Book Review: Matt Kibbe's 'Don't Hurt People, and Don't Take Their Stuff'
I first became acquainted with Matt Kibbe's intensely logical libertarianism (libertarians will no doubt pick up on the redundancy) in 2003. The FreedomWorks president had a letter-to-the-editor published in the Wall Street Journal that criticized the federal government's efforts to block the timely release of potentially life-saving drugs before being vetted by the FDA.
Having survived a near-death battle with cancer not long before the letter's publication, Kibbe knew well what he was opining on. Why, he asked, would federal officials block those already near death from doing everything possible to stay alive? Kibbe had already migrated toward his ideology as a teen after discovering that the members of the musical group Rush were Ayn Rand devotees, but it's safe to presume that his harrowing experience with cancer further solidified his beliefs.
Perhaps most important of all, in 2008 Kibbe watched in embarrassed horror as an allegedly free-market Republican president in George W. Bush joined with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, and an always emotional Democratic Party to save banks and homebuyers from mistakes they made during the economy-sapping rush into housing in the 2000s.
Markets had supposedly failed, so to save the economy from something much worse than the Great Depression (the latter the droolings of Bush appointee Bernanke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), banks and nominal homeowners would be bailed out. Who cares that the economies of Japan and Germany had rebounded very quickly from near-total devastation during World War II when both lost at least a generation of their best and brightest? To the political class, the U.S. economy couldn't survive the bankruptcy of Citigroup; Citi a bank that had been bailed out four times before ahead of its fifth bailout in '08.
The bipartisan crack-up of not long ago, one that gave us a crisis that had nothing to do with finance and everything to do with government error, further steeled Kibbe's resolve to change the terms of the political debate. Kibbe became a prominent face of Tea Party movement, released a book about the thinking underlying the nascent political force, and then most recently he's published Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto. For those eager to understand the clear-thinking that informs libertarian philosophy, Kibbe's book is an excellent choice.
As the book's title suggests, libertarianism is very simple. Just leave people alone. That's Kibbe's view of the world, and it's one that if embraced by the political class in some sort of Twilight Zone utopia, would author all manner of national cohesion, individual happiness, and yes, prosperity.
As Kibbe puts it, decisions made by hubristic politicians and regulators in Washington mean that the individuals who populate the U.S. can't "focus on their lives and their kids and their careers." They now must waste precious time watching what happens in our nation's capital thanks to the extra-constitutional activities of our federal government.
Having expanded their power well beyond strict limits set in the Constitution, the political class has fostered a national divide by virtue of it nationalizing problems that the founding fathers thought could best be solved locally. Whereas Americans could once choose their government bliss, they're now essentially captives of a centralized bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.
Kibbe's goal is to revive the libertarianism that clearly animated our founding fathers. In a foreign policy sense, this means we must in the words of George Washington "steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
And then in a domestic policy sense, Kibbe notes how "in our personal lives, taking from one person, by force, to give to another person is considered stealing." The irony there is that while stealing is broadly viewed as criminal, more than a few Americans don't have trouble with our federal government doing what most individuals would never do. Kibbe is properly bothered by that, and reminds readers that "you can't outsource stealing to a third party."
Ever driven by common sense, Kibbe goes on to point out the life-erasing folly of empowering government in any form. As he helpfully explains, "Governments often hurt people and take their stuff." Yes they do, and then he further notes "the murderous results of too much unchecked government power: communists, fascists, Nazis, radical Islamist theocracies." The list is long, and it raises the question of why anyone, particularly Americans who are, or who are descended from those who escaped overly powerful governments from around the world (Kibbe writes that "Americans have a healthy distrust of big, obtrusive government that seems genetically encoded in our DNA"), would want to expand ours here. Arguably the answer is they don't, but overseen by two political parties that aren't terribly different (see the size of Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed budgets and compare them to President Obama's), they increasingly hold their noses no matter their voting choice; hence Kibbe's noble mission to return most governance to the cities and states where it belongs, not to mention the people.
Some will argue that people are hurting, and that politicians must step in to help. But as Kibbe asks, "Can you mandate compassion? Can you outsource charity by insisting that the political process expropriate the wealth of someone you don't know to solve someone else's need?" Logic dictates that you cannot. Even if we ignore the staggering achievements of capitalism and the profit motive when it comes to boosting global living standards and relieving much of the world of hunger and disease, can't we at least say that John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid aren't possessed of any realistic skill to fix what ails us? To ask the question is to answer it, and to also wonder why something so basic divides so many.
What about the minorities in society seemingly left behind? It's a fair question, but as Kibbe writes, the basic individual liberty that is his motive "defends ‘the minority,' the opportunity to work for it, the ‘underclass' with absolutely no political pull, the unconnected, and the rights of every single individual to make it. Liberty is color-blind. Liberty is a merit-based system, and blindly measures all of us based on the content of our character." So true, and then for those still not convinced, they must ask themselves where they'd most like to be poor: the capitalistic U.S., Hong Kong and Switzerland, or government-dominated societies like India, Mexico and Uganda.
The reality is that capitalism loves the poor and suffering. That the latter is true brings up a personal anecdote. The husband of an old friend who grew up in Canada has a brother who is mentally retarded. This individual will never live a completely normal life, but years ago he was hired by a Walmart in Toronto to work as a greeter. Can any reader say with a straight face that someone of limited capabilities would enjoy this kind of opportunity in Myanmar?
Considering the exercise of government power more broadly, Kibbe cites a report from left-leaning NPR that revealed a 46 percent approval rate by the IRS for conservative and libertarian groups seeking tax exempt status from 2012-2013, versus 100 percent of progressive groups approved. Sorry, but this should bother even the most left-leaning among us. That's the case because government power works in both ways. As Kibbe reminds us, back in the ‘60s J. Edgar Hoover "set out to destroy" Martin Luther King. Notable there is that "One of the most powerful tools at the FBI's disposal was the IRS, and the agency's access to confidential data, particularly the donor list of MLK's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."
An obvious libertarian response to the above is that we shouldn't have tax-exempt or non-profit status for advocacy groups to begin with, including Kibbe's FreedomWorks. What's interesting there is that Kibbe would no doubt agree. It's not as though Americans only discovered charity with the insertion of tax deductions into an impossible to comprehend tax code. FreedomWorks would be fine either way, and it's useful to point out that it and its mission would be much advanced were all the subsidies within the tax code abolished.
Indeed, as Kibbe notes in a phrase that will long be plagiarized by this writer and many others, we suffer now a "Complexity Industrial Complex." Kibbe's point there is that the bureaucrats whose expensive existence arguably weighs on economic growth unlike any other policy with the possible exception of the floating dollar, "feed on complexity, a permanent rationale for expanded budgets and higher compensation."
If there are disagreements with Kibbe's excellent book, they perhaps ironically most reveal themselves in his 12 Step program for improving government policy. But even there it's arguable that the differences aren't so great. Lest it be forgotten, Kibbe's professional mission is to bring likeminded individuals together with individual liberty the end result. With the latter in mind, it's possible he promoted policies and ideas that he doesn't necessarily support passionately, but that might happily succeed in expanding the proverbial tent.
Though there's no argument with Kibbe that education "belongs at the local level," in his passage in favor of school choice, Kibbe writes that "Every day we are told America is falling behind in educational standards, that we are in danger of being unable to compete on a global scale, that our children aren't learning well enough, fast enough." One of Kibbe's solutions is "school choice" or "vouchers" that would put power back into the hands of parents, and while my own view is that "vouchers" completely miss why schools are so lousy (good schools are the result of conscientious parents and interested students, bad schools the opposite, the role of teachers overrated), Kibbe's focus on educational results arguably flies in the face of the logic promoted by one of his intellectual heroes, Ludwig von Mises.
As von Mises wrote in Socialism, "The successful conduct of business demands qualities quite other than those necessary for passing examinations - even if the examinations deal with subjects bearing on the work of the position in question." Even if we could improve schools and test scores, not asked enough is what might be gained if so. No serious businessman ever attributes his commercial achievements to yesterday's news taught by those who can't. Is the U.S. the richest country in the world because of its great universities, or does it have great universities because it's the richest country in the world? Logic dictates it's the latter.
Taking the global competition angle further, China's citizenry was notoriously undereducated amid its tragic descent into communism that similarly robbed its people of commercial knowledge, but once the economy was largely freed, this lack of education in no way kept the Chinese from thriving. Education is presently a sacred cow on the left and right, but as observable realities constantly reveal, its alleged importance is trumped (and it's not even close) by individual freedom.
And while Kibbe's takedown of Obamacare is expert, one of his arguments against it is that government should not fund, "with borrowed money, something that no one in D.C. thinks will actually work." It says here, and Kibbe would no doubt agree, that Obamacare shouldn't have been funded for it being well outside the federal government's mandate, not to mention the tautology that says any governmental attempt to create a marketplace will fail, and will do so impressively.
The above example is mentioned given his assertion earlier in the book that policies inspired by John Maynard Keynes "will have to be paid for in the future, by our children and grandchildren." Without defending Keynes's fraudulent ideas for even a second, the politicization of children and grandchildren is well overdone. Budget deficits won't be the problem for our children and grandchildren (figure if they're too large, future Congresses won't have the money to start new programs - good!); rather the real, unspoken burden that will be suffered by future generations is a much less evolved economy. Politicians quite simply cannot, irrespective of ideology, allocate capital. The future burden in that sense won't be deficits that are nothing more than a form of finance, but a world marked by more disease and poverty than would otherwise be the case, less in the way of transportation advances that would make today's airplane seem very dated by comparison, and the unseen; as in the all Apples, Intels, and FedEx-style innovators strangled in the cradle by government consumption of capital.
It says here that libertarians and conservatives err impressively in focusing on deficits. Implicit there is that they're smart and the markets stupid. The reality is that long before the horrid imposition of quantitative easing, the investors who populate the Treasury markets lined up to buy U.S. government debt. What this tells us at least for now is that one of the deepest markets in the world presumes that future wealth creation in the U.S. will be so substantial as to make paying off the debt very simple. Time will tell, but to make deficits an issue today is for free market types to proclaim debt markets dim. That's unlikely.
Worse, the deficit fixation ignores the true problem, which is the level of government spending itself. Whether through taxes or borrowing, when governments spend they rob the economy of the capital necessary for advancement, and that's why Kibbe's call for a balanced federal budget was so surprising. Even in its relatively depressed state the U.S. is still filled with some of the most productive individuals on earth, and those people annually produce enormous amounts of taxable wealth. In that case, to call for a balanced budget is to call for big, intrusive government as far as the eye can see. It seems the better economic and political solution is to call for gargantuan federal spending cuts not with future Armageddon in mind, but because a soaring private sector unearthing amazing advances and jobs aplenty would reveal itself alongside a substantially shrunken federal government.
About the bailouts, Kibbe as mentioned didn't like them in 2008, and then he happily wants a future without them. The quibble there comes with his assertion that the "market dominance of unaccountable investment banks has been fed by a de facto understanding that bad behavior will be bailed out." This doesn't ring true.
Banks and investment banks notoriously pay out the vast majority of their bonus compensation in restricted stock that only vests after several years. That's why when Bear Stearns (bailed out) and Lehman Brothers (allowed to go bankrupt) both imploded, their well-to-do employees long on company shares saw their wealth wiped out. That the latter was true tells us all we need to know about how banks operate. They check their trading positions religiously on a daily basis precisely because one false move can take the whole institution down.
More to the point, banks don't swing for the fences as is so often presumed. They don't precisely because a bad trade can once again put them in the position that Bear and Lehman found themselves in. In truth, the bailouts of the banks were in fact bailouts of the counterparties of troubled financial institutions, and if we were to erase bailouts from our policy mix, those counterparties would more prudently spread their exposure around to a much bigger number of financial institutions. This would be a positive.
Considering Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and other banks that were saved, not only is it hard to point to "bad behavior" on the part of any (Wall Street pays so well precisely because it's such a difficult business where one bad trade can lose the trader his job) of the institutions, it would be folly to presume that they emerged unscathed. Indeed, the bailed out financial institutions of today are a shadow of their former selves, and far from operating in careless fashion, their top client is the federal government; the latter not interested in profits or innovation. Banks didn't win for being saved. Not one bit. Wall Street staffing is at 1997 levels, and then a lot of the hiring has been in the compliance area meant to please federal bureaucrats who never bail out banks or any business for free.
We should loathe bailouts not because we fear malfeasance on the part of Wall Street, but because we love Wall Street and the banks. Silicon Valley isn't the U.S.'s richest locale today because all of its start-ups succeed; rather it's rich because the area is marked by constant failure. The bank bailouts robbed Wall Street and the banking system of a chance to evolve positively, and with the latter, the U.S. economy lost too along with taxpayers. Let's end bailouts, but let's do so because it's wrong to take other people's stuff, and because we love economic growth.
All this said, the policies Kibbe is proposing are excellent: scrap the tax code, avoid entangling global alliances, end the Fed (Kibbe is not averse to a gold defined dollar), and ceasing the obnoxious process whereby politicians take from some Americans in order to give to others. It will be exciting to watch what Kibbe does in future years.
Interesting about his happy plan to fix what's wrong is his view that like "Ronald Reagan in 1976, today we may have to beat the Republicans before we can beat the Democrats." Truer words have rarely been written. Lest we forget, it was the Bush Treasury's weak dollar policies that authored an economy-asphyxiating rush into housing much as housing was the asset of choice under dollar destroyers Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, and then it was the Republicans who poured gasoline on the fire with bailouts on the way to a political crisis that they dishonestly blamed on the markets. Until the Republicans are cleansed, and Kibbe is at work trying to achieve just that, they'll not be a credible Party when it comes to showing us the way forward.
What's fascinating about all of this is that Kibbe's efforts have won him all manner of criticism from Republicans and other more established GOP sources of opinion. Kibbe is oddly, and sadly, seen by some as the problem or, in his words, an "anarchist." Readers shouldn't be fooled. We need more people like Kibbe willing to take a stand. His basic philosophy as laid out in his essential book is that:
"Government should be limited, and it should never choose sides based on the color of your skin, who your parents are, how much money you make, or what you do for a living. And it should never, ever choose favorites, because those favorites will inevitably be the vested, the powerful, and the ones who know somebody in Washington, D.C."
What Kibbe believes isn't "fringe," or the stuff of knuckle-draggers, it's instead common sense. Readers should buy Matt Kibbe's book to gain essential insights that could allow what is already the richest and freest country in the world to truly achieve its amazing potential.