Were You Surprised that DC’s Gun Ban Was Declared Unconstitutional?

Last week, a federal appeals court overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban on the grounds that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a functional firearm in her home.

Some were shocked by the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment.  After all, we’ve heard for years that the prefatory clause of that amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” limits the operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” to instances where arms are used in connection with service in the militia.

Those who follow Second Amendment scholarship, however, were not surprised by the court’s reasoning.  For years, scholars have examined the text, history, and context of the Second Amendment.  Those scholars built up a large body of evidence demonstrating that the “collective right” interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

That effort arguably began with Prof. Sanford Levinson’s 1989 Yale Law Journal article, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” where he wrote:

For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members. That will no longer do. It is time for the Second Amendment to enter full scale into the consciousness of the legal academy.

Elsewhere, my colleague Tim Lynch links to reviews of several works that followed.  One of the more interesting contributions to this line of scholarship is an article by Prof. Robert J. Cottrol titled, “A Liberal Democrat’s Lament: Gun Control Is Racist, Sexist, and Classist.”  That article begins with a forceful quotation from Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey in support of “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms.”  Cottrol concludes:

[T]he ultimate civil right is the right to defend one’s own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless, and that without the means of self-defense the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

The majority opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia is evidence that serious scholars heeded that call, a good summary of the debate over the Second Amendment, and a lesson about how honest, careful scholarship can defeat a very appealing myth. 

Hats off to those scholars, the litigants, and their counsel.

What if the ‘Surge’ Succeeds?

Robert Kagan, a long-time senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for the Washington Post. On the chance that Kagan’s views were not getting enough exposure, the White House helpfully e-mailed the column to me this morning as part of their “Iraq Update: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT” series (ALL CAPS in the original).

It puzzles me that the Post and the White House would want to shine so much attention on Kagan given his long record of faulty predictions with respect to Iraq. After all, one wouldn’t expect CNBC, BusinessWeek or Money magazine to be touting financial analysts and stock pickers who were strong advocates of ENRON, WorldCom and Tyco.

And it is not like this is a passing fancy; Kagan has been bullish on war with Iraq for years. Kagan signed the infamous open letter to President Clinton in January 1998 calling for military action against Iraq ”in the near term” given that “diplomacy is clearly failing.” Less than six months later, he repeated his call for military action in an open letter to then-congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.

One year after the start of the Iraq war, Kagan and frequent co-author William Kristol noted the “obvious success” of the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution and “other measures of progress” including “electricity and oil production” and signs of damage to the Baathist-led insurgency. Despite continued violence, Kagan and Kristol cautiously predicted, “We may have turned a corner in terms of security.”

Kagan and Kristol were particularly encouraged by the “hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together.” Then they took a shot at the Iraq war skeptics, “both here and in Europe” who predicated “that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath.”

After compiling a list of Kagan’s greatest hits, salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald asks “Why would any rational person listen to Robert Kagan?” Of course, Kagan is free to write or opine or do whatever he likes – and the rest of us are free to ignore him. But it isn’t enough to ignore the people who got us into the war, and who now expect us to take them seriously on what to do next. As Greenwald notes, scorn is much more appropriate.

However, what if Kagan is right? What if he has finally gotten something right, after years of inaccurate predictions and fallacious reasoning? For the sake of argument, I’ll take him up on the premise of his latest article, “The ‘Surge’ Is Succeeding.” The column begins: “A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.”

I wonder if the American public much cares. The public realizes what Kagan does not: the costs of the Iraq war have already far exceeded any benefits that we as a nation might ultimately derive from it, even if we did not spend another dime on the venture, and even if no more soldiers are killed or wounded.

If, in fact, a miracle has happened, if a mere 8,000 or so of the expected 25,000 additional troops have succeeded where 140,000 U.S. troops have failed for the past four years, if this small number of U.S. military personnel have driven the insurgency underground, stiffened the resolve of the Iraqi government, cowed Iraq’s neighbors into cooperating, and paved the way for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, we can all be thankful for that.

But wait. Robert Kagan does not favor an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. Indeed, Kagan celebrates the announcement that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will remain at their current levels ”through at least the beginning of 2008” (again putting the lie to the notion of a surge, which implies a short-term increase).

Even 2008 is too soon to speak of withdrawal as far as Kagan is concerned. Any talk of drawing down forces (ever it is implied) can only give comfort to Moqtada al Sadr and al-Qaeda.

So if, by Kagan’s reasoning, the surge is succeeding, it merely paves the way for an indefinite troop presence at more or less current levels, at a cost of approximately $150 billion, perhaps 1,000 or so American troops killed, and 10 to 15 times that number wounded, each year.

That is what we get if the surge is succeeding. We shouldn’t be surprised that the public demands success of a different sort, the kind that will stop the flow of lives and money into the Iraqi quagmire that Kagan has long advocated.

So-Called Consumer Protection Law Hurts Consumers

Headline-seeking politicians like to enact laws that ostensibly protect consumers from predatory businesses. Item-pricing laws are a good example. They supposedly exist to protect consumers from being overcharged by unscrupulous grocery stores, even though research shows that stores are just as likely to make mistakes that benefit consumers. Requiring individual price tags, though, is an unambiguous negative for shoppers, raising prices by as much as 10 percent because of added labor costs. A column in the Wall Street Journal explains:

New York and several other states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island and sometimes in Connecticut) have an “Item Pricing Law” (IPL) requiring that, for most goods in retail stores, each item have its own individual price sticker; in other states a simple price tag on the shelf is considered sufficient. …Prices in IPL stores are 20 cents to 25 cents higher per item than in non-IPL stores. …The maximum estimate of the benefit of avoiding overcharges to consumers through IPLs is less that one cent per item. …The laws are a bad deal for consumers. How significant are these price differences – about a quarter per item? The average price of the items in our sample was about $2.50, so there is a 10% difference. This implies that prices of groceries are almost 10% higher in IPL stores. Food represents about 14% of the average family’s budget. IPLs, therefore, reduce the real incomes of families by more than 1% – a nontrivial amount. In sum, our study shows that IPLs impose net costs on consumers much greater than any potential benefit. Jurisdictions without them should not pass them, and jurisdictions with them should repeal them. In New York City, where costs and so prices are already very high, consumers would greatly benefit from a 10% reduction in grocery prices.

Net Worth Climbs to Record Level

New figures from the Federal Reserve show that household wealth in America is now more than $55 trillion. This is worth noting, both because it illustrates the tremendous wealth generated by an economy when tax rates are low and the burden of government is modest (at least compared to most of our friends in Europe) and because it should relieve some of the anxiety of people who fret that Americans do not save enough. To be sure, there are many households who do not have assets, and there are many government programs and tax policies that discourage saving, but there is not a crisis of inadequate savings in America. Investors’ Business Daily offers a cheerful assessment of the economy:

In the fourth quarter of 2006, total net worth — that is, everything people own minus what they owe — jumped 7.4% to $55.63 trillion. We’ve added as much wealth in the last decade as we did in our nation’s first 220 years. … the average household in America owns about $487,095 worth of stuff, free and clear. That’s a big jump from recent years. As recently as 2001, average household wealth was $373,170. So in five years we’ve become a third richer — a truly amazing fact. … Unemployment, at just 4.5%, is way below its long-term average. Real incomes are rising strongly. Inflation remains tame. Company profits — a measure of how efficient businesses are at using scarce resources — are at all-time highs. And, in addition to being richer, we live longer, healthier lives than ever. Even people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder have far more than they did a decade ago.

More on the Second Amendment Ruling

The Washington Post has a story today on the plaintiffs in the landmark Second Amendment lawsuit.  Among the plaintiffs interviewed is Cato’s Tom Palmer, who once had to use a firearm in self-defense.

Cato associate policy analyst, David Kopel, recently did a Second Amendment literature survey [pdf]. Take the list and go directly to Amazon!  Buy some for your friends as well.  Come to think of it, it’s the perfect graduation gift for third year law students-especially those who will be going to work as clerks on the Supreme Court next year!

For those interested in a shortcut through all the legal and historical material, I suggest you listen to this Cato briefing–featuring the key players who masterminded last week’s legal victory.

For more legal posts on last week’s ruling and the Second Amendment generally, visit Instapundit, How Appealing, and the Volokh Conspiracy.  For related Cato work, go here.

Let America Benefit from Brain Drain

In a globalized economy, it is very easy for capital to cross national borders. This provides an excellent way for the market to punish governments that over-tax, over-spend, and over-regulate since capital will flow to jurisdictions with less statism. It also is increasingly easy for skilled labor to shift from less competitive nations to those with more opportunity. The United States often is at the top of the list of desired destinations for the world’s best-and-brightest. Unfortunately, even though these skilled workers and entrepreneurs would generate more wealth for America, they often are unable to overcome restrictive immigration laws. Investors’ Business Daily explains how this policy hurts the United States:

America has it all backward. Our country’s doors are open to the low-skilled while we keep out the talent that’s crucial to our competitiveness. …The global economy is a brain game, and the nations with the best-educated work forces are the ones that win. …there’s a talent gap that can be filled only by relaxing restrictions on foreign computer scientists, software engineers and other highly trained workers who want jobs in the U.S. …Much of the work in fields such as software development might still get done offshore. But that would not produce jobs here. More critically in the long run, it would deny America a stream of capable, creative people. For many visa holders, the temporary permit is a step toward permanent residency. Allowed to stay, they may do more than just work here. They may start their own businesses and create work for others. …The issue here isn’t America’s failure to control its borders. It’s that America does too good a job of excluding some of the people it most needs.

Iceland’s Laffer Curve

The Wall Street Journal notes that corporate tax revenue has jumped dramatically in Iceland, even though the corporate tax rate has been slashed to 18 percent. That sentence actually should say that revenues jumped because of the lower tax rate. Iceland is a clear example of the Laffer Curve. As the rate fell, companies had less reason to avoid taxes. The low rate also encouraged additional economic activity. Iceland’s workers are the biggest winners, of course, since they now enjoy higher incomes and more prosperity:

The benefits of low taxes are on full display in Iceland, which provides an almost perfect demonstration of the Laffer Curve. From 1991 to 2001, as the corporate-tax rate fell gradually to 18% from 45%, tax revenues tripled to 9.1 billion kronas ($134 million in today’s exchange rate) from just above 3 billion kronas. Since 2001, revenues more than tripled again to an estimated 33 billion kronas last year. Personal income-tax rates were cut gradually as well, to a flat rate of 22.75% this year from 33% in 1995. Meanwhile, the economy averaged annual growth rates of about 4% over the past decade.

The editorial also notes that tax competition is encouraging good policy in other European jurisdictions. It is not surprising that Swiss cantons are lowering tax rates, but it is noteworthy that even the tax-loving German politicians are being forced to reduce the tax burden:

In addition to Eastern Europe’s flat-tax movement, there is healthy rivalry from Switzerland, where the individual cantons can set their rates independently. Obwalden just lowered its corporate-tax rate to 6.6%, drawing criticism from the European Union, which called it an illegal subsidy. One of the biggest critics, Germany, recently announced that it will cut its corporate-tax rate to just below 30% next year from the current rate of about 38%.