LearnLiberty Audio Podcast
Summary: Welcome to the LearnLiberty.org podcast. Learn Liberty is a resource for learning about the ideas of a free society. Our goal is to provide a starting point for conversations on important questions: _ What is the nature of man and society? _ What are the best ways to organize human society? _ What is the proper role for government? _ Classical Liberal Tradition We believe that the classical liberal or libertarian tradition can offer compelling answers to these questions. Classical liberal ideas have deep intellectual roots, cultivated by thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, the American Founders, and more recent scholars such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. These scholars emphasize the importance of free markets, voluntary exchange, individual rights, and peace. Classical liberal thinkers do not agree on everything, and the speakers on LearnLiberty.org are no exception. We believe exploring and discussing these ideas is so important precisely because we do not all agree. We hope you will join our conversation, and help advance the understanding of these important ideas. Through LearnLiberty.org videos and other content, college professors and public intellectuals provide a resource for understanding: Foundational principles and concepts drawn from disciplines such as economics, philosophy, history, political science, and law Contemporary issues and policy debates that impact individual liberty.
Many argue that we should do more for the poor as a matter of social justice. In some cases, they mean we should use our own time and resources to assist those in need, but more often they mean the government should enact policies that try to help the poor in various ways. Meanwhile, many classical liberals and libertarians reject the idea of social justice, finding it immoral, impractical, or even, as Professor Matt Zwolinski discusses, conceptually confused. The term social justice typically refers to a moral assessment of the way wealth, jobs, opportunities, and other goods are distributed in society. Some may think wealth should be distributed equally; others may argue that it is more important for opportunities to be equally distributed. Unfortunately, there is no central distributor in a free society able to enforce this type of equality. In fact, Prof. Zwolinski argues, we are all distributors. When we make decisions, like which grocer to buy from, what to study in school, or where to live, we affect the distribution of resources. None of those decisions is inherently just or unjust. As Prof. Zwolinski says, 'If there's no [single] agent responsible for the distribution of wealth in society, then how can that distribution be just or unjust?' For libertarians and classical liberals, the only meaningful concept of social justice is one focused on the legal and economic rules of societies. Many think this focus is incompatible with the political left's concept of social justice. Stay tuned to the next LearnLiberty video by Prof. Zwolinski to find out why he disagrees.
Professor Tyler Cowen explains that the Great Recession was the result of a number of different problems. While many economists tend to be dedicated to one particular model of downturns, Prof. Cowen finds evidence that elements from many different models played a factor in the recent recession. He briefly outlines how the following models could be used to explain, in part, the causes of the Great Recession: Keynesian Business Cycle Theory Real Business Cycle Theory Austrian Business Cycle Theory Monetary Policy As Prof. Cowen says, 'When you have Keynesian, aggregate demand, monetarist, Austrian, real business-cycle theories all pushing in the same direction, first an initial boom and then later a subsequent bust, and the economy has a lot of distinct problems, that's exactly when you get the biggest messes.'
Coca-cola used to be made with real sugar, but in 1984 the makers of the soft drink replaced sugar with corn syrup. Why did this happen? Part of the reason is that because corn syrup became less expensive than sugar. In fact, sugar is nearly double as expensive in America as in the rest of the world. In this video, Professor Diana Thomas explains why. United States laws actually limits the amount of sugar imported each year. This limit causes the price of sugar to rise. Such a quota is meant to increase profits of domestic sugar producers and to protect them from foreign competition. The cost to American's of this quota is a staggering $3 billion each year, in the form of higher prices for sugar and sugar products. But since the cost is split among all citizens, it isn't worth it to the average American to complain. In contrast, sugar producers are much in favor of this policy. From 1980 to 1998, each U.S. sugar farmer earned approximately $3 million extra each year because of the quota. The farmers profit generously from this quota, while consumers are made worse off. How can we prevent some groups of taking advantage of others through laws like sugar quotas? One solution would be to limit what government can do.
In an effort to help fix the deficit, many have advocated increasing taxes on America's highest earners. The question becomes: is this a good way of increasing the amount of money that the government takes in? According to Professor Antony Davies, when the government raises taxes on top earners, the federal government actually collects less money per person, and when it decreases the government collects more. There are exceptions to this trend, however. Changes in the marginal tax rate for the average American appear to have no consistent effect on revenues collected. Increases in Social Security and Medicare taxes tend to increase the amount of money collected per person. With the proper use of deductions, exemptions, offsets, and credits, and by delaying or changing the form of one's compensation, federal income taxes, capital gains taxes, and many other taxes can be at least partially avoided. In contrast, Social Security and Medicare taxes are subject to far fewer loopholes and are much more difficult to avoid. So how can the government collect more tax revenue? Prof. Davies says that the key is a simplification of America's notoriously complex tax code. A simpler tax code would make it more difficult for people to avoid taxes and would lead people to spend less time trying to avoid them. Prof. Davies argues, 'The less time and money we spend trying to work around a complex tax code, the more time and money we will have available to put to more productive uses.'
In an effort to increase voter turnout, some countries have laws requiring citizens to vote or face a penalty. Should the United States adopt such a practice? Professor Jason Brennan offers several reasons for not making voting mandatory. Political scientists find that most citizens are badly informed. Citizens appear to make systematic mistakes about the most basic issues in economics, political science, and sociology. People who would fail econ 101 should not be required to make decisions about economic policy. People who tend to abstain from voting are more ignorant than people who vote. Forcing them to vote would lead to a more ignorant pool of voters, which leads to political candidates who reflect voters' misperceptions. The end result is bad public policy. One objection to this argument is that the disadvantaged, the poor, the unemployed, and the uneducated are less likely to vote than other groups. Some argue that people should be forced to vote so the disadvantaged won't be taken advantage of. Professor Brennan says this objection relies upon the false assumption that people vote for their own interests. In contrast, political scientists have found over and again that people tend to vote for what they believe to be the national interest. We don't need to worry about protecting nonvoters from selfish voters. Instead, we should worry about whether voters will invest the time to learn which policies really serve the public good. According to Brennan, bad decisions in the voting booth contribute to bad government; needless wars; homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation; lost prosperity; and more. While all citizens should have an equal right to vote, someone who wants to abstain from voting because he doesn't feel he knows the right answers-or for any other reason-should be allowed to do so. Brennan concludes that mandatory voting guarantees high turnout but not better government.
To vote well, we need more than just information. We also need to process information in an open-minded and reliable way. Unfortunately, research shows that individuals aren't very good at doing that. Professor Jason Brennan outlines four important biases citizens need to overcome in order to vote well: optimism bias, confirmation bias, in-group bias, and action bias. These biases come naturally to most people. How can we prevent them from affecting our votes? Professor Brennan makes several suggestions to help us become better voters: Don't label yourself. Stay independent. Listen to the other side and challenge your own views. Take a break from reading things that support your current opinions. Stop and think. Step back and carefully analyze options before making an opinion. Avoid the news and focus on the social sciences. To be a good voter, invest in learning the basics of economics, sociology, and political science. Assume things will go worse than expected. Double the expected costs and halve the benefits; if a program doesn't seem worth it after that, don't vote for it. Voting irresponsibly doesn't help anyone. We're all capable of voting well, Professor Brennan says-if we're willing to do a little work.
People worry whenever money and politics mix - but should they? Common wisdom suggests that large campaign contributions can corrupt politicians and disenfranchise regular voters. If this is true, then regulations that limit the role of money in politics should lead to better governance. However, this hasn't been the case. Professor Bradley Smith explains why attempts to separate money from politics have failed. As regulations surrounding political contributions have expanded, the edge that incumbent politicians enjoy over challengers has intensified. The real result of these regulations, Prof. Smith argues, is that politics has become 'a specialized game for an elite group of people who know the ropes and can manipulate them to their advantage.' What do you think? Watch the video and share your opinion in the comments!
In early 2008, a group called Citizens United sought to air commercials for their documentary that was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton. This appeared to violate federal election rules that prohibited corporations and unions from broadcasting 'electioneering communications' within 60 days of an election. Citizens United sued the Federal Election Commission and ultimately won a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded corporations' right to political speech. The issue of campaign finance is hotly contested. Many argue that Citizens United has opened up a floodgate of corporate spending that threatens to erode American democracy. They also argue that a corporations should not have the same rights as individuals. In this video, Learn Liberty sought out the opposing view, in order to have a more robust conversation on the topic of corporations and politics. Professor Bradley Smith explains why he believes the Supreme Court made the correct decision in Citizens United. He argues that restrictions on corporate speech violate our Constitutional right to free speech. This is a controversial issue, and we want to know your opinion. Should corporations have the same rights that people do? Should businesses and unions be allowed to influence voters? Share your thoughts in the comments. For a good overview of arguments against Citizens United, check out the Story of Citizens United v. FEC: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-citizens-united-v-fec/
In 2011, federal government spending significantly outweighed revenue. While the federal government spent $3.8 trillion, it collected only $2.2 trillion from various taxes, licenses, and fees. Professor Antony Davies breaks federal spending into five basic components. He further divides it into mandatory spending, which is an amount of spending automatically built into every budget by law, and discretionary spending, which must be approved by Congress every year. Mandatory spending includes spending on entitlements-that is, on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid-net interest, and other things, such as food stamps, student loans, unemployment benefits and more. While many advocates of social welfare programs complain that economists look primarily to Social Security and Medicare for budget cuts, it's clear why they do. Professor Davies shows that even if the government eliminated everything government does with the exception of social programs and the interest on the debt, we still wouldn't be able to balance the budget. Over the next decade, the U.S. government will face difficult choices. Weighing specific cuts is not enough, because there are no specific cuts that will enable government to balance the budget. Professor Davies says, 'Nothing less than a redesign will solve this problem.' That redesign, he says, should begin by determining what the proper role of government is.
What exactly is a Super PAC? Professor Bradley Smith, the former Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, brings some clarity to these controversial groups by taking a close look at Super PACs: what they do and how they impact elections. In the video, Professor Smith asserts that many of the alleged harms caused by Super PACs are based on misconceptions. According to Smith: 'far from being the death knell for democracy, Super PACs have been a positive development.' Do you agree? Are Super PACs really good for democracy? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
After the housing bubble burst, both the Bush and Obama administrations turned to stimulus spending in an effort to improve U.S. economic growth. Stimulus spending is often justified by the thought that it is the government’s responsibility to create jobs. Proponents of the policy claim that an injection of government dollars will create jobs for people who will spend their new income and, in effect, create more jobs. Critics claim that because government money does not just fall from the sky, stimulus spending really just moves jobs from one place to another without creating actual economic growth. What does the evidence say? Does stimulus spending work? Professor Antony Davies examines data on increases in federal spending and economic growth one year later. When this data is plotted on a graph, it is clear that there is no connection between federal spending and economic improvement. Instead, Professor Davies argues, the only thing stimulus spending does is make the budget deficit worse. In the past three years, the Federal Reserve and federal government have injected the equivalent of two Canadian economies into the U.S. economy. Despite this stimulus, the unemployment rate remains 9 percent. “One thing that has changed,” says Davies, “is that our government is now $4.6 trillion further in debt than it was before the stimulus efforts.”
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.' Does that freedom extend to the way people spend their money? Is money a form of speech? Professor Bradley Smith shows how money is needed to communicate ideas and to establish organizations. For example, what if citizens are allowed to have newspapers or radio stations but the government says they cannot spend any money, or can spend only a limited amount of money, to run them? Such a restriction would seem to limit citizens' freedom of the press. It would be difficult to be elected in a political campaign without spending any money to reach out to voters. If the government controls the money spent in political campaigns, it also controls the speech. So is spending money on a campaign speech? What do you think? Please leave your answers in the comments.
What would it mean to “End the Fed?” Free banking expert and professor Lawrence White begins his answer by explaining the functions of the central bank of the United States, also known as the Federal Reserve or just “the Fed.” As the hub of the nation’s monetary and banking systems, the Fed plays five main roles: 1. Coordinating fund transfers between banks 2. Issuing paper currency 3. Regulating commercial banks 4. Acting as “lender of last resort” 5. Controlling monetary policy Given that the Fed currently carries out these critical tasks, can we really abolish it? Professor White thinks so. He names several flourishing economies have operated without a central bank. Hong Kong, for one, hums along central bank free. What allows these economies to thrive without central bank regulation? Professor White examines a variety of private institutions including clearing house systems, banks, and financial companies that perform the tasks we assign to the Fed (and, according to White, outperform the Fed by a long shot). Professor White concludes the Fed does more harm than good and recommends that we send it the way of the dinosaurs if we want to fend off future financial crises.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world-more even than China or Russia. In fact, more people are in prisons in the United States than in all other developed countries combined. Professor Daniel J. D'Amico explains that as of 2010 over 1.6 million people were serving jail sentences in America. What does this say about the United States? Professor D'Amico suggests that 'prisons are not what we think about when we think of America, and they shouldn't have to be.' According to D'Amico, a free country should not have 1.6 million people in prison, and a fiscally responsible country cannot afford to. As Prof. D'Amico points out, it is time for Americans to recognize that the U.S. criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform. Learn More: 1. 'The Caging of America' [article]: Wide ranging New Yorker piece, discusses history, ethics, everyday prisoner experience. Explores a few theories as to why our prison system is the way it is. http://nyr.kr/OGTXrd 2. 'The Business Ethics of Incarceration: The Moral Implications of Treating Prisons Like Businesses' [scholarly article]: Professor D'Amico addresses the economics and morality of prison and prison privatization. http://bit.ly/OsMQFD 3. 'U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations' [article]: New York Times article focusing on America's disproportionate prison population. http://nyti.ms/QSVprm 4. 'Prisoners' Poetry' [poems]: A website featuring poems written by prisoners. http://bit.ly/Sd93to Discussion Questions: 1. What are the causes for the unusually high incarceration rate in the United States? 2. Do you think prisons are an effective way of handling crime? 3. What alternatives or reforms to the current prison system can you imagine for handling crime more effectively?
Is what's good for General Motors really what's good for America? Professor Steve Horwitz explains the difference between free market and pro-business attitudes - and why one is better than the other. In a free market system, Horwitz argues, competition encourages firms to provide higher quality products at lower prices. Because firms have to compete with one another for consumer dollars, those that give consumers what they value most will generate the greatest profits. This pressure creates an incentive for businesses to offer cheaper and better products than their competitors, and promotes innovation that results in value creation. Ultimately, the consumer benefits. Because free markets create prosperity, supporters of free market systems oppose pro-business measures such as bailouts, subsidies, and monopolies because they do not discourage the inefficient practices of the businesses that receive them. Additionally, regulations allow these inefficient businesses to remain powerful, as they present barriers to entry for new firms and serve the interests of those who have 'captured' the regulators. Supporting free markets, Horwitz concludes, does not make an individual pro-business, but pro-human and pro-people. It is free markets and competition - not what's best for big business - that is best for America.