When surveying the vast wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis, many classical liberals worry that the most profound damage done was to the rule of law in America. Though it is difficult to pin down the concept with great precision, the core of the rule of law is simple: we have a government of laws, not men. Our officials must follow rules that have been publicly and clearly set forth in advance rather than acting on their own caprice, and they are not welcome to simply make up rules as they go along and declare their conduct lawful in retrospect. Without adherence to this precept, government’s actions can have no basis for legitimacy.
If we closely scrutinize what the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and other agencies of the federal government did in response to the recent financial crisis, there is no avoiding that they made a mockery of the rule of law. Indeed, as Lawrence H. White puts it, “The approach of Federal Reserve and Treasury officials during this crisis, unfortunately, has been to consider every possible remedy but applying the rule of law.”
Friedrich Hayek, born into a noble family in Austria, lived a fascinating life. Educated in Austria, he moved to the London School of Economics in 1931. In 1950, he accepted a position at the University of Chicago on the Committee on Social Thought (after the free market economics department refused to extend an offer to the future Nobel Laureate). And then in 1962, he returned to Europe, first in Freiburg and then in Salzburg.
But in 1923, in the middle of the hyperinflation in Germany and Austria, Hayek travelled to New York City to work with a NYU economics professor. But when the professor left to write a book, Hayek was on his own and struggled for resources. Over at Austrian Information, they have excerpts from Hayek’s letters that he sent home during his stay in New York. They are fascinating, especially given their European cultural criticism of capitalist New York from this free market thinker. For example:
Questioning the effectiveness of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has become the national pastime ever since two nurses in Dallas became infected with Ebola after following CDC protocols. Yet, one overriding fact rarely sees the light of day: CDC does not deliver medical care, none at all, and rarely ever sees or touches it. It is a data collection and analysis agency that makes recommendations to those who actually live with and treat the diseases.
CDCs legitimacy comes from its claimed abstract scientific expertise. President Barack Obama defended CDCs recommendation against state quarantine efforts to control the disease by insisting “We don’t just react based on our fears. We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions.” We rely on the “best science.”
I am presently reading this biography of Friedrich Hayek by Alan Ebenstein. The book is not an intellectual biography, but more focused on the events of Hayek’s life – which is where I have biggest gaps in my knowledge of Hayek. One interesting aspect of Hayek’s early years, that I had not known, is that he was a poor student. Ebenstein writes: He showed little interest in any subject except biology. Once, at age fourteen, having failed Latin, Greek, and mathematics, he was required to repeat a grade. . . . He would generally “swot up in a few weeks before the…
In a series of decisions on campaign finance legislation, the Roberts Court has made it clear that Congress cannot solve the enduring political issues of undue or unequal influence in politics by restricting speech. Now that legislatures are aware this option is no longer on the table, they are under more pressure to find other solutions. Importantly, Congress could constrain undue influence by legislating through rules of general applicability.
Under a regime of generality, Congress would disable itself from handing out money, lucrative projects, or regulatory relief to designated individuals or small groups. Such strictures would make corruption less likely and indeed eliminate the kind of influence which seems most undue. Decisions that that can be framed in terms of general rules are more likely to be aimed at the public good than at the provision of favors.
In fact, Congress recently moved toward legislating through general rules by eliminating earmarks.
Judge Stephen Williams has provided an excellent description of some of the Hayekian advantages of international competition. Here I discus how sound legal policy can protect and intensify such competition. First, I want to suggest a few more points about the virtues of international competition.
1. Military Competition. As war has demanded ever better financing and technology, the connection between the flourishing of a nation’s citizens and its success in war has increased. Great Britain beat the continental powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in no small measure because her limited and democratic government gave lenders confidence that they would be repaid. As a result of the greater capacity to borrow Britain was able to muster greater military force in a crisis.
Today technological progress and military might are ever more connected: the robots conceived today will be the soldiers of tomorrow. The United States’ technological superiority is intimately connected to its open society and an educational system that favors creativity over rote learning. Authoritarian nations are at some disadvantage in replicating the decentralized structures that promote rapid technological progress.
This advantage for the West and the United States should make us wary of entering into agreements to limit the deployment of technologically advanced weapons like drones.
2. Competition from In-Migration of Firms and Individuals. The capacity of the United States to attract immigrants shows the relative power of its social norms. Indeed, its growth from a relatively small nation of a few million people at the founding to the third most populous nation of the world is the most persuasive evidence of its greatness.
In response to: The Institutions of American Liberty
The Rev. Timothy Dwight (President of Yale, 1795-1817, leading Congregational and Federalist thinker, enemy of Thomas Jefferson), wrote about the three great good works: piety, benevolence, and self-government. Self-government meant the well ordering of one’s life so he could live as a free and responsible human being. If a person was well self-governed, he would be able to live a pious life and a benevolent life. But self-government was difficult to obtain without piety and the support of free institutions upon which private benevolence also depended. So the three good works were closely intertwined and were supported by the institutions…
Ted McAllister and the Liberty Law Forum at Liberty Fund are to be thanked for resurrecting a vitally important but seemingly forgotten, or, at least, neglected topic. The subject of McAllister’s essay is the American tradition of liberty, which he contrasts with perfect or abstract liberty. He asks two important questions: What is distinctive about…
“The Institutions of American Liberty” is a nicely written and, for the most part, compelling encomium to the tradition of American liberty and the institutions upon which it rests. The author of this piece, as so many following Tocqueville have observed, rightly notes that American history displays “a fervor of institution building by people who…
Lamentably, I find myself in general agreement with the thoughtful commentaries on my essay by the three respondents, C. Bradley Thompson, Steven Grosby, and William Dennis. This is not to say that underneath this broad consensus there aren’t serious and enjoyable differences of philosophy that warrant sustained engagement. Taken as a whole, the body of…