Author Archive

Gay Marriage

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Despite efforts to demonize opponents of gay marriage as hate-filled bigots, the fact remains that many, if not most, oppose gay marriage out of sincerely held religious belief. I count myself among this group. I believe gay sex (just like extramarital sex) contradicts God’s law, and I believe gay marriage runs contrary to God’s plan for mankind. Before you accuse me of discarding the First Amendment, let me clarify that I do not believe that religion should dictate law. But neither do I believe that the civil institutions of a country should promote or encourage immorality.

As I explained in a previous post, no one has a right to get married. Although definitions of marriage vary, virtually all of them include an aspect of formal recognition of the union by someone else. You can’t really believe in a right to get married unless you believe in a right to dictate to others what to think. Put another way, claiming a right to marriage would be like claiming a right to the good opinion of those around you. It’s absurd. Let me add that under this reasoning, heterosexual couples don’t have a right to get married either. Since marriage involves recognition by others that a valid union has been formed, a marriage depends upon the consent of the person/people whose recognition is being sought.

Of course, what thoughtful proponents of gay marriage mean when they talk about gay marriage rights is the right to equal treatment by government institutions. That isn’t a trivial argument. If our government is going to treat people differently, it must have a valid reason. We treat murderers differently from non-murderers because they have violated someone’s right not to be killed. Most everyone recognizes that committing murder is a valid reason for treating a person differently. In the case of gay marriage, the fundamental disagreement is whether the gender of the people asking for formal recognition by government of their union is a valid reason for treating them differently. In other words, the disagreement is whether the union of two men or two women is meaningfully different than the union of a man and a woman. Opponents of gay marriage say yes; proponents say no. Because this disagreement for many is motivated by religious conviction, no compromise is possible. So how do we resolve the conflict?

The obvious solution to the gay marriage dispute is to get government out of the business of marriage altogether. Why should two people need the government’s sanction to unite their lives? Why not leave marriage to private institutions like religions? That way, those that value marriage as a religious commitment will comply with the requirements of their religion to get married and those that value marriage as a something else can hold a ceremony of their own design. Eliminate marriage as a legal criteria altogether and the whole problem goes away.

I have heard some object that this would cause problems with the tax code or inheritance law. Of course there would need to be some legal adjustments, but they could be accomplished easily enough. That’s no reason to carry on a system that inevitably causes conflict. Another objection I have heard is that if the government weren’t issuing marriage licenses, the children of the couple would not be protected in the event that the marriage dissolved. This is also untrue. Child custody and child support depend upon the relationship between the child and the parent, not the relationship between the parents. A child’s father has a legal obligation to provide child support and has a right to custody regardless of whether he is married to the child’s mother.

Please don’t misunderstand. I wholeheartedly believe that a child’s best chance and happiness and success is in a traditional family, one with both a father and a mother who love, honor, and respect each other and sacrifice for their children. But government marriage has not been and will not be enough to save the traditional family. In fact, it is worth considering whether the instability of marriage in today’s culture may in part be due to its transformation from a religious commitment sanctioned by God into a legal relationship sanctioned by government.

So, do I oppose gay marriage? Yes, because as things stand today it amounts to a formal, societal stamp of approval for something that I believe is morally wrong. No judicial ruling or congressional enactment will change my opinion in that regard. However, if our society has reached a point that it can no longer recognize a meaningful difference between a homosexual couple and a heterosexual couple then I support getting government out of marriage altogether. Am I missing something? What are your thoughts?

Assassination of U.S. Citizens

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

A Department of Justice memo, leaked yesterday to NBC News, details the Obama administration’s justifications for assassinating U.S. Citizens. The memo begins by stating the conditions required for a legal assassination:

 [W]here the following three conditions are met, a U.S. operation using lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force would be lawful: (1) an informed, high-level official of the U.S. Government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles. (pg 1)

Although the memo only outlines the administration’s assassination policy in broad strokes, even the few details available give many reasons for concern. In this post I present my top three reasons.

Due Process

Simply put, the first criteria listed in the DOJ memo relies on the danger of imminent threats to justify assassination of U.S. citizens. If this were a totalitarian regime, that might be acceptable, but this is the United States of America. Our Constitution was written to limit government power to do just this sort of thing: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Constitution, Amendment V. This language seems to directly prohibit what the DOJ assassination memo proposes. You can’t just kill people without due process of law. But the legal minds at the DOJ find wiggle room in the phrase “due process,” referencing the case of Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).

In this case, the Supreme Court decided that the government could terminate disability benefits without conducting a hearing first, so long as a hearing was held later to review whether the decision was appropriate. In explaining why Mr. Eldridge lost, the Court expounded its theory of due process:

identification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: first, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and, finally, the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. Id. at 335.

Ignore for a minute the troubling sensation you may feel from knowing that the DOJ relied on reasoning designed for disputes about disability benefits to justify assassination. That isn’t the real problem. What should bother you is that a fair application of this balancing test should not result in a green light for assassinations. Plug the criteria listed by the DOJ memo into the Supreme Court’s test. The private interest at stake is a person’s life—the strongest interest recognized by law. The procedure used is determination by a “high-level official of the U.S. Government.” When considering the reliability of “high-level officials,” don’t forget the Bengazi debacle. How many “high-level officials” made erroneous judgments during the weeks surrounding those events? Finally plug in the government interest: prevention of imminent terrorist attacks.

The DOJ assassination memo pays lip service to the first two due process factors, noting that “the erroneous deprivation of a citizen’s life is … significant.” (pg 6) But all is justified because “the ‘realities’ of the conflict and the weight of the government’s interest in protecting its citizens from an imminent attack are such that the Constitution would not require the government to provide further process to such a U.S. citizen before using lethal force.”

It is important to point out that the “imminent attack,” that the DOJ hangs its due process analysis on, is not some scenario in which Jack Bauer has two hours to stop a nuclear apocalypse. Again from the DOJ assassination memo, “[A]n ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” (pg 7) Granted, governments and other security services face a severe disadvantage: they don’t know when violent acts will happen. Criminals choose places and times when police are absent or unprepared. This doesn’t mean we can start assassinating criminals because some “high-level official of the U.S. Government” decides it’s okay! Compare the DOJ assassination policy with the gyrations that state judicial systems must go through to execute a convicted murderer. Within the federal government, only the President can pardon a death sentence. Why does it only take a “high-level official” to sentence someone to death?

In an effort to make all of this easier to swallow, the entire assassination memo overflows with false analogies to formally declared, conventional war. This leads me to my second reason for concern.

Law of War

It is not controversial that a soldier on the battlefield, engaged in a just war, commits no crime when he kills an enemy soldier in combat. But the law of war developed to regulate conflict between clearly-identifiable, uniformed combatants in a defined area of conflict. Plucking those principles out and attempting to apply them to assassination of U.S. citizens would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. We aren’t talking about standing armies; al-Qa’ida operatives don’t wear uniforms; and there is no defined area of conflict—any foreign country is fair game.

Conventional law of war prohibits killing civilians unless in self defense. If a civilian were to attack a soldier, the attack would be considered a crime and the civilian could be prosecuted. The DOJ assassination memo is schizophrenic on whether terrorists are soldiers or civilians. Either terrorists are like soldiers and are subject to preemptive killing (aka assassination) during the course of the conflict, or they are civilians and are subject to prosecution for their criminal acts. They can’t be both, and all the dissimilarities between soldiers and terrorists urge the classification of terrorists as civilian criminals.

Language Ambiguity

Not only does the DOJ assassination memo distort the due process test and draw false analogies from the law of war, it also suffers from severe language ambiguity. As quoted in the beginning, the memo starts by stating specific circumstances in which the DOJ deems assassination of U.S. citizens legal:

[W]here the following three conditions are met, a U.S. operation using lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force would be lawful: (1) an informed, high-level official of the U.S. Government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles. (pg 1)

At the outset, only a “senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” (no definition provided) could be lawfully assassinated. But, as common sense would lead us to believe, senior operational leaders don’t usually execute the operations. They plan and send out low level operatives to do the dirty work. This makes the imminent threat idea a problem though because assassinating the senior operational leader of an organization probably wouldn’t prevent imminent attacks. It would prevent future attacks that still need planning and logistical coordination, but imminent attacks are likely past that stage. This may be why the drafters of the memo change their terminology when talking about the need to preemptively strike. “The defensive options available to the United States may be reduced or eliminated if al-Qa’ida operatives disappear and cannot be found when the time of their attack approaches.” (Pg 7) Are we targeting operatives or senior operational leaders? This may seem like splitting hairs, but the due process problems become far worse if we are targeting mere operatives because the likelihood of error is much greater when trying to accurately identify minor players in an organization. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it if you drop a hellfire missile on the wrong guy.

Another example of language slippage has to do with the type of behavior that might make one a target. At the outset of the memo, assassination was deemed permissible only when “the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Later in the memo, the definition of permissible target changed to, “a U.S. Citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” (pg 15) Why the change? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think that anti-American preaching would not fit the first definition but would fit the second. An anti-American cleric who never took any active role in planning terrorism but was affiliated with a terrorist organization and promoted violence against Americans in his preaching might be subject to assassination under the second definition if a high-level official determines that his “conduct poses an imminent threat.”

In summary, this memo has problems. It doesn’t represent a major policy shift on the part of the Obama administration. After all, it is common knowledge that they have assassinated U.S. citizens in the past. But a debate on this issue is long overdue. This memo reveals just how far the DOJ has stretched legal principles to justify the assassination of U.S. citizens, and it shouldn’t be left unchallenged. Don’t misunderstand. I believe that those who conspire to kill us should be captured and tried for their crimes, if possible, and killed if capture is not possible. But our Constitution does not entrust the roles of judge, jury, and executioner to the executive branch. Under the DOJ assassination memo, there is no provision for judicial review; there are no evidentiary requirements; and there is no accountability to the people. This strikes at the foundation of separation of powers as well as representative government.

Rationality in the Wake of Sandy Hook

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

No, you haven’t been too adamant in favor of gun rights. No, you should not feel guilty that maybe the tragedy at Sandy Hook could have been avoided if you and others had agreed to toss out the Second Amendment a long time ago. To those who feel overwhelmed by the surge of public opinion against gun ownership, I offer the following thoughts.

Arguments against freedom to own guns rely on false assumptions about consequences and causation. The usual anti-gun argument goes something like, “Guns are dangerous; people with guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away guns.” A more moderate version includes the same false assumptions: “Some guns are especially dangerous; people with these especially dangerous guns sometimes kill other people; so we should take away these especially dangerous guns.”

Can you spot the fallacy? Unlike nuclear material, unstable explosives, or untested chemicals, guns are not inherently dangerous. A gun only becomes dangerous by intervention of human will. A gun sitting on a shelf can’t hurt anyone—even in an earthquake, fire, or flood, a gun does not become any more dangerous than other household items. This applies equally to assault weapons.

The anti-gun lobby would reply, “Guns are different because with a few pounds of pressure on a gun’s trigger, a person can kill someone. This makes them different than kitchen knives, shovels, etc. that sometimes double as weapons. The ease with which a person can kill with a gun places them in a different category—a category meriting government regulation.” But this doesn’t change the fact that human will, not the gun itself, is the necessary ingredient. Guns are precision weapons. Unlike hand grenades or mortars, a gun shoots where it is pointed.

The irrationality of restricting gun ownership based on the inherent danger of firearms is further highlighted by a comparison of gun deaths with car-crash deaths. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010.” 962 of those deaths were children younger than 13. The FBI recorded only 8,775 total firearm murders in 2010, with 96 of the victims under the age of 13. This also shows the irrelevance of comparing rates of gun deaths in the U.S. with rates of gun deaths in other countries. Of course where there are more guns there will be more gun deaths. That doesn’t answer any relevant question. One would also not be surprised to find car-related deaths are wonderfully low in societies with few cars. So arguing against gun-ownership because “guns are dangerous” simply doesn’t hold water. Very few would advocate that we ban cars.

Of course guns are especially well suited to killing. For most gun owners that’s why they buy guns. If the anti-gun folks are honest, they will admit that the real reason behind their anti-gun sentiment is that they don’t want others to have the power to easily kill. In their narrow personal experience, they don’t think that the average person has need for or can be trusted with this power. Having mentally remade the world in the image of their own lives, they can’t see the value to a mom who has to walk her kids to and from the bus stop in a bad part of town. They can’t see the value to a business owner who has been robbed and terrorized in the past by local thugs. They can’t see the value to a woman who fears she will be raped or murdered by an angry ex-boyfriend/husband who physically is far stronger than she is.

LTC (Ret.) Dave Grossman, a U.S. Army Ranger and the author of On Killing, related a conversation that he had with an veteran of the Vietnam War.

“There are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep.

There is no safety in denial.

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Some might argue that this metaphor only applies to soldiers and policemen. Not so. Status as military or law enforcement doesn’t mean the person is not a wolf—anyone who follows the news will accept that without argument. Moreover, a person’s civilian status doesn’t mean they are sheep. FBI statistics show that 278 private citizens justifiably killed a felon during the commission of a felony in 2010, and 232 of them used a gun. Compare this with 385 instances in which a member of law enforcement in the line of duty used a gun to kill a felon.

That means that in 39% of all legally justified shooting deaths, it was a civilian who stopped the felon. This doesn’t account for the many, many instances in which displaying a firearm deterred an attack without needing to fire it.

Simply put, proponents of gun-control want to take away your right to defend yourself because they don’t trust you. They are afraid of you. They fear the wolf, so they pull out the sheepdogs’ teeth.

Ron Paul’s Farewell Speech

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

I usually do not post non-original content here, but this is excellent. For many years Representative Ron Paul has fought to preserve peace and liberty. He has decided to retire from Congress, and today he delivered his farewell address. This speech masterfully explains the principles he fought so hard to uphold, often standing alone. Try to listen to Dr. Paul’s words without letting yourself be put-off by his characteristic lack of polished delivery. No matter what political persuasion you hold, Ron Paul’s courage, consistency, and integrity should inspire respect.  Throughout his long political career he has invariably been an honest advocate for peace and liberty.

Why Privacy?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Discussions about privacy rights often end with the flippant question, why do you care so much about privacy; what are you trying to hide? Of course, most people don’t really believe what this question implies—that privacy has no value other than to shield criminal or embarrassing behavior—but many people do believe that privacy has limited value. Privacy is often viewed as an individual, emotional convenience or comfort rather than as an essential ingredient of a free society. Consequently, in a society that is ever more communal and connected, this mistaken assessment of privacy causes it to be undervalued and sacrificed far too easily—especially when it conflicts with values like security and stability. Even among conservatives—who once upon a time were skeptical of big brother government—privacy rights have gained a bad reputation because of its association with Supreme Court cases dealing with controversial sexual issues and abortion.

Bad reputation notwithstanding, privacy remains an essential ingredient of a free society. The founding generation believed it to be so important that they amended the constitution to protect it:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. Constitution, Amendment IV

Privacy is essential because it insulates the people from the power of government, so when government oversteps its bounds, privacy gives the people an opportunity to resist. To the extent that privacy is diminished, the people’s ability to resist government abuses is diminished as well. The bare truth is that government is kept in check only when it fears what the people might do if it steps too far outside of its boundaries. If the election process is functioning with reasonable integrity, then the threat of the ballot box will check government somewhat; but if the election process breaks down, if government decides to ignore the people’s will, then the only check remaining on government abuse is fear by government officials that the people will use force to reclaim their lost freedom.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I am not an anarchist. In my opinion the present political/social climate in the United States is nowhere near oppressive enough to justify violent revolution. Whatever flaws that may exist in the election process, we still have a representative government. Consequently, the appropriate way to express displeasure over the actions of elected officials is to speak and vote, not plot and fight.

But this has not always been the case. Don’t forget that the United States was born in a violent revolution. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many others who we now call patriots, were then considered traitors and criminals by their government, and they would have been executed had the Revolutionary War turned out differently. Around the world it is easy to find other examples, ancient and modern, of situations in which governments grew so oppressive that violent revolution became necessary. My point is simply that violent revolution is sometimes necessary to reclaim liberty, and it would be naive to the point of foolishness to believe that it could never happen again—even here in the United States.

Considering the unpleasant reality that violent revolution is sometimes necessary, it is easy to see why privacy is so important. Privacy permits people to gather and speak without the government knowing what was said. It allows neighbors to talk about the nation’s problems—political as well as social—without their statements being reviewed by a government bureaucrat. This means that outliers who might use force before it would be appropriate can be talked out of rash actions by their friends and family without government agents appearing at their door the next day. Privacy creates the possibility of anonymity, and anonymity is a mask that allows individuals and groups to resist a government that has far more power than any of them could hope to resist without that mask. Anonymity permits a person to resist government oppression without having to fear immediate reprisal.

A discussion of privacy would be incomplete and one-sided without acknowledging that privacy also permits criminal behavior. Criminals regularly abuse anonymity to harm their neighbors and avoid punishment. Security and privacy conflict sometimes. The solution, however, is not to abandon privacy and allow government to monitor our communications and interactions anytime, anywhere. This is where the concept of a warrant comes into play; it is a compromise between privacy and security. If the government can show probable cause to believe that criminal acts are afoot, then a judge can grant permission to invade the privacy of the suspects.

This solution isn’t new, and it shouldn’t be unfamiliar. But the careful compromise that American citizens have relied upon for so many years is being challenged today. Technology permits private, in-person discussions to be intercepted remotely, and when technology is used to communicate, the conversation can be captured with little more than a keystroke. The ease with which the government can invade a person’s privacy creates the misleading idea that it is somehow non-intrusive because of the technology used, and this has confused many Americans. Compound that with high-visibility terrorist attacks and suddenly the right to privacy comes under fire.

I’m not suggesting that we are living 1984, We, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, or some other dystopia, but there is an important debate going on right now about where to strike the balance between security and privacy. From what I can tell, privacy is losing.

Understanding Ron Paul

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

A few weeks ago I attended a speech by Ron Paul, a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. There were about 1000 people there, and the crowd was remarkably diverse. My wife and I brought our little children, and I was surprised by how many other young families were there. There was the usual contingent of animated college students, but the middle-aged and elderly were at least as numerous. By the attendees’ clothing, I could tell that they came from diverse economic backgrounds. The “high-and-tight” hair cuts revealed many military supporters—even though none were wearing uniforms. And there were a few of the pot-smoking hippies that always somehow appear in the news footage.

Ron Paul’s speech was enthusiastic and optimistic. He talked about the importance of liberty to both economic progress and social harmony. He condemned unconstitutional foreign wars and warned about unintended consequences of intermeddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations. He explained that free trade, friendly relations, and example are far more powerful tools for the spread of democracy than bombs and bullets, and that aggressive posturing and economic sanctions are the true isolationism we should worry about. He decried the federal reserve’s surreptitious theft from the American people through the devaluation of the dollar. In short, he delivered the same powerful defense of liberty, peace, and prosperity that he has been giving for decades, and I left puzzling over the same question that I have wondered about since 2008 when I first learned of Ron Paul: what is it about Ron Paul and his message that can unite and energize such a diverse group of people and yet fail to resonate with the majority of voters?

Granted, Ron Paul sometimes stumbles a bit in his public speaking; his training and experience delivering babies didn’t translate well to delivering speeches. But I don’t want to believe that the majority of voters are so superficial that they would reject the message merely because the messenger isn’t polished enough. I prefer to think that it is an issue of communication. Ron Paul frequently references topics about which many Americans are woefully ignorant: the U.S. Constitution, economics, monetary policy, and world history. References to these topics during speeches and debates leave casual listeners confused, and confused listeners don’t become supporters. But I think the communication barrier runs even deeper than that.

Ron Paul thinks and talks about politics in a way that is fundamentally different from his opponents. The best way I can describe this difference is by offering examples: when Mitt Romney explains the moment that he changed his stance on abortion, he talks about how pro-abortion legislation arrived at his desk for signature and he had a change of heart and simply couldn’t sign it; when Rick Santorum talks about why he changed his stance on No Child Left Behind, he says that politics is a team sport and sometimes you have to rally around the leader and do something, compromise, take one for the team. I am not faulting these men for their sentiments. I believe they each sincerely hope to do good. But notice that in each of these examples, key political decisions were the product of emotional reaction: Santorum felt like he needed to be loyal and play ball with his colleagues; Romney had a change of heart when faced with the prospect of enabling the death of an unborn child.

This type of decision-making is understandable because whatever we may tell ourselves about being rational, emotion often trumps reason. This is especially true when a majority of those around you are swept up in the emotional tide. But Ron Paul is exceptional when it comes to politics; he uses reason and principles to make political decisions. In other words, he actually does what the other politicians only pretend to do. Consider this exchange from a presidential debate held in South Carolina on 5 May 2011:

Moderator: You say that the federal government should stay out of people’s personal habits, including marijuana, cocaine, even heroin.
Ron Paul: It’s an issue of protecting liberty across the board. If you have the inconsistency, then you’re really not defending liberty. We want freedom [including] when it comes to our personal habits.
Moderator: Are you suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise of liberty?
Ron Paul: Yes, in essence …

Notice that he starts with a principle, personal liberty, and follows that principle to its unavoidable conclusion. Obviously he doesn’t advocate heroin use or prostitution. He is a devout Christian, so both of those behaviors undoubtedly are emotionally and morally repugnant to him. But he believes in the principle of personal liberty. So he is willing to let people make poor choices, like using heroin, since that is what protecting personal liberty requires. This shocks many people. Like I said, it is fundamentally different from other candidates. If Rick Santorum were to say something so shocking—no matter how consistent it was with the principles he claims to follow—there would be a valiant attempt at spin, followed by an apology. Remember the scandal about his statement that he wanted to throw-up after he heard President Kennedy’s speech about religion and politics?

This isn’t just a Republican problem. Just ask honest people who supported Barack Obama during his 2008 run. They believed that his principles—especially those relating to civil liberties—would lead to different decisions than those made by President Bush. But that didn’t stop President Obama from ordering the execution of American citizens without trial or public hearing. Those principles didn’t stop him from signing into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention, again without trial or public hearing, of anyone deemed a threat to national security.

What it boils down to is this: for most candidates, principles are vague guides that easily bend or crumple under political pressure; for Ron Paul, principles define his political goals and methods from beginning to end and top to bottom. This means that, even when a principle leads to shocking conclusions, Ron Paul doesn’t shy away. This confuses voters and makes them nervous. Throw in a few references to unfamiliar topics like the U.S. Constitution, economics, monetary policy, and world history, and the average voter runs for the familiar smooth-talking candidates they are used to.

Why Do We Have a Constitution?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Over time the United States Constitution has come to be treated like an old tradition: for a few it has become infallible, for many it has become mysterious, and for some it has become obsolete. Overall it may have increased in abstract authority, but it has lost real meaning to the masses. Consequently, for most politicians, the Constitution is a useful campaign tool—a source of great soundbites—but doesn’t guide them in the execution of their office. Sadly, not enough citizens today understand the Constitution well enough to ensure that their representatives uphold their oath of office. This condition of constitutional decline begs the question, why have a constitution at all?

History answers persuasively with story after story of brutal strongmen who transformed their neighbors into subjects and then took their property, liberty, and sometimes their lives. All governments require at least some small compromise between security and freedom: people banding together for protection give up a part of their privacy, autonomy, and property. But an effective constitution prevents government from taking more than what its creators intended to give it. While most laws are written to protect individuals from each other, a constitution is written to protect individuals from their government.

Often, as in the case of the United States, a revolution gives birth to a constitution, but a constitution only reaches maturity and proves its effectiveness once government is firmly established. That is when the government will test its bounds. Not in an overt way; no frontal assault on the majority. It is usually more gradual in the beginning: crushing a disfavored religious group; seizing property from some weak minority; censoring the speech of a fringe political party. That is when the people must choose whether they value their constitution enough to enforce it, whether they have managed to create a limited, stable government or whether their revolution was just a bloody game of musical chairs—offering relief only until the music stops.

Creating and preserving a constitutionally restricted government is tricky business. On the one hand you have the self-interest of the needy and the lazy motivating them to abuse government power to steal from their hard-working neighbors. On the other hand you have the power-hungry and the ambitious who want to abuse government power to advance their agendas, well-intentioned or otherwise, at the expense of their neighbors’ liberty. If either group succeeds in persuading the public to exceed the limits set by their constitution, the game is up, and fickle public opinion becomes the only real check on government power.

The Constitution of the United States was designed with the modest goal of establishing a strictly limited federal government. The founding generation had just fought a bloody war to escape an overreaching dictator, and their only goal was to loosely unite the self-governing, sovereign states to facilitate self-defense and trade. Some of the best minds of a generation debated the question of how best to accomplish this, and although they only met for about four months, the ideas they struggled with were distilled from centuries of hard lessons. Their guiding principle was human equality. They stated it in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and it guided their efforts as they wrote the Constitution. Their work was far from flawless, but it still stands as the best in human history.

Now, as has happened many times in the past, there is intense pressure to ignore constitutional restraints. Coupled with this is profound apathy and ignorance on the part of the public toward constitutional principles. Politicians from both major parties employ fear-mongering, class warfare, and hype to persuade otherwise reasonable people to break down the constitutional limits their ancestors fought so hard to erect. For example, a little less than two months ago, the President of the United States signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. On its face this was just another enormous multipurpose funding bill disposing of $663 billion of hard-earned taxes (direct or indirect), but in fact it did much more. Section 1021 is worth special attention because it authorizes the indefinite detention without trial of any person that the President or his agents designate. Power like this is far more characteristic of a tyrant than a constitutionally restrained public servant.

Unconstitutional laws such as this one force the citizens to once again make a choice: stand up to government and demand that it stay within its limits, or let it go. Thomas Jefferson wrote movingly about an occasion, before the U.S. Constitution was written, when his home state of Virginia contemplated exchanging its constitutionally limited government for a dictator:

 In December 1776, our circumstances being much distressed, it was proposed in the house of delegates to create a dictator, invested with every power legislative, executive, and judiciary, civil and military, of life and of death, over our persons and over our properties: and in June 1781, again under calamity, the same proposition was repeated, and wanted a few votes only of being passed.—One who entered into this contest from a pure love of liberty, and a sense of injured rights, who determined to make every sacrifice, and to meet every danger, for the re-establishment of those rights on a firm basis, who did not mean to expend his blood and substance for the wretched purpose of changing this master for that, but to place the powers of governing him in a plurality of hands of his own choice, so that the corrupt will of no one man might in future oppress him, must stand confounded and dismayed when he is told, that a considerable portion of that plurality had meditated the surrender of them into a single hand, and, in lieu of a limited monarch, to deliver him over to a despotic one! How must he find his efforts and sacrifices abused and baffled, if he may still, by a single vote, be laid prostrate at the feet of one man! In God’s name, from whence have they derived this power?

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIII pp 228-232.

American citizens face this choice today and every day. Illegal detention that oversteps our Constitution’s limits is just one example. History offers many, many more. Politicians always urge some “expedient” and “necessary” compromise to expand the power of government; there is always some emergency that they say requires curtailing liberty. But before you are swept away by their slogans and prophecies of doom, pause and think for a minute about why we have a constitution.

Your Vote and the Lesser of Two Evils

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

 As the republican presidential primary heats up, I hear more and more republicans urging voters to unite behind a candidate who can beat President Obama. No matter, they say, if that candidate isn’t the best candidate in the race, the person with the truest principles, or the one with the clearest history of trustworthiness; sometimes you just have to choose the lesser of two evils. These arguments will intensify in the general election. Members of the major parties will criticize those who vote for third-party candidates as having thrown away their votes. The message is that once the nominees for the two major parties are both selected, it’s time to cut your losses, compromise your principles, and focus on beating the other side.

These “lesser of two evils” arguments fail for at least two important reasons: first, as an individual voter you have almost no chance of casting the deciding vote in an election; and second, your vote is more than just a tally mark in favor of your candidate—it is a powerful expression of your political will.

In a 2001 article entitled The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote, two economists named Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter presented research showing that out of 40,036 contested state legislature elections in which over one-billion votes were cast, only nine were within one vote, and that during the previous 100 years of United States congressional elections (about 16,500 contested races) only one was decided by a single vote. The takeaway from these numbers is that an individual voter will almost never decide the outcome of an election, and predicting when and where those close races will occur is all but impossible. It could come down to how many of a candidate’s supporters were able to get time off work or whether there was a flu outbreak in an especially partisan district. In short, it doesn’t make sense to cast your vote for the lesser of two evils because the likelihood that your vote would be the pivotal one is almost nil. Parting with your principles out of fear that your one vote will throw the election (a nine in one-billion chance) makes less sense than parting with your principles on the off chance you will win the Mega Millions multi-state lottery (about a one in 176 million chance).

Given that your vote has almost no chance of deciding the outcome of an election, why should you vote at all? Answering this question highlights the second failure of the “lesser of two evils” argument: it ignores the important fact that beyond just counting towards which candidate will win, your vote expresses your political priorities. Amid all the brouhaha of ballot recounts and victory parties, it is easy to forget that your vote is more than just a tally mark. But the politicians and their staff don’t forget. Your vote sends a clear signal to present and future office-holders about what you value most in a candidate: principled decision-making or political pragmatism, consistency or compromise, moral/ethical behavior or personal charm. It also shows what principles are important to you as a voter: peace or military adventurism, liberty or social controls, property rights or coerced charity, human equality or socialism, free markets or government regulation.

When you vote for the lesser of two evils rather than for the candidate who best exemplifies your values, you send a very weak message to future office holders: that you are a loyal party member. The loyal party member has the weakest voice because candidates know they don’t have to worry about winning their approval once the nomination is secure. The independent-minded voter is the most influential because her confidence must be earned and carefully guarded; consequently, her views must be considered and respected.

Some who read this will worry that if a significant number of people in a political party were to reject the “lesser of two evils” approach, it could fracture the party’s base and cripple its chances for victory. This is probably true, and it infuriates some people—talk radio hosts especially—but the simple truth is that political parties are driven by power not principle, and your one vote will not determine the outcome of an election. So you might as well vote for the candidate who best represents your views and let someone else play the role of a sheep that will only follow an elephant or donkey.

Starting Point

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Human equality is the foundational principle of liberty. It means that no person inherently has authority to do violence to any other. It means that no person inherently has authority to control or command any other. It means that no person inherently has authority to take the property of any other. The Declaration of Independence summarized these three principles as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Most Americans won’t argue against human equality outright. The arguments begin when the principle is applied to real life situations.

Consider the statement “every child is entitled to a good education.” It sounds nice, very generous and caring. Politicians love to say things like that because it brings in votes. After all, who doesn’t want to help children have a better chance at a successful life? Proponents argue that equality itself requires that every child be given an equal chance to learn and to develop his or her mind. Such claims sound persuasive, but they grow out of a misunderstanding about what “equality” means.

These misunderstandings about what “equality” means are often caused by ignoring the human labor required to create the conditions of everyday life. If you assume that the world naturally produces shopping malls, educational institutions, health care services, housing developments, grocery stores, etc., then it is easy to feel entitled to an “equal” share of them. But these things don’t naturally appear in the world like rocks and grass and water; they are the product of someone else’s labor. To say that every person is entitled to education equates to saying that students have a right to force teachers, pencil factories, textbook publishers, power companies, construction workers, and so on to give them an education. This clearly violates the description of equality above, that no person has the authority to take the property of any other or control or command any other.

The correct understanding of what human equality means only becomes clear when you start with an accurate description of the world: the world is made up of many natural resources, but most are only useful or valuable if someone works to make them so. It takes hard work by other people to create things like education. With this in mind, it is easy to see that you can’t take goods or services produced by someone else’s labor just because you want or need them; that would be treating the laborer as your slave rather than as your equal. Instead, you have to set up a voluntary exchange: give the laborer something he wants and he will give you what you want in return.

So next time you hear about a government plan to provide some wonderful and beneficial service, remember this: the socialist, utopian view that all mankind must be harnessed to the plow so that a few central planners can transform the world into the Garden of Eden sounds nice to those who don’t intend to do much pulling. It also sounds wonderful to the ones who manage to get behind the plow and take hold of the reigns. But forcing a yoke on another person no matter how well-intentioned your goal, is never compatible with human equality.

A New Project

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

In an effort to clarify my own thoughts as much as to share them with others, I intend to post a series of short articles explaining the basic elements of my political philosophy. I will group these under the category, “foundations” to distinguish them from other articles and make them easier to find. I expect that some of the material in this series will cover ideas already partially covered in previous posts, but I will try to expand and organize the presentation in these articles for easier reading. Please add comments, questions, and criticism that you think is appropriate, as this will help me identify any unfounded assumptions and explanations that are unclear.