Regulatory Excess in the States

George Will’s Townhall.com column describes some of the more inane efforts to impose cartels at the state level:

In New Mexico, anyone can work as an interior designer. But it is a crime, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in prison, to list yourself on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages as, or to otherwise call yourself, an “interior designer” without being certified as such. Those who favor this censoring of truthful commercial speech are a private group that controls, using an exam administered by a private national organization, access to that title. This is done in the name of “professionalization,” but it really amounts to cartelization. Persons in the business limit access by others – competitors – to full participation in the business. …in Las Vegas, where almost nothing is illegal, it is illegal – unless you are licensed, or employed by someone licensed – to move, in the role of an interior designer, any piece of furniture, such as an armoire, more than 69 inches tall. A Nevada bureaucrat says that “placement of furniture” is an aspect of “space planning” and therefore is regulated – restricted to a “registered interior designer.” Placing furniture without a license? Heaven forfend.

Will notes - quite accurately - that businesses are in favor of regulation when it means they can raise prices on consumers and/or disadvantage competitors. This is why there is a big difference between being pro-market and pro-business:

It is not true that businesses, as a matter of principle, want to fend off government regulation. Businesses have a metabolic urge to make money, which is as it should be. But when a compliant government gives them the opportunity to use government regulations to enhance their moneymaking, businesses’ metabolic urge will overpower any principles about the virtues of free (from government intervention) enterprise.

Update on Hillary 1984

The mysterious creator of the Orwellian YouTube ad about Hillary Clinton has been unmasked. He is Philip de Vellis, a strategist with Blue State Digital, a digital consulting firm with ties to rival Sen. Barack Obama. The ad ended with a plug for Obama, but the Obama campaign had denied any knowledge of it. Blue State designed Obama’s website; the company fired de Vellis yesterday. And Democratic operative de Vellis was properly chastened: “I want to make it clear that I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is Big Brother or a bad person or anything.”

Chemerinsky on Parker v. District of Columbia

On March 14, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Duke law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. I sent the following letter to the editor in response:

Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky claims [“A Well-Regulated Right to Bear Arms,” March 14] that the federal court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit “interpreted the Second Amendment as bestowing on individuals a right to have guns,” and as “creating a right for individuals to have firearms.” Yet the court took great pains to explain that the amendment neither creates nor bestows the right to keep and bear arms. According to the court, “The wording of the [amendment] indicates that the right to keep and bear arms was not created by government, but rather preserved by it,” and that it is “a right that pre-existed the Constitution like ‘the freedom of speech’” [emphasis in original].

The fact that both Prof. Chemerinsky and the Post’s editorial page (which had previously criticized the court’s opinion) missed that laboriously made distinction suggests that they might have read the opinion more closely before criticizing it.

Prof. Chemerinsky also claims that even if courts conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, the D.C. gun ban should nevertheless stand. He argues that the Supreme Court should not apply “strict scrutiny” to laws that curtail the right to keep and bear arms because he sees no reason to distrust legislatures in this area. Instead, he argues that the courts should apply the less rigorous rational basis test to such laws, which they have applied to laws restricting the constitutionally protected right to property. Chemerinsky concludes that the D.C. gun ban should be upheld as being “rationally related to achieving [the] legitimate government purpose” of reducing gun violence.

I see serious problems with Chemerinsky’s case. First, the Constitution gives no indication that some of the rights it secures should receive less protection than others. Second, even if one were to accept that premise, the right to self-defense is leaps and bounds more important than the right to property or the right not to be discriminated against by the government on the basis of race. Even if we accept that some constitutional rights are more equal than others, then by Chemerinsky’s rationale the courts should apply strict scrutiny because there is ample reason to doubt any legislative act that infringes on so important a right. Third, as my colleague Bob Levy points out, “In Carolene Products, economic and property rights are relegated to second-tier status, but the rights expressly secured by the Bill of Rights – like the right to keep and bear arms – get top billing. So Chemerinsky’s suggestion that rational basis applies is at odds with Carolene.”

Finally, the D.C. gun ban should not survive even the rational basis test. To do so, it would have to be shown that an effective prohibition on the use of firearms for self-defense is a reasonable restriction on the right to keep and bear arms. Such a severe law is not reasonable, because it leaves peaceful citizens defenseless against violent criminals. And neither is it a mere restriction of the right to keep and bear arms; it is outright repeal. If the rational basis test can be used to uphold the repeal of a constitutionally protected right, then neither that test nor the Bill of Rights have any meaning. Chemerinsky’s logic would allow the District to abolish private property so long as it had a “rational basis” for doing so.

But

“I’m for free enterprise, but –” You can hear it coming. “I’m against all these government giveaway programs, but –” It’s a common and frustrating experience for a libertarian, hearing a ringing declaration of principle followed by a qualification that the speaker doesn’t have any intention of giving up his own subsidy, regulation, tariff, or pet project.

Years ago, when I was raising money for a free-market business group, I remember one of those letters: “I agree with everything you say. Government is too big. Subsidies and regulation are impeding the operation of our free enterprise system. But the Hawaiian sugar industry is unique.” A friend told me once that he’d persuaded his father, a dentist, to become a consistent libertarian–except on licensing for dentists. What about licensing for brain surgeons? I asked. No, my friend said, I think he’s OK with letting the free market work there.

And now NPR has brought us the latest example. On the way home, my mind wandered as “All Things Considered” reported on a biodiesel refinery in Washington state. And then I heard a familiar opening line from the tech millionaire who is now the CEO of Imperium Renewables, which built the refinery.

I’m a pretty conservative guy, generally. I’ve voted Republican my whole entire life. And I’m very skeptical of the government’s role in any kind of market.

Wait for it, wait for it – you just know there’s a “but” coming.

But, in this case, there’s no other way to do it but with government support and mandates.

Turns out biodiesel is profitable with a federal tax subsidy of up to a dollar a gallon, and with the anticipation of restrictions on greenhouse gases. So a guy who’s normally “very skeptical of the government’s role” supports subsidies in this case because there’s “no other way to do it.” But that’s the whole point of markets and prices–to tell us what economic endeavors make sense. If Hawaiian sugar, or South Carolina textiles, or biodiesel fuel isn’t economically viable without subsidies, then that means it’s not the best use of our limited resources.

One of the values of a political philosophy–sometimes dismissed as “ideology” or “dogma”–is that it gives us a rule, a set of principles, for deciding such questions. We don’t have the time to look at all the data and decide what we think about every issue, and we’re certainly all subject to personal biases on the issues that touch us. There are lots of speakers I’d personally like to shut up, but if I remember that I do believe in the First Amendment, I realize I have to allow even offensive speech. I may want Amtrak to run fast trains between Washington and New York, or I may want to keep my own factory in business. But if I remember that the free-market economy produces the best results for all of us, then I will accept the outcomes of the market process.

People should think about the benefits of the whole libertarian system–free markets, free speech, freedom of religion, constitutional limits on government–whenever they’re tempted to say “I’m for freedom, but–”.

Sawing Through the Limb You’re Standing On

I was just asked by a business reporter about the state of economics education in the United States, and thought I’d share my response:

There are no national or international benchmarks for student achievement in economics, so it’s hard to precisely gauge Americans’ grasp of the subject. The available evidence is not comforting, however. An academic survey study conducted in 1990 compared how much Americans and Russians understood about the way markets work. It found no significant difference. Americans understood free markets no better than a nation of people with virtually no personal experience of them. That’s sobering. And since the heaviest academic emphasis of the last fifteen years has been on elementary mathematics and reading, there is little reason to believe that we have improved our grasp of economics in the interim.

This should come as no surprise, for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, the academic performance of U.S. twelfth graders is at or near the bottom in mathematics and science according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, when compared to the performance of students in other industrialized nations. We’re doing poorly in other subjects, why should economics be any different?

Second, it would be institutionally suicidal for a monopoly school system to do a good job of teaching market economics. The very fact that we continue to have a monopoly school system is retroactive proof that market economics has not been well taught. Monopolies, after all, tend to be frowned on by the economically savvy.

Note that this observation does not assume that government school officials are deliberately neglecting instruction in market economics. It simply posits that if they had been doing a good job of it, the system would already have been supplanted by one organized along free market lines.

Reality Hits 4 Public Schooling

Perhaps with the Supreme Court hearing a case on Monday pitting a student’s right to proclaim “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” against a public school’s need to maintain order, it was inevitable that public schooling conflicts would get some attention. If nothing else, what media outfit would pass up the chance to grab peoples’ attention with a phrase as absurd – but vaguely subversive – as “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”?

But maybe it’s not just a banner emblazoned with a bizarre phrase – which then-high school senior Joseph Frederick says he held up as a joke that ultimately got him suspended when the Olympic torch was run past his high school in January 2002 – that has brought attention to the fact that public schooling forces people and their values into conflict. Maybe, as I chronicled in Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, it’s that such battles are constant – indeed, almost inevitable – in public schools for which all people must pay, but in which only one set of values can prevail.

Illustrating just how common such fighting is, at the same time the bong hits case was grabbing headlines this week, several other public schooling conflicts were in the news, including skirmishes over dress codes, a teacher giving kids material containing Biblical references, photo standards for yearbooks, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the content of public school library and text books. And just yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a piece by columnist Patrick McIlheran that examined several battles being fought in public schools, and reached the only conclusion possible:

Nothing so fractures society as imposing beliefs people loathe….Of course the culture wars rage around schools. They will rage there as long as we hold to the idea that common schools can establish a unanimity that no longer exists, if ever it did. …

School choice is the answer. However it works, by charters or open enrollment or by vouchers, it recognizes that parents aren’t willing to think of their children as the common property of the state.

That schooling grounded in coercion and forced unity is doomed to constant rancor is a message, it seems, that might finally be getting out. If it does, we just might have the silly phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” – as well as countless public schooling battles – to thank for it.

Is Hillary 2008 like IBM 1984?

The Washington Post has a big story on a “viral attack ad” about Hillary Clinton that’s been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Jose Antonio Vargas and Howard Kurtz report:

It’s a “mash-up” of Ridley Scott’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial that portrayed IBM as an Orwellian Big Brother and introduced Apple’s Macintosh as the bright new vanguard of computing. But now it’s Big Sister, Clinton, vs. the upstart, Sen. Barack Obama.

The ad shows the oppressed masses staring in unison at a huge screen featuring Hillary Clinton as phrases from her deadly “conversations” lull the viewer into a stupor. As she drones on, a young blond woman in athletic gear twirls with a sledgehammer, then hurls it into Clinton’s giant image.

The ad concludes with the tagline “On January 14, the Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984.”

The most interesting point in the Post story is that Vargas and Kurtz were unable to find out who created and posted the ad. It ends with a plug for Barack Obama, but the Obama campaign denies any knowledge of it. On YouTube, the creator claims to be 59 years old and gives the user name ParkRidge47. He or she didn’t answer emails from the Post. But Vargas and Kurtz note that Hillary Rodham was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1947, which makes her 59 years old.

Did she post the video herself? It hardly seems likely. But then – just last night, on FX’s “Dirt,” an actress gained great notoriety, then sympathy, then career advancement after a graphic sex tape featuring her was posted on the internet. And after much investigation, it was discovered that she posted it herself.

Still, it surely wasn’t Clinton or her supporters. It was created by someone who prefers Obama. And it’s a great example of anonymous pamphleteering for the internet age. As Jonathan Wallace pointed out in a Cato study, that’s a tradition that goes back to Cato’s Letters and the Federalist Papers. But our modern election laws have tried to stamp out anonymity. All expressions of political support are supposed to be disclosed, reported, and regulated. But why do we need to know who created this great ad? If you take offense at it, create a better one in response.