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The Lighthouse is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 6, Issue 9: March 1, 2004

  1. The Haitian Temptation
  2. Wendy McElroy Defends Alternatives to Public Schools
  3. Bad Fads in Government Policy
  4. Richard A. Epstein to Defend the Free Society

1) The Haitian Temptation

Haiti -- and what, if anything, the U.S. government should do about it -- may soon become an important issue in the U.S. presidential race. Florida's democratic senators have already urged President Bush to send in troops to quell civil war, lest a wave of Haitian boat refugees land on the shores of the Sunshine State. Bush may even do so -- particularly because Florida may again play a key role in a close presidential race. But the U.S. military already has its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan, so Bush will likely be criticized for whatever decision he makes.

In cases like these it is especially helpful to maintain a historical perspective, as Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute, does in his latest op-ed.

The United States, Eland explains, has a history of intervening in Haiti, from the military occupation ordered by President Woodrow Wilson, to its 19 years of governing the country. More recently, despite efforts to undermine Haiti's struggling democracy, President Clinton threatened to invade unless the dictatorial regime of Raoul Cedras returned power to Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who hasn't exactly been a good friend of human rights.

"Even though Aristide had originally been genuinely elected, he held an unfair election in 2000 and uses armed gangs to repress the Haitian people," writes Eland. "Recently, in the wake of violent opposition to Aristide’s repressive rule, the Bush administration’s policy has been muddled. First, the administration made known its desire that Aristide should step down, implicitly supporting an opposition supported by the dark forces from Haiti’s authoritarian past. Then the U.S. government reversed course and decided that Aristide should finish out his term in office, which ends in 2006, but allow the opposition to be part of his cabinet."

The opposition's rejection of this offer does not bode well for a quick conclusion to the current crisis. The prospects for a stable, multiparty, republican political culture in Haiti do not look particularly bright, no matter what U.S. policymakers decide.

Concludes Eland: "The U.S. efforts to teach Haitians to 'elect good men or women' at gunpoint are futile, and often counterproductive, because the Haitians need to change their political culture themselves to have any lasting effect. If, in the worst case, an all-out Haitian civil war ensues and refugees begin to flow, the wealthy United States should simply take them in and do what it can to avoid violating the sovereignty of a another country and thus undermining its image as the 'beacon of liberty.'"

See "Avoid the Temptation to Meddle in Haiti," by Ivan Eland (2/24/04)

Center on Peace & Liberty

OnPower.org -- U. S. Foreign Policy

PUTTING "DEFENSE" BACK INTO U.S. DEFENSE POLICY: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World, by Ivan Eland

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2) Wendy McElroy Defends Alternatives to Public Schools

Homeschooling and apprenticeships are unjustly maligned and should be considered two important alternatives to public schooling, argues Wendy McElroy, research fellow at the Independent Institute.

In "The Separation of School and State," her latest column for FoxNews.com, McElroy notes that U.S. literacy rates were high before public schooling. A French statesman who emigrated to America -- a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson -- wrote that "Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly, even neatly" -- a result of widespread homeschooling.

"Today homeschooled students often perform better on standardized tests than those from public schools," writes McElroy. "In 2001, for example, homeschooled SAT-takers averaged 568 on the verbal test and 525 on the math; the national average was 506 on verbal and 514 on math."

Perhaps in response to the growing recognition that homeschoolers often outperform their age-cohorts in the public schools, foes of homeschooling are now claiming that it often acts as a mask for child abuse. All homeschoolers in New Jersey, for example, "may be subjected to indignities like criminal background checks and obstacles like health regulations more stringent than those imposed on public schools."

Apprenticeships -- which are actively promoted in Germany and Switzerland -- have been erroneously attacked in the United States as brutal child labor.

"My purpose is not to dispute with parents who send their children to public schools," writes McElroy. "I believe the system is a brutal failure, but parents must decide for themselves. I advocate extending alternatives far beyond the typical private versus public school debate, and even beyond homeschooling. . . . A universe of educational possibilities has been obstructed by the attempt to enforce a government monopoly over how, where, when, and what children learn."

See "The Separation of School and State," by Wendy McElroy (2/25/04)

Also see:

"Homeschooling Must Be Decriminalized: Parents Really Do Know Best," by Ariel Dillon (9/18/03)

SCHOOL CHOICES: True and False, by John D. Merrifield

CAN TEACHERS OWN THEIR OWN SCHOOLS? New Strategies for Educational Excellence, by Richard K. Vedder

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3) Bad Fads in Government Policy

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, Victor Hugo once said. Hugo's maxim is both true and interesting, but it doesn't attempt to explain how an idea gets its power. For that, economists have developed "cascade theory," a new field that describes the mechanics of herd behavior -- from political revolutions, to bank runs, to the latest environmental scare.

Clearly, the "power" of an idea does not rest on its validity, because even false ideas have taken the world by storm. Rather, what is crucial is that information-gathering can be costly and time-consuming, so individuals often look to others' behavior or statements to aid in forming their own opinions -- a simple notion but one described with rigorous precision in the models used by cascade theorists, as Pierre Lemieux, research fellow at the Independent Institute, explains in a new article for REGULATION magazine.

If herd behavior can be hard to understand, it can be even harder when politicians and bureaucrats try to base public policy on it. Because elections are infrequent and highly imperfect, policymakers read the equally imperfect tea leaves of public opinion -- radio talk-show chatter, constituent letters to their offices, newspaper editorials -- and draw inferences, true and false, about what voters really want. The result is that government policy is highly vulnerable to the influence of false inferences.

"At worst, the state will turn cascades with no objective or scientific basis into bad public policies," writes Pierre Lemieux, research fellow at the Independent Institute, in a new article for REGULATION magazine.

In part this is because special-interest groups often set the terms of public debate by starting a "cascade." There is evidence, for example, that the anti-smoking campaign has something to do with support from nicotine patch manufacturers, just as Prohibition owed something to the financial support of soft-drink manufactures.

Lemieux offers a few recommendations to help prevent uninformed cascades from leading to bad policy. First, prevent governments from responding quickly in the absence of much evidence of the effectiveness of a particular policy proposal. Second, promote free speech and debate, so that ideas can more easily be improved upon. Third, encourage widespread experimentation by the public, as this creates more information than centralized decisions.

"Cascades are only one of the factors that influence what people think and how they behave, and which public policies follow," Lemieux writes. "Long-term ideology and political and bureaucratic processes interact with cascades. Many people can be wrong for a long time, but there are good reasons to believe that false cascades, even supported by special interests, can be reversed by free speech, individual liberty, and the dispersion of power in society."

See "Following the Herd," by Pierre Lemieux (REGULATION, Winter 2003-2004) (PDF, 6 pp, 422 kb)

On the related topic of network effects, see WINNERS, LOSERS & MICROSOFT: Competition and Antitrust in High Technology, by Stan J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis

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4) Richard A. Epstein to Defend the Free Society

Speaking of bad faddish ideas and public policies, Richard A. Epstein will refute the latest attacks on liberty, and offer a bold new defense of the free society, at the next Independent Policy Forum, "The Promised Land of the Free," on Tuesday, March 9, 2004, at the Independent Institute's conference center in Oakland, California.

Richard A. Epstein is one of the country's leading legal scholars and civil libertarians. Epstein shook up the legal profession when he published his book TAKINGS, which argued that numerous government regulations were violations of the Fifth Amendment's "takings" clause. With the publication of SIMPLE RULES FOR A COMPLEX WORLD -- a work defending the legal institutions necessary to secure freedom -- he secured his reputation as one of the brightest defenders of liberty writing today. With his latest book, SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism, Epstein provides a spirited and systematic defense of classical liberalism against the critiques directed at it over the past thirty years.

Joining him will be economist and historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, best known for his study of how the American Civil War led not only to the end of slavery, but to a vast enlargement of the federal government.

Please join us for a stimulating discussion.

SPEAKERS:

Richard Epstein is Professor of Law, University of Chicago, and author of SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism (University of Chicago Press).

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is Professor of Economics, San Jose State University, and author of EMANCIPATING SLAVES, ENSLAVING FREE MEN (Open Court Publishers)

WHEN:
Tuesday, March 9, 2004
Reception and book signing: 7:00 p.m.
Program: 7:30 - 9:00 p.m.

WHERE:
The Independent Institute Conference Center
100 Swan Way
Oakland, CA 94621-1428
Map and directions

TICKETS: $15 per person ($10 for Independent Institute Members), or $45 for admission and a copy of SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM. (25% off cover price!) Reserve tickets by calling (510) 632-1366 or ordering online at http://www.independent.org/tii/forums/040309ipf.html.

Praise for SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism, by Richard A. Epstein (University of Chicago Press):

"Epstein's new book, SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM, belongs on the same shelf with [Adam] Smith's THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS. It is a book of enormous erudition lightly worn, working its way through the great issues of public policy conversationally, sensibly, and humanely."
-- Charles Murray, American Enterprise Institute

"SKEPTICISM AND FREEDOM is a signal, comprehensive, clear statement by a preeminent legal thinker. In the tradition of Hume, Hayek, and Friedman: Richard Epstein is radical without being unreasonable, practical without being compromised."
-- Charles Fried, Harvard Law School

"This is an elegantly written and powerful defense of classical liberalism -- of belief in a system with great economic and political freedoms and with only a limited role for government. Of particular interest is Epstein's argument that the proper scope of government is not made any greater on account of modern views holding that individuals do not have stable preferences, behave irrationally, and are subject to cognitive biases."
-- Steven M. Shavell, Harvard Law School

More information about this event

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