Overlawyered’s 17th Birthday

Overlawyered reaches the end of its 17th year of publication today. I launched it on July 1, 1999, and it’s regularly described as the oldest law blog; at least, no one seems to be able to name one that’s older that’s been continually published for as long in blog form. Cato has published it since 2013, which has greatly helped in keeping it up-to-date on the technical side and running smoothly.

Some recent stories and items at the site: 

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How People Abroad Viewed Our Declaration of Independence

How did people around the world react to the American Declaration of Independence?

On Tuesday, July 9, 1776, the German printer Henrich Miller published the first translation of the Declaration, just four days after the English text was first published by John Dunlop whose printing shop was a few doors away in Philadelphia.

Many French people were eager to see the Declaration, but until 1778, when the French government announced its alliance with the rebels, producing a translation was a dangerous thing to do in France. Alleged translations were anonymous. The earliest-known French translation was published in the Netherlands.

Abroad, the Declaration had the greatest impact on debates leading up to the French Revolution (1789). The French referred frequently not only to the Declaration but also to the Virginia Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights and the U.S. Constitution. These documents, scholars Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf wrote, “acted as an indispensable guide or foil in the conception of their own principles.”

In London, the Russian chargé d’affairs Vasilii Grigor’evich Lizakevich learned the news about the Declaration and on August 13 wrote a dispatch to the first minister of the College of Foreign Affairs, Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin, making clear the significance of the Declaration: “The publication of this document as well as the proclamation of a formal declaration of war against Great Britain offer evidence of the courage of the leadership there.”

The Disaster of World War I

Wilson's War

On this day 100 years ago, the Battle of the Somme began. Over the course of five months it would see a million men killed or wounded. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties on July 1 alone, making it the worst day in British military history.

Cato senior fellow and historian Jim Powell wrote about the blunders and consequences of World War I in his book Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War IIHe summarized his argument in Cato Policy Report two years ago:

World War I was probably history’s worst catastrophe, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was substantially responsible for unintended consequences of the war that played out in Germany and Russia, contributing to the rise of totalitarian regimes and another world war. 

Indeed World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. 

On this weekend as we celebrate American independence we should mourn those who went to war, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

Cato Trade Scholars Endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership

On June 30, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, former U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, and other trade policy experts joined Cato’s trade scholars in the Hayek Auditorium for an event titled: ”Should Free Traders Support the Trans-Pacific Partnership?” The main purpose of the event was to reveal the findings of a forthcoming paper by my trade center colleagues and me, in which we provide a chapter-by-chapter assessment of the 30-chapter, 5,500-page trade deal and reach the conclusion that, yes, free traders should support the TPP.

In our assessment, we make the distinction between free trade and free trade agreements:

For free traders, the ideal is free trade: No border barriers; no domestic regulations or policies that have protectionist intent or effects or that otherwise bestow relative privileges on domestic companies or their products; no superfluous rules that are merely tangentially related to trade, but violations of which can be invoked to erect new impediments to trade. Measured against those standards, the TPP – with its 5,500 pages of explicit rules and exemptions – would not pass the free trade test. The TPP is not free trade. Like all other U.S. trade agreements, the TPP is a managed trade agreement, with provisions that both liberalize and restrict trade and investment. Some free traders would reject the TPP out of hand for its failure to eliminate all restrictions.

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Brexit Was a Win for the Good Guys

Watching the Brexit campaign generated mixed feelings: It was a little like the man who saw his mother-in-law drive his new Mercedes off a cliff. In the United Kingdom some people who hated free trade, immigration, and market innovation challenged the officious, wannabe super-state headquartered in Brussels. Who to cheer for?

The Brexiteers, who deserve at least a couple hurrahs. The European Union created a common economic market throughout the continent, an undoubted good, but since then has focused on becoming a meddling Leviathan like that in Washington, D.C. The good guys won.

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.

Postal Reform: Timid Americans and Bold Europeans

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost more than $50 billion since 2007, even though it enjoys legal monopolies over letters, bulk mail, and access to mailboxes. The USPS has a unionized, bureaucratic, and overpaid workforce. And as a government entity, it pays no income or property taxes, allowing it to compete unfairly with private firms in the package and express delivery businesses.

As we discussed yesterday at a Cato forum on Capitol Hill, the USPS needs a major overhaul. It should be privatized and opened to competition.

But instead of reform, congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation that tinkers around the edges. Their bill adjusts retiree health care, hikes stamp prices, and retains six-day delivery despite a 40 percent drop in letter volume since 2000. The bill would also create “new authority to offer non-postal products,” thus threatening to increase the tax-free entity’s unfair competition against private firms.

The Democrats overseeing postal issues are happy as larks with the GOP bill, which appears to be a victory for unionized postal workers. You might wonder what the point of electing Republicans to Congress is if they are just going to let Democrats run the show in defense of unions and monopolies.

Republicans see their party as the one favoring free enterprise and competition. Yet those pro-growth goals are obliterated in America’s tightly regulated postal monopoly. When it comes to the postal industry, federal law defends bureaucracy and bans entrepreneurship, and the GOP seems to have no problem with that.