Tag: government power

Do the American People Agree with Obama?

News reports quote President Obama, in discussing the debt ceiling and the ongoing argument over tax and spending policy in his press conference yesterday, saying:

It turns out the American people agree with me. 

Do they? It’s true that a majority of respondents told pollsters that they wanted to raise taxes on someone else. And Congress did that in the “fiscal cliff” legislation.

But what about the president’s insistence on a larger government and essentially no cuts in federal spending? The election day exit polls shed some light on those questions.

51 percent of voters polled said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals—8 points higher than in the 2008 election. Only 43 percent of voters said they believe government should be doing more.

49 percent said the 2010 health care law should be repealed, with only 44 percent of voters supporting it.

And 51 percent said they prefer smaller government with fewer services, while 43 percent prefer larger government. As usual.

There are many reasons that Mitt Romney lost the election, from the Republicans’ alienation of everyone except straight white men, to an effective campaign of demonization, to “legitimate rape.” But the polls don’t show that voters agree with President Obama on constant expansion of the size, scope, and power of government.

The Lives of Others 2.0

Tattoo it on your forearm—or better, that of your favorite legislator—for easy reference in the next debate over wiretapping: government surveillance is a security breach—by definition and by design. The latest evidence of this comes from Germany, where there’s growing furor over a hacker group’s allegations that government-designed Trojan Horse spyware is not only insecure, but packed with functions that exceed the limits of German law:

On Saturday, the CCC (the hacker group) announced that it had been given hard drives containing “state spying software,” which had allegedly been used by German investigators to carry out surveillance of Internet communication. The organization had analyzed the software and found it to be full of defects. They also found that it transmitted information via a server located in the United States. As well as its surveillance functions, it could be used to plant files on an individual’s computer. It was also not sufficiently protected, so that third parties with the necessary technical skills could hijack the Trojan horse’s functions for their own ends. The software possibly violated German law, the organization said.

Back in 2004–2005, software designed to facilitate police wiretaps was exploited by unknown parties to intercept the communications of dozens of top political officials in Greece. And just last year, we saw an attack on Google’s e-mail system targeting Chinese dissidents, which some sources have claimed was carried out by compromising a backend interface designed for law enforcement.

Any communications architecture that is designed to facilitate outsider access to communications—for all the most noble reasons—is necessarily more vulnerable to malicious interception as a result. That’s why technologists have looked with justified skepticism on periodic calls from intelligence agencies to redesign data networks for their convenience. At least in this case, the vulnerability is limited to specific target computers on which the malware has been installed. Increasingly, governments want their spyware installed at the switches—making for a more attractive target, and more catastrophic harm in the event of a successful attack.

How Judges Protect Liberty

In my Encyclopedia Britannica column this week, I take a look at “the responsibility of judges to strike down laws, regulations, and executive and legislative actions that exceed the authorized powers of government, violate individual rights, or fail to adhere to the rules of due process.”

Certainly they don’t always live up to those expectations, as Robert A. Levy and William Mellor wrote in The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom

The column might have been more timely last summer, when Judge Andrew Napolitano concluded one of his Freedom Watch programs on the Fox Business Channel by hailing four federal judges who had courageously and correctly struck down state and federal laws:

  • Judge Martin L. C. Feldman, who blocked President Obama’s moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico;
  • Judge Susan Bolton, who blocked Arizona’s restrictive immigration law;
  • Judge Henry Hudson, who refused to dismiss Virginia’s challenge to the health care mandate; and
  • Judge Vaughn Walker, who struck down California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

That was a good summer for judicial protection of liberty. But as I note, there have been more examples this year, reminding us of James Madison’s predictions that independent judges would be “an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.”

Are Corporations People When They Make Video Games?

I note that I’m not hearing many critics of Citizens United decrying yesterday’s very welcome Supreme Court ruling, in which the majority held unconstitutional a California statute prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Perhaps that’s just because they’re concerned with corporate influence on elections as a policy matter, and not so much about Grand Theft Auto, but as a matter of First Amendment interpretation, it seems as though the elements that supposedly made Citizens United a travesty are present here.

As the conservative Justice Alito notes in dissent, for example, the statute at issue here does not prohibit anyone from creating, possessing, freely loaning, or playing violent video games: It regulates only their rental and sale. In other words: Money isn’t speech! The majority opinion—authored by Scalia, but joined by the Court’s most liberal justices—roundly rejects the relevance of that distinction, which “would make permissible the prohibition of printing or selling books—though not the writing of them. Whether government regulation applies to creating, distributing, or consuming speech makes no difference.” While, of course, money isn’t speech, the majority here understands that when the effect and purpose of a regulation is to restrict expression, the First Amendment is not some hollow formalism, and also limits regulation that functions by targeting enabling transactions rather than the speech directly.

None of the justices seem to make much of the obvious fact that the great majority of popular video games—and probably just about all of the ones exhibiting the level of graphical sophistication and realism at issue here—are produced, marketed, and sold by (uh oh) corporations. In fact, the passage quoted above focuses entirely on acts (“creating, distributing, or consuming”) rather than particular actors, just as the First Amendment itself prohibits government interference with speech not with this or that type of speaker. The Court simply observes that because the statute “imposes a restriction on the content of protected speech, it is invalid unless California can demonstrate that it passes strict scrutiny.” In dissent, Justice Thomas argues that the games are not “protected speech” in the context of the statute, because the Founders would have considered all speech directed at minors unprotected (a premise whose chilling implications the majority is quick to point out). Justice Breyer allows that video games—including violent ones—are indeed “protected speech,” but argues that studies linking them to violence are enough to give the state a “compelling interest” in limiting their dissemination. What nobody suggests, even in passing, is that video games might cease to be “protected speech” if the statute were limited to games manufactured and sold by corporations—which, in practice, is pretty much all the games we’re talking about.

Someone who welcomed this decision as a victory for free speech, but nevertheless supports regulation of independent political expenditures, can always take Breyer’s route: Maybe God of War III is not really harmful enough to make its prohibition a compelling state interest, but the degradation of democracy by corporate influence is a serious enough problem that its regulation survives “strict scrutiny,” overriding ordinary First Amendment protection even in the domain of political speech normally regarded as its core. That is not a position I find plausible, but it is at least coherent. The position I doubt can be made coherent is one according to which a prohibition of a commercial transaction instrumental to corporate-produced speech (and intended precisely to curtail that speech) should not even trigger First Amendment protections when the speech expresses a political opinion, whereas the same prohibition is unconstitutional if the speech is about Kratos impaling a minotaur on his Blades of Chaos. Though if that’s the form political expression has to take to enjoy constitutional protection, I look forward to the impending release of Palinfamous 2 and Barack Band III.

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?

Don’t Tread on My Plate

Last week First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled “ChooseMyPlate.gov,” an updating of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to lecture us on how to eat. While the idea of nutrition recommendations from Washington, D.C. isn’t itself new, the past couple of years have seen a lurch toward a more coercive approach, especially under the Obama administration, under pressure from a burgeoning “food policy” movement, as I explain in a new Daily Caller op-ed:

All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that [movement] nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.

The fact is that the federal government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years—the Washington Post had a great feature on past federal dietary guidelines, under which sweets and even butter held their place as food groups—and that government’s recommendations have regularly proved wrong and even damaging, a point that Steve Malanga elaborates on in this City Journal piece (“Following the government’s nutritional advice can make you fat and sick.”)

Yesterday, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal had me on opposite Maya Rockeymoore of the group Leadership for Healthy Communities to discuss issues that ranged from the school lunch program to whether Washington should serve as an “arbiter” of contending dietary claims, an idea I didn’t much care for. You can watch here.

June 2011 Cato Unbound: Targeted Killing and the Rule of Law

When can the executive lawfully kill?

The rule of law itself depends on getting the answer right. Clearly that answer can’t be “never,” because then even defensive wars would be impossible. And it can’t be “whenever,” because that would be the very antithesis of lawful government. As F. A. Hayek wrote, “if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law” (p. 205).

The answer must be “sometimes”—but which times are those? In wartime? In peacetime? Against aliens? What about citizens? What role do the courts play? And what about the legislature?

In answer to these questions, Cato Unbound lead essayist Ryan Alford draws on the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, arguing that the killing of a citizen or subject without judicial authorization was so far opposed to our traditional legal safeguards that the American Founders didn’t even bother to prohibit it in the Constitution. And yet, he argues, the case of Anwar al-Awlaqi shows that our government now claims this power anyway. The themes of his essay are explored in much more detail in his forthcoming article in the Utah Law Review.

To discuss with him this month, we’ve lined up a panel of legal and historical experts: John C. Dehn of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine University, and Carlton Larson of the University of California at Davis. Each will offer a commentary on Alford’s essay, followed by a discussion among the four on this timely and important subject. Be sure to stop by often, or just subscribe to Cato Unbound’s RSS feed.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or at other venues. Trackbacks are enabled. We also welcome your letters and may publish them at our option. Send them to jkuznicki at cato.org