an ideology of black inferiority and white supremacy in order to justify behavior that was so sharply at odds with this country’s professed beliefs.  This set of beliefs became deeply embedded in the law and social fabric of our country.

The key insight of systemic racism is that current laws and policies can perpetuate this legacy even in the absence of deliberately bigoted intentions from individual actors. The racial disparities of today are a result of the explicitly racist oppression that preceded it, which is still well within living memory and directly affected many individuals still alive today. And worse, many government policies today that are not intended to worsen and prolong these disparities built on injustice, have that very effect.

The effects of America’s mistreatment of African Americans and other people of color did not suddenly vanish with the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s.  Even if one believed that racial animus evaporated with the stroke of a pen, the consequences of past policies and attitudes remain with us.  You cannot have a race in which one runner is loaded down with weights and chains, remove them before the final lap, and suggest that from there on is a fair contest.

Simply put, therefore, systemic racism is a combination of historical and cultural legacies that continue to put African Americans and other minorities at a disadvantage. Systemic racism is an indictment of the government policies that created that injustice as well as the government policies that continue that injustice today. It is a quintessentially libertarian explanation of how the effects of government policy do not always align with their intentions. The second and third order consequences of bad laws must be considered. Injustices inflicted by the state on a vast scale can have wide-ranging and long-lasting negative effects on a society.

Systemic Racism in Practice

The evidence for systemic racism is easy to see in disparities large and small.  These disparities include such examples as job applicants with black-sounding names being less likely than those with “white” names but identical resumes to receive callbacks for positions, and black hairstyles frequently being considered uniquely problematic for work or school.  It shows up in our health care system when doctors are less likely to believe complaints from black patients and when some medical textbooks continue to teach that African Americans feel less pain than whites.  It is apparent when schoolbooks leave out large swaths of African and African American history. Likewise, it is visible in the indignity of security guards who follow young black men and women around stores, and hundreds of similar slights.

None of this is to strip African Americans of agency or to suggest that they have no responsibility for their own life choices.  Nor does it imply that there has been no progress towards equality.  But it does mean that people of color face very different circumstances than do white Americans.  And the consequences of those circumstances can be both large and ongoing.

Consider just two areas where systemic racism puts African Americans at a disadvantage: criminal justice and housing. 

Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System

As Radley Balko has amply chronicled, dozens of studies show that the criminal justice system treats African Americans differently throughout the process, from street-level law enforcement, to arrest, to trial, to incarceration.  For instance, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, African Americans are arrested more than three and a half times as often for marijuana possession.  In some states, the arrest rate for African Americans is nearly six times higher.  And, of course, black drivers are stopped for pretextual reasons far more often than white drivers. While some have attempted to explain this away by suggesting that blacks speed more often, the disparity mysteriously diminishes at night when police have a harder time determining the driver’s race.

Nor are inequities in the criminal justice system strictly a function of the drug war.  For a wide variety of crimes, prosecutors charge black defendants with more severe offenses for the same underlying act. African Americans are sentenced to longer prison terms than whites convicted of the same crime and with similar criminal records.  And, once incarcerated, blacks are likely to wait longer for parole. 

Disparities in the criminal justice spill over into many other areas. A criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment post-incarceration.  Admission to a university or student aid or even renting an apartment can all be denied because an applicant has a conviction on their record.  It is estimated that involvement in the criminal justice system has contributed to removing nearly 1.5 million young black men from the marriage pool, thereby increasing non-marital births and the poverty associated with that.

Systemic Racism in Housing

Housing is another area where the results of systemic racism can be easily seen.  Just 47 percent of African Americans own their own home, almost 30 percentage points lower than white home ownership.  This is not an accident. For decades, housing segregation was the explicit policy of the federal state, and local governments.  For example, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency that provided low-interest mortgages to first time homebuyers, insisted that any property it covered must include a clause in the deed forbidding resale to non-whites.  Even when government agencies weren’t directly involved, redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that limited homeownership  on the basis of race was all too common.  For example, Levittown, the quintessential American suburb of the 1940s and 50s, in its lease documents a provision that property in the community could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Even after such explicit segregationist restrictions were outlawed in the 1960s, zoning ordinances and other government regulations continued to make it difficult for minorities to integrate largely white suburban communities.  A quick look at overlaying demographic maps of most major cities shows little change since the explicit segregation of earlier decades.  Today’s regulations have locked in the patterns of the past.   

Housing is not just a question of whether black people live next to white people.  Educational opportunities, for instance, are too often distributed by zip code and tied to property values, especially in the absence of meaningful parental choice.  Exclusionary zoning too often forces the poor and people of color into neighborhoods with few jobs, high crime rates, and bad schools.  And, perhaps most significantly, housing discrimination has had a significant impact on black/white wealth disparities  For most families, their house is one of their largest and most valuable assets. Moreover, it is an asset that can be passed along to future generations.  But African Americans were deliberately locked out of this intergenerational wealth building.

A Libertarian Approach to Systemic Racism

What then should libertarians do about systemic racism?  Recognizing that people of color do not compete on a level playing field does not mean that we must embrace big government to solve those problems. Simply looking at both history and current practices tells us that, even when the government hasn’t been actively discriminatory, it has far too often served as a barrier to racial equality and achieving justice for past policies of explicit racism.  Similarly, there is no reason to abandon support for free-market capitalism.  Free markets are antithetical to racism, breaking down artificial barriers, and generating the wealth needed to bring about more genuine equality. Much racially disparate legislation stems from efforts to prevent people of color from participating in the free market. 

Libertarians are well situated, then, to help tear down the structures and institutions of systemic racism.  Notably, libertarians should continue to push for criminal justice reform, including an end to the wars on drugs, to open educational opportunities through increased choice and competition, to remove zoning and other restrictions on housing, and to free up labor markets.  

At the same time, libertarians have long recognized that private action and civil society are the most effective remedies for many societal problems.  Libertarians should cheer, therefore, the many private actors—from businesses to mutual aid organizations to activist groups—that are taking action to remedy extant racial disparities.  

At its heart, libertarianism encompasses the idea that every human being is of equal worth and dignity. Racism is a pernicious form of collectivism that is contrary to all that libertarianism stands for.  It is not enough, therefore, for libertarians to simply be passively “not racist.”  They should actively embrace anti-racist ideas and policies.  That means understanding, rejecting, and fighting systemic racism everywhere we find it, as we do all the other harmful consequences of unjust laws.

Predictions, Predictions

OK, everybody, time to put myself on the line with 2020 election predictions.  Take this for the little it’s worth.  I’ve been wrong before (I was in 2016) and will be again. But us pundits will pundit, so here goes.

In the big one, Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in the race for president.  I don’t think we will have to wait days to know who won either.  We may not have official results for a while, but when we go to bed on election night, we will have a pretty good idea who won.  Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, for instance, will have most of their absentee and mail-in ballots counted.  If either candidate wins two out of three (or even all three), that will give us a good idea what is happening nationwide. The crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin don’t allow any ballot counting until election day, so official results may be a few days away.  But we will know how many absentee and mail ballots are out there, roughly where they came from, and some idea of how they are likely to break. 

After that, if its close, we will have to wait for the lawsuits, but historically they are not likely to swing anything.  If it’s a big victory, we can largely ignore them.

And I do think it will be a “big enough” victory.  Going out on a limb, I have the electoral college at 335-203 for Biden.  Of the swing states, I think Biden carries Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. I’m least sure about Florida and North Carolina, but in the end neither changes the Biden victory.  And, he has the potential to pick up Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio as well, although I think in the end the those states barely stay Republican.  Texas is a perineal pipe dream for Democrats. 

The popular vote margin will be something like 52-46 (with around 1.5 percent  for Jorgensen).


Of course, the polls could be wrong, but I don’t think so.  First, they were less wrong in 2016 than most people believe.  The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Trump won those states by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes. 

Second, its hard to see many Hillary voters switching to Trump this time around, but I expect more than a few Trump voters (and Johnson voters) to switch to Biden. 

Third, Biden is at or above 50 percent in most polls.  Hillary was always short of that.  Trump is stuck in the area of 42-45. Biden goes up and down a bit, but Trump’s share has been remarkably stable.  Fourth, there aren’t many undecided voters left.  Trump, therefore, he must either win over Biden voters, or more plausibly vacuum up a lot of people who didn’t vote in 2016.

And finally, this time Trump is the incumbent.  In 2016, he was the outsider alternative.  People were willing to give him a shot as an alternative to more of the same.  This time, he’s in charge.   Moreover, Biden, for all his faults, is simply not as disliked as Hilary was.  Undecided voters tend to break against incumbents, and I expect that to be true this time as well.  As I noted, there aren’t many of them left, but those that are will not likely boost Trump. 

I think Democrats take the Senate too, though not by as big a margin as they hope.  They will easily lose a seat in Alabama, but win seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina.  That would give Democrats a technical majority if they also win the presidency (Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking votes).  Democrats would need one more win to make for a clear majority.  Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina are all in play, and I expect the Democrats to pick up one of them.  The Purdue seat in Georgia is probably most at risk, but remember that winning in that state requires 50 percent plus one of the vote or there’s a runoff.   Democratic gains will be smaller that hoped because I think a lot of voters may decide to hedge their bets, voting for Republican senators to check a Biden administration’s potential swing to the left.

Finally, in the House, I expect the Democrats to pick up 7-10 seats.  That doesn’t sound like many, but few House seats are really competitive anymore, and Democrats already picked up most marginal seats in 2018.

All this adds up to, if not quite a Blue Tsunami, at least a Tall Blue Wave.  Not, I think, much of a mandate though.  Mostly, this election will be a rejection of Donald Trump and Trumpism within the GOP, not an endorsement of a particularly left-wing Democratic agenda.  In factI may have more to write about this post-election, but it is fair to say that the biggest promise of the Biden campaign was a return to normalcy, a no drama presidency, not a new adventure in divisive politics. 

The State of the Campaign, August 2020

With the presidential election just three months away, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and associates about how I assess the current state of the campaign.  I’m no political strategist or polling expert, but I think that the trends are pretty clear.

Although Trump’s free fall has slowed and maybe even stabilized, nearly all polls show Joe Biden with a substantial lead, both in the national vote and in critical battleground states.  Even Rasmussen, a notoriously pro-Trump poll has Biden up by 3 points. 

Trump supporters will be quick to dismiss most polling, pointing to his victory in 2016 despite polls showing him tailing Hillary.  But there is more than a little bit of mythology to such claims.  For one thing, Hilary actually did win the popular vote, pretty much in line with polling. Polls did largely miss Trump’s narrow victories in key battleground states that gave him his electoral college victory, but even here they weren’t that far off. The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Nothing suggests that polls are so far off the mark that they can be safely ignored this time around. 

It is also important to realize that Trump’s 2016 victory was narrower than his electoral vote count suggests.  Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes, and without those three razor-thin victories, he would have lost the election. To win reelection, therefore, Trump must repeat his victories in each of those states, while also defending all the other states he won, or switch one or more Hilary states to his column.

Looking at the map it is hard to find Hilary 2016 states that look vulnerable to Trump in 2020; maybe, if you squint real hard, Minnesota.  On the other hand, a surprising number of Trump 2016 states appear to be in play.  In addition to the aforementioned Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden is at least competitive in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, with an outside shot at Georgia and Ohio. (Democrats will talk a good game about Texas like they do every year, but it remains out of reach).  That’s a lot of places for Trump to defend and a lot of paths to victory for Biden.

Obviously, we are a long way out and a lot can happen between now and election day. The debates, the ultimate progress of the pandemic, whether or not the economy recovers, continued racial unrest, and dozens of other things that are totally unknown today (2020 hasn’t been exactly predictable). 

Both candidates are tremendously flawed.  It is remarkably easy to imagine Biden doing or saying something stupid that antagonizes swing voters or raises further doubts about his competency.  He is already being pulled to the left in ways that undermine his “return to normalcy” message.  If he scares moderate voters who have soured on Trump, especially in the suburbs, things could unravel quickly.

And Trump is, well, Trump.  There is no indication that he has either the desire or the discipline to expand his appeal outside his base.  He would love to turn the election into a choice between him and Biden (or Biden as defined by Trump), but increasingly the election seems more like a referendum on Trump.  That’s not good news for the president.

In the next few weeks I will offer my thoughts on the merits of both candidates from a policy perspective.  But strictly from a horse race point of view, one has to say that things are trending solidly in Biden’s direction.

COVID Thoughts

I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, so I’ve refrained from getting involved in Coronavirus debates that I’m clearly not qualified to comment on.  Moreover, when it comes to the current “keep it closed” vs “open it up” debate, I genuinely have mixed feelings.  I don’t think the case is as iron clad as either side would have you believe.

However, I do have a few thoughts:

  1. First, condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. I have friends who have lost family members, and other friends working on the front lines of this pandemic.  There is no minimizing their pain.
  2. Can we stop with the conspiracy theories? The virus is real and at least somewhat deadly. It is not just like the flu. While there are undoubtedly errors in reporting, the deep state is not plotting to inflate case numbers.  In fact, the number of deaths from COVID-19 are more likely to be underestimated than overstated. The mortality rate may turn out to be relatively low, because of a more widespread infection rate, but that same high infection rate means the total number of deaths will be high even if the infection mortality rate is low.  Comparisons to other causes of death are usually apples to oranges, for example comparing flu deaths over an entire year to COVID death’s in one month.
  3. The need to “flatten the cure’ in order to prevent overwhelming our health care system was real and vital. As it was, the health care system did not have the capacity to deal with the pandemic in many hot spots. (We can debate reasons for this at a later time).  The cost to healthcare workers has been unimaginable.  Had caseloads continued to spike, the result would have been truly catastrophic.
  4. Shutting everything down as hard as we did might not have been the optimal strategy for fighting the virus. But given how badly we underestimated the original threat and how much time we squandered, our lack of testing capability, and how littler information we really had, a blunt object like “stay at home” might have been the only realistic option we had under the circumstances.  We no longer had time for fine tuning.  There is plenty of blame to go around for that: China, the government healthcare bureaucracy, the media, politicians from both parties at all levels of government, and the Trump administration. We blew it and we are paying the price for that.
  5. And our government, especially the federal government, continues to fail. We still lack the testing capacity necessary to truly estimate risk in different areas.  There also continue to be shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  All of this makes any effort to relax stay at home orders a roll of the dice.
  6. Some governors and mayors clearly went overboard. Mowing your own lawn or buying plant seeds were not really major risk factors.  Banning drive-in church services or shutting gun stores was gratuitous.  In overreacting, these officials undermined support for more legitimate stay-home demands.
  7. Many “open it up” proponents overestimate the speed at which we can bounce back economically. And, they overstate the number of deaths caused by the shut-down and the shut-down induced recession, especially in the short-term.  Still, years of research do show that prolonged economic downturns do cause deaths.  It is not “lives vs. the economy;” it is” lives vs lives.”  The question, therefore, becomes one of balancing risks.  That is something we don’t like to talk about, but we do all the time.  We don’t ban cars because of traffic fatalities.   However, we also don’t allow you to drive 100 mph through a school zone.
  8. There does seem to be gradual morphing of the rationale for shutting down, from “don’t overwhelm the health care system” to “no one should die from COVID-19.” That would be a shift with profound implications. Are we really willing to stay shut for a year or two until there’s a vaccine?  And what if a vaccine is never developed?
  9. On the other side, what are “open it up” advocates prepared for what might happen if we open to fast or too soon and the course of the infection resumes its pre-shutdown geometrical rise? Is there any level of deaths that would be too high for them?  What happens if we go back to levels that overwhelm the health care system?  Even the strictest interpretation of libertarian theory suggests that my right to swing my fist ends at your nose. With a highly contagious virus, we are all fist swingers.
  10. Still, we are going to open. This is partially because there are limits to how much economic damage we can sustain.  But equally important, there is a growing “shut down fatigue.”  We are just not made to be able to handle prolonged isolation. As the weather improves, people are going to become increasingly restive.   Ultimately, stay at home orders can only last as long as people are willing to comply.  That consensus was very strong early on.  It is becoming less so.  The question therefore should be how best to open.  That is a question that could benefit from a bit more good faith discussion and tolerance.  Those on the other side of these questions are not either trying to kill people or ruin the country.  We are all stumbling in the dark, trying to find the best solution (not the perfect) to a bad and unprecedented situation.


Libertarianism Needs to Change

No, not in our basic beliefs and principles. The concepts of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace should remain the core of what we are.  Those ideas, after all, are essential to human flourishing.  If widely implemented they would make for a better and more prosperous world, one in which most people thrive.

But we do need to change how we express, prioritize, and apply those principles.

In part, this is simple pragmatism.  If we hope to achieve political, cultural, or societal change we will need to reach a much larger audience, an audience that is not predisposed to agree with us.  Libertarianism has been – and remains today – overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class white men.  But a majority of our larger audience, the audience we must reach to be effective, is made up of women and people of color.  White men currently make up just 31  percent of the U.S. population.  By 2050, that will be closer to 20 percent.  There is no way to become an effective political or social movement without attracting women and people of color.

It is not surprising that as a white male middle-class movement, we have tended to stress those issues of importance to middle-class white men, things like tax cuts, deregulation, gun rights, and so forth.  Of course, those issues remain important.  But too often the privilege we enjoy blinds us to other issues that have a higher priority to women, the poor, or people of color. Thus, we prioritize a change in marginal tax rates over police misconduct.  We treat the use of tax dollars for welfare as worse than the use of tax dollars to hold immigrant children in cages.

It is this prioritization of issues that are important to us – or to people like us – that makes it possible for some libertarians to say idiotic things like “Americans were freer in the 1800s than we are today.”   African Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans, among many others would strongly disagree.

This is obviously not to say that high taxes or welfare programs are good.  I’ve spent my career arguing that most government programs are counterproductive, that high taxes reduce economic growth and leave us all poorer, and that social welfare programs fail to lift people out of poverty.  But on the vast scale of bad, even immoral, public policy, we should be careful in weighting our priorities.

Second, we should recognize how our policy preferences impact less advantaged groups, or at least how they will perceive that impact.  Property rights are clearly an important concern, as is the freedom of association, and free speech.  We should always be wary of government infringement of those rights.  But when we use those concerns to oppose civil rights laws or champion speech by neo-Nazis, we are missing the forest for the trees.

And speaking of speech, we should understand that words matter.  We should show empathy not contempt for those in need.  We should explain how government intervention has contributed to their marginalization, not criticize them for the situation in which they find themselves.  We should understand that the playing field is not level.  The poor and minorities don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  We should reflect this in how we talk about issues.

Along those lines, we should understand that just because government should not censor speech does not mean that we should therefore welcome racist, misogynistic, or other hateful speech.  Yes, we want a big tent, but there are limits to the size of that tent.  Racists, incels, and xenophobes have no legitimate place in our movement.

Perhaps we are so accustomed to being outside the political mainstream that we take a perverse pride in sticking it to that mainstream.  Or maybe, as a political minority, we instinctively feel solidarity with other political minorities.  But all non-mainstream political movements are not created equal.  We are not standing up for free speech or daringly transgressing social norms when we allow those who hate to use our movement and our platforms.   We can oppose government policing of speech, while also policing ourselves.

There’s a practical point to this, of course.  As my friend Adam Bates has pointed out, if you invite both Nazis and African Americans into your movement, you are not going to have very many African Americans.  But more important is the moral point: Our goal as libertarians should not be winning esoteric academic debates but in creating a society in which every human being can flourish.  That is not a society that openly tolerates racism and other forms of hatred.

I became – and remain – a libertarian because I believe in the inherent equal worth of every person.  Liberty is important, not as an abstract concept, but because it is key to the conditions that enable people to be all that they can be – to flourish.   But far too often we fail to speak to that ideal.  If we hope to become a successful political movement – if we truly want to change the world — rather than maintain an ivory tower status quo or ideological purity – we need to do so more often.

And, more importantly, we should do so because doing so is a measure of our own decency and humanity.