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The Lighthouse®

The Lighthouse® is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 19, Issue 23: June 6, 2017

  1. Enforced Equality: Fair or Foul?
  2. Draining the EPA Swamp
  3. A Realistic Path for U.S. Foreign-Policy Idealism?
  4. The Contradiction of Soda Taxes
  5. Independent Updates

1) Enforced Equality: Fair or Foul?

Economic inequality has generated much discussion in recent years—in academia, on the campaign trail, and even on the international bestsellers list. Some might say that one of the dialogue’s core ideological drivers—egalitarianism—has claimed more than its fair share of public attention. The editors of The Independent Review, however, see the trend as a welcome opportunity to improve the quality of debate about economic progress and opportunity, the rule of law, intellectual history, public opinion, and ethics. The result is the Summer 2017 issue’s fascinating, in-depth Symposium on Egalitarianism—perhaps the most important forum in the journal’s twenty-two-year history.

“Love it or loathe it, egalitarian sentiments and concerns about inequality are clearly on the rise in both politics and the academy,” writes the journal’s co-editor Robert M. Whaples in his introduction to the symposium. The fact of inequality, he counsels, requires thoughtful consideration. “Will our response to it be ugly, say by envying or injuring those who have ended up with more than we have or by belittling and mistreating those who have less? Or will we see the dignity in all people—great and small—and treat others with respect, cooperating with them to fulfill that promise by achieving the virtue, prosperity, and peace that we all desire?”

Incidentally, of the symposium’s many outstanding essays, The Independent Review’s editors singled out one as standing above the rest—“The New Egalitarianism,” by Adam Martin. In it, the Texas Tech University assistant professor shows why today’s leading theoreticians of egalitarianism “are not your father’s collectivists.” Along with their obscurantist analysis of the ways that existing practices and norms may benefit the powerful at the expense of the disadvantaged, the New Egalitarians are distinguished by their decidedly anti-egalitarian solution to the world’s social ills: to appoint themselves as society’s adjudicators and enforcers of right and wrong. More than merely of academic interest, the New Egalitarianism is a threat to be taken seriously. For his deep erudition, penetrating insights, and stylistic accessibility, Martin will be awarded the symposium prize of $10,000. Quick—someone call the equity police!

Egalitarianism: Fair and Equal? New Thinking on Egalitarianism, by Robert M. Whaples (The Independent Review, Summer 2017)

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2) Draining the EPA Swamp

June 5 being World Environment Day, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the abuses committed in the name of Nature by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the enforcer of some of the most important laws enacted over the past 50 years. Originating earlier under a different name, the Clean Water Act of 1972 is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in environmental history. At first it applied only to “navigable waters.” In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Rapanos v. United States) that the law also covered wetlands adjacent to navigable rivers. But even seemingly minor wetlands fall under its protection, as Northern California farmer John Duarte learned the hard way.

Under the Obama administration, explains Independent Institute Policy Fellow K. Lloyd Billingsley, the EPA fined Duarte $2.8 million because when he plowed a field to plant wheat crops, it became a wetland subject the agency’s strict regulatory protection. The farmer is hoping that new EPA chief Scott Pruitt will rescind the fine. If that happens, it will be welcome news. But don’t expect the government to compensate Duarte for the five years of anxiety and expenses he incurred while the agency persecuted him.

The Trump administration could go further than giving Duarte a reprieve. It could champion major reform of the Clean Water Act. One way is to rid the law of its financially and legally corrosive elements. As Independent Institute Research Fellow Ryan M. Yonk has written, “Merely instructing federal bureaucracies to reintroduce sanity to their definition of ‘navigable waterways’ would restrict [the Clean Water Act] to projects for which it has a possibility of doing some good.” This, we hope, would be only one step in a larger effort to drain the swamp of environmental bureaucracy.

EPAttacks Property Rights, by K. Lloyd Billingsley (MyGovCost News & Blog, 6/1/17)

Five Ways Trump Can Improve Environmental Policy, by Ryan M. Yonk (Independent Institute Executive Summary, 2/20/17)

Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. Environment, by Randy T Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk, and Kenneth J. Sim


3) A Realistic Path for U.S. Foreign-Policy Idealism?

Should President Trump’s foreign policy embrace idealism or realism? Recent speeches by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been construed as a clear articulation of realism. He did, after all, claim that the pursuit of America’s values in the international realm can undermine America’s actual economic and national security interests. Such words can sound harsh and unusual—especially after a century marked by liberal internationalism and neoconservative adventurism—but this approach has sometimes dominated U.S. diplomatic strategy, explains Independent Institute Senior Fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa.

The realist tradition in American thought has a long history—it can be traced back to George Washington’s Farewell Address. An opposing approach—an idealistic activism that sought to actively spread American values of human rights and democratic government—was more or less born in 1898, when President McKinley intervened in Cuba and grew even more during President Wilson’s reign. Through a succession of presidents, however, that approach has “never been consistently defended,” Vargas Llosa writes. Also, it has often taken us far astray from enjoying prosperity and freedom at home.

But this doesn’t mean that U.S. foreign policy must never be guided by any consideration of enduring American values. Indeed, the United States could articulate its values on the global stage—thereby calling out the world’s tyrants for their human-rights abominations—while still using pragmatic considerations to determine how and when to apply those values in the realm of action. “It’s not necessary to choose between making diplomatic ties conditional on other countries’ respect for certain values or removing them from the conduct of foreign policy,” Vargas Llosa writes. “Rather, it is a choice between conducting foreign policy under well-defined universal values, even if U.S. foreign partners do not abide by them, or letting barbaric tyrants conduct their affairs with no moral benchmark against which they can be judged.”

Trump’s Foreign Policy—Interests or Values?, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Washington Examiner, 5/27/17)

Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa


4) The Contradiction of Soda Taxes

From San Francisco to Philadelphia, cities that consider themselves visionary have chosen to tax sugary beverages. Their vision, however, is myopic. According to Independent Institute Senior Fellow William F. Shughart II and Strata Policy Analyst Josh T. Smith, research shows that a soda tax as low as half a cent per ounce induces consumers to increase their consumption of salty and fatty foods.

“Moreover, the effect of the tax on obesity is vanishingly small: the same researchers concluded that the tax likely would cause less than a two-pound weight loss in low-income individuals over the next decade,” Shughart and Smith write.

But consumers don’t always respond to changes in price the way that health-food activists predict. For example, months after the enactment of a soda tax in Berkeley, California, soda revenues in neighboring cities rose by seven percent. For these and other reasons, it’s becoming apparent that voters in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, who recently rejected a soda tax, are the true visionaries.

Santa Fe’s Rejection of Soda Tax a Win for Public Health, William F. Shughart II and Josh T. Smith (The Hill, 5/22/17)

Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination, edited by William F. Shughart II


5) Independent Updates
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