Bill of Rights Day

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to mention the name of a political candidate in an ad in the weeks preceding an election.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is doing so well that we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can storm into homes in the middle of the night after giving residents a few seconds to answer their “knock” on the door.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for a public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can take away our property and give it to others who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial. That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial. The handful of cases that do go to trial are the ones you see on television — Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, etc.

The Seventh Amendment says that jury trials are guaranteed even in petty civil cases where the controversy exceeds “twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines against people without jury trials. (See “Seventh Amendment Right to Jury Trial in Nonarticle III Proceedings: A Study in Dysfunctional Constitutional Theory,” 4 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 407 (1995)).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are to be reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers are reserved to the states, or to the people.

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control. The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

Another important point to remember is that while we ought to be alarmed by the various ways in which the government is attempting to go under, over, and around our Bill of Rights, the battle will never be “won.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than three million copies of our “Pocket Constitution.” At this time of year, it’ll make a good stocking stuffer. Each year we send a bunch of complimentary copies to the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court so you won’t have to.

Finally, to keep perspective, we should also take note of the many positive developments we’ve experienced in America over the years. And for some positive overall trends, go here.

Bush Expands Government Health Insurance, Again

The Bush administration just approved Indiana’s plan to expand its Medicaid and SCHIP programs. According to the administration’s press release:

[The Healthy Indiana Plan] was approved as a Medicaid Section 1115 demonstration project and will extend health insurance to low-income parents of children now covered by Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), as well as childless adults. To be eligible for coverage, enrollees’ incomes must not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or $20,420 for an individual and $41,300 for a family of four.

Enrollment in the plan will give participants access to a high-deductible health plan that includes an account patterned on the model of a health savings account. To assist with out-of-pocket costs incurred prior to the coverage threshold, both the individual and the state will make contributions to a Personal Wellness and Responsibility (POWER) account. Participant contributions to the POWER account will be set on a sliding scale based on ability to pay, but at no more than five percent of gross family income. Any funds remaining in the account at the end of the year can be rolled-over to offset the following year’s contributions if age-appropriate preventative services are obtained.

Think of it as government-run health care, with a little welfare check thrown in.

And what ever happened to the administration’s protests about SCHIP funds going to adults rather than children?

Talk About a Friday News Dump

The Senate passed the Farm Bill this afternoon by a margin of 79 to a brave 14 (roll call vote here). Readers of this blog will be sufficiently familiar with our views on U.S. farm policy so I won’t reiterate them here. Suffice it to say that it will be interesting to see if President Bush makes good with his veto threat.

Happy Holidays to the American taxpayer/consumer/trade partner from the U.S. Senate!

One of the Better Statements of the Current Health Care Debate

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Though many Americans may not realize it, government is already the dominant player in healthcare, with federal and state expenditures accounting for 47% of the projected $2.3 trillion the nation will spend this year. Indeed, many private insurers follow the lead of the biggest government program, Medicare, in setting coverage policies.

Even if nothing changes, government will pick up more than half the nation’s healthcare tab by 2017. Universal coverage proposals from the leading Democratic presidential candidates would advance that tipping point to 2011, according to a recent analysis by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Leading Republican healthcare experts acknowledge the trend toward a greater role for government — indeed, Bush himself accelerated it when he signed the Medicare prescription drug benefit….

“The debacle is not a partisan war between Democrats and Republicans over how to cover children, it’s a civil war within the Republican Party over the role of government and health policy in general,” said economist Len Nichols, director of the healthcare program at the New America Foundation.

Gotta hand it to Nichols on that one. In fact, Nichols is so sharp that maybe he can explain to Sen. Ron Wyden that universal coverage would not “rein in costs.”

California Speaker Confuses Taxation with Wealth Creation

California is facing a budget shortfall, and one of its most powerful lawmakers thinks the state legislature can meet that shortfall by creating wealth. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) said lawmakers would have to consider raising a host of taxes, including those on Internet purchases and on foreign companies that do business in California.

“We’ve got to close those tax loopholes,” Nuñez told reporters at a news conference. “We can generate billions by doing that.”

According to Dictionary.com, the first three definitions of “generate” are:

  1. to bring into existence; cause to be; produce.
  2. to create by a vital or natural process.
  3. to create and distribute vitally and profusely.

No doubt the speaker wants to distribute those billions vitally and profusely. But raising taxes won’t create billions of dollars. 

Taxes find wealth that others have already created and take it. As in pilfer.  Lift.  Ransack.  Plunder.  Loot.  Steal.  Jack.  Nab.  Grab.  Purloin.  Swipe.  Snag.  Extract.  Nick.  Confiscate.  Seize.  Pinch.  Usurp.  Arrogate.  Dispossess.  Expropriate.  (Yoink.)

Medical Guild Busts Doc for Attempted Quality Competition

According to The Austin-American Statesman:

[A]n Austin doctor [is] among the 64 doctors the Texas Medical Board recently disciplined….

Dr. Marci Roy, an Austin neurologist, must pay a $1,000 fine because of Web site advertising that suggests she has a superior ability to treat carpal tunnel syndrome at her clinic than other doctors who provide similar services, according to the board.

When confronted about the wording, Roy said that it was not a violation of the board’s advertising rules but that she changed the language after a complaint was filed, the order says.

Roy said Friday that the problem was “a typographical error that was corrected immediately.”

“It was certainly inadvertent on my part,” she said.

And we wonder why patients can’t judge physician quality.

Hat tip: MKS.

This Post Won’t Treat Bob Frank Like a Piñata

The New York Times’ Sunday column “Economic View” is a must-read for anyone who cares about economic issues. Four academics (one of whom is Cato adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen) take turns writing the column, and they often use the academic literature to shed light on current issues.

But readers of this blog probably won’t like last weekend’s column, penned by Cornell economist Robert Frank. Frank argues that “realistic proposals for solving our budget problems must include higher revenue,” i.e., new taxes or tax increases. Those proposals, he says, are being blocked by “powerful anti-tax rhetoric [that] has made legislators at every level of government afraid to talk publicly about a need to raise taxes.” 

(I’m not sure how big that phobia is, given the numerous tax increases on the state level in recent years.  But let’s put that aside.)

Frank has spent much of his academic career arguing for raising taxes on wealthier people so as to create greater income equality (some of his work can be found here, here, and here). It would thus be expected that a Cato analyst would bash Frank’s column like a piñata. But I believe there’s merit to what he writes.

Whatever the political power of anti-tax rhetoric, it’s clear from the last seven years that it doesn’t have much effect on government spending. Despite the tax cuts of 2001–2003, Congress and the White House have found all sorts of hyper-expensive programs and actions on which to spend money, from the Iraq War and expanded overall defense spending to the new Medicare Part D, the proposed farm bill, the latest round of energy subsidies, more and more corporate welfareNo Child Left Behind, and a whole new, giant federal agency — (forget the relative spare change of all those wacky transportation earmarks). Whatever criticisms can be lobbed against the 2001–2003 tax cuts (and lower taxes in general), it can’t be said that they’ve hamstrung the government’s ability to spend

Why have the tax cuts not slowed government growth? Because Uncle Sam is quite happy to borrow money. Frank points out that the national debt has increased $3 trillion since 2002, and it will likely rise an additional $5 trillion over the next decade. As NYU law professor Dan Shaviro notes in this 2004 Regulation cover story, that debt is future taxes.

This borrow-and-spend spree means that America has been getting bigger government while (so far) paying the price of smaller government. As Cato chairman Bill Niskanen points out, this dynamic drives the growth of even-bigger government. The First Law of Demand postulates that, ceteris paribus, if the price of a product declines, demand for the product will rise. The apparent price of government has declined — and we’re getting more and more government all the time.

This leads to the core problem of borrow-and-spend public finance: Because today’s taxpayers receive government services without paying the full cost, they (and their political leaders) are not forced to consider:

  • Is this service worth its cost?
  • Would we be better off if government spent its money differently?
  • Would we be better off if government did not tax that money away from us, but we instead spent it privately?

Instead, borrow-and-spend lets both the Big Government crowd and the Anti-Taxes crowd get what they want: the Big Government folks can keep expanding government and the Anti-Taxes folks pay lower taxes — for now.

That’s why there’s merit to Frank’s column — if we were to pay, today, the full cost of government, we’d give much more thought to the opportunity cost of government spending. I strongly suspect there’d be much less demand for government services and much stronger outcry against current spending and spending proposals.

Frank, in the column, appears not to consider that possibility. Instead, he seems to assume that government activity would continue at its current pace, or even expand, under the justification that government must “provide a variety of public goods and services that would be impractical for private citizens to provide for themselves.” But let’s be real here: government spending  is far, far, far beyond anything that could be justified by a public goods problem.

Much public spending — and most all new public spending — is nothing more than government-mandated consumption. Because people don’t value a good or service enough to spend a lot of money on it privately, government forces them to buy the good publicly. That type of public finance is neither welfare-enhancing nor financially responsible — but it certainly earns the love of special interests. That’s how we end up with (pardon the cut-n-paste) Medicare Part D, the proposed farm bill, the latest round of energy subsidies, more and more corporate welfareNo Child Left Behind, and all those wacky transportation earmarks.

So, Prof. Frank, I say bully for you! If we follow your proposal, I think we’ll move several steps closer to limited government.