Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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?

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.

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.

A “Holy” War?

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

In the summer of 1099, Jerusalem was seized and captured after one of the most brutal sieges of all time. Catholic crusaders from Europe slaughtered the remaining Muslims who sought refuge in the Dome of the Rock and the Temple of David. Fulcher of Chartres wrote, “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.” 1 The crusaders then went on to the sepulchre where the Jews were hiding and burned them alive. These Muslims and Jews had fought side by side–working together to defend Jerusalem from the invading Christians.

The United States of America has been providing support and assistance to Israel ever since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The US government was the first in the world to recognize Israel’s statehood and began supplying aid to Israel immediately. In the early 60s, the United States began supplying Israel with weapons and ammunition. Ever since 1985, we give the Israeli government at least 3 billion dollars in aid every year. Go ahead and read that last sentence again: 3 billion dollars every year.

What has been bothering me (besides the ridiculous amount of aid we give out) is this: how did we pick a side? Jerusalem has been fought over, conquered, and demolished numerous times throughout history. We all know that it is a holy place for Christian, Jewish, and Islamic people.

What then, gave the United States the authority to determine who had the rights to the holy land? About 711,000 Palestinians were forced out of Israel following its creation. 2 Somehow, Americans place most (if not all) of the blame on them for the conflict over Israel. Politicians suggest that it is the Palestinians’ fault because they won’t accept a two-state solution; yet they fail to mention that in these proposed “solutions,” the state of Israel of course gets Jerusalem–and isn’t that what the conflict is all about?

In the January 26, 2012 Republican debate in Jacksonville, Florida, the candidates were asked about their views on US-Israeli relations. Newt Gingrich wanted the Palestinians to say, “we give up the right to return” while Mitt Romney declared, “We will stand by our friend, Israel.” No deeper explanation was offered as to why Palestinians should give up or why Israel is our “friend.”

Why do so many politicians and the majority of Americans agree that we have a duty to defend Israel?

Former president Jimmy Carter said, “The survival of Israel is not a political issue, it is a moral imperative.” Our support of Israel and involvement in the Middle East is seen by many as a duty to protect democracy or to spread freedom. Some Americans feel guilt over how much the Jews have suffered, saying, “We owe it to the Jews because of the Holocaust.” As I have struggled to understand this, I came up with two questions.

1. Is there actually a moral reason we should be involved in Israel’s affairs? I obviously feel that the answer is no. It is being painted as such so freedom-loving Americans can feel good about spending money and spending lives on Israel’s behalf. Why would we choose one religious group (Jews) over another (Muslims)? So what then is the underlying reason behind our support for Israel? Is our foreign policy really in the hands of puppets being controlled by AIPAC and Israel herself?

Some might feel we have a duty to defend Israel because it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Here, the definition of “democracy” obviously gets a little blurred; just because there is an election every few years where citizens vote does not equate to a democracy. Indeed, Israel’s open use of torture tactics, socialist programs, and government takeover of private property does not paint a very clear picture of democracy.

2. Is our involvement even doing anything good for Israel? Foreign aid almost always results in “taking money from the poor people of a rich country and giving it to the rich people of a poor country” (Paul). How does this protect the freedoms of the average Israel citizen? Are we prolonging and enabling the conflicts and wars by providing those weapons of war?  We have obviously not stopped the war or stabilized the region: “a legal state of war has existed between Israel and her Arab enemies since…1948″ 3.

If no clear answer can be found as to why we are continuously supporting Israel, isn’t it time to stop pouring money that direction?

“The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.

“So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.” – George Washington, Farewell Address 4

Are we taking part in another “religious” crusade for the Holy Land that will just end in more lives being lost?

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.

Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Republican Party? Well, I have. I am dismayed at some of the things the Republican Party is doing, and being affiliated with the Republican Party for my entire life as a registered voter, I decided to do a little research on what it was all originally about.

Step 1 of my research took me to how the party was formed and what the original Party Platform said. The Republican Party officially began in 1856. Prior to that, the grass roots meetings first began in Wisconsin and moved quickly to Michigan. Lincoln was elected as President of the United States on the Republican Party ticket just four years later. I find it amazing that a political party could grow that much in so short a time.

The official platform as set forth at the first Republican Party Convention–in Philadelphia–was primarily an anti-slavery document. The slogan that they advertised was “Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men,” free labor meaning no slave labor, free land meaning no slave plantations, and free men meaning, well, free men. (Wikipedia: Republican Party)

The opening paragraph of the official platform established the main ideals of the new party as being anti-slavery. The Republican Party declared that they were opposed to the Missouri Compromise, opposed to the present administration’s policies (Democratic President Franklin Pierce), opposed to the expansion of slavery, in favor of admitting Kansas to the Union as a free State, and in favor of restoring the Federal Government “to the principles of Washington and Jefferson.” (Republican Platform 1856)

There were a few things that surprised me. First was this: “it is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery” (ibid). I’m guessing that their feelings toward polygamy were partially tied to their ideas about Mormons. (Just a guess.)

The next thing that surprised me was that the Republican Party was eager for federal funds to build a railroad clear out to the Pacific Ocean as well as funds to improve the canal and harbor systems throughout the States.

There were very few things in the platform that hinted at the small-government ideals for which the Republican Party is known (or supposedly was once known). I’m anxious to learn just when the Republican Party began espousing those beliefs. So to summarize the original platform:
#1. NO TO SLAVERY
#2. NO TO POLYGAMY
#3. YES TO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR THE RAILROAD
#4. YES TO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR BUILDING CANALS AND SUCH

I can only confidently say that I agree with them on #1.

The next step in my research is the platform of 1872. Maybe in there I’ll find something more substantial that makes me feel like I belong in the Republican Party.

The Morality of Mooching

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Is it wrong to accept government benefits? Or, put differently, is it wrong to accept money that the government has extorted from you and your neighbors? Liberty-loving people who believe that government redistribution of wealth is an unjustifiable abuse of power face a difficult problem when living in an ever-more-socialist society. On the one hand, we believe that individual self-ownership and human equality make it immoral for one person to take the property of another. On the other hand, we cannot avoid having our own property taken through taxation, devaluation of the money supply, and unjust regulations. It is easy to see that knowingly accepting the fruits of robbery is immoral, but what if you are one of the victims?

Many of the conservatives and libertarians who I know refuse to accept government welfare programs like WIC, medicare, medicaid, and social security. Doing so is disparagingly referred to as, “feeding at the trough.” I grew up with this attitude, and I decided to forgo many of the benefits for which I was eligible. Lately, though, I’ve been questioning whether this attitude is based on principle or just simple pride.

The average American worker loses a substantial portion of his earnings to income taxes before he gets paid a dime. For the self-employed, the extortion is delayed until taxes come due—at which time, if he doesn’t pay, he is subjected to heavy fines and imprisonment. Even after getting paid, he is taxed if he uses his money either to buy goods or to invest. Then, to add insult to injury, the government dilutes the money supply by printing more money—devaluing through inflation any money the worker has managed to keep. And that’s just a small piece of the picture. So, is it okay for the American worker to recoup some of his losses by accepting those government handouts for which he is eligible? I am inclined to say yes, but there are at least a couple of problems:

First, it is impossible to calculate how much the government has taken. Figuring out how much a person has paid in income tax is easy, but how can a person calculate how much he has lost through currency devaluation? How can he discover how much he has lost because of oppressive government regulations which drive up costs and stifle entrepreneurship? If a person takes more from the government than what the government has taken from him then he has profited from government theft.

Second, since government epitomizes wastefulness and inefficiency, even if a person were able to calculate the exact amount of property the government had unjustly taken, recouping that amount through government programs would cost far more. In other words, if you were able to calculate that the government stole $10,000 from you one year, recovering that amount through government programs would actually cost far more than $10,000 because of administrative costs. And, of course, your neighbors are the ones who would get stuck paying those costs. One solution to this problem is to recover only $10,000 minus X where X is equal to the administrative costs. But then we run into calculation difficulties again.

In the end, though, these are practical problems, not principled objections. The simplest way to deal with these practical problems is to take few enough benefits that you are certain that you haven’t helped rob your neighbors—maybe just take roughly the amount you lost in taxes. So long as you don’t take more than was taken from you, I don’t see any principled objection to taking government benefits since you are just recovering what belonged to you in the first place.

So what do you think? Is it wrong to take government benefits?

Federalism Protects Our Voice in Government

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

In the United States, federalism is the division of powers between state governments and the federal government. In the Constitution, the federal government was given power to make laws in certain areas, such as national defense, bankruptcy, and the regulation of the value of money. (See U.S. Const. art. I, § 8.) The states retained power to make laws in other areas, such as education, welfare, and criminal law. Federalism is sometimes referred to as the vertical separation of powers. The horizontal separation of powers is the division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Many of the founders believed that the concentration of political power is dangerous to our liberty: “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816.) The diffusion of power that occurs in a federalist form of government is a powerful check on tyranny.

Federalism also protects one of the privileges we enjoy as citizens in a representative government: our power to influence government decisions through our right to vote. When political power is consolidated into one body, the ability of citizens to influence government policy is diminished. The following example illustrates this concept:

Suppose that a number of years ago, the federal government entered an area of law that previously had been a province of the states – I will use agriculture in this example. In regulating agriculture, Congress and a federal administrative agency promulgated a variety of laws and regulations. For example, one regulation limited the amount of land farmers could dedicate to the production of certain crops. Congress also passed a law prohibiting states from regulating agriculture.

Tom is a farmer in Utah. Prior to the passage of the federal laws regulating agriculture, Tom could influence agriculture policy in Utah by voting for candidates for state office, such as candidates for the state legislature. After passage of the federal legislation, Tom could influence agricultural policy in the United States by voting for candidates for federal office, such as Congress.

When the federal government asserted control over agriculture, Tom’s ability to influence agriculture policy in Utah was significantly curtailed. Let us assume that there are 1,530,574 registered voters in Utah, (State of Utah Elections Office), and about 146,311,000 registered voters in the United States, (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). Therefore, about 1% of registered voters in the United States are from Utah. As far as influencing agricultural policy in Utah is concerned, the votes of people from Utah are now worth about 1% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue. I note that in a state where the average number of voters is close to the mean of about 3 million (146 million registered voters in the U.S. / 50 states), the votes of people from that state on agricultural issues are now worth about 2% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue.

After Congress began to regulate agriculture, Tom’s votes for Congressional candidates could influence agricultural policy in the entire nation. However, Tom has little interest in influencing agricultural policy in other states. He has a much greater interest in influencing agricultural policy in Utah because it directly affects himself, his family, and friends.

When the federal government took the power to regulate agriculture from state governments, the votes of people from Utah regarding agricultural issues became diluted to the point of practical insignificance. People from Utah essentially lost the ability to control agricultural policy in Utah. The consolidation of political power results in the effective disenfranchisement of citizens. This disenfranchisement is a subtle erosion of individual rights, and occurs when the principle of federalism is violated.

When Congress entered the area of agriculture, people like Tom felt relatively powerless to influence agricultural policy in their states, and became less likely to vote or otherwise engage in the political process. We should not wonder at low voter turnout where the federal government has increasingly taken over functions that were previously allocated to state and local governments. Since the early days of this country, the federal government has greatly expanded its reach into many areas, including education, welfare, agriculture, labor, healthcare, the environment, and criminal law. Various problems arise when citizen involvement in the democratic process is reduced. For example, special interests are able to exert greater influence over the political process, securing results that benefit themselves, even while the populace as a whole is harmed.

Although the example above examines the division of power between the national and state governments, a dilution of an individual’s political power also occurs when a state assumes control of an issue that should be decided by a local government. Therefore, it is also important be aware of this issue in state and local matters.

In conclusion, the concept of federalism allocates greater political power to the individual because the smaller the political unit, the more influence each vote carries. Federalism encourages citizen participation in the governing process by protecting our voice in government – our ability to influence the political process.

 

*Note:  In the example above I make the simplifying assumption that all individuals have an equal ability to influence policy with their votes.  In reality, all votes do not have the same weight.  For example, in elections for the United States Senate, the votes of people from less populous states have a greater weight than votes of people from more populous states, because no matter how many people are in a state, each state can choose two senators.

Military Members, the Constitution, and Lawful Orders

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

The oath of enlistment in the United States military as well as the officer’s oath includes the phrase “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” 10 U.S.C. § 502 and 5 U.S.C. § 3331.

It seems appropriate that military members swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States rather than simply swearing to support and defend the United States simpliciter. This is significant. It means that military members are more than just neutral tools of the political party in power. This oath places an affirmative responsibility on military members to read and understand the Constitution, to recognize the source and limits of the authority they have, and to uphold the specific system of government that the Constitution sets forth.

But empowering military members in this way creates problems. Among a list of general orders, George Washington once wrote, “It is required and expected that exact discipline be observed, and due Subordination prevail thro’ the whole Army, as a Failure in these most essential points must necessarily produce extreme Hazard, Disorder and Confusion; and end in shameful disappointment and disgrace.” George Washington, George Washington: A Collection (W.B. Allen ed. 1988). General Washington is also famously quoted as saying, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.” The military oath of enlistment recognizes the importance of obedience, subordination, and discipline by including the phrase, “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” 10 U.S.C. § 502.

Inevitably, there will be occasions when the military members’ responsibility to support and defend the Constitution will conflict with the orders they receive. This conflict puts military members in a difficult situation. Which part of their oath should they uphold? How do they evaluate and resolve the conflict? How can they know whether the order is really unconstitutional?

For military members, failure or refusal to obey a lawful order is a criminal offense. The Manual for Courts Martial (MCM) explains that the maximum peacetime penalty for willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer is a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for five years. The maximum wartime penalty is death. MCM ¶14.e(2)-(3). Not only that, but “An order requiring the performance of a military duty may be inferred to be lawful and it is disobeyed at the peril of the subordinate. … [T]he dictates of a person’s conscience, religion, or personal philosophy cannot justify or excuse the disobedience of an otherwise lawful order.” MCM ¶14.c(2)(a). In other words, to avoid the penalty stated above, the military member has the burden of proving that the order he or she disobeyed was unlawful. That’s no small task, even for trained lawyers, and many of our military members are 18 to 22 year-old kids with only a high school diploma.

So, what’s the answer? Clearly we can’t permit military members to refuse orders based on their private interpretation of the Constitution. But what is the threshold? When is an order unconstitutional enough that military members can safely disobey it? The easy solution is to say to military members, if you believe strongly enough in your position, then make your stand and face the consequences. But I don’t find that very satisfying. Any ideas?

Some examples you might react to in your comments are listed below.

Private First Class Bradley Manning—the soldier who gave classified information to wikileaks. Below is an excerpt of his explanation for why he violated orders about the use of classified information:

i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees … everything started slipping after that… i saw things differently i had always questioned the things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was a point where i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…

Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lakin, a decorated active-duty Army flight surgeon who refused to deploy for a second time to Afghanistan because he believed that his order to deploy was illegal. In a video statement he said,

I will disobey my orders to deploy because I, and I believe all service-men and women, and the American people, deserve the truth about President Obama’s constitutional eligibility to the office of the presidency, and the commander-in-chief. If he is ineligible, then my orders, and indeed all orders, are illegal because all orders have their origin with the commander-in-chief as handed down through the chain of command.

Finally, the post-Katrina gun grab in New Orleans, where National Guard troops were ordered to confiscate lawfully-owned firearms from law-abiding citizens.

My tentative opinion is that military members’ responsibility to judge the lawfulness of an order has something to do with the nature of the constitutional question as well as the scope of the military member’s responsibility. But I don’t have any useful generalizations yet. I welcome your comments.