No Student Is an Island

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Yesterday, Thomas Sowell struck a variation on this theme, reminding readers that no man is an economic island, and whatever aid government gives to college students it takes from other people, and whatever it subsidizes distorts the prices that keep us all connected:

The general thrust of human interest stories about people with economic problems, whether they are college students or people faced with mortgage foreclosures, is that the government ought to come to their rescue, presumably because the government has so much money and these individuals have so little.

Like most “deep pockets,” however, the government’s deep pockets come from vast numbers of people with much shallower pockets. In many cases, the average taxpayer has lower income than the people on whom the government lavishes its financial favors.

Costs are not just things for government to help people to pay. Costs are telling us something that is dangerous to ignore.

The inadequacy of resources to produce everything that everyone wants is the fundamental fact of life in every economy — capitalist, socialist, or feudal. This means that the real cost of anything consists of all the other things that could have been produced with those same resources.

Sowell’s is a lesson that everyone should learn who thinks that even the hint of a student-loan crunch means that government should come to students’ rescue. Perhaps even more importantly, as John Merrifield points out in his new policy analysis, prices are a crucial piece missing from our socialized K-12 education system—and many school choice programs—leaving us utterly unable to tell the relative value of any school, program, or teacher.

It’s absolutely true that no man is an island. Too bad no one in politics seems to read John Donne — or Thomas Sowell.

Even Argentina’s Good Policies Undermine Its Rule of Law

Much as I hate to rain on my colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo’s understandable happiness at the decriminalization of personal consumption/possession of small amounts of drugs, this doesn’t exactly represent a ray of hope in Argentina’s otherwise gloomy policy mix.  Not because I believe in the War on Drugs – I can’t imagine anybody at Cato does – but because it was a court that reached this decision instead of a policymaking body.

Imagine the outcry if the U.S. Supreme Court simply decreed a policy it didn’t like to be unconstitutional – I know, with Justices Stevens and Kennedy at the apogee of their powers, it’s not a far stretch.  Better yet, recall the poison the Court injected into our legal and political systems when it short-circuited the political process by inventing a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (again, I’m not saying anything about the underlying policy arguments).

So it is here: Instead of having the Argentine Congress change the law, the nation’s Supreme Court (by a vote of 4-3) simply decreed that criminalizing drug use is unconstitutional.  Reports are still sketchy, but this sounds like precisely the kind of judicial fiat developing (or any) countries need to avoid if they want to strengthen the rule of law.

Argentina Decriminalizes Drug Consumption

This just in… A federal court in Argentina has decriminalized the personal consumption of drugs in that country. According to the court’s ruling, punishing drug users only “creates an avalanche of cases targeting consumers without climbing up in the ladder of [drug] trafficking.”

Last month at a UN meeting in Vienna, Argentina’s Minister of Justice, Aníbal Fernández, said that the policy of punishing drug consumers was a “total failure.”

Finally one piece of good news from Argentina.

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Looking for Advice in the Wrong Place

Venezuela’s food programs

Five Central American presidents have asked Hugo Chávez for advice in supplying food to their populations. According to Honduras’ president Manuel Zelaya, “Venezuela has many [food] programs that are worth taking a look at.”

Tell that to the thousands of Venezuelans who every day wait in line at supermarkets and stores for hours in order to get simple items such as milk or meat. Hugo Chávez’s policies (such as price controls) have caused serious shortages in a country that is awash with oil money.

I’m sure Central Americans are better off without Chávez’s advice.

Howley on E-Verify

Kerry Howley has a great article on the supposedly common-sense proposal to create a massive federal database of eligible workers as a disincentive to illegal immigration:

While undocumented workers probably contribute more in federal taxes than they consume in federal services, no one doubts that they pose some fiscal burden to border communities where they arrive. Still, you’d have to take an improbably extreme view of these costs to deem the SAVE Act fiscally rational. According to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), the act would decrease federal revenues by $17.3 billion between 2009 and 2018 as formerly tax-paying workers go underground. The costs of expanding E-verify and a bunch of other goodies stuffed into SAVE (thousands more border agents, a program to recruit former members of the armed forces to join the border patrol, more SUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles, hundreds of full time immigration investigators, expanded immigration detention centers) come to $23.4 billion in discretionary spending during the same period. And that doesn’t touch the cost to individual employers, who are being slapped with a huge regulatory burden in the midst of impending recession.

No presidential candidate has come out in favor of Schuler’s bill, most likely because the bill includes no avenue for undocumented workers who wish to become legal. Herein lies the ambitious stupidity of SAVE: If the bill works as intended, it will instantly turn the population of 12 million undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal into 12 million unemployed undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal. For a political constituency constantly worried about “anarchy,” this does not appear to be an ideal situation.

The SAVE Act may or may not come to a vote this session, but employment verification will almost certainly be a part of future compromise legislation on immigration reform. That’s worrying. Walls offend us aesthetically and symbolically; they’re clumsy and primitive and cruel. But they’re also easy to tear down; far easier than a slowly metastasizing system of total employment surveillance, of growing databases and expanding bureaucracies.

Our own Jim Harper has justifiably called the e-verify program Franz Kafka’s solution to illegal immigration. According to the Social Security Administration’s own estimates, almost 18 million Social Security records contain errors, many of them pertaining to US citizens. If even a small fraction of those problems find their way into the e-verify program, we’d be looking at millions of American citizens suddenly forced to “prove” to federal bureaucrats that they’re “eligible” to have a job. Giving the federal government the power to decide which US citizens are allowed to work for a living seems to me like a much bigger threat to our freedoms than anything illegal immigrants have done.

NCSL Calls for Repeal of REAL ID

The National Conference of State Legislatures wants the REAL ID Act gone. It supports S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007, which would repeal the REAL ID Act and reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process on identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that an organization like this would reject a behemoth of a project like building a national ID and surveillance system. The NCSL isn’t a small-government organization, and it could just as well have lobbied for billions of dollars in funding.

Microsoft Volunteers to Be the Poster Child for DMCA Reform

One of the big challenges of writing about tech policy is the difficulty of explaining the subjects I write about for a general audience. This was a particular challenge a couple of years ago when I wrote a Cato Policy Analysis about the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—just typing that out is a chore. I wish I could have pointed to this story as an example, because it brilliantly illustrates my argument.

A few years back, Microsoft developed a copy-protection scheme called PlaysForSure (it will become clear shortly how ironic that name was) that was supposed to prevent music customers from engaging in Internet piracy with music they bought from online music stores. Microsoft licensed the format to a variety of different companies and aggressively promoted it as an alternative to Apple’s iTunes-iPod ecosystem. Unfortunately, Microsoft failed to close the gap with Apple, so in 2006 Microsoft unveiled a new product line called Zune, effectively discontinuing development of PlaysForSure. Zunes are incompatible with PlaysForSure music. If you built up a music library in the PlaysForSure format, it would, um, not play for sure (or at all) on a Zune music player.

Up to this point this is just an ordinary business story, and nothing for libertarians to be concerned about. Companies drop old product lines all the time, and sometimes that means customers are stuck with compatibility headaches. But there’s just one problem: not only will Microsoft not help you play your PlaysForSure music on a Zune, but it’s illegal under the DMCA for anyone else to develop software to convert PlaysForSure music to a format that could play on Zunes, iPods, or any other format. Such software would be considered a “circumvention device”—ostensibly a piracy tool—and could bring civil and criminal penalties. If you were stupid enough to buy music in PlaysForSure format, you’re stuck with the dwindling number of PlaysForSure-compatible music programs still left on the market. You can burn your music to CDs, and then re-rip them to an open format, but this is a time-consuming process if you have a large music library, and it will lead to some degradation in the quality of the music.

As if all that weren’t enough, Microsoft yesterday announced the next step in its campaign to make the DMCA look ridiculous: this fall, it will be switching off the license servers that allow customers to “authorize” new computers and operating systems to play music from customers that bought music from its now-defunct MSN Music store. This means that if you have a library of music from the MSN Music store, and you buy a new computer or upgrade your operating system, there will be no legal way to take your music library with you.

If Congress hadn’t enacted the DMCA, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Third parties could develop software utilities that would automatically convert peoples’ PlaysForSure-formatted music collections into an open format like MP3, which would allow it be played on almost any computer or music player. Customers wouldn’t have to worry about whether their computer had been “authorized,” or whether the company they’d purchased the music from was running the necessary “license server.”

The most frustrating thing about this is that forcing consumers to jump through these hoops hasn’t made a dent in illicit file sharing. To this day, the music industry sells most of its music in the copy-protection-free CD format. Anyone can buy a CD, rip it to MP3 format, and upload it to the Internet. And music downloaded from peer-to-peer networks comes free of copy protection. Which means that the hassles imposed on consumers by the DMCA and copy protection formats like PlaysForSure haven’t slowed down piracy at all. All they’ve done is created unnecessary headaches for customers who were foolish enough to obey the law and pay for the music they downloaded.