Avoiding Voter’s Remorse

November 1st, 2010 - by Quincy

Tomorrow is Election Day! It’s time for citizens to evaluate their representatives and decide who to retain and who to fire. Judging by the expressions of anger and disappointment by many Americans, there will probably be some significant personnel changes this time around. Some may feel optimism about this, but I’m not so hopeful. Politicians are politicians, and I worry that, despite the resurgence of conservative talking points this election season, the newly hired representatives as well as those who are retained will resume spending outrageous sums of money, and regulating and taxing us.

Discovering that your candidate of choice fooled you with flowery campaign speeches is a painful experience. It feels like buyer’s remorse, except you can’t just return the candidate to customer service for a refund. You will probably be stuck with him/her for the whole term of office. It is even worse to learn that although your candidate voted the way you thought he/she would, the precedent set by your candidate’s votes has paved the way for disastrous policy decisions in the future.

What voters need to remember as they go to the polls is that this struggle is not between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals; this is a struggle between the government and the people. There is a natural sentiment in favor of liberty. People want to be free. The political parties understand this, so to distract from the real issues and to prevent real change, whichever party is out of power complains about the other’s abuse of power and expansion of government.

During George Bush’s presidency this took the form of Democrat criticism of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the complaints about expansion of executive power. Both of these were legitimate points of concern, but since the Democrats have gained power the wars have dragged on and executive power has continued to expand. They want to give the President a kill switch for the internet for crying out loud! On the other side of the coin, Republicans now protest the ballooning national debt, oppressive healthcare laws, and other intrusions into privacy and liberty. But has their track record for fiscal responsibility and civil liberties been any better?

It should be obvious, but when we get caught up in the heat of political struggle and party warfare, we lose sight of the fact that whenever one party expands government power, the party who later takes control will use the expanded scope of government to implement its own goals and objectives. The only safe course is to prevent the expansion in the first place. Ultimately, it matters very little who first forged the sword or fastened the shackles; once government has the tools, the party in power will abuse them for its own ends.

So, tomorrow avoid voter’s remorse by supporting candidates who will give you less government.

Conservative Hypocrisy?

September 30th, 2010 - by Quincy

Last week I attended a political meeting about local economic issues. Those present were predominantly right-leaning in their views and probably would identify themselves as conservatives or republicans. Consequently, I was surprised to learn that one of the items on the agenda was a proposal to entice a business into the city by using tax increment financing. Tax increment financing involves manipulating property taxes.

Property taxes are calculated as a percentage of the assessed value of the property. For example, if your property is worth $100,000 and your property taxes are 5%, then you have to pay $5,000 in property taxes each year. Normally, as the assessed value of a piece of property increases, the property taxes increase as well. So, if the value of your property increases to $200,000, then you would have to pay $10,000—assuming taxes stay at 5%.

Property taxes go into a pool of money which the city council then divides up among various local government services. These services include schools, police departments, fire departments, road maintenance, city government, and so on. Since no one likes to pay taxes, there is a natural tension between the desire for more of these services and the desire to lower property taxes. Consequently, city councils are limited in what they can afford to do. A city council that chose to raise taxes to build a new building for Walmart, for example, would probably become unpopular very quickly. The people’s natural aversion to being plundered helps restrain local government power. But like weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, creative government employees have found ways around this restraint. One of these is tax increment financing. Tax increment financing gives the city council significant power to influence development and business within the city.

Despite its technical-sounding name, tax increment financing is quite simple. It is just a way for the city council to spend future property tax revenue to promote or pay for present development projects. Usually, when property is developed, its assessed value increases. Normally, this would mean that the owner of the newly developed property would owe higher property taxes, which would help fund local government services. But tax increment financing changes this. Instead of going into the general city fund, the additional tax money is earmarked to pay for the development itself. Usually this means that the city borrows the money to pay for the development up front and then slowly pays off the loan with the additional property taxes from the developed property. Alternatively, the developer fronts the costs of the development and the city freezes the property taxes at the pre-development level for a time so that the developer can recoup development costs in the form of lower taxes. Either way, property taxes that would otherwise go into the general fund to pay for local government services are instead set aside to pay for the development.

Advocates of tax increment financing argue that it is a win-win situation for the city because it doesn’t use any money from the pre-existing tax revenue, and because, in the end, the city’s tax income will be higher than it was before the project. But even if true, these assertions don’t address the consequences to the rest of the city outside of the project area or the consequences to the rest of the economy.

City councils like tax increment financing because it expands their power; it allows them to pay businesses to relocate within city limits without having to raise property taxes. But when a city council uses tax increment financing to pay for an incoming business’ property development expenses, all other businesses are suddenly placed at a disadvantage. Essentially they must compete with a business whose real estate expenses are paid by the city government. Obviously any business in direct competition with the subsidized business will suffer, but other businesses will suffer as well as they compete—at a disadvantage—for high quality human capital and other scarce resources.

Other businesses aren’t the only ones negatively affected; all consumers of city services suffer. When a new business moves into the city, it uses city resources in the form of increased traffic, demand for police and fire department protection, parking, and general wear and tear. But if a new business moves in under the protection of tax increment financing, it doesn’t pay for these services through its property taxes. Consequently, other property owners must either pay more taxes or the city will have to divert funds from other areas.

But the most serious problem, in my opinion, is that tax increment financing gives the city council power to intervene in the city’s economic development. This increases the likelihood of malinvestment by distorting the market forces that prevent inefficient companies from consuming resources that they cannot afford, and it opens the door to corruption.

Conservatives across America are furious about bailouts and stimulus packages originating in Washington D.C.—as they should be. But to me it seems terribly inconsistent to rail against the D.C. bureaucrats for their intervention in economic affairs and yet support local politicians who intervene in fundamentally the same way on a much smaller scale. If we believe in economic liberty, then let’s apply it consistently.

Heroes and Lunatics

September 22nd, 2010 - by Quincy

The world is full of people with strange ideas. But despite society’s present obsession with diversity in race, socioeconomic background, gender, and sexual orientation in schools and workplaces—all of which are, at best, merely superficial signs of diversity—the modern state will not tolerate diversity in more fundamental areas, such as values. This is particularly evident in decisions concerning one’s life or the life of one’s children. In my previous post I wrote about laws which force parents to administer a medical test to their infant children. Advocates of these laws insist that the child’s life and health are of paramount value, and other considerations—including parental rights, moral beliefs, and individual liberty—must yield.

Our culture and history are full of stories about individuals who chose to value something more than life. Here are a few examples; I’m sure you can think of many more. Patrick Henry famously exclaimed, “give me liberty or give me death.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims all honor Abraham for valuing obedience to God more than his son’s life. Romantics treasure the story of Romeo and Juliette for valuing love over life. Even the academics have Socrates who insisted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato, Apology. When these individuals are safely pinched into stories and songs, society honors them as heroes, patriots, prophets, and so on. But when society deals with such diverse people in real life, it is much more inclined to label them as lunatics, fanatics, or simply ignorant, and to try to force them to conform their ideas and behavior to that of the majority.

Squelching diversity of values is one prerequisite for any utilitarian or economic analysis of the law. For example, in the recent healthcare debate, the contested issue became cost. Pundits and politicians focused on whether socialized health insurance would cost more or less than the current system. The President and his allies argued strenuously that they would control costs by appointing independent commissions and cutting spending in other programs. Opponents argued that this was not true. There was little said about anything else. Other values, such as property rights and freedom to choose the type and amount of healthcare, took second seat. This is a familiar maneuver: assume without discussion that one value takes priority over all others and then discuss the best way to promote that value. The deception here is that deciding which value to prioritize is often the most important and controversial issue at stake. It merits careful discussion and debate. Liberty, life, love, obedience, spirituality, individuality, human dignity, property; which should take priority, and who should decide? Anyone who values human equality must admit that this is an individual decision.

Liberty is the only value that the state can adopt and promote that will permit each individual to order her values as she chooses. Robert Nozick recognized this simple truth in his work Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

[P]eople are different. They differ in temperament, interests, intellectual ability, aspirations, natural bent, spiritual quests, and the kind of life they wish to lead. They diverge in values they have and have different weightings for the values they share. (They wish to live in different climates—some in mountains, plains, deserts, seashores, cities, towns.) There is no reason to think that there is one community which will serve as ideal for all people and much reason to think there is not. … Utopian authors, each very confident of the virtues of his own vision of its singular correctness, have differed among themselves (no less than the people listed above differ) in the institutions and kinds of life they present for emulation. … The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.

310-312 (1977). Despite its plain appeal, statists on both the left and the right resist real freedom because it would mean giving up the power they have usurped. Republicans want to control moral behavior and foreign affairs, while Democrats wish to usurp individual property rights and control citizens’ day-to-day living conditions. Both parties openly and subtly try to control the thoughts and speech of citizens through public education, campaign finance laws, and penalizing unpopular behavior.

Undoubtedly there is a fixed right and wrong. Truth is not relative. But if history and ethics have taught us anything, it is that people cannot be driven to the truth by threats and force. The use of force to suppress an idea—whether right or wrong—will only strengthen its power in the mind of its followers and spark curiosity in undecided onlookers. Conversely, the use of force to promote an idea will ultimately weaken it because it is a tacit admission that the idea cannot stand on its own merits. Teach, persuade, and reason, but don’t threaten or force people to support ideas or programs that you think are right—whether through coerced taxation or police enforcement or otherwise.

Ultimately, we each get to pick our own heroes and lunatics, and we’ll probably disagree a lot. But that should remain an individual judgment, not a judgment of the state.

Children of the State

September 16th, 2010 - by Quincy

A short time ago, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our third child. Those who have had children recently may remember the extensive battery of medical tests that a hospital-born baby suffers through during the first days of life. Since my wife and I are not medical experts, we usually trust the attending doctors’ and nurses’ assurances that these tests are effective and helpful and that the benefits outweigh the risks. But after a conversation with one nurse, we had some concerns about the PKU test. The nurse advised us that the PKU test often had to be needlessly repeated because the maternity ward staff regularly performed the test too soon after birth—precluding reliable results. The PKU test, also called newborn screening, is unpleasant: a nurse cuts the baby’s heel with a razor blade and dabs blood on a card. So we thought it would be good to wait and have the test done only once.

Shortly before being discharged from the hospital, the test was done, and we thought that would be the end of it. But due to some mix up, the hospital told our pediatrician that the test had not been done. It was during the ensuing efforts to clear up the confusion and transfer the necessary paperwork that we learned that the PKU test is more than just another precautionary medical test; it is mandated by state law. In fact every state in the union forces parents to subject their kids to a local variety of the newborn screening test.

Now, let me be clear that I don’t oppose PKU testing. Left perfectly free, I would probably still choose to have my children tested. From my layperson’s perspective, it seems to make sense: for the cost of a small cut and a couple of hundred dollars, the test can identify several devastating potential medical problems, some of which can be successfully treated. But some people, including some doctors, disagree. There is ongoing debate about what disorders the newborn screening should test for, and there is also disagreement about whether the disorders identified by the current tests are even treatable.

One critic, Norman Fost, professor of paediatrics and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison notes that when PKU screening was put into place more than 40 years ago it was assumed that if a child had high blood phenylalanine they had PKU and should be fed a strict diet. But there were few data to support that assumption, says Fost. “It turned out that 95% of people with an abnormal screening test had no disease, and it turned out the diet was lethal. It caused brain damage in we don’t know how many kids, and killed we don’t know how many kids.”

Harvey Black, “Newborn Screening Report Sparks Debate in USA,” The Lancet, Volume 365, Issue 9469 (2005). The currently recommended newborn screening procedures are controversial as well:

“They did not develop their arguments based on a careful analysis of the literature. The methodology is not strong” says Jeffrey Botkin, professor of paediatrics and medical ethics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. … The ACMG working group, he argues, did not provide data to show that kids will do better as a result of early intervention based on newborn screening.

Id. Aside from concerns about the tests’ effectiveness, some are concerned about privacy violations inherent in corporate and government collection of DNA. See here (lawsuit over Texas’ program), and here (statement by Ron Paul about the risks of a proposed national program). From my perspective, however, the more serious problem is that parents are not free to decide whether to have their children tested. This is an unjustified invasion of parental rights. Take a look at Utah’s laws as a run-of-the-mill example.

The rules governing newborn screening provide, “Each newborn in the state of Utah shall submit to the Newborn Screening testing, except as provided in Section R398-1-11 [exception for religious objectors].” R398-1-3. To ensure compliance, medical providers are required to report parents who refuse the test. “If the medical home/practitioner or institution has information that leads it to believe that the parent or legal guardian is not complying with this rule, the medical home/practitioner or institution shall report such noncompliance as medical neglect to the Department.” R398-1-13 (emphasis added).  If a medical provider fails to snitch on reluctant parents, she will be fined: “Any medical home/practitioner or facility responsible for submission of a newborn screen that violates any provision of this rule may be assessed a civil money penalty.” R398-1-18.

A report of medical neglect is no small matter. It falls under the general definition of “neglect” found in the Utah Code. “‘Neglect’ means: … (iii) failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence, education, or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being.” 78A-6-105(25)(a) (emphasis added). A finding of medical neglect gives the state the power to take your kids away. “The court may terminate all parental rights with respect to a parent if the court finds … that the parent has neglected or abused the child.” 78A-6-507(1) (emphasis added). In my opinion, these laws are unjust. Laws which give government the power to take away a couple’s  parental rights because they didn’t have their child tested for rare genetic diseases turn the proper relationship between citizen and government on its head.

Advocates of newborn screening trot out the usual wild rhetoric to justify this government-forced medical testing:

These are our children: the single greatest treasure we have as a nation and as a people. … Given the statistical prevalence of treatable metabolic disorders, not using MS/MS [an advanced newborn screening procedure] today to screen babies comprehensively is no different from shooting a gun into a crowded stadium. You cannot know whom you will injure, but it is a safe bet that you will injure someone.

Charles P. Hehmeyer, “The Case for Universal Newborn Screening,” Exceptional Parent Magazine, 88 (August 2001). The analogy to a gunman in a stadium is blatantly false. Someone who shoots at a group of people creates the risk of harm, but a person who declines a medical test simply fails to mitigate a pre-existing risk of harm. These acts are very different morally as well as legally. But even setting aside the blatantly false analogy, the argument fails. It rests on a false assumption. It assumes that children are a national resource to be guarded, guided, and regulated as the majority dictates. In fact, if children can be said to belong to anyone, they belong to their parents and themselves. Neighbors, friends, and community do-gooders have no rightful claim at all. (For a more detailed argument about this point, see my previous post: Whose Kids are They?)

Usually, a medical provider must obtain informed consent to perform any medical test or procedure. Usually, parents are the legal representatives of their children, and have the sole authority to consent or refuse. Newborn screening is a deviation from this usual practice. Consequently, some medical ethicists criticize mandatory newborn screening as unethical:

Does newborn screening policy take appropriate account of fundamental and widely respected American values concerning confidentiality, privacy, and informed consent? The mandatory nature of newborn screening seems inconsistent with these values. The standard rationale for mandating public health measures such as mandated immunization or treatment of infectious disease is that the measure will avert serious, imminent harm to others, but this rationale does not apply to newborn screening. Instead, the justification for requiring screening without parental informed consent has been that the risk is minimal and the child will lose a vital benefit if screening is not done immediately. Even under these circumstances, not all ethicists think that omitting informed consent is acceptable. Broadening the rationale makes the omission even more questionable. If the rationale is a family benefit, such as information that can inform reproductive decisions or help avoid diagnostic odysseys, or a societal benefit, such as identifying potential research subjects for the study of currently untreatable disorders, then the ethical requirement is clear: parents should be informed and allowed to make their own decisions.

Mary Ann Baily & Thomas H. Murray, “Ethics, Evidence, and Cost in Newborn Screening,” Hastings Center Report 38, no. 3 (2008): 23-31.

Lately, political machinations at the national level have excited many people to become involved in protests and movements. This is good. But the reality is that the average citizen has far more control over state policy than over national policy. A little effort to move state policies in the direction of freedom can make a big difference. Mandatory newborn screening is a state program, so this is something we can fix. Regardless of whether you believe newborn screening is good for your own children, it should be clear that forcing others to adopt the same opinion violates individual rights and human equality.

When my wife and I decided to have a third child, we didn’t do so to provide another subject for the state or another unit in a managed population. We want our children to be free individuals, not children of the state.

inforipple x dresshead stretch lace sheer sleeves green dress /faceted jewel

September 6th, 2010 - by Nathan

inforipple x dresshead stretch lace sheer sleeves green dress /faceted jewel
This inforipple x www.dresshead.com/c/lace-dresses/ stretch lace sheer sleeves green dress is a beauty, as it actually contains faceted jewel embellishments, starting at the neckline and running down to the just up above the needs. This dress is arranged in a metallic jacquard manner of fashion, with a fit and flare shape, and made from polyester and cotton, a combination that allows very soft textures. This size four dress has lining that is polyester and elastane. The back of the dress opens with a hook and eye fastening mechanism, maintaining its simplicity of use. This inforipple x dresshead stretch lace sheer sleeves green dress must be hand washed because of the special arrangements. This is a very elegant dress that could pass for formal or semi-formal and has a certain majestic quality about it. It would be great to wear out to public events, gatherings, tributes and the like.

States’ Rights and Illegal Aliens

August 2nd, 2010 - by Quincy

During the summer of 2007 I lived in southern Arizona, about twelve miles from the U.S.–Mexico border. Needless to say, illegal aliens were everywhere. The border patrol regularly caught large groups of them, dangerously dehydrated, wandering lost through the searing desert. It was more common to see illegal aliens being loaded into the back of Border Patrol vans than to see police issuing speeding tickets. The problem is so bad there that the federal government has posted signs on many rural roads that read “Warning, Smuggling and/or illegal entry is common in this area due to the proximity of the international border. Please be aware of your surroundings at all times and do not travel alone in remote areas,” and “Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration may be Encountered in this Area.”

While it is unlikely that “the majority of [illegal aliens] are becoming drug mules,” it is a mistake to minimize the problem. Although most of the illegal aliens probably enter the United States in search of higher wages and government handouts, illegal entry into the United States—especially along the southern border—fosters lawlessness and threatens individual security and property rights. The difficult question is what to do about it.

After decades of frustration over the federal government’s failure to address the problem, Arizona passed SB 1070. Section 1 of the bill states,

The legislature finds that there is a compelling interest in the cooperative enforcement of federal immigration laws throughout all of Arizona. The legislature declares that the intent of this act is to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona. The provisions of this act are intended to work together to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.

Notice that SB 1070 is an effort by Arizona to enforce “federal immigration laws.” It does not create new legal standards and requirements for immigration. Notwithstanding this, the federal government sued Arizona in federal court, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.

It its lawsuit, the federal government complains that SB 1070 violates the Supremacy Clause, found in Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

But claiming that SB 1070 violates the Supremacy Clause seems like a stretch to me. The federal government created a set of laws governing immigration and then adopted a policy of not enforcing those laws. SB 1070 doesn’t conflict with federal law; it conflicts with the federal policy of non-enforcement. A policy conflict doesn’t violate the Supremacy Clause. In fact, Arizona’s actions are probably more constitutional than those of our present and recent presidents. Under Article II Section 3, the President is bound “to take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” No honest, thoughtful American can believe that the immigration laws have been faithfully executed.

This doesn’t answer the question, however, of what role the states ought to have in regulating immigration. In other words, just because Arizona hasn’t violated Constitutional restraints by passing its law doesn’t mean that SB 1070 was good policy or that states should have a role in immigration. The drafters of the Constitution included an amendment process for good reason.

Rational critics of the Arizona law—I mean the ones that aren’t out parroting slogans about hate and racism—have offered a number of practical reasons why SB 1070 is a bad idea. See here (Reason Magazine), here (Cato Institute), and here (Cato once again). But good government and legitimate laws must be founded on just principles; mere economic analysis or consequentialist arguments are not enough. So, the initial question is what justifies restricting immigration? What justification exists for regulating movement across national boundaries? I believe that the justification derives from the fundamental individual right of property ownership.

Consider the following startlingly simple argument:

There can be no human right to immigrate, for on whose property does someone else have the right to trample? In short, if “Primus” wishes to migrate now from some other country to the United States, we cannot say that he has the absolute right to immigrate to this land area; for what of those property owners who don’t want him on their property? On the other hand, there may be, and undoubtedly are, other property owners who would jump at the chance to rent or sell property to Primus, and the current laws now invade their property rights by preventing them from doing so.

The libertarian society would resolve the entire “immigration question” within the matrix of absolute property rights. For people only have the right to move to those properties and lands where the owners desire to rent or sell to them. In the free society, they would, in first instance, have the right to travel only on those streets whose owners agree to have them there, and then to rent or buy housing from willing owners. Again, just as in the case of daily movement on streets, a diverse and varying pattern of access of migration would undoubtedly arise

Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty 119-20 (2nd ed. 1998). In other words, for Rothbard, immigration is simply an issue of private property rights.

For reasons I explained in a previous post (and my lengthy explanatory/rebuttal comments), I don’t accept the idea of absolute private property rights as proposed by Rothbard. This makes the immigration issue more complex, but it is more true to reality. We don’t live in a world of absolute property rights and probably never will.

Additionally, whether we like it or not, many of the systems, resources, and goods in the United States have been socialized. We play in public parks and drive on public roads; we send our children to public schools; and, as of recently, our healthcare system has become socialized as well. Our trash disposal, water, electricity, and gas systems are often government-owned, or at least closely controlled by government. Our telephone, cable, satellite and internet systems and infrastructure are licensed and regulated by government and subsidized through the use of eminent domain. Our financial system is overseen by government regulators, and even our currency depends upon government promises for its value. A system of open borders where landowners control immigration through anti-trespassing laws simply cannot function under these conditions.

Despite all of this, property rights principles still can and should guide immigration law, albeit in a slightly different way. As stated by Rothbard’s argument above, a human right to immigrate would imply the right to enter and or use some property. In the case of private property, the private landowner holds the right to exclude. In the case of government property, the property right belongs to the citizens of the country or state which owns the property. This means that the citizens—through their elected officials—have the right to exclude from government property those who do not satisfy the conditions for its legal use.

This brings us back to the initial question about the role of states in establishing and enforcing immigration law. Traditionally, immigration law has been dominated by the Federal Government, and there is some constitutional support for this: Article I Section 8 Clause 4 explicitly grants Congress the power “To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” But if we justify immigration restrictions by appealing to a modified theory of property rights, the states have at least as much of a right to control illegal immigration as the federal government has. Most public roads are owned by states, counties, and cities. If a utility is government-owned, it is the state or local government that owns it. Police and fire departments are funded through state and local taxes. And public schools are paradigmatically state and local entities. Significantly, these state systems are the ones that are most heavily burdened by illegal immigration.

Given the magnitude of the states’ interest in immigration law, it seems highly unreasonable to insist, as the federal government does in its lawsuit challenging SB 1070, that “the Constitution vests the [the federal government] with exclusive and plenary authority to establish the nation’s immigration policy.” While it makes sense—for uniformity’s sake—to vest control of legal immigration in the federal government, there seems to be no real need to do so for illegal immigration. If a person violates federal law and enters the country illegally, the alien’s state of residence will bear most of the burden that that person causes. So rather than sue the states for trying to protect their taxpaying, law-abiding citizens, let’s let the states protect their interests.

DISCLOSE: Here We Go Again

June 23rd, 2010 - by Quincy

Despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (see explanatory video here if needed), Congress seems poised to resume its underhanded and self-serving efforts to control political speech. Congress is now considering legislation, sponsored by Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Senator Charles Schumer of New York, that would further restrict political speech during election season. This latest legislative effort bears the auspicious title of “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act,” which generates the acronym DISCLOSE for its short name. (H.R.5175, and S.3295 respectively).

Given the Supreme Court’s clear ruling in Citizens United which protected robust free speech rights, it may surprise you to learn that in many ways the DISCLOSE Act would restrict speech even more aggressively than the law which the Supreme Court recently struck down. For example, the old speech restrictions only applied to electioneering communications that were made within 60 days prior to a general election. The DISCLOSE Act would double that time period to 120 days. Features like this might give the impression, at first glance, that instead of accepting the Court’s scolding for violating the First Amendment, Congress, like a petulant child, is bent on contradiction and belligerence.

But the DISCLOSE Act isn’t just Congress’ reflexive gag to a bitter slice of humble pie. It is cunningly crafted legislation that would, if enacted, stifle challenging, political speech without falling into the same legal pitfalls as the McCain-Feingold Act. Since the Supreme Court rejected an outright ban on all corporations, the DISCLOSE Act pretends to take a more moderate approach. Instead of directly restricting the speech of all corporations and unions, the DISCLOSE Act would directly restrict the speech of only certain classes of corporations. These classes are government contractors if the value of the contract is at least $7 million; recipients of recent government bailout funds; and foreign-controlled domestic corporations. In all fairness, these restrictions are relatively reasonable—as government restrictions go. But the real teeth of the DISCLOSE Act are found—quite fittingly—in the new disclosure requirements. Consider the following.

The DISCLOSE Act expands the definition of “independent expenditure” to include, “an expenditure that, when taken as a whole, expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, or is the functional equivalent of express advocacy.” Sec. 201(a). This tack-on at the end about functional equivalence gives the Federal Election Commission broad discretion about what speech it can regulate, and it correspondingly creates uncertainty among potential speakers about what speech is safe from regulation.

The DISCLOSE Act imposes filing requirements on everyone who wishes to spend over a $10,000 on political speech to, “(1) file a report electronically within 24 hours; and (2) file a new report electronically each time the person makes or contracts to make independent expenditures in an aggregate amount equal to or greater than $10,000 (or $1,000, if less than 20 days before an election) with respect to the same election.” Sec. 201(b). These filing requirements apply irrespective of whether it is election season or not. $10,000 may seem like high threshold, but it doesn’t last long when you consider the cost of broadcasting on television and radio. The bottom line is that before you speak about politics in any significant way, you have to warn the federal government of your intentions.

The DISCLOSE Act “Requires corporations, labor organizations, tax-exempt charitable organizations, and political organizations other than political committees (covered organizations) to include specified additional information ….” Sec. 211(a)(5)(A). This information includes, among other things, the names of substantial donors. This disclosure requirement will discourage political speech, especially the speech of those who advocate political messages that don’t agree with their community’s acceptable mainstream. Think, for example, of what this would have done to the civil rights movement in the south. Many political and social issues debated in politics today similarly raise deep prejudice and anger, and publicly disclosing the names of those who support unpopular ideas causes more than minor discomfort.

The DISCLOSE Act requires any television or radio advertisement to include statements by substantial donors stating “‘I am XXXXXXX, and I approve this message.’, with the blank filled in with the name of the applicable individual.” Sec. 214(e). Organizational donors must similarly identify themselves. This, obviously, will waste expensive seconds that would otherwise have been available for the speakers to communicate their message.

This list of restrictions found in the DISCLOSE Act is by no means a comprehensive one, but I think it illustrates a subtle, underhanded strategy for restricting speech that seeks to undermine First Amendment rights while avoiding constitutional challenge. Instead of direct bans, this strategy seeks to increase the costs—both social and economic—for those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights. It comes on the heels of loud public outcry about many of Congress’s policies, and it immediately precedes an election season in which most voters’ starting assumption will be that “incumbent” means “incompetent and corrupt.” Even if the DISCLOSE Act did nothing more than confuse and intimidate speakers about what was permissible and what was not—which it certainly will do if it is passed, that would be reason enough not to enact it. But this legislation would do far more damage than that.

Trials for Terrorists?

June 6th, 2010 - by Quincy

As with most issues that appear in the national news, politicians and pundits have badly muddled the question of what to do with non-citizens captured by American soldiers and their allies. The recent debate about if and where to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed has provoked intense debate and strong feelings. For example, in response to President Obama’s plan to bring Khalid to New York for a trial in federal court, Congressman Pete Olson of Texas issued a press release which included the following statement: “This Administration needs to understand what the American people already know. Terrorists captured in foreign battle zones are not like us—they don’t deserve our sacred constitutional rights.” I also oppose measures to try “terrorists captured in foreign battle zones” in federal courts, but for very different reasons.

Congressman Olson is wrong about the U.S. Constitution; it certainly does protect terrorists. It protects everyone. Olson’s mistake is a common one for people who don’t understand the Constitution’s role. The Constitution was meant to restrain the power of the federal government, and its principles derive from self-evident, inalienable rights. These rights belong to all humans as humans. If the Constitution were strictly limited to U.S. citizens or residents, or even if it were limited to people who are not captured in foreign battle zones, it would be ineffective. If membership or non-membership in a category were a prerequisite for having “sacred constitutional rights,” the federal government could avoid constitutional restraints by simply categorizing individuals as unprotected. That process of categorization itself would be unrestrained, because if the government did not have to abide by the Constitution in its dealings with a category of individuals, then it could act however it chose toward them. Such individuals would have no right to a fair trial, no right to due process, no right to be free from torture or even summary execution. This is an absurd result.

But recognizing that terrorists have constitutional rights does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that those rights may or must be adjudicated by federal courts. Although the Constitution is meant to restrain the federal government in all of its interactions, regardless of who it is dealing with, the form of those restraints varies. The important question is not whether terrorists are entitled to constitutional rights, but rather which branch of government is responsible for protecting those rights and the method by which they must be protected. In short, it is an issue of separation of powers and procedural due process.

For Americans today, courts are the natural first choice for protecting constitutional rights. But it was not always so, and the Constitution clearly did not entrust courts with the power to determine those rights in every circumstance. Take, for example, the writ of habeas corpus. The writ of habeas corpus is the legal procedure by which a litigant may compel the government to release a person who the government doesn’t have good cause to imprison. Obviously this is an extraordinarily important procedure, but the Constitution explicitly grants to Congress the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus “when in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Art. I, §9, cl. 2. Consider also that the Constitution entrusts to Congress and the President the power to employ military force to destroy the lives or property of foreign nations: “The Congress shall have power … To declare war.” Art. I, §8, cl. 11; and “The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States” Art. II, §2, cl. 1. No court is involved even though the rights of those individuals in enemy countries are drastically curtailed by the federal government.

The Founding Fathers recognized a simple truth that many politicians and pundits cannot seem to grasp: judicial adjudication of constitutional rights is neither possible nor even desirable in every circumstance. The task of dealing with individuals captured by the military on foreign battlefields is one of these circumstances. A federal court trial is not appropriate here for at least two reasons: competence and jurisdiction.

Federal courts are not competent to adjudicate the rights of individuals captured on foreign battlefields. This is not because judges are not smart enough or because of flaws in the trial process. Federal courts are not competent for this task simply because the processes and goals of a criminal trial are not compatible with the exigencies and aims of war. The military is not equipped to handle evidence, find witnesses, or investigate crime; it is equipped to achieve victory by bringing death and destruction to our enemies. The purpose of capture and imprisonment in a military context is not to punish wrongdoing or rehabilitate wrongdoers; it is to neutralize threats. Consequently, the federal courts’ complex rules of evidence and procedure that help ensure fairness in regular criminal trials only cause confusion and mistakes when applied in the context of military prisoners. But even more serious than the lack of competence is the problem of jurisdiction.

For a federal court to have authority to decide a case brought before it, it must have jurisdiction over the individuals involved in the case. Generally, a court has jurisdiction over individuals who are within the territory of the nation to which the court belongs. This makes intuitive sense. For example, prostitution is legal in the Netherlands but it is illegal in the United States. Nevertheless, a United States court clearly has no authority to hear cases about people who prostitute themselves in the Netherlands—even though it violates United States law—because it is outside of the jurisdiction of United States courts. Granted this is easier to accept than the terrorist cases because there are not United States troops occupying the Netherlands, and prostitution in the Netherlands doesn’t directly threaten United States’ national security. But the concept is the same. United States courts don’t have jurisdiction over individuals who commit crimes outside of the United States. Any other policy aggrandizes the United States federal courts as arbiters of justice for the whole world, or at least however far United States military power can reach. This is insufferable arrogance.

The jurisdiction of federal courts is also limited by the fact that warfare and national security are the province of Congress and the President. By constitutional design, courts were not given authority over foreign affairs—especially where there is a need for secrecy, rapid response, or coordinated effort. Justice Scalia effectively argued this position in his fiery dissent from the court’s opinion in Boumediene v. Bush.

What competence does the Court have to second-guess the judgment of Congress and the President on such a point? None whatever. But the Court blunders in nonetheless. Henceforth, as today’s opinion makes unnervingly clear, how to handle enemy prisoners in this war will ultimately lie with the branch that knows least about the national security concerns that the subject entails.

Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008) (Scalia J. Dissenting). So although it seems like the Supreme Court is protecting individual rights by hearing cases about military detention, it is, in effect, a power grab by the Court. It allows the Court to finally extend its reach into the field of foreign affairs—which for so long has been beyond its power.

For all of these reasons, bringing individuals into United States courts to adjudicate the extent of their constitutional rights is a bad idea. It is a bad idea because federal courts are not competent to handle such cases; it is a bad idea because it aggrandizes the jurisdiction of United States courts beyond their territorial limits; and it is a bad idea because it permits the Court to seize power from Congress and the President, once again, under the guise of protecting individual rights.

So although I reject Congressman Olson’s shocking claim—that terrorists don’t have sacred constitutional rights—we reach the same result. Bringing individuals captured on foreign battlefields into the United States for trial in United States courts is the wrong way to vindicate those rights.

Rights, Risk, and Regulation

May 23rd, 2010 - by Quincy

Libertarians oppose government regulations. This is arguably their defining characteristic. It is also the reason that many Americans reject libertarian political philosophy as unworkable, utopian, or just plain foolhardy. Other political philosophies on both the left and the right embrace government regulation to some degree; they simply disagree about what and how to regulate.

Personally, I feel uneasy about libertarianism’s blanket rejection of government regulation, and for some time I have tried to reconcile this uneasiness with concepts that are critically important to me like self-ownership and individual equality. I have struggled to explain my uneasiness because I believe that no government action can be justified by mere efficiency, expediency, or convenience. I’m not sure I’ve found a good solution, but here’s what I’ve come up with.

Drawing on principles of human equality and individual rights, libertarianism easily seizes the high ground in any discussion of political principles. But there is, I think, a tendency among libertarians—as well as fiscal conservatives, constitutionalists, and anarcho-capitalists—to overstate the reach of these rights-based arguments against government regulation.

Rights-based arguments against government regulation usually run as follows: I have a right to do X; this regulation restricts me from doing X; and since this regulation violates my right, it should be struck down or repealed. This is a persuasive argument, but it is frequently misapplied. The problem, unsurprisingly, is in determining whether the regulated action truly is an individual right.

Generally, individual rights fall into the three categories that were recognized in the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and Property (Pursuit of Happiness). These rights are phrased broadly, but it is important to recognize that an individual’s rights are always limited by the rights of others. For example, an individual’s right to life evaporates when he attacks someone else: his right to life yields to his victim’s right to life—expressed as the right of self-defense.

It is easy to accept that no individual has the right to intentionally harm innocent others. This is a clear limit to individual rights, and it is fundamental to criminal law. But government regulations go much further. Government regulations often limit actions which are not meant to cause harm, but which create a risk of unintentional harm. Regulations of this kind cause controversy because they restrict actions which may never actually harm anyone. Libertarians seize on this fact and reject these regulations as a violation of individual rights. On its face, this is potent criticism.

True human equality means that individual liberty cannot be restricted unless it is being exercised in a way that violates others’ rights. Actions which don’t in fact harm anyone don’t seem to violate anyone’s rights, so there doesn’t seem to be any principled justification for government regulation. In general, this is an excellent argument, but it fails in the context of unreasonable risk of irreparable harm.

Individuals have a right to be free from unreasonable risk created by others’ behavior. This is heresy to libertarian philosophy, but I think it is right nonetheless. Individuals have a right not to be exposed to unreasonable risk created by others’ behavior. When individuals choose their home, job, transportation method, recreation, and lifestyle, they simultaneously choose to subject themselves to a certain risk level. They accept that risk level because they believe that it is worth it. If that risk level increases because someone in the community chooses to engage in unreasonably risky behavior, then that person has violated the rights of the other members of the community. Differentiating between unreasonable risk and reasonable risk (risk that is just an unavoidable part of life) is difficult, but community standards provide a benchmark.

Unreasonable risk by itself is not enough to justify regulation, however. Regulation is appropriate only when there is unreasonable risk of irreparable harm. Irreparable harm is harm that cannot be undone by the payment of money, such as death and serious bodily injury. If the harm can be undone by payment of money, then the appropriate remedy is a lawsuit rather than regulation. The reason for this is that regulations are necessarily imprecise. Regulations are general rules that cover a whole class of individuals or activities, so, inevitably, some individuals will be included in the class and subjected to the regulation who should not be. If harm can be undone by the payment of money, the individual who was harmed can be put in approximately the same position as he would have been in had the harm never occurred. So the imprecision of regulation is unjustified.

There are easy cases and hard cases, of course, but I think the principles are clear. Consider the following example. A contractor decides to cut costs by storing his dynamite supply in the basement of his home. He does not intend to injure anyone, but he is nevertheless exposing his neighbors to significant additional risk. In a residential community this risk is unreasonable because dynamite storage is more hazardous than most residential activities and dynamite is not commonly stored in residences. Additionally, if the dynamite explodes, it will likely cause irreparable injury. The opportunity to sue in the event of an accidental explosion is not a good solution to this situation because recovering money in a lawsuit is never adequate recompense for death or serious injury. So, a government regulation prohibiting residential dynamite storage is justified and does not violate the contractor’s rights.

I am only tentatively attached to these arguments. The critical leap is the premise that individuals have a right to be free from unreasonable risk of irreparable harm. I think this is right, but this comes more from gut feeling than reasoned argument.

Sugary, Salty Liberty

April 21st, 2010 - by Quincy

Some people make foolish decisions. Or, at least, to me they seem foolish. You see, I like being healthy. I enjoy waking up in the morning with a clear head. I value playing sports and being able to climb a flight of stairs without feeling unwell, and I hope to live a long, happy life. But some people don’t seem to value those things as much as I do. I know this because of what these people choose to eat, drink, smoke, snort, chew, inject, or otherwise do to their bodies. I also know this because these people fail to maintain their bodies in good physical condition. These seem like foolish decisions to me because of what I value.

Even aside from my preferences, I believe that destroying one’s body—either through neglect or deliberate choice—is morally wrong. This belief derives from my faith that God created mankind and that He has commanded us to live healthily.

Yesterday, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report identifying excessive salt intake as the cause of serious health problems in the United States. On its website, it summarized the findings and circumstances of the report as follows:

Population-wide reductions in sodium intake could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually. In 2008, Congress asked the IOM to recommend strategies for reducing sodium intake to levels recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In this report, the IOM concludes that reducing sodium content in food requires new government standards for the acceptable level of sodium.

Some misunderstanding led the Washington Post to report that due to the findings in this study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intended to regulate the salt content in food:

The Food and Drug Administration is planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

In a statement posted on its website the FDA promptly denied plans to implement regulations limiting salt content:  “A story in today’s Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods. The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time. ”

Despite the FDA’s denial, at least two concerned legislators declared their support for regulations limiting salt content. Commenting about the nonexistent FDA plans to regulate, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said, “I understand they want to do it in a phased kind of a deal, but I don’t want it to be too long. … This is crying out for change that’s long overdue.” Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was similarly concerned: “I don’t want this to take 10 years. . . . This is a public health crisis.”

Evidently, although the FDA is not presently planning to follow the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, some members of Congress think that unhealthy food is a serious crisis calling for a rapid regulatory response.

Salt is not the only regulatory target for these health-conscious legislators, and the federal government isn’t the only one advocating regulation. Some state legislators seem to be thinking along the same lines. Yesterday, a Reuters article noted that

New York City, which has banned smoking and artificial trans-fats in restaurants, has pledged to coordinate a nationwide effort to reduce salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent over five years. … California state Senator Dean Florez introduced legislation in February to tax sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks and use the proceeds to bankroll programs to fight childhood obesity.

Notwithstanding my personal preference for a healthy lifestyle and notwithstanding my moral beliefs, I oppose government regulations that ban the sale of unhealthy foods because I believe in human equality. Not in the sense that all people are equal in their abilities and accomplishments—that is clearly not true. I believe in human equality in the sense that every person should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. This isn’t just a principle that applies in criminal cases or fights over government “entitlements.” This principle governs the relationship between the citizens and their government. It is an essential principle of liberty.

The consequence of a belief in human equality is that no person has the right to dictate to another the lifestyle she must live or the values she must adopt. As long as a person is not violating the rights of someone else, she must be permitted to make her own choices—even if the consequences are bad. (The obvious caveat here is for relationships such as parent/child relationships and guardian/mentally incompetent relationships.)

Regulations banning unhealthy food change this relationship. They assume that one person has the right to impose his values on someone else. Of course they are couched in language brimming with benevolent intentions, but in essence they reject the principle that “all men are created equal.” Consider the interaction on a basic level. Suppose that Nate makes crackers and Dave wants to buy some. But Joe knows that Nate’s crackers are unhealthy. Dave will not heed Joe’s advice to avoid Nate’s crackers, so Joe says to himself, “For Dave’s good, I will threaten Nate with physical violence or loss of property if he continues to sell those unhealthy crackers.” Is this a relationship of equals? Certainly not! Joe is placing himself in a position of superiority over both Dave and Nate. This is called a paternalistic relationship.

Some try to justify such paternalistic relationships by arguing that it is for Dave’s own good. But who is to determine what is good for Dave? Among equals, Dave would determine what is good himself—even if Joe is more knowledgeable or intelligent. Perhaps Dave does not share Joe’s faith in modern medical research. Perhaps Dave enjoys the pleasure of eating crackers so much that he is willing to accept the risk of health problems in the future. Perhaps Dave simply is not willing to exercise his mind or strength of will long enough to understand the health risks and choose not to eat the crackers. Joe is free to try to persuade Dave not to eat unhealthy crackers, but not to use the threat of force to interfere in a voluntary transaction between Nate and Dave. Whatever the reason for Dave’s decision to eat the crackers, no matter how irrational or foolish it might seem to Joe, the principle of human equality demands that Dave be permitted to choose for himself.

I value a healthy lifestyle. I enjoy playing sports and hiking with my wife and kids. I want to live a long time so I can enjoy my family relationships and the joys of just being alive. For me liberty is doing these things. But for some, liberty is sugary and salty.