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The Lighthouse is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 10, Issue 4: January 28, 2008

  1. Defending a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy
  2. Socialist Failure in Venezuela
  3. Global Warming and the Courts
  4. The Evolution of Eminent Domain
  5. Robert Higgs on the Politics of Fear

1) Defending a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy

A foreign policy of military non-intervention, peace and free trade has been a hallmark of American libertarian thought for centuries, spanning from the Founding Fathers’ admonitions against “entangling alliances” on through the classical liberal tradition of the nineteenth century; from the Old Right disaffection with World War I to the campaign speeches of libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul today. One of the most common criticisms is that this foreign policy is too simplistic and ignores inconvenient lessons of history. It is along these lines that Bret Stephens recently criticized non-interventionism in The Wall Street Journal.

Replying to Stephens, historian Robert Higgs, an economist and Independent Institute senior fellow, argues that, in fact, history only reinforces a philosophical commitment to a peaceful foreign policy. Higgs critiques Stephens on the supposed necessity of the Barbary War, which forced U.S. taxpayers to subsidize trade in the Mediterranean, and points out that very rarely do “‘we’ Americans all have the same interest in knocking down some group of foreigners.” In World War I, for example, the “wealthy northeastern movers and shakers who finagled, intrigued, and politicked to push Woodrow Wilson into seeking a declaration of war against Germany in 1917 could hardly have been more unrepresentative of the general interest, and ultimately nearly everybody realized in retrospect that U.S. entry into this dynastic bloodbath had been a monumental blunder.”

Whereas critics often accuse libertarians of ignoring real evil in the world, Higgs asserts that “[l]ibertarians. . . fully recognize that some men are vicious, vainglorious, and imperious. Further, unlike Stephens, libertarians recognize that the dangers such men pose to society will be magnified enormously in the event that they gain government power.” And while the very active state is ostensibly necessary for the maintenance of international and domestic order, Higgs is unconvinced by the actual track record: “Americans now face terrorist threats in many parts of the world when they go abroad, the ‘blowback’ from various U.S. interventions; national-security outlays, all military-related things being included, of a trillion dollars a year loaded onto American taxpayers; unprecedented revulsion against Americans and their government around the world; oil selling at close to $100 a barrel; and political leaders who look forward with equanimity to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for another hundred years.”

Higgs concludes that “the true lesson of history” is that “war, preparation for war, and foreign military interventions have served for the most part not to protect us, as we are constantly told, but rather to sap our economic vitality and undermine our civil and economic liberties.”

Libertarian Foreign Policy in the Hobbesian Crosshairs: A Reply to Bret Stephens“ by Robert Higgs. (1/18/08) 

Depression, War and Cold War by Robert Higgs.

Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close.

Also see the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty.

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2) Socialist Failure in Venezuela

Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Global Prosperity, writes, “After an extensive visit to the slums of this capital, I am convinced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost the recent referendum that would have extended the time he could remain in office not because his countrymen value democracy so much, but because his social programs are crumbling.”

Vargas Llosa reports that “the nationalist/populist model is collapsing” all over the area. He describes state-run health facilities, most of them dysfunctional, suffering from a drain of medical personnel; state-run supermarkets where price controls have predictably resulted in mass shortages of staple goods, horrendously long lines and black markets in food; soup kitchens without food to serve; widespread corruption, overcrowded city streets, and numerous professions overflowing with unqualified applicants.

“Together with a 30 percent annual rate of inflation, the closing down of thousands of businesses because of socialist regulations, land confiscations and nationalizations have crippled the country’s productive capacity,” writes Vargas Llosa. He quotes Luis Ugalde, president of Andres Bello University, in summing up the problem with Chavez’s model: “The government led Venezuelans to believe that they could become a consumer society without producing anything. . . and the results are now speaking for themselves.”

Inside Chavez’s Missions“ by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. (1/23/08)

Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa.

Also see Vargas Llosa’s The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty.

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3) Global Warming and the Courts

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pushed itself into the debate on climate change, ruling that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must take into account the “risks of global warming” when it sets mileage standards for trucks, minivans and SUVs. In doing so, however, “Justice Betty Fletcher and her colleagues on the bench demonstrated they have little expertise in climate science,” writes atmospheric physicist and Independent Institute Research Fellow S. Fred Singer.

According to Singer, drawing upon research documented in the forthcoming report by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, the computer models used to determine the human impact on climate change are deeply flawed, and have been wholly inaccurate and unreliable in predicting such phenomena as the cooling of the tropical troposphere. Furthermore, “greenhouse warming has been significantly overestimated” and “might amount to no more than one-half of 1 degree Celsius by 2100, well within the climate’s normal range of ups and downs.” Singer argues that the “variability of solar emissions and solar magnetic fields” provides a more plausible explanation for climate changes than human carbon emissions. Finally, it is doubtful that even a massively invasive and costly government program will have much of a measurable impact on global temperature. Singer concludes that “the Justice Department should appeal the 9th Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court. . . . This time around, the White House should be better prepared to argue its case. Science is on its side.”

Courts Confront Climate Change“ by S. Fred Singer. (Washington Times, 1/24/08.)

Also see the transcript and DVD from An Evening with Michael Crichton “States of Fear: Science or Politics?”

Buy Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate by S. Fred Singer.

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4) The Evolution of Eminent Domain

The rhetoric used to justify the government seizure of land assumes that this authority arose to deal with a type of “market failure”—namely, the unwillingness of many property owners to make their land available for essential public-use projects, such as flood control, roads and bridges. Not only is the “holdout problem” a red herring, the historical origins of eminent domain are the opposite of what the rhetoric suggests. Eminent domain evolved in an effort to limit government power and government failure, according to Independent Institute Senior Fellow Bruce Benson, author of the article “The Evolution of Eminent Domain” (The Independent Review, Winter 2008).

Eminent domain reflects the feudal underpinnings of English property law, Benson explains. In 1066, William the Conqueror seized virtually all the lands of England, and landholders became mere “stewards” for the king, rather than landholders free to determine how the land should be used. But, increasingly, the crown faced rebellions by powerful landholders, culminating in the truce that produced Magna Carta, which spelled out the laws that governed a king's interaction with the landholders and others. “Chapter 28 of Magna Carta recognizes the king's power of expropriation, but it requires that immediate cash payments be made for the provisions taken,” writes Benson.

Parliament, which grew out of the council of landholders and church authorities that had advised the king, gradually took over the king's power to seize land. Increasingly, each statute authorizing a land seizure required the payment of compensation to the landholder. Compensation became customary in England and its colonies, but it was not a constitutional requirement. James Madison hoped to correct that omission when he wrote the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but Thomas Jefferson believed it didn't go far enough in protecting individual property rights.

The Evolution of Eminent Domain: Market Failure or an Effort to Limit Government Power and Government Failure?“ by Bruce L. Benson (The Independent Review, Winter 2008).

The Mythology of Holdout as Justification for Eminent Domain and Public Provision of Roads,” by Bruce L. Benson (The Independent Review, Fall 2005).

Winter 2008 issue of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy

See the transcript and available materials from the event Eminent Domain: Abuse of Government Power.

To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice, by Bruce L. Benson.

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5) Robert Higgs on the Politics of Fear

From ancient times to the present, politicians and their allies have gained resources and control over the public by playing to people's fears of various “crises” and by offering “solutions” that often only make problems worse. Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs (author, Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government) explained how fear erodes people's willingness and ability to govern themselves at the December 6 Independent Policy Forum, “Why Are Politicians Always Trying to Scare Us?”

Adapting an insightful quip from H. L. Mencken, Higgs said: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and hence clamorous to be led to safety—because that puts them in a position to be exploited more effectively by politicians and their supporters, which is what politics is for, after all.”

“From top to bottom, the government wants us to be afraid, needs us to be afraid, invests greatly in making us afraid,” Higgs continued. “Were we ever to stop being afraid of the government itself, and of the bogus fears it fosters, the government would shrivel and die, and the host would disappear for tens of millions of parasites in the United States, not to speak of the vast number of others in the rest of the world who now sap the public's wealth and energies directly and indirectly by means of government.”

Transcript and audio of “Why Are Politicians Always Trying to Scare Us?“—featuring Robert Higgs (12/6/07)

Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government, by Robert Higgs.

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