More on the Spying Bill

I’ve got a write-up of this weekend’s spying bill up at Ars Technica. It’s pretty bad:

Before undertaking surveillance activities, intelligence officials would need to obtain a certification from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence—both subordinates of the president—that there were “reasonable procedures” in place for ensuring that the eavesdropping “concerns” persons located outside the United States, and that the foreign intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the surveillance activities. That certification would only be reviewed after the fact, and only to determine if the procedures were, in fact, “reasonable.” A single certification could approve a broad surveillance program covering numerous individuals, and no judge would review the list of individual targets.

Moreover, the requirement that surveillance “concern” non-U.S. persons could plausibly permit spying on the relatives, friends, and business associates of a foreign target. Indeed, the administration might argue that the only way to obtain all information regarding foreign targets is to conduct dragnet surveillance of American communications and sift through them to find relevant information.

The legislation empowers the administration to “direct” individuals to “provide the government with all information, facilities, and assistance necessary” to carry out foreign surveillance. These quasi-subpoenas would not be subject to judicial review before they were issued. The targets of such orders—who will typically be telecom company executives, not terrorism suspects—have the option of appealing the order to the FISA court, but given the broad scope of surveillance activities authorized by the legislation, it seems unlikely that such challenges would succeed. Moreover, the legislation offers legal immunity to those who comply with such orders, so telecom providers will have little incentive to resist them.

The only real bright spot is that the legislation sunsets after six months. That will give Congress the opportunity to do what it should have done this weekend: require that no surveillance of domestic communications occur without prior judicial approval of each surveillance target. I’m not going to hold my breath.

New at Cato Unbound: Peter Leeson on Practical Anarchy

Everybody seems to know we need government … But pirates didn’t! How did they manage without the state? In this month’s thought-provoking Cato Unbound lead essay, Peter T. Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, explores what pirate “constitutions,” credit institutions among 19th century African bandit traders, and the well-being of Somalians after the collapse of the Somalian state have to tell us about the possibility of practical anarchy. It works better than you think, Leeson concludes. “As long as there are unrealized gains to realize, people will find ways to realize them” — state or no state.

Can organizations really solve complex problems of coordination without government coercion? Can voluntary bands provide public goods? Are there conditions under which groups are better off stateless? Leeson will be joined in tackling these question by three eminent commentators: Florida State economics professor Bruce Benson, author of the seminal The Enterprise of the Law: Justice without the State; Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and Randall Holcombe, another distinguished Seminole economist and current president of the Public Choice Society. Benson is on deck to reply this Wednesday. Stay tuned!  

Time for a (Most of) Government Shutdown

President Bush and congressional Democrats are fighting over many of the annual spending bills, leading some to predict a government shutdown when the new fiscal year starts October 1. This prospect horrifies the political class, but Investor’s Business Daily explains why it would be a good idea to close many government departments:

Here’s a suggestion: Many government departments, agencies and offices should be closed for good. …In 1800, the government needed a mere 3,000 employees and $1 million a year to do its job. In those days, lawmakers knew well the meaning of “limited.” Today, federal civilian employees number nearly 2 million. Another 10 million or more are federal contractors or grant recipients. The yearly budget of this runaway train is soaring toward $3 trillion. …Start with the Education Department, created in 1979 by the Carter administration despite the fact there is no constitutional authorization for its existence. In addition to its meddling, the department is spending nearly $70 billion a year in taxpayers’ dollars. By all accounts, public education in this country is worse off than it was when the Education Department opened. It’s hard to make an argument that those 5,000 employees are contributing anything. Next on the block should be the Energy Department, another monster wrought by Jimmy Carter, this one in 1977. There’s no real job this department… Like food, shelter and clothing, energy is a commodity that can and should be traded on an open market. There is no need to make a federal case out of it, particularly one that employees 17,000 people. All Cabinet-level departments — even Defense, which could cut waste — should at least have their budgets drained of excess. On a smaller scale, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities should go. Funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be zeroed out.

Bush, Congress, and Terrorism

Last year President Bush was able to rush the dubious Military Commission Act through the Congress.  This year he was able to rush through another surveillance measure.  In my view, the President’s legislative ‘achievements’ have little to do with persuasion.  It is about the politics of anti-terrorism legislation.  That is, if a member of Congress does not support the proposal under consideration, it means he or she is too ‘soft.’  Even though we’re about six years past 9/11 and even with the track record of Attorney General Gonzales, most legislators put their reservations aside, curl up into the fetal position and say “I am against the terrorists too,” as they vote in favor.  Last year, Senator Specter went so far as to say that he hoped the courts would strike down as unconstitutional the bill he just voted for.  Whatever one thinks about the legislative details of the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, or this “Protect America Act of 2007,” all friends of liberty ought to be disturbed by this political climate.  The question is: When will this vicious cycle of anti-terrorism legislation stop?  In a Giuliani administration?  In a Clinton administration?

For more on the new law, go to the Balkinization blog.  Tomorrow, Glenn Greenwald and Lee Casey will be here discussing the legacy of the Bush presidency.  Watch it online.

Does America Need a Training School for Bureaucrats?

Investor’s Business Daily comments on Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a national school to train “public servants.” But does America need a West Point for bureaucrats? The IBD editorial touches on some of the obvious shortcomings of the scheme, but it also is worth noting that such a school sounds frighteningly similar to France’s infamous l’Ecole d’Administration, the elitist institution that produced a long string of statist politicians such as Jacques Chirac:

Sen. Hillary Clinton says she wants to establish a national academy that will train public servants. Why do re-education camps come to mind? … Somehow we doubt there will be many lectures in making government smaller, deregulating business, cutting taxes or increasing individual freedom. Is there a chance that this “new generation” attending the academy will hear a single voice that isn’t hailing the glories of the nanny state? Will students being groomed for public service ever hear the names Hayek, von Mises or Friedman during their studies? … Government at all levels is already overflowing with bureaucrats who suck up taxpayers’ money and produce little, if anything, of economic value. More often, the bureaucracy actually gets in the way of economic progress.

Update on the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

Joining the Anti-Universal Coverage Club this week is a list of organizations that have formed a new group called The Health Care Freedom Coalition.  Here are a few lines from their agenda:

Most Democratic presidential candidates, one Republican presidential candidate, many business trade associations, and unions have endorsed “universal health insurance” as the solution to our nation’s health care problems.

With 46 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, these politicians and special interest groups have concluded that covering everyone will magically make health care affordable.

“Universal health insurance” is a myth. The only way to make health care “affordable” under a “universal health insurance” scheme is through price controls and limiting access. Any proposal claiming to provide “universal coverage” is nothing more than a system that must rely on private and/or public entities to administer government-run health care. 

Emphasis added.  The Health Care Freedom Coalition includes:

  • 60 Plus
  • Alabama Policy Institute
  • American Conservative Union
  • American Shareholders Association
  • Americans for Prosperity and AFP Foundation
  • Americans for Tax Reform
  • Center for Freedom and Prosperity
  • Christus Medicus Foundation
  • Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives
  • Consumers for Health Care Choices
  • Council for Affordable Health Insurance
  • Fairness Foundation
  • FreedomWorks
  • Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
  • Illinois Policy Institute
  • Indiana Family Institute
  • Medical Savings Insurance Company
  • Mississippi Center for Public Policy
  • National Center for Policy Analysis
  • National Taxpayers Union
  • Pacific Research Institute
  • Public Interest Institute
  • Rio Grande Foundation
  • Small Business Entrepreneurship Council
  • The James Madison Institute
  • Washington Policy Institute

Not joining the Anti-Universal Coverage Club this week are the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which approved legislation to expand government health insurance to people who don’t need government assistance, and the Galen Institute’s Grace-Marie Turner, who reiterated in her weekly newsletter:

The question isn’t whether children should or should not have health insurance. The question is how do we achieve that goal.

What Does Hillary Think about Taiwan?

In this video from Foreign Policy magazine, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Michael Swaine talks about a conversation he had with Hillary Clinton. In it, he said, Hillary had intimated something along the lines of “it is absurd to think that the American people would support a war with China over Taiwan.” Swaine’s response, as I recall, was to say that that may be the view of the American people, but American foreign policy elites certainly would contemplate a war with China over Taiwan.

Now, you may be saying, “Logan, you sure sound sketchy on this. Is this just your recollection? How about a quote?” Well, I’d love to provide a direct quote, and that was my intention when I started this post. However, when I clicked back to the video, the anecdote from Swaine was gone. “Am I losing it?” I thought. Until I scrolled all the way down to the bottom of the page and found this:

Editor’s Note: This video has been edited since its original posting. A small portion was removed at the request of an interviewee.

So here’s a question for Senator Clinton: What did you mean by your comment to Swaine? And to Swaine: What was your interpretation of what Hillary was driving at? That she wouldn’t go to war over Taiwan? That we shouldn’t?

These are very serious questions and they deserve a place in the presidential campaign.