CPAC: And the American Liberty Scene

Published May 8, 2018

I recently attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington DC in the good old US of A. I was there on behalf of Mark Latham’s Outsiders. This is my second CPAC in the past few years. It is a “yuge” annual and multi-day event with speakers, media, exhibitors and attendees of all sorts from the right side of politics including conservatives, libertarians, Trumpers, Never-Trumpers and more. Note that the term “conservative” is often used in the States as short-hand to include libertarians and other freedom-friendly folks. The young and not-so-young come from around the USA and world every February to beautiful National Harbor in Maryland for CPAC. This event along with FreedomFest in America should be on every right-minded person’s bucket list, along with the Friedman Conference and LibertyFest in Australia.[i]

There were many highlights from CPAC, but none greater than the hour-plus speech by President Donald Trump where he once again paraphrased the famous Aesop fable of The Scorpion and the Frog as “The Snake”. The President’s context for this was decades of reckless immigration policies, by both Democrat and Republican alike.[ii] However, for me, the broader context or lesson is to never be too trusting of the Big Government ‘baptists and bootleggers‘, even when they seem to agree with a seemingly pro-liberty reform (eg the Cato Institute trusting Black Lives Matter re police). The original fable goes as follows:

“A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks: ‘How do I know you won’t sting me’? The scorpion says: ‘Because if I do, I will die too’. The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in mid-stream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp: ‘Why’? Replies the scorpion: ‘Its my nature’.”[iii]

I have lived in Australia most of my adult life, from my university days onwards. It was during uni that the seeds were first sown of my current conservative-libertarianism and penchant for the Austrian School of economics, inspired by the likes of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. These seeds finally came to full fruition, however, in the past decade when I rediscovered the American liberty scene during my semi-regular stints in my birthplace of Milwaukee WI and my current home of Washington DC. This scene is based on a foundation of a strong culture and history of liberty, stretching back to the 18th century Founding Fathers of the United States. Unlike Australia and everywhere else, the US was founded on the idea that life, liberty and property are natural or God-given rights and not handed-down from on high as crumbs from the State (especially a remote centralised one) and, thus, government had to be restricted and not the people.[iv] As the late great economist and historian Murray Rothbard wrote in his book Conceived in Liberty:

“The history of the United States is to place central importance on the great conflict which is eternally waged between Liberty and Power, a conflict, by the way, which was seen with crystal clarity by the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth century.”[v]

The remainder of this piece will provide a relatively brief 101-style introduction to the current vast and vibrant scene of American liberty. This includes many website links for the reader to click on, as time and interest dictate. I have met and gotten to know more than my fair share of the liberty-oriented outfits discussed below, at not only CPAC, but at the weekly national (and monthly international) coalitions meetings hosted by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). An increased awareness and understanding of American liberty, current and past, will better arm Australians to slow, stop and reverse statism Down Under over time as well as anywhere and everywhere else.

There are two main umbrella organisations in the DC metro area for liberty-friendly think tanks. One is for international-based ones from around the planet – ie the Atlas Network (Atlas). The other is for state-based ones from around the USA – ie the State Policy Network (SPN). Atlas members include a few of my favourites like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) of the UK, the Lion Rock Institute (LRI) of Hong Kong and, of course, LibertyWorks of Australia (where I am the Chief Economist at and on the Advisory Board of). SPN members also include a few of my other favourites like the John Locke Foundation (JLF) of North Carolina, the MacIver Institute for Public Policy (MacIver) of Wisconsin and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) obviously of Texas.

The national “Big 3” of American think tanks are the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Cato Institute (Cato) and the Heritage Foundation (Heritage). A few of my favourite medium-sized national ones are the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Heartland Institute (Heartland) and the Mercatus Center (Mercatus). There are also a plethora of smaller ones such as the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC), Frontiers of Freedom (FF) and International Liberty (IL). I have previously worked for and with CPRC, FF, Heartland, IL and others.

Think tanks importantly tend to be classified for federal income tax purposes as “C3” non-profits, whereas do tanks tend to be classified as “C4”. Donations to a C3 are entirely deductible as a charitable contribution on the donor’s tax return. In contrast, donations made to a C4 are generally not deductible. C3’s are limited to conducting only insubstantial political or lobbying efforts, determined by the size of the organisation. By contrast, C4’s may engage in unlimited lobbying and promotion of candidates, provided that these efforts dovetail with the purpose of the organisation.[vi] Three famed do tanks are the American Conservative Union (ACU), Americans For Prosperity (AFP) and FreedomWorks.

Australia has centre-right think tanks, do tanks and the like (eg AiP, ALS, ATA, BKRC, CIS, HRNS, IPA, Mannkal, Menzies, etc), but it doesn’t have law outfits comparable to the Federalist Society (FedSoc), the Institute for Justice (IJ) or Judicial Watch (JW). FedSoc’s activities include suggesting the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court and other courts, that understand respect and strictly uphold the spirit and letter of the Constitution, competitive federalism and states rights. IJ litigates to limit the size and scope of government power as well as to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society. JW, amongst other things, seeks to ensure high ethical standards in the judiciary through monitoring activities and the use of the judicial ethics process to hold judges to account.

A second Aussie gap is leftist watchdogs akin to the Capital Research Center (CRC), the Media Research Center (MRC) and Project Veritas. MRC, for example, not only exposes and counters the mainstream print, radio and TV “fake news” (eg NY Times, NPR and CNN) but also the anti-right TV, sport and movie entertainment industries (eg TNT, ESPN and Hollywood). Thankfully, there are also pro-liberty alternatives in cable news (eg Fox News Channel, Fox Business News and Reason TV) and, of course, on the Internet (eg Breitbart, the Independent Institute and Townhall).

A third gap in Australia is in education and training. There are firstly outfits like Heartland and the James G Martin Center (JGMC) taking on statism in school and higher education respectively. Secondly, there are there are universities and colleges trying to better educate students for example George Mason University (GMU), Grove City College (GCC) and Hillsdale College (Hillsdale). Hillsdale presently has a great TV ad out about how it does not seek nor accept taxpayers money. Thirdly, there are outfits trying to better educate the public such as the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the Politically Incorrect Guides (PIGs) and the Ludwig von Mises Institute (Mises). Mises has for years offered thousands of free digital books online at the Mises Library. Lastly, there are outfits that provide practical training to conservatives and libertarians. The most eminent are the Leadership Institute (LI) and Atlas, both of which do this inter-nationally as well as intra-nationally. I have personally taken LI’s surprisingly low-priced courses in election campaigning, political fundraising, public speaking and TV interviewing.

In recent years, Australia now has high-profile politicians (from minor political parties) with a liberty-bent most prominently Senator Cory Bernardi, Senator Bob Day, Senator David Leyonhjelm and my former boss Senator Malcolm Roberts. Some American equivalents (from the major, but big-tent, Republican Party) are Senator James Inhofe, Senator Mike Lee, Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz. There are even pro-freedom industry or trade associations in the USA like the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (GATA), National Mining Association (NMA) and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC). One can even find dedicated services for getting the ‘right’ job particularly from LI’s Conservative Jobs, the Heritage Job Bank and the Talent Market. In terms of commercial and charitable funding, for all sorts of aspects of the American liberty scene, there are for instance the Bradley Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) plus many Super PACs.

Some other interesting and important areas of the American liberty scene are worth noting. There are movements seeking massive reforms (above and beyond legislation and regulation) such as Convention of States, the Madison Amendment and repealing the Income Tax Amendment. There are those promoting sound money and investment including the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), Dr Ron Paul and Zero Hedge. There are also those seeking to by-pass the system such as Bitcoin, and Uber. There are additionally those seeking to blow-up the system through approaches as nullification, secession and seasteading. There are even those pointing to the ultimate source of human liberty – ie God’s Natural Law – through the likes of the Acton Institute (Acton), Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and The Religion of Peace (TROP).

Despite all of this, the cause of liberty is still out-gunned in America, as it is in Australia, against the 200+ year march of economic and cultural statism. Why? The main reason is the top-to-bottom and ongoing capture of the hearts, minds and wallets of enough of society by the ‘baptists and bootleggers‘. The main key to changing this is to defund and deregulate the statists (sooner better than later) of their taxpayers money and non-money favours. The ‘poster child’ area for this is education, or rather the ill- and mis-education, of the people from pre-school to PhD levels. This means less taxes and subsidies plus less regulation and money printing. Why? Say’s Law. This is based on the reality that supply largely drives demand, not the other way around. Demand for anything, in both the private and public sectors, is largely irrelevant when it is not backed up by something to trade or pay for it like money, goods or services. In a similar vein, my Iron Laws of Tax and Subsidy are that (ceteris paribus) taxes always generate less, and subsidies more, of something. Governments from around-the-world, including America and Australia, heavily subsidise the left and tax the right. As long as this is the case, freedom will never truly ring again.