Topic: Political Philosophy

Happy Second of July

Americans are preparing for the Fourth of July holiday. I hope we take a few minutes during the long weekend to remember what the Fourth of July is: America’s Independence Day, celebrating our Declaration of Independence, in which we declared ourselves, in Lincoln’s words, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The holiday weekend would start today if John Adams had his way. It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. On July 4 Congress approved the final text of the Declaration. As Adams predicted in a letter to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson moved smoothly from our natural rights to the right of revolution:

Overtime Regulation

President Obama plans to raise the salary threshold at which employers must pay time-and-half for overtime hours (normally defined as those above 40 hours per week). Currently these rules apply to workers with annual salaries up to $23,660; the President’s proposal raises this threshold to $50,400.  The new rules will affect about 5 milllion workers according to administration estimates.

What impact will this expanded regulation have on the labor market?

In the very short run, employers affected by this expansion may have little choice but to pay their employees higher total compensation; in the very short run, employers have few ways to avoid this added cost.

But in the medium term, employers will invoke a host of methods to offset these costs: re-arranging employee work schedules so that fewer hit 40 hours; laying off employees who work more than 40 hours; or pushing such employees to work overtime hours off the books.

And in the longer term, employers can simply reduce the base wages they pay so that, even with overtime pay, total compensation for an employee working more than 40 hours is no different than before the overtime expansion.  

So, expanded overtime regulation will benefit some employees in the very short term; cost others their jobs or lower their compensation in the medium term; and have no meaningful impact on anything in the long term.

Is that a victory for middle class economics?

Libertarians and the Long Road to Gay Rights

Justice Anthony Kennedy has been called the most libertarian member of the Supreme Court (though Ilya Shapiro finds his libertarianism “faint-hearted”). So maybe it’s no surprise that in the Lawrence (2003), Windsor (2013), and Obergefell (today!) cases, Kennedy wrote a majority decision finding that gay people had rights to liberty and equal protection of the law.

As I note in The Libertarian Mind and in an article just posted at the venerable gay magazine The Advocate, libertarians and their classical liberal forebears have been ahead of the curve on gay rights for more than two centuries: 

As the Supreme Court prepares for a possibly historic ruling, most of the country now supports gay marriage. Libertarians were there first. Indeed John Podesta, a top adviser to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, noted in 2011 that you probably had to have been a libertarian to have supported gay marriage 15 years earlier.

Just seven years ago, in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton all opposed gay marriage. The Libertarian Party endorsed gay rights with its first platform in 1972 — the same year the Democratic nominee for vice president referred to “queers” in a Chicago speech. In 1976 the Libertarian Party issued a pamphlet calling for an end to antigay laws and endorsing full marriage rights.

That’s no surprise, of course. Libertarians believe in individual rights for all people and equality before the law. Of course they recognized the rights of gay people before socialists, conservatives, or big-government liberals.

In Calling on Government, Pope Francis Misses the Problem of Politics

In his new encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis challenges people to adopt a new “ecological spirituality.” But his economic and policy prescriptions are more controversial than his theological convictions.

The Pope’s commitment to the poor and our shared world is obvious. Yet when he addresses policy, his grasp is less sure.

The Pontiff ignores the flawed nature of government. He is disappointed with its present failings, but appears to assume that politics, unlike humanity, is perfectible.

Most environmental problems result from the absence of markets and property rights. For instance, since no one owns the great common pools of air and water, “externalities” abound.

When possible, government should create quasi-markets or apply market incentives. In contrast, where government acts as property manager, it typically performs badly. For example, at the behest of business interests, Washington subsidizes grazing and timbering on its lands, opening up areas which otherwise would not be developed.

President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

Following the protests and riots in Ferguson last year, President Obama created a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to examine policing problems and make recommendations.  The Task Force issued its final report last month.  In this post, I want to highlight the numerous ways in which the report would expand the role of the federal government.

By way of background, policing is supposed to be the near-exclusive province of state and local government under the U.S. Constitution.  The federal government is nevertheless constantly seeking to expand its jurisdiction.  The number of federal crimes and the number of federal law enforcement agents keeps rising.  Members of Congress also like to throw millions and millions of dollars at local police departments.  Of course, having accepted the money, local policymakers are now swamped with myriad federal conditions and mandates.  On top of that, the feds have entwined themselves with local police with the creation of hundreds of permanent joint federal-state police units that operate to enforce narcotics, guns, and immigration offenses.

President Obama’s Task Force is now recommending a host of actions to expand the role of the federal government even further.  Here is an excerpt from the final report (pdf):

The President should support and provide funding for the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force to review and evaluate all components of the criminal justice system for the purpose of making recommendations to the country on comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The President should promote programs that take a comprehensive and inclusive look at community-based initiatives that address the core issues of poverty, education, health, and safety.

The Federal Government should develop survey tools and instructions for use of such a model to prevent local departments from incurring the expense and to allow for consistency across jurisdictions.

The Federal Government should create a Law Enforcement Diversity Initiative designed to help communities diversify law enforcement departments to reflect the demographics of the community.

Discretionary federal funding for law enforcement programs could be influenced by that department’s efforts to improve their diversity and cultural and linguistic responsiveness.

In Calling on Government, the Pope Underestimates Power of the Market

Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si, advocates a new “ecological spirituality.” Yet this challenging call is diminished by the document’s tendency to devolve into leftish policy positions. The encyclical underestimates the power of market forces to promote environmental ends.

There are serious environmental problems but Laudato Si presumes rather than proves crisis is the norm. Moreover, nothing in Scripture or nature tells us how much to spend to clean up the air.

Drawing environmental lines requires balancing such interests as ecology, liberty, and prosperity. One cannot merely assume that the correct outcome in every case is more of the first.

Indeed, the Pontiff’s own goals conflict. He speaks movingly of the dignity of work and its importance for the poor. But the more expensive and extensive the government controls, the fewer and less remunerative the jobs.

Perhaps most disappointing is how the Pope seemingly views capitalism, and especially property rights, as enemies of a better, cleaner world. Yet most environmental problems reflect the absence of markets and property rights, the “externalities,” in economist-speak, which impact others.

Deconstructing Magna Carta

On the day we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, leave it to the New York Times to feature a boxed op-ed on its editorial pages entitled “Stop Revering Magna Carta.” As the only bow to the occasion on those pages, one imagines that the editors could not be bothered even to write a house editorial on the subject

The piece is written by one Tom Ginsburg, professor of international law and political science at the University of Chicago, an institution with which I have some acquaintance.  As suggested by its title, this is a work of deconstruction. The Charter’s fame, you see, “rests on several myths.” Indeed, “like the Holy Grail,” Ginsburg concludes, “the myth of Magna Carta seems to matter more than the reality.” And well it should. After all, history rarely springs forth in principled perfection. At best it grows one fractured event at a time, each event gradually becoming the narrative mythology of a people.

Ginsburg begins his deconstruction by claiming that Magna Carta “wasn’t effective. In fact, it was a failure.” How so? Because King John repudiated the Charter shortly after he’d signed it, whereupon the barons sought to replace him, which he avoided by dying. But the next year, we’re told, John’s young son reissued the document. Far from a failure, then, it was reissued several more times over the 13th century, culminating in the important 1297 version. Indeed, it was at that time, as the famed legal historian Edward S. Corwin wrote, well before the era of deconstruction, that the king was forced to call Parliament into existence to relieve his financial necessities. But Parliament’s subventions “were not to be had for the asking,” Corwin noted, “but were conditioned on the monarch’s pledge to maintain Magna Carta.” A failure? Hardly.

Yet another myth, Ginsburg writes, “is that the document was a ringing endorsement of liberty.” As evidence, he cites three of the Charter’s 61 chapters, each concerning matters peculiar to the time—for example, the removal of fish traps from the Thames. Yet as shown by Ginsburg’s colleague at the law school across the Midway, Professor Richard Helmholz, even that provision served in time to afford a basis for free navigation.

And therein lies the major fault of this piece. It’s a textbook example of missing the forest for the trees. To be sure, as Ginsburg writes, “Magna Carta was a result of an intra-elite struggle, in which the nobles were chiefly concerned with their own privileges.” But again, that’s how history often begins, sowing the seeds for future advances. As Corwin observed nearly a century ago, many of the Charter’s clauses were drawn in ways that did not confine their application to issues immediately at hand. Moreover, the barons realized early on that to maintain the Charter against the king, they had to get the cooperation of all classes and so too the participation of all classes in its benefits. Thus did the scope of its protections expand, much as with our own Constitution. And that’s why so many revere Magna Carta today.

 

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