Economic Liberty after Obama
I hear lately from the right: With Obama’s second term, we’re all doomed to socialism forever. And sometimes, from the left: Relax, there’s no such thing as real economic liberty anyway. You’re chasing a mirage.
Both are false, and for related reasons. And in that, there’s a grain of hope for the Republican Party. Yeah, I’m surprised I’m giving them advice. But…
Let’s start with the second of these propositions. As Jaybird has already noted, Tuesday night was in one respect a huge win for individual liberty: Colorado and Washington states both passed initiatives that would legalize, tax, and regulate recreational marijuana for adults.
It’s hard even to express how huge this is. And it’s particularly an economic freedom, and a clearer example thereof than almost any I can imagine. If laws like these are allowed to work, we will have all kinds of economic options we didn’t have before: freedoms to grow, create, sell, and buy, driven perhaps by nothing more than the sweet, sweet profit motive. And, provided we pay the tax, we can do all these things without fear of getting thrown in prison.
It would be preposterous to suggest that this isn’t economic freedom. Relative to what went before, it very clearly is. Nor would it make any sense to say that because these transactions are nonetheless taxed and regulated, I am just as unfree as I was before. To say so would be an insult to those who, right this moment, actually are unfree in our prison-industrial complex.
Liberty is the absence of coercion, and of its persuasive threat, and while such a blessed absence may never be total in this fallen world of ours, there remains something to be said for not putting people in cages when it isn’t absolutely necessary. Who do you think can pivot faster on ending pot prohibition? The party in power, whose president thinks it’s a total joke? Or the party out doing soul-searching in the wilderness? I’m not terribly optimistic about either of them to be honest, but if I had to pick one or the other…
Still, we would have a fairly thin economic liberty if all we were free to buy and sell were the dried flowers of Cannabis sativa and the preparations thereof. While criminalizing an entire industry is one way to restrict economic liberty, it’s only the most blatant and inexcusable. Others abound.
Consider this headline: “Congress Wants Study on D.C. Building Height Limits.”
Really? Really? Here we are in the capital of the “free” world, where you can’t even build a building taller than twelve stories? And why not? To please the vanity of the legislators with whom you are so lucky as to rub elbows. It simply wouldn’t do to have a humble apartment building taller than their almighty Capitol! Magnanimously, they have asked to study the question.
Again, it’s economic freedom. There are no notable safety issues here that haven’t already been addressed, often and adequately, in every other major U.S. city. It’s purely a question of legislators’ vanity pitted against the freedom of developers and clients to conclude a peaceful business transaction, one that would in most cases yield cheaper housing as well.
Land use regulations that block affordable housing are hardly limited to the District, of course. All over the country, they’re strangling the kind of smart, dense, culturally vibrant urban growth that we should if anything be encouraging. A party that stood up to these regulations locally could easily build a power base in the cities. A party that particularly valued economic liberty, as the Republicans at least say they do, surely ought to be owning issues like these.
Given the party’s notably white recent history, it will have to either change with America’s changing demographics — or die. To survive will require embracing not just lower taxes, but less intrusive regulation as well. If the Republicans want to persuade minorities that economic liberty is important, here’s where they can start: where white people’s progressive do-good regulations disproportionately hurt brown people’s lives.
My dear Republicans: To be perfectly honest, I’ve never quite bought the notion that you were the party of economic liberty. But if you wanted to convince me, now you know where to start.