Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Smiling Daggers

Paul Hsieh has an interesting commentary on President Obama's embrace of something called "libertarian paternalism." Obama appointed Cass Sunstein, who authored this concept, as a senior regulatory official in his administration. The concept says that government should "nudge" us with coercive measures to do "good things" such as eating better foods, saving for retirement, encouraging our children to do their homework, etc.

The nudges involve handing back our tax money to us in the form of credits or deductions, or even paying us for performance, again using the tax money already taken from us. The "nudge" may also be more direct, such as New York City's ban on the use of trans fats in restaurants.

All of this is for our "good." But who determines this good? Answer: Cass Sunstein or sundry other regulatory officials who make it their life's work determining what is good for me, or even President Obama himself. Accepted in this premise is that the judgment of these individuals must forcefully supplant my own judgment about my own life. I am not permitted to make my own decisions on topics that these officials have determined are worthy of their attention.

These nudges come at the expense of my personal liberty. A society where people are nudged about is one where individual rights are absent. That is the society we are being nudged to accept.

As Mr. Sunstein and his cohort of regulators, led by the regulator-in-chief, President Obama, prescribe and proscribe in the minutest detail how we are to live our lives, don't be fooled by confusing phrases such as "libertarian paternalism," or by the broad smile of President Obama as he appoints Mr. Sunstein to take on his duties. "Libertarian" is seemingly based on "liberty"; "paternalism" derives from the Latin word for "father." There is nothing "fatherly" in government ordering adult Americans about; we are not children. Moreover, liberty cannot exist where government is telling us what to do. These terms are meant to confuse. In such confusion, government power is rationalized and expanded. It is a tactic that has been used by dictators throughout history.

In George Orwell's fictional 1984, the dictator "Big Brother" said, "Freedom is slavery." In the same oxymoronic manner, "Liberty is paternalism."

Don't be fooled.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

As Wall Street Bonuses Go, So Goes the Liberty of All of Us

[See update to this post below.]

“There will be a time for [Wall Street executives] to make profits and there will be a time for them to get bonuses. Now is not that time.” So said President Obama on January 29 to reporters (source: “The Kudlow Report,” CNBC).

So we receive President Obama’s declaration that Wall Street bonuses must be cut. According to him, now is not the time for those bonuses, although he allows that there will be a time – determined by him – when bonuses will again become acceptable.

When Obama arrogates to himself the authority to determine whether, when, and in what amount payments shall be made by an employer to an employee, do not think that such power will only be used to lighten the wallets of Wall Street executives. Such a power demanded today becomes one that will be used in the future to cut the wage or bonus that any American is paid, if doing so should please the Presidency.

If you doubt that, consider that at several times in history the American government fixed the wages of nearly all Americans. It happened during World War II and it happened again in the early 1970s. It is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue, with the former happening under Democratic President Roosevelt and the latter under Republican President Nixon.

It needs to be said, because Americans have become so used to having their liberties encroached: a man’s ownership of his labor is parcel of the ownership of his own life. If he cannot freely contract with an employer to offer his labor at voluntary, mutually agreed upon terms, then his life is no longer his own. Instead of being a free agent offering his services at a voluntary, mutually agreed upon rate to a willing employer, he becomes a serf, whose labor and life is controlled by his lord and master.

That is the meaning of Obama’s attack on Wall Street bonuses. Attacking the private right of employer and employee to voluntarily agree on salaries and bonuses is an attack on the freedom of both parties. In calling for Wall Street executives to be treated like serfs, President Obama is setting the precedent that will make all of us serfs in the future.

Do not be fooled by the issue of government bailouts. Government had no right to hand out that money. It does not belong to government; it belongs to each one of us. Moreover, this crisis would have ended on its own without any government “rescues.” Recessions always end through the economic adjustments of all participants in the economy. It happens on its own, without a “rescue” or despite it. The current recession is no exception and will end, despite Presidents Bush and Obama’s profligate showering of trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on the problem.

However, government committing a wrong by handing out bailout money does not give it the right to compound its wrong by using that as a justification for further violating the rights of employers and employees. Government should not be handing out bailouts, nor should it be telling employers whether they can pay bonuses.

No one, including President Obama, has the right to forcefully tear apart the private employment relationship between employer and employee. When a private individual does it, it is considered fraud or theft. When the President does it, he takes on the scary personage of a dictator.


2/4/09 UPDATE: President Obama now says companies that have been given (or forced to take) bailout money must cap the pay of their senior executives to $500,000 salary plus $500,000 bonus. For the morality of that, see above. In terms of its effect, government will get the quality of executives that it pays for. Guess who runs Wall Street now?

We could see this coming. See my October 27, 2008 post, "The Man Paying the Bill Gets to Determine Who's for Dinner."


This post is re-posted. It was originally posted at on February 1, 2009. Also published at on February 4, 2009.