Signs of Free Speech

George Will has another great column on threats to political speech in modern America. He reports the story of some people in Parker North, Colo., who didn’t want to be annexed to the larger town of Parker. When some residents proposed annexation, others

began trying to persuade the rest to oppose annexation. They printed lawn signs and fliers, started an online discussion group and canvassed neighbors, little knowing that they were provoking Colorado’s speech police.

One proponent of annexation sued them. This tactic – wielding campaign finance regulations to suppress opponents’ speech – is common in the America of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The complaint did not just threaten the Parker Six for any “illegal activities.” It also said that anyone who had contacted them or received a lawn sign might be subjected to “investigation, scrutinization and sanctions for campaign finance violations.”

Quite a chilling effect on the speech of a few local residents. Fortunately, Will notes, the Parker Six (why not the Parker North Six? After all, Parker is what they don’t want to be part of. But who am I to question George Will?) are represented in their defense of their First Amendment rights by the Institute for Justice.

Meanwhile, in another section of the same Washington Post, a similar story is playing out in Virginia. A Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives began placing campaign signs in supporters’ yards a full year before the election. Botetourt County officials reminded people of a longstanding ordinance about how long political signs can be displayed. In this case it’s the ACLU of Virginia threatening to sue. But Botetourt (pronounced BAHT-uh-tott) officials are not deterred in their determination to protect law, order, and the Botetourt way:

“If we don’t have some semblance of order, we’d just have a libertarian society where anything goes,” said Jim Crosby, a longtime resident and former chairman of the Botetourt Republican Party.

Yep. First political signs in someone’s yard, then a bunch of competing churches, school choice, deregulation, women working outside the home, and pretty soon you’d have a libertarian society where anything goes.

Voter ID Case Decided

The Supreme Court has rendered its decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. This is the case challenging Indiana’s voter ID requirement.

Briefly, the plaintiffs in the case did not establish sufficient proof of the burden on voting that the ID requirement would have. This was a facial challenge to the statute, and there was no plaintiff who had actually been dissuaded or prevented from voting. Sayeth the court:

[O]n the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the statute imposes “excessively burdensome requirements” on any class of voters.

There was also no evidence that Indiana has ever been victimized by impersonation at the polling place, which a voter ID requirement would help thwart, but in a facial challenge to a law like this, courts will defer to the state’s interests in deterring and detecting voter fraud, and in safeguarding voter confidence.

Advocates of voter ID will interpret this as a ringing endorsement, but it’s an unsurprising result. Hopefully, they won’t pursue a national voter identification requirement. In a recent TechKnowledge column inspired by the case, “Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot that Could Burn Us All,” I wrote:

A national registration system for voting would quickly be repurposed and used for many other kinds of regulatory control. There is no shortage of proposals for national registration and control of citizens. Should the voter ID tempest in a teapot boil over, the tiny specter of voter fraud could thrust a mandatory national ID into the hands of law-abiding citizens.

The Constitution gives Congress power to regulate the elections that select its members and, to a lesser degree, the president. But Congress does not have to use that power to its fullest extent. States recognize their own interests in fair elections, and they should experiment among themselves with ways to secure elections while making sure the vote is available to all qualified people.

Atlas Shrugged … the Movie … at Last?

Scott Holleran at Box Office Mojo is all over the Atlas Shrugged movie project. A few days ago he talked to Michael Burns, vice chairman of Lionsgate, the studio that is planning to make the film. He confirmed that Angelina Jolie will star as Dagny Taggart. Burns says John Galt should not be played by a movie star but by an actor with “an incredibly remarkable face, a face that just pops out at you,” to which his Randian interviewer responds, “A face with no fear, no pain, no guilt?”

Burns, who attended Ayn Rand’s memorial service as a young Wall Streeter in 1982, describes the movie’s theme this way:

Think about it: the world’s great minds and great contributors to society—which really are the entrepreneurs—are being taken advantage of—and they are; if you make money, you’re giving up pretty close to half of your income, though the United States is still the greatest country in the world, and Ayn Rand would have said that as well—so, what would happen if these great minds went on strike? Would society move forward? It’s a great [dramatic] scenario, like that P.D. James novel, Children of Men, which is about [what would happen] if, all of sudden, everyone is sterile. Atlas Shrugged is as pertinent today as it’s ever been.

A week earlier Holleran had interviewed director Vadim Perelman, best known for The House of Sand and Fog. Perelman, who was born in the Soviet Union and left in 1977 at the age of 14 when the government was letting some Jewish people leave, said the novel’s emphasis on “individualism and [the] entrepreneurial spirit” resonates with him. He cited a favorite Ayn Rand quotation: “If there’s a more tragic fool than the businessman that does not realize he’s an extension of man’s highest creative spirit—it’s the artist who thinks that the businessman is his enemy.” But he brushes off the uber-Randian question, “In making Atlas Shrugged, do you want the approval of Miss Rand’s heir, philosopher Leonard Peikoff?”

Perelman told Holleran that the budget would be about $70 million, that they’re still working on the script and the casting, that he hopes to start shooting later this year, and that the look of the movie would be the Forties.

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Milton Friedman Prize Selection Committee Member Arrested

The Ugandan government has arrested Andrew Mwenda, a member of the 2008 International Selection Committee for the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, along with his fellow journalists Odobo Bichachi and John Njoroge. Andrew Mwenda is a brave journalist who tells it like he sees it. He is well known for standing up for the rights of others; his involvement in the Milton Friedman Prize is only one element of his long commitment to human rights. It’s time that others stand up for his rights and those of Odobo Bichachi and Jhohn Njoroge. Cordial email letters to the Ugandan Embassy and the Ugandan government urging them to release the journalists and respect press freedom can make a difference:

His Excellency Professor Perezi K. Kamunanwire

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Fax: (202) 726 1727
pkamunanwire [at] ugandaembassyus.org

Mr. Charles Ssentongo
Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM)/ Minister Counselor
Fax: (202) 726 1727
Cssentongo [at] ugandaembassyus.org

Mr. Emmanuel Bwomono Olobo
First Secretary
Fax: (202) 726 1727
ebwomono-olobo [at] ugandaembassyus.org

Mr. Michael Karugaba
Second Secretary
Fax: (202) 726 1727
mkarugaba [at] ugandaembassyus.org

(In addition to being an outspoken advocate and practitioner of a free press, Andrew Mwenda is an outspoken proponent of development through the free market. Here is Andrew explaining the failures of “foreign aid.”)

Carbon Credits and Persian Prostitution

What do they have in common?

Apparently, buying and selling indulgences.

A piece in Slate, How To Spot a Persian Prostitute: Streetwalkers in chadors, by Juliet Lapidos, informs us:

The penalties for prostitution [in Iran] are severe—ranging from whipping to execution. But there’s a loophole in Islamic law called sigheh, or temporary marriage. According to Shiite interpretation, a man and a woman may enter an impermanent partnership with a preset expiration date. There’s no legally required minimum duration (a day, a week, anything goes) and no need for official witnesses—unless the woman is a virgin, in which case she needs the consent of her legal guardian. An Iranian who’s wary of arrest can simply escort a prostitute to a registry, obtain a temporary contract from a Muslim cleric, and then legally satisfy his sexual needs.

QED (quite easily done).

Is this reminiscent of purchasing carbon credits for that jet flight to Bali, or what?

Were getting real meaningful emission reductions as simple.

Robert Frank Inadvertently Makes the Case for School Choice

Matt Yglesias points to an article in Sunday’s Washington Post by economist Robert Frank that makes a strong case for school choice. Well, OK, he doesn’t explicitly talk about school choice, but he certainly does a good job explaining the problems caused by the absence of choice:

In the 1950s, as now, families tried to buy houses in the best school districts they could afford. But strict credit limits held the bidding in check. Lenders typically required down payments of 20 percent or more and would not issue loans for more than three times a borrower’s annual income.

In a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move to help more families enter the housing market, borrowing restrictions were relaxed during the intervening decades. Down payment requirements fell steadily, and in recent years, many houses were bought with no money down. Adjustable-rate mortgages and balloon payments further boosted families’ ability to bid for housing.

The result was a painful dilemma for any family determined not to borrow beyond its means. No one would fault a middle-income family for aspiring to send its children to schools of at least average quality. (How could a family aspire to less?) But if a family stood by while others exploited more liberal credit terms, it would consign its children to below-average schools. Even financially conservative families might have reluctantly concluded that their best option was to borrow up.

This is an eloquent indictment of our perverse system of linking schools to real estate. We don’t generally limit access to hospitals, libraries, or colleges by geography, and there’s no good reason children’s schools should be determined that way either. People should be able to live wherever they want, and then they should be free to send their children to any school that meets their needs. There are a variety of ways to allocate space in the most sought-after schools—academic merit, aptitude in the school’s area of focus, demographic diversity, or by lottery—that would be more reasonable than our current policy of arbitrary geographic boundaries.

And yes, some schools would choose students based on their ability to pay. What Frank’s article nicely illustrates is that our current system of geographically-based school assignment already segregates children by their parents’ income, it just does so in an unnecessarily cumbersome manner. If we had a free market in education, parents who wanted to invest in sending their children to a better school would be able to do so directly, instead of having to buy more house than they might want just so they can get a spot at a better school.

The most important thing to note, though, is that the scarcity of good schools Frank identifies is not an inherent fact about the universe, but a consequence of the public school monopoly. In a competitive education market, a shortage of good schools in a given area would spur people to either start new schools or expand the best of the existing ones. But the public school system has few mechanisms for doing either of those things (charter schools are a very limited mechanism for starting innovative public schools). Which means that the supply of good public schools is artificially limited, leading parents to bid up their price. The way to alleviate the shortage of good schools is not to re-regulate the mortgage market, but to reform the education system so that it’s easier to start and expand high-quality schools. Few things would do that as effectively as a robust program of school choice.

The Milton Friedman Prize Goes to a Hero

The 2008 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been awarded to Yon Goicoechea. Goicoechea was a key leader of the Venezuelan student movement that rallied the country to vote down Hugo Chavez’s referendum on a constitutional change that would have turned Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship. More on Yon here, as well as information on the gala May 15 dinner in New York at which the Prize will be presented.

It’s interesting to reflect on the diversity of the first four recipients of the Prize. The first Prize in 2002 went to Peter Bauer, presumably in recognition of his lifelong scholarship on development economics and the sources of wealth. (I say “presumably” because the Selection Committee doesn’t formally explain its decisions. But the announcement of the award referred to “his pioneering work in the field of development economics, where he stood virtually alone for many years as a critic of state-led development policy with its emphasis on central planning and external foreign aid.”)

The second Prize went to Hernando de Soto, an author of two books on economics but more importantly a tireless crusader and activist on behalf of poor people and their need for property rights.

The third Prize, in 2006, went to Mart Laar, the youngest prime minister in the history of Estonia, who led his country out of the Soviet Union and into the European mainstream. He slashed taxes and transfer payments, privatized state agencies, liberalized international trade, and created one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, dubbed the “Baltic Tiger.”

And this year the Prize goes to a young man who is not–not yet, at least–a scholar, an author, or an elected official. He’s just a law student who stood up when others wouldn’t and helped to create a movement that prevented a strongman from becoming a dictator.

I think the diversity of the recipients reflects the many ways in which liberty must be defended and advanced. People can play a role in the struggle for freedom as scholars, writers, activists, organizers, elected officials, and many other ways. Some may be surprised that a Prize named for a great scholar, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, might go to a political official or a student activist. But Milton Friedman was not just a world-class scholar. He was also a world-class communicator and someone who worked for liberty in issues ranging from monetary policy to conscription to drug prohibition to school choice. When he discussed the creation of the Prize with Cato president Ed Crane, he said that he didn’t want it to go just to great scholars. The Prize is awarded every other year “to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.” Friedman specifically cited the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square as someone who would qualify for the Prize by striking a blow for liberty. Yon Goicoechea not only stood in front of the tank, he stopped it. Milton Friedman would be proud.

I notice that the Prize has gone each time to someone almost a generation younger than the previous recipient. I’d guess that trend won’t continue, unless President Obama’s daughter convinces him to privatize Social Security.