Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

 

Truancy Laws: What Libertarians Knew

My new piece at Reason begins:

We’ve seen it happen again and again: libertarians are derided over some supposedly crazy or esoteric position, years pass, and eventually others start to see why our position made sense. It’s happened with asset forfeiture, with occupational licensure, with the Drug War, and soon, perhaps, with libertarians’ once-lonely critique of school truancy laws.

In his 1980 book Free To Choose, economist Milton Friedman argued that compulsory school attendance laws do more harm than good, a prescient view considering what’s come since: both Democratic and Republican lawmakers around the country, prodded by the education lobby, have toughened truancy laws with serious civil and even criminal penalties for both students and parents. Now the horror stories pile up: the mom arrested and shackled because her honor-roll son had a few unexcused sick days too many, the teenagers managing chaotic home lives who are threatened with juvenile detention for their pains, the mother who died in jail after being imprisoned for truancy fines. It’s been called carceral liberalism: we’re jailing you, your child, or both, but don’t worry because it’s for your own good. Not getting enough classroom time could really ruin a kid’s life.

My article also mentions that a bill to reform Texas’s super-punitive truancy laws has reached Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, following the reported success of an experiment in San Antonio and pressure from a Marshall Project report. Finally, truancy-law reform is looking to become an issue across the political spectrum — but libertarians were there first.

Getting King John To Sign Magna Carta Was Only Half The Battle

The very day King John pledged to uphold Magna Carta, June 20, 1215, he asked Pope Innocent III to annul it.  The pope replied, “We utterly reject and condemn this settlement and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed.”

So, John reneged on his agreement with the barons, they rebelled and formed an alliance with King Philip II of France who prepared to invade England.  Before long, the French Prince Louis entered London, and the French controlled castles throughout England.  The English Church, however, backed John and refused to crown Lewis as England’s king. 

John fled from his pursuers, but somewhere along the line he contracted dysentery and was dying.  He appointed 13 executors including William Marshal who was among the most revered knights in England.  John died on October 19, 1216,  and his nine-year-old son was hastily crowned Henry III.  Because he was under-age, Marshal formed a regency government.  Although Marshal was able to seize an important English castle from the French, the civil war was substantially stalemated.

With John gone, the rebel barons found themselves in an awkward position – their alliance with foreigners who occupied England.  Patriotic English wanted to get the French out.  Fortunately, Prince Louis was happy to collect a bribe, and soon the French went home.

Regent Marshal recognized that there was more likely to be domestic peace if some fundamental legal issues were resolved and that consequently John’s repudiation of Magna Carta must be reversed.   So Marshal reviewed the document, made some cuts, and reissued Magna Carta in late 1216.   Among the cuts was paragraph 61 about the committee of 25 barons who would monitor the king’s compliance with Magna Carta and, if necessary, try to enforce it.  Perhaps less important than those words was the fact that the barons had demonstrated their willingness to use force against a tyrannical king.

Maoist Shaming Tactics Spread from Shanghai to Santa Monica and Silicon Valley

Ariana Eunjung Cha reports on the newest target of public shaming in China:

Long before the Internet was invented, China’s Communist Party was already skilled in the art of public shaming.

Dissidents have been known to disappear and then reappear after having published essays of self-criticism. On state-run television, business people, celebrities and editors have appeared so regularly from behind prison bars speaking about their misdeeds that the segments were like an early take on reality TV.

Now officials are using the tactic on another group that it feels has wronged the country: smokers.

Beijing has not relied just on public humiliation. It has banned smoking in indoor public places and workplaces, complete with large fines and massive propaganda campaigns. It also plans to

take more dramatic measures by posting the names of those breaking the law three times on a Web site in order to shame them.

That may not sound like a big deal, but in Asia the reaction of online citizens to inappropriate behavior can be harsh. Among the most infamous cases is one in 2005 when a woman in South Korea who refused to clean up her dog’s waste was caught in photos that were posted online. Internet users quickly discerned her identity and she was harassed so badly that she reportedly quit her university.

Magna Carta 800

It has been 800 years since English barons negotiated a written peace agreement with King John. The original June 1215 agreement was revised and reissued numerous times, with the 1217 version gaining the title Magna Carta (“Great Charter”). Over the centuries, the document has had a powerful influence of the evolving British legal system and government.

The Great Charter will be explored at a Cato conference this week, and David Boaz recently blogged about the document’s importance to the American founding.

If you are interested in a very brief primer, I noticed this article (page 64) by British historian David Starkey in BBC History magazine. Starkey describes the 1215 charter as a radical break, and also the beginning of a long evolutionary process of building parliamentary government in Britain.

Here is the magazine’s summary of a conversation with Starkey, who has an upcoming book on the topic:

Magna Carta was initially drafted in 1215 in an attempt to broker peace between England’s barons and the unpopular King John. It failed, and the country was plunged into civil war. Following John’s death the charter then underwent a series of revisions over the next decade. An updated version was issued in 1216 by the government of his successor, the young Henry III, in an attempt to placate the rebels. Having won the war, the king issued a new edition in 1217 in order to cement peace. The final version was produced in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation.

And here are some of Starkey’s thoughts:

[Magna Carta] set out to do three things. Firstly, to bridle a king, John, who was dangerous and unpredictable  and made his whim the law, and secondly, to make it impossible for any other king to rule in the same way. It was successful in both of those things. The third thing was the great change, and something very different: it set out to create machinery that absolutely bound any king in iron to its measures.

… One of the things that we forget is that the Magna Carta of 1215 had 62 or 63 clauses, while the long-term one has in the region of 40. A third of it was struck out in 1216 …

… It had an immense and immediate impact on law and on the development of law. Individual clauses are very quickly pleaded. What’s striking is how many copies were circulated. It forced governments to behave differently, and set rules for good behaviour and, once the charter was reissued in 1225, it became impossible to impose general taxation without consent.

I think you are repeatedly struck by the ambition of 1215. Whatever you may think about the motives of the people like Robert Fitzwalter, clearly I rather respect ambition. I respect radicalism; I don’t necessarily like it, but I respect it. They are intellectually ambitious, which is impressive whatever one thinks. How do we go about setting an absolute monarch in chains?

… The year 1215 really is the beginning of a very particularly English politics – and I’m daring to use the word English – which has actually survived 800 years. The futures of England and the English political system are first sketched out in 1215 – or rather, in that crucial decade-long crisis of the charters from 1215 to 1225. You can trace so much back to that point: the whole dialogue of Whig and Tory; particular models of statesmanship that constantly repeat themselves; this crisis of charters leading directly to the establishment of parliament. The whole structure of parliamentary government really begins with the reissue of the charter in 1225.

For more on Magna Carta, the British Library website has useful resources.