Free Speech, Loophole, or Partisan Politics?

One of the things I find striking about today’s Supreme Court rulings is the extent to which the free-speech angle is downplayed in media coverage of the Wisconsin Right to Life decision. Consider the LA Times write-up of today’s decisions:

The Supreme Court gave President Bush and Republican leaders two important victories today by clearing the way for corporate-funded broadcast ads before next year’s election and by shielding the White House’s “faith-based initiative” from challenge in the courts.

The term “speech” only appears twice in the coverage of the decision, and in both cases they’re in quotes of the majority decision. The reporter never describes the case as a free-speech case himself. And let’s be clear here: “corporate funded” doesn’t mean ads funded by Exxon-Mobil or Microsoft. In this particular case, it was a pro-life organization—a grassroots non-profit—that was being prevented from promoting its views on television. The NRA, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and dozens of other genuine issue advocacy organizations had their free speech rights curtailed by BCRA. Now check out the coverage of the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case later in the same story:

In a third ruling, the court gave school principals the authority to discipline students who advocate the use of illegal drugs at schools. Roberts said the court was not rejecting the notion that high school students had free-speech rights, but rather making clear that these rights were limited, especially when students advocated in favor of illegal drugs.

The decision reversed a free-speech ruling in favor of a high school student from Juneau, Alaska, who had been suspended for holding up a banner that read “Bong hits for Jesus.”

So the right to unfurl a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner is a free-speech issue, but the right to air television ads critical of elected officials is just partisan politics.

You see the same sort of bias in the New York Times coverage of the ruling. The word “speech” doesn’t appear in the story until the fifth paragraph, at which point it’s used in the following sentence: “Its detractors see it as interference with free speech.” In contrast, in the second paragraph, the article states that “the high court opened a significant loophole in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.”

On the other hand, the headline in the Times write-up of the “Bong Hits” case is: “Supreme Court Limits Students’ Speech Rights.” The article starts off by saying ” The Supreme Court tightened limits on student speech Monday.”

So when a high school principal prohibits a student from displaying a nonsensical “Bong hits 4 Jesus” sign, that’s a restriction on the student’s speech. However, when Congress tells Wisconsin Right-to-Life and the ACLU that they’re not allowed to buy ads criticizing elected officials in the month before an election, that’s merely closing a loophole in campaign finance law.

Deja-vu All Over Again

The Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription barrier) that Philadelphia’s experiment with contracting out the operation of public schools to private providers is in jeopardy. Despite showing improvement since the contracting arrangement was introduced six years ago, a budget crunch is now being used as an excuse by district officials to demand that the program be shut down.

This is EXACTLY what happened to the school management firm Education Alternatives Inc. in Baltimore during the early 1990s. EAI was awarded a contract to run some of the city’s schools, the city subsequently spent itself into insolvency, refused to pay EAI what it was owed, and unilaterally cancelled its contract. I wrote about it all here.

For both practical and political reasons, contracting arrangements like these are dramatically inferior to real market reforms like universal education tax credits or school vouchers. Under these arrangements, schools are still bound by districts’ collective bargaining agreements, and sometimes even remain employees of their districts rather than of the private management firms. Students often continue to be assigned to schools based on their place of residence, rather than having a choice, so instead of creating an educational marketplace these programs simply subcontract the existing monopoly.

Politically, such programs are under constant threat of termination on the slightest pretext – usually budgetary as in the cases mentioned above. For any school choice program to create real, lasting market forces, funding has to be attached to the children and not pass through political or bureaucratic hands before making it to schools. The ideal such program is a tax credit (see link above) that avoids having education funds collected by the state in the first place, while still ensuring universal access to the marketplace.

Regulatory Burden Reaches Record Level

George W. Bush has been a big spender, but he also is increasing the burden of government in other ways. As explained in a piece for Investor’s Business Daily, government red tape has climbed to all-time highs:

…there is much more to government’s reach in the economy than direct spending. The costs to the public of complying with federal health, safety, environmental and economic regulations appear nowhere in the federal budget. Economist Mark Crain’s research for the U.S. Small Business Administration finds that in 2006 regulatory compliance cost Americans $1.14 trillion. Astoundingly, that approaches half of last year’s total federal spending of $2.6 trillion, and exceeds 9% of U.S. GDP… Agencies publish regulations in the Federal Register, the daily depository of all federal rules and regulations. In 2006, the Register swelled to 74,937 pages, the second-highest level in history (the highest was 2004). Within those pages, agencies issued 3,718 final rules. …the 60-plus federal departments, agencies, and commissions are at work on 4,052 more rules. Of these, agencies report 139 are “economically significant,” which means they will cost at least $100 million — often far, far beyond — while 787 are expected to affect small businesses. …Almost 4,000 new rules every year is a lot of “regulation without representation.”

Labor Union Members Protest against Pro-Growth Reforms in Czech Republic

Even though neighboring flat tax nations such as Slovakia are growing faster and creating more jobs, the labor movement in Prague is protesting reforms that would improve the Czech Republic’s competitiveness. The International Herald Tribune reports on this self-destructive impulse:

Around 15,000 labor union members protested in downtown Prague Saturday against the government’s proposed tax reforms and cuts in welfare spending. …If approved, a 15-percent flat tax on personal income would be introduced in 2008. Currently, the personal tax rate ranges from 12 percent to 32 percent, depending on income. The corporate tax rate would be cut from 24 percent to 19 percent by 2010. The draft also includes cuts in social benefits, unemployment benefits, maternity leave payments and health care spending. The labor unions claimed that only the wealthy would benefit from the proposed changes.

Stealing Property

A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:

Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP

The story begins:

The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.

The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.

Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.

The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”

Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.

The Libertarian Case for Free Software

One of the most interesting trends in tech policy over the last decade has been the emergence of free software as a major force in the computer industry. For example, some of our readers probably use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which was developed by a team of volunteers collaborating over the Internet. And in fact, you’re using free software right now! Cato’s own web servers use the Linux operating system and the Apache web server to serve up Cato’s website. Both Linux and Apache are free software, developed by volunteers and made available for free to the general public.

Free software has caught some flack among libertarians who fault it for its failure to rely on the traditional mechanisms of the market. In the latest edition of Cato’s TechKnowledge newsletter, I argue that this criticism is misguided.

Free software is precisely the kind of decentralized, voluntary cooperation that libertarians should be holding up as an alternative to the coercive power of the state. Free software is produced by volunteers donating their time, without a government program in sight. If that’s not a libertarian success story, I don’t know what is.

So why do we see so many libertarians criticizing such peaceful, but noncommercial, forms of social organization? Many are taking the bait offered by the subset of free software proponents who have adopted the rhetoric of the left to promote their goals. We’re used to arguing with these people, who advocate using the state to impose communal forms of organization. Libertarians criticize forcing employees to join unions, prohibiting organ donors from becoming organ sellers, and requiring children to attend government schools. In each case, we hold up markets, business, and money as the tools of voluntary alternatives to coercive government programs.

In these arguments, progressives often claim they can use state power to create and nurture the rich social structures that typify civil society. But they’re wrong. State intervention almost always results in bureaucratized and politicized institutions that pit us against one another in bitter struggles. For example, a lot of progressives laud the potential of public schools to create more unified communities. But in practice, the opposite is true: our public schools have become one of the most divisive institutions in American society. They’ve sparked pitched battles over what to teach our children about sex, evolution, religion, and many other topics. The reality is that you can’t create civil society by government fiat.

So libertarians are right to criticize policies aimed at accomplishing communal goals via coercive means. But some libertarians have gotten so used to defending the market against those who want to impose collectivism that they start criticizing purely voluntary efforts to organize people on more communal lines. They are forgetting that libertarianism is not necessarily about increasing the role of for–profit enterprise in every aspect of our lives. Commercial activity is one alternative to statism, and an extremely important one. But it’s just one possible mode of cooperation, and it’s not necessarily the best choice in every situation.