How School Choice is Transforming Florida Education

When I was in seventh grade, I took the SAT and scored well. Well enough to receive an invitation from a private college in Virginia that had a program for students interested in skipping four years of traditional high school for an accelerated collegiate program at the end of which I would have both my high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. I was fairly unhappy in seventh grade, but my circumstances were not exceptional. I suffered from the same mediocre learning environment that plagues many public school students across the country. However, it was enough for my parents to seriously reconsider moving out of Florida. After overhearing many conversations about job fairs and house hunting, I decided I wanted a full high school experience so I would have more time to learn and develop my interests. My parents offered to pay for private schooling at our church, an opportunity I was well aware most kids would never have, but I wanted a secular education free of uniforms and chapel. Homeschooling wasn’t an option because both of my parents made a living as public school teachers themselves. So I went to the high school I was zoned for, and overall, I enjoyed my time there and look back with fond memories, though I was rarely intellectually challenged. Yet, I still wonder sometimes how different my life would be if I had chosen to move away.

I do not share my very generic story as an example of another tragedy that has come out of the public school system. Instead, I wish to contrast my experience growing up with the current picture I see in my state in which many new educational opportunities abound. Today, my sister is in a dual enrollment program at the local university, whereas only one student was involved in this program when I was in high school. Tellingly, he ended up being valedictorian. She commutes there every day and at the end of next year, and she will graduate high school with a good amount of college credit under her belt as well as experience with a university setting. Four tuition free public charter schools are eligible to open in my hometown this year and two more were recently approved. One, Mason Classical Academy, is being spearheaded by one of my former high school teachers. The school is based on the Hillsdale Model used at a charter school in Hillsdale, Michigan and plans to employ classical teaching methods. Online education has also taken off, and today, Florida Virtual School course enrollments easily exceed 100,000 more than any other state.

More options have resulted in greater success. As William Mattox recently said in a school choice policy brief by the James Madison Institute, “Our state, which once trailed most other states according to various measures of student achievement, staged an incredible turnaround in the first decade of the 21st Century.” A 2012 study found that Sunshine State fourth grade students scored higher in reading than students in 48 of the 52 educational systems tested across the world, keeping pace with students in Finland and Hong Kong. Equally significant, Florida’s low-income and minority students outscored the international average on the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) test.

Mattox argues, and I am in agreement, that much of Florida’s success can be attributed to the rise in high quality alternative educational methods and opportunities, which help students of all backgrounds and abilities. For example, digital education in Florida is ranked third in the nation and Florida Virtual School Students (46% are minority students) had a higher passing rate than the state average on 11 of 15 Advanced Placement tests.

A 2012 study by David Figlio of Northwestern University found that low-income students able to attend private school due to Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program have made significant learning gains where they had previously fared poorly in conventional public schools.  Lest anyone wonders whether the scholarship program picks and chooses the highest-performing low-income students, Figlio found that the program tends to attract “the weakest prior performers on standardized tests” and the correlation “is becoming stronger over time.”

Special needs children have benefitted from the McKay scholarship program which allows them to attend private schools. These scholarships have contributed to Florida’s first place ranking in the country for combined math and reading gains among special needs students. Likewise, Florida charter schools have made greater annual learning gains (in 79 of 96 categories) than traditional public schools and have a higher percentage of students performing at or above grade level on standardized tests (in 50 of 54 categories). Charter schools have also done better than conventional schools have in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students (in 16 of 18 categories).

Students who remain at conventional public schools see indirect benefits from school choice as well. Economist Tim Sass found that traditional public schools in competition with charter schools saw bigger gains in students’ math scores than conventional schools that lacked charter school competition.

So, as Mattox says, a rising tide has been lifting all boats. Most encouraging is the fact that these positive changes have been led by bold policy reforms. While libertarians often throw up their hands when it comes to dealing with politicians and prefer to work outside of the system, education reform usually requires extensive compromise and coordination. Fortunately, many policy makers in Florida are open to school choice. There is certainly much more work to be done. Achieving high national rankings on standardized tests is a low bar and no state should settle there, but it’s a promising start. I for one, am greatly encouraged by the fact that students in my hometown today have many more and varied educational opportunities than I did just ten years ago.

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Libertarian Themes in Games of Thrones

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the television adaptation, Game of Thrones, have exploded in popularity over the last couple of years. 15 million copies of the books have been sold and the second season became the most pirated television show of 2012. Set in the fictitious land of Westeros, the three-part story is unraveled from the perspective of over thirty characters who are involved in a battle for political control of Westeros, in fortifying the north against the imminent invasion of the chilling, spectral Others, and in assisting or deterring the return of the rightful heir to the throne, Danaerys Targaryen, mother of dragons from exile.

While the plot is intricate, Martin paints it with broad strokes through vivid dialogue that leaves no hint of uncertainty, as shown by the now famous phrase, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” However, Martin’s real genius is his ability to expose the middling nature of humanity within such a compelling story. Unlike most fantasy books, A Song of Ice and Fire does not explore conflicts between a good, light side and a bad, dark side. Instead, Martin’s belief that “the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart” is expressed through his characters, which are each a mix of good and evil. While minimizing the magical elements, his story maximizes the reality that “the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which.” Although such a theme is too broad to be called exclusively libertarian, the series’ emphasis on individualism is definitely appealing to liberty lovers, who from my observances are among the biggest fans of the series. I’d like to explore several mostly spoiler free ways in which Martin exposes human nature and the problems it creates through the tool of government.

Most fantasy novels portray their villains as filled with malice and depravity, but A Song of Ice and Fire seems to express the Nietzschean view that most evil stems from cowardice rooted in laziness and that such evil can be found in all people. Tyrion Lannister recognizes the reality that, “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” This tendency is found in the common people who “pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends” and do not care “if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace” as well as in the political elite of Westeros. Arguably the only family that fights such cowardice and pursues honor and duty at every opportunity is the Starks. However, (spoiler alert) their integrity destroys their chances for success in the game of thrones and rips the family apart through murder and separation. Thus, Martin shows the underside of the story libertarians usually tell: that an unengaged populace can do great damage to noble-minded leaders- or at least greatly undermine their effectiveness- by accepting the status quo of political corruption.

While showing that political leaders and their subjects or citizens share the same weaknesses, A Song of Ice and Fire also shows the conceptual divide that is created between the two when a government is established. In order to gain the political legitimacy necessary to successfully make decisions for other people, political leaders must convince people that they can govern everyone better than people can govern themselves. As the character Varys says, “Power resides where men believe it resides…It’s a trick…A shadow on the wall…And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” Perhaps because of people’s inherent laziness and cowardice, this convincing turns out to be very easy to do. Once in charge, political leaders maintain their power by instilling a culture of fear because as Arya says, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Rather than issue direct threats, effective political leaders perpetrate the myth that without their leadership, society would crumble through economic collapse or foreign invasion. Tywin Lannister teaches such a tactic to his nephew when he says, “Joffrey, when your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you.” Of course, the dangers of economic collapse and foreign invasion are actually exacerbated through the actions of political leaders. For example, the king, Robert Baratheon, ignores the growing threat of the Others and frequently goes hunting rather than tend to the treasury. Once again, Eddard Stark is the lone figure who seeks to minimize this divide between rulers and the ruled. Early on in the first book, he brings his sons to witness the execution of a deserter of the Night’s Watch, the defenders of Westeros. He performs the execution himself because “a ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.” He tells his son, “If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

So is there any chance that liberty will prevail in Westeros? While the character Littlefinger acknowledges that, “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own” and that “sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them,” so far in the series (spoiler alert) none of the characters have incited a revolution in favor of limited government or anarchy. Based on Martin’s adherence to the facts of human nature and government, I’m not holding my breath for a Heinleinian ending to the series, but here’s hoping.

Social Entrepreneurship: A Key to Poverty Reduction and Agorism

In my last article, I wrote about the problems with foreign aid. I would now like to talk about the libertarian alternative, social entrepreneurship. The term “social entrepreneurship” isn’t typically part of the libertarian lexicon, but it should be. While libertarians do a good job of explaining how the market indirectly helps people through the profit motive, we need to do a better job of showing our support for those who use the market to help people directly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks libertarians encounter is explaining how a free society can take care of its least fortunate members. The answers typically given — private charities or NGOs, mutual aid societies, and for-profit ventures dedicated to helping others— can all fall under the category of social entrepreneurship.  According to Bill Drayton, the man who popularized the term through his foundation, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the job of a social entrepreneur is “to recognize when a part of society is not working and to solve the problem by changing the system, spreading solutions, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.” For social entrepreneurs, wealth is a means to achieving a social mission. Social entrepreneurs are able to pursue such a mission through inexhaustible determination, entrepreneurial quality, and strong ethical fiber.

The traditional concept of entrepreneurship, on the other hand, has long been associated with libertarianism. The term itself was most closely associated with the economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 20th century who described entrepreneurs as the innovators who drive the “creative destructive” process of capitalism, which moves the economy forward. In using a double bottom line to measure profit and social impact (or a triple bottom line that also measures environmental impact), social entrepreneurs fuel creative destruction in areas of poverty reduction that are rarely popular or effective in politics such as education, welfare, law, and health. All without the help of the government.

Here are five examples of sustainable social enterprises that help people become self-sufficient. Libertarians should keep such examples in mind when asked how the free market can take care of people:

1. Sustainable Health Enterprises: SHE was founded by Elizabeth Scharpf when she realized that absenteeism among girls and women in Rwanda was due to the high price of menstrual pads — $1.10 for a pack of 10. Her team engineered a new biodegradable sanitary pad made of banana tree fibers that sells for 75 cents. SHE works with 600 small-scale banana farmers in Rwanda. They have also called on the Rwandan government to lift an 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products. The Rwandan Parliament recently allotted $35,000 to pay for pads for impoverished girls.

2. Grameen Bank: Muhammad Yunus started this Nobel Prize winning microfinance organization in Bangladesh in the 1980s. Its poorest borrowers, mostly women, own 95 percent of the bank, while the government owns the other 5 percent (which unfortunately ousted Yunus in 2011).  There have been 8.35 million borrowers, $11 billion in loans, and a loan recovery rate of 97 percent. 68 percent of the borrowers’ families have crossed the poverty line and over 10,000 beggars have joined. The bank also provides housing for the poor and educational loans and scholarships.

3. The Body Shop: Anita Roddick of England began a company (now owned by L’Oréal) of cosmetic stores to promote causes like ending animal testing, protecting the rain forest, helping indigenous farmers, promoting voting rights, and anti-sexism and anti-ageism campaigns. She also helped establish the magazine The Big Issue, produced and sold by homeless people and Children on the Edge, a charity for children in Europe and Asia.

4. Better World Books: This corporation, founded by three young Notre Dame graduates, sells used books and donates much of the proceeds to nonprofit charity programs across the country. They have recycled over 87 million books and raised over $12 million for literacy. They partner with over 1,800 college campuses and over 3,400 libraries in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

5. Barefoot College: Officially called the Social Work and Research Centre, this organization was started by Bunker Roy in India in 1972 to train impoverished people in the fields of education, health, drinking water, and electrification through solar power. Since 2004, Roy has brought women from 15 African countries as well as Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Bolivia to be trained as solar engineers. Barefoot College is responsible for training more than three million people. It is mostly funded by international funding agencies, private foundations, and self-generated revenue.

In addition to improving the life prospects of the disadvantaged, social entrepreneurship is crucial to libertarian agorist philosophy, which advocates peaceful revolution to bring about an entirely voluntary society. As Matthew Feeney, assistant editor for Reason 24/7, has said, social entrepreneurship develops societies in which a new outlook can become popular without government support. He hopes that the efforts of social entrepreneurs can help fuel a libertarian grassroots movement akin to the environmental and labor movements. With decentralization increasingly heralded as the preferred policy model, it seems his hopes are plausible.

However, John Mackey and Michael Strong think that while micro-level grassroots projects have made a huge impact in many people’s lives, they do not directly address governmental monopolies in education, welfare, law, and health. While we can hope incremental change will have an impact, they think we need to do more.

Mackey and Strong both have impressive backgrounds. Mackey, co-CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, advocates “conscious business,” or business that serves others and seeks to improve the world rather than just focus on profit. Whole Foods supports only organic and natural food providers to avoid supporting environmental degradation. It was the first Fortune 500 Company to completely offset energy costs using wind power credits. Whole Foods donates at least 5% of its profits each year and their Whole Planet Foundation provides grants to microfinance institutions.

Strong has worked as a public school reformer and has created highly ranked and successful Montessori and charter schools. He has also worked as an educational consultant in half a dozen developing nations and is the author of two books. He also worked with the Honduran government on behalf of the Free Cities Institute to allow a city to be developed that would be exempt from the government’s laws, operating under a free market government with strong property rights. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court shot down the project, but the possibility for free cities in many other countries is being explored.

Mackey and Strong co-founded FLOW, or Freedom Lights Our World, a series of programs dedicated to “liberating the entrepreneurial spirit for good.” FLOW operates a website called “Radical Social Entrepreneurs” to catalyze systemic innovation. There they say, “Piecemeal projects may be steps in the right direction, but the scale of today’s challenges requires radical thinking. We feature the latest work in revolutionary technology, new strides in design, urbanism, business, management, law, conduct, and especially their relevance for changing our legal, community, governance, and education systems for good.” They support radical social enterprises like the Free Cities Institute and the Seasteading Institute.

It remains to be seen whether radical social entrepreneurship can feasibly succeed the way micro-based social entrepreneurship has. So far, projects by the Seasteading and the Free Cities Institute are still in the planning stages and have a long way to go before becoming realities. In the meantime, it is in our best interest as libertarians to support and advocate for micro-level social enterprises to show critics that we are serious about supporting social change and poverty alleviation in practice and not just theory.

I am a believer that certain periods in history are ripe for change and that we are living in such a time. I also believe, as Bill Drayon has said, that young people are the “last large group of people in the world we treat the way we used to treat women, older people, people with disabilities, African Americans, and colonized peoples. We say to them, ‘We are in charge of everything—the classroom, the workplace, extracurricular activities where they still exist, and sports—and we don’t think you young people are very competent or responsible.’” As a result of the discouragement of independence and coddling by adults, many young people see themselves as powerless and without experience in teamwork, leadership, or in understanding the lifestyles of others. However, history shows us that oppressed groups have a tendency to rise up and rebel. We’re seeing the rise of social entrepreneurship programs in colleges and universities and Forbes recently released a promising list of the top 30 Social Entrepreneurs under 30. Let our rebellion be one of peace and charity.

If you are interested in social entrepreneurship, check out one of the following foundations. Also be sure to register for and attend the International Students For Liberty Conference where John Mackey will be giving the keynote address:

Trade, Not Aid: The Cure to Africa’s Ills

I was first introduced to the ideas of libertarianism through my interest in international issues. In high school, I interned at a congressional office that dealt with immigration requests in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Through my experience, my eyes were opened to the government’s inability to help people when they need it most. Now, as an SFL Campus Coordinator, I get to be a part of a truly global network of students advocating for the true cause of empowerment in people’s lives – freedom. While it is easy for me to become jaded about the importance of freedom while living in the lap of luxury in the United States, it is impossible for me to not be inspired and motivated by what hundreds of my fellow students are accomplishing outside of the United States where the stakes for liberty are much higher. I spoke to two such students, Adigun Ajibola from Nigeria and Chikulupi Kasaka from Tanzania, about an issue that affects both Americans and Africans: foreign aid.

Foreign aid is a fairly contentious topic in the United States. Many Americans today are calling for lower levels of international assistance for moral reasons, arguing that it is wrong to spend taxpayer money on causes that don’t affect them. Others argue from an economic stance, claiming that the United States cannot afford to assist other countries. These arguments (particularly the latter) lose some of their saliency when one considers the actual amount of money that is spent on foreign aid. Many polls have demonstrated that the average American thinks the federal government spends 25% of its budget on foreign aid and thinks a more appropriate level would be 10%. In reality, foreign aid accounts for less than 1% of the federal budget.

However, while the money spent on foreign aid is chump change for the United States, it has a big impact overseas. Across Africa, U.S. aid accounts for 70% of the public purse. Rather than underscore the importance of foreign aid, the fact that so little money can make such a big difference in developing countries makes it even more important for the United States to decrease aid. Why? Because government aid doesn’t help the countries it is meant to help, and, in many ways, it hurts them. As a libertarian, my compassion is blind to state lines and national divisions, and, for this reason, I am against sustained foreign government aid.

In his book, The Elusive Quest For Growth, economist William Easterly criticized the theory that investment through aid will lead to growth. He demonstrated that there is no stable short-run link between aid and growth. Countries with high investment and aid such as Guinea-Bissau, Jamaica, Guyana, Chad, Mauritania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have had stunted growth while countries with low investment and aid such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have grown rapidly. As Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda has asked, “What man or nation has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?”

Why does bilateral, or government-to-government, aid fail to produce results? Economists like Easterly and others argue aid fails due to a lack of accountability which creates perverse incentives for lenders and recipients which leads to corruption, a cycle of dependence, stifled entrepreneurship, debt burden, inflation, increased conflict, and Western stereotyping. It doesn’t take a professional economist to get it, either. When I asked Ajibola and Chikulupi for their opinions on foreign aid, they cited many aspects of Easterly’s argument based on their personal experience, three of which I will now highlight.

Perverse incentives for lenders
The success of aid agencies is measured by the number of dollars they loan and programs they start rather than how effective those dollars and programs actually are. As a result, lenders have no reason to operate at optimum efficiency. Ajibola told me that because “government money is no man’s money,” aid flows will be consistent regardless of the behavior or policies of the recipient, making it less likely for corrupt governments to reform. Ajibola addressed the accountability problem with foreign aid when he said, “the government that often wastes her own resources cannot be trusted with the funds of other governments.” Even more seriously, Ajibola told me that in Nigeria, corruption literally kills. Indeed, according to Easterly, human rights abuse is actually positively correlated with aid receipts.

Perverse incentives for recipients
Chikulupi told me that because African governments can rely on foreign aid, they have little need to tax their citizens, which means politicians are not held accountable to the people and can ignore their wants and desires. This means that aid encourages fiscal irresponsibility and the misuse of public funds because the less countries save, the more money they can expect from the United States. Both Chiku and Ajibola told me that these incentive problems lead to embezzlement. Ajibola argues that aid has had an overwhelmingly negative impact in Nigeria by stunting economic growth through corruption. He said, “Aid often ends up in the pockets of government officials or their cronies. I think my fellow countrymen are disdainful of our leaders who go bowl in one hand begging the international community for alms while enriching themselves with the other.” Here are a few numbers to support their anecdotal evidence of corruption: The president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo until 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko, stole at least $5 billion from the country and Malawi’s former president Bakili Muluzi embezzled $12 million in aid money. The World Bank has participated in the corruption of $100 billion of its loan funds and the African Union has estimated that corruption is costing the continent $150 billion a year.

Cycle of dependency and stifled entrepreneurship
Chiku argues that foreign aid also causes a cycle of dependency, which makes it more difficult for Africans to pursue self-determination and the social institutions necessary for economic innovation. Foreign governments “poison us so that we become the dumpsite of their manufactured goods” which favors U.S. interests at the expense of African development. Similarly, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that rather than giving Africans free anti-malarial bed nets, which put Africans out of business, we should assist them in growing their own businesses and services. She says, “Don’t forget that over 60 percent of Africans that are under the age of 24 need jobs not sympathy.” Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda has said, “We appreciate support from the outside, but it should be support for what we intend to achieve ourselves. No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves. They should, in fact, respect us for wanting to decide our own fate.”

Chiku and Ajibola have both seen positive effects from aid. Chiku witnessed the construction of hospitals in two districts in Dar es Salaam made possible by aid. Ajibola has benefitted from the MacArthur Foundation and Google, which built Internet infrastructure at his university. However, the two students are in agreement that private charities have done more for their countries than aid from foreign governments because non-governmental organizations and charities have greater incentives to spend their money wisely. Also, because they take more specific, targeted approaches, it is less disastrous if their projects fail. As Ajibola said, “The impacts on aid may differ in terms of gravity of effect. With governments, the effects go further down the stream than they do for NGOs and charities.” Unfortunately, the two types of aid often come in conflict. Ajibola told me that the MacArthur Foundation experienced difficulty in digitizing his university library in Nigeria because corrupt university officials were uncooperative because the assistance did not enrich them financially.

Chiku is of the opinion that African countries should reduce dependency on foreign aid and hopes that African governments will soon open their eyes to this crucial agenda. African leaders should follow President Kagame’s example. In the past decade, Rwanda has cut foreign aid as a percentage of GDP by half while growing this year at more than 11% in spite of the recession. Aid critics are denounced as heartless, but aid advocates should be denounced as mindless. As Easterly has said, “Africans are and will be escaping poverty the same way everybody else did: through the efforts of resourceful entrepreneurs, democratic reformers and ordinary citizens at home.” Africa needs more trade, improved political institutions, a strong middle class, and a free press. Not aid.

Why We Need More Libertarian Journalists

American political commentator Dan Carlin hosts two of the highest-ranked reviewed podcasts, Common Sense and Hardcore History. While he staunchly claims he has no ideology besides being in favor of real solutions regardless of who offers them, he has a definite libertarian bent based on the views expressed in his podcasts. Once a professional radio host, a television news reporter, an author, and a columnist, Carlin knows the ins and outs of media and frequently talks on Common Sense about his outrage at the state of the American press.

He certainly isn’t alone in his anger. Americans have lost faith and interest in major news outlets over the years as journalists have increasingly become concerned with reflecting the political views and interests of their firm’s owners. The 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to destroy the free market in the media industry by welcoming monopolies. Now, the media is largely under control of ten firms: AOL/Time Warner, AT&T, General Electric, News Corp., Viacom, Bertelsmann, Walt Disney, Vivendi Universal, Liberty Media, Sony and Clear Channel (Comcast).

The press, or the Fourth Estate as the founders called it, was considered absolutely vital to the functioning of the country. Thomas Jefferson said to John Jay in 1786, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that “Democratic theory posits that society needs journalism to perform three main duties: to act as a rigorous watchdog of the powerful and those who wish to be powerful; to ferret out truth from lies; and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.” According to McChesney, American journalism as a whole is failing in all three aspects. Jefferson was right to worry about a dysfunctional press. History shows us, as McChesney points out, that concentration in media ownership is highly correlated with authoritarianism and political corruption.

However, today, due to government-enforced monopoly broadcasting licenses and copyright laws, journalists for the Top Ten hold very different goals. In order to move their way up, journalists cater their stories to the ideological biases of the owners of their companies. In addition, instead of challenging politicians and other authority figures, they often use their positions as personal networking opportunities. There is a revolving door in the media just as there is a revolving door in politics and the two along with corporate interests have become incredibly incestuous. When journalists do put the fire to politicians’ feet, it’s far more likely to be based on a trivial offense like having “ten outstanding parking tickets or to have skipped out on a bar bill at a topless club than if they quietly used their power to funnel billions of public dollars to powerful special interests,” says McChesney. Fluff stories are cheap and easy and for some reason, media firms still think they can successfully draw people in with them.

New York Times article published in June of 2012 said that CNN’s prime time ratings had dropped by 40 percent from a year ago. Viewership has also gone down. Last year for its Monday through Friday prime time slots, CNN had an average of 236,000 viewers. This year, it has 142,000. In a recent podcast, Dan Carlin discussed these dismal numbers with disgust, commenting that despite the fact that CNN is played on almost every television in every airport and hotel lobby across the country 24 hours a day, the number of viewers for his podcasts are competitive with CNN’s numbers, and are actually better if you factor out the senior citizens who watch CNN. When you consider how much money is funneled into CNN while Carlin’s podcasts are run on donations, that is pretty embarrassing. CNN isn’t the lone wolf, though; MSNBC and Fox have also lost a substantial amount of viewers and are not doing much better. In 2000, more than one-third of Americans got their news from late night talk shows and comedy shows rather than TV news programs. Today, that number is almost certainly much higher.

CNN blames its failure on having a bad news year, claiming that last year’s ratings were enhanced due to several breaking events. This demonstrates the drastic change that has taken place in the role of American media. Today’s journalists see themselves as little more than the news-equivalent of glorified weathermen. Their only job is to report on the political and economic climate as it appears, often inaccurately, with little to no further investigation. This is a far cry from what the founders intended. They envisioned a press that would create storms, not just report a sunny day with a high of 75 degrees.  The real irony is that if CNN or MSNBC or Fox were to actually engage in hard news, they would give people a show they actually wanted to watch. If YouTube views are any indication, people love to watch politicians squirm when getting nailed with hard-hitting questions.

Carlin brings this point home in his discussion of the superior quality of international journalists such as Irish journalist Vincent Browne. Watch this video, taken at a press conference in January of 2012 with the European Central Bank’s Klaus Masuch and Barbara Solan regarding the bailout of European banks.

Now compare Browne’s exchange to an interview conducted by Meet the Press’s David Gregory with then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on January 1, 2012. In the interview, Gregory and Santorum discussed Iran’s attempts to attain a nuclear weapon and Santorum’s foreign policy goals. The following exchange took place, edited for the sake of brevity:

Gregory: “The reality is, there’s no good option to disarm Iran.”

Santorum: “Yes there is.”

Gregory: “Tell me what you would do differently then.”

Santorum: “I would say to every foreign scientist that’s going into Iran to help them with their program, you’ll be treated as an enemy combatant like Al Qaeda. I would be working openly with the state of Israel and I would be saying to the Iranians, you either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors or we will degrade those facilities through air strikes and make it very public that we’re doing that.”

Gregory: “So you would lay out a red line and if they passed it, air strikes by President Santorum?”

Santorum: “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon under my watch.”

Gregory: “Well, two previous presidents have said that. You would order air strikes if it became clear they were going to-“ (interrupted by Santorum)

Santorum: “Yes, that’s the plan. I mean you can’t go out and say, you know this is the problem with this administration, you can’t go out and say that this is what I’m for and then do nothing. You become a paper tiger and people don’t respect our country and our allies can’t trust us. That’s the problem with this administration.”

Gregory: “Alright. Before I let you go, back to the politics. Are you going to win this thing?”

Neither Gregory, nor the journalists included on the panel held after the interview, asked a single follow up question on the constitutionality of Santorum’s policy, despite the fact that Santorum had taken the unprecedented action of making a campaign promise to go to war with Iran without Congress’s approval. Additionally, Santorum spent the first part of the interview saying Obama needs to be replaced because Americans want a small, limited government. Yet no one pointed out the blatant contradiction in his domestic and foreign policies. Instead, they speculated about the election like it was a horse race.

Later on, Andrea Mitchell from NBC said Ron Paul’s foreign policy of peace made him unelectable. This shows the reason there was no follow-up to Santorum’s campaign promise was because they assumed Americans agreed with Santorum and disagreed with Paul. They all believed the president has the power to declare war because the media never calls the government out, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a proper declaration of war since World War II. By not showing people the storms on the horizon and the elephants in the room, American journalists have stopped seeing them as well. In the early American republic, it was natural for all citizens to view the government with suspicion. The founders never suspected journalists would stop questioning powerful figures. But they have, and who is left to do the questioning? Libertarians have all the necessary qualities: distrust of authority, an inquisitive nature, a thirst for truth and the desire to make a difference in the world.

If you’re interested in changing the media, check out Dan Carlin’s podcastsRobert McChesney’s website, and IHS’s summer journalism internship.

What Libertarians Can Learn from Liberals and Conservatives

Every political faction has its distinguishing strengths and weaknesses. In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt analyzes these strengths and weaknesses through an interesting lens — a group’s appeal to people’s moral intuitions. He posits that moral intuitions play a powerfully underestimated role in guiding our behavior and shaping our beliefs. This is because, Haidt argues, the human mind evolved to be a story processor, not a logic processor. If this is true, libertarians have their work cut out for them. While most of the book is centered on the left-right dichotomy, Haidt does provide some crucial insights for libertarians.

What is a moral intuition? It is the ability to immediately understand a moral truth without the need for conscious reasoning. Haidt likens our intuitive sense to our sense of taste. We all have the same taste receptors but we don’t all like the same foods. Our tastes are influenced by genetics and our cultural environment. The same is true of intuition. Haidt says that the six intuitive “taste receptors,” or moral foundations, are care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, sanctity versus degradation, and liberty versus oppression. Political groups that appeal the most broadly to these moral foundations prevail over groups with a narrow moral intuitive appeal. Haidt’s research found that libertarians belong to the second camp. In order to become more than a fringe movement, we need to make some serious strategic changes.

Currently, libertarianism’s greatest strength is its appeal to reason. For me, it was the selling point. When I started interacting with a group of libertarians my freshman year of college, I was blown away by their intellectual honesty and poise. I had never met liberals or conservatives who could express their ideas so logically. Libertarianism distinguished itself for me because it was the only political ideology that “played fair.” Libertarians held themselves and each other to higher standards than any other political group I had encountered.

The downside of such an intellectual approach is that it greatly limits the amount of people you can reach. Most people will not or cannot delve into logically driven academic arguments. To reach a wide audience, an idea must resonate with people’s moral intuitions. Haidt uses a metaphor in which he compares the mind to a rider on an elephant. The rider represents our conscious reasoning while the elephant represents the other 99 percent of our mental processes — the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.

This metaphor is based in fact. Scientists have discovered that differences in the way people fire neurotransmitters partly determines whether we will lean liberal (and libertarian) or conservative. Haidt found that libertarians as well as liberals scored higher than conservatives on openness to experience and lower than conservatives on disgust sensitivity and conscientiousness. This is because neurotransmitters like glutamate and serotonin form the brain’s response to threat and fear. Our brains reward us with happy feelings when we question the status quo while conservative’s brains reward them when they defend tradition. I do not mean to downplay the role of social and cultural pressure in shaping our beliefs. However, our social and political environment is negotiable while intuitions are not. In order to change the structure of society, we need to talk to people’s elephants.

How can we do that? Haidt’s research shows we should borrow strategies from both liberals and conservatives. He found that conservatives appealed to the broadest range of moral tastes by appealing to all six foundations. Liberals take a more narrow focus based on care and fighting oppression. Libertarians also had a narrow moral focus, one that emphasized liberty. As a group, unsurprisingly, we scored extremely high on economic liberty. However we also scored very low on the care/harm foundation.  How could this be? Most libertarians adhere to the non-aggression principle after all! However, it doesn’t really matter if his conclusion is false, because it reflects common perceptions.  Most people continue to see libertarians as rich white capitalists who are detached from the troubles every day people face. Will Wilkinson has suggested that libertarians are basically liberals who love markets and lack bleeding hearts. We need to distance ourselves from the portrait Wilkinson paints by emphasizing care the way liberals do.

We need to emulate conservatives by embracing the binding foundations. The binding foundations are sanctity, authority, and loyalty. Haidt argues that their evolutionary purpose is to bring people together to make them feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves. As Darwin said, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of individualists.

Libertarianism rightly emphasizes individualism, but that does not mean we shouldn’t recognize the value of the binding foundations. Historically, libertarians have seen the way people have applied the sanctity, loyalty, and authority intuitions to the state and so we have made the mistake of denouncing them altogether as immoral or collectivist.

However, I think this is a mistake. We must accept that for most of the world, there is more to morality than harm and fairness. As SFL expands internationally, this is going to become increasingly relevant. Far from being inherently collectivist, I would argue the binding foundations are ideologically consistent with libertarianism. The libertarian message says we should increase the care people get within voluntary groups while decreasing the care they get from government. Yet mutual aid societies, religious institutions, and charities, would not exist if people were not motivated by a sense of loyalty, sanctity, and to a lesser extent, authority.

Maybe you disagree. Haidt allows that it could be that our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, is a dangerous evolutionary artifact. However, as Haidt says, “we must learn what we have been, even if our nature is to transcend it”.

We need to reshape our arguments to appeal to the broader population and welcome those who are less logically or individually minded than we are, even if this means less of an emphasis on reason. As David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”