More Contempt for Private Property

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has upheld yet another outrageous seizure of private property. From a editorial in the Manchester Union-Leader condemning the ruling:

The state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the government can keep and destroy more than 500 CDs taken from Michael Cohen, owner of Pitchfork Records in Concord, in 2003 even though the state failed to prove that a single disk was illegal.

Cohen was arrested for attempting to sell bootleg recordings. But the police case collapsed when it turned out that most of the recordings were made legally. Police dropped six of the seven charges, and Cohen went to trial on one charge. He beat it after the judge concluded that the recording was legal.

However, the police refused to return Cohen’s CDs. In the state Supreme Court’s Tuesday ruling, Chief Justice John Broderick, writing for the majority, reasoned so poorly that it appeared as if he’d made up his mind ahead of time.

[…]

The majority concedes that no crime or illegal act was proven, but allows the confiscation anyway by concluding that a crime might have been committed. The majority used words such as “apparently,” “likely” and “would have” to describe the alleged illegal activity.

It should go without saying that speculation by a few judges that a crime might have been committed is a frightening basis for taking someone’s property.

Nearly all of the outrages we write about at Cato – foreiture cases, the Kelo case, no-knock and paramilitary raids, and the smoking bans David Boaz blogged about earlier –are the result of the wholesale disintegration of respect for property rights in America. A country that truly believes in private property wouldn’t allow government agents to seize and keep it without due process. Nor would it allow government agents to break down doors to private homes in the middle of the night to enforce consensual crimes – some 40,000 times per year. Nor would it allow the state to take the property of one citizen and give it to another, for purpses of increasing the tax base. Nor would it allow the state to tell a private business owner whom he can and can’t serve, and what terms, in the interest of controlling the private behavior of his customers.

It isn’t surprising that these violations of property rights spill over into violations of personal and economic freedom. Property rights are the very foundation of our civil liberties. A government that’s quick to restrict what its citizens can do with their private property won’t hesitate to restrict, for example, free speech (see campaign finance “reform”). A government that refuses to recognize a man’s property in his own body (re: drug prohibition) won’t hesitate to those laws by confiscating actual, physical property without due process.

The founders of course understood the fundamental connection between private property and civil liberties. James Madison was particularly eloquent on the point:

This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

[…]

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.

[…]

If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.

When government has no respect for our rights of property, we oughtn’t be surprised when, likewise, it fails to respect our property in our rights.

Mismeasuring Progress

It is shocking to discover just how much of the debate over politics and policy rests on semi-arbitrary government standards for measuring things. For example, if you believe the Consumer Price Index speaks with absolute authority, then you will believe obviously absurd things, like the idea that real wages have stagnated. Virginia Postrel has a nice short essay in Forbes [free reg. req.] on this aspect of the mismeasurement of economic progress. If Bureau of Labor Statistics true-believers are right, then

… you have to wonder who’s buying all those flat-screen TVs, serving precooked rotisserie chicken for dinner or organizing their closets with Elfa systems. “Anybody who thinks things are getting worse should go to Best Buy and notice the type of people who go to Best Buy,” says economist Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University.

Gordon is the author of a much-cited study showing that from 1966 to 2001 real income kept up with productivity gains for only the top 10% of earners. What the pessimists who tout his study don’t say is that, while Gordon does find that inequality is increasing, he’s convinced that the picture of middle-class stagnation is false.

“The median person has had steadily improving standards of living,” he says. But real incomes have been understated. The problem lies in how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the cost of living.

Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicolas Eberstadt has a terrific essay on the bizarre and inaccurate method by which the government calculates the poverty rate in the new Policy Review. Eberstadt shows that the official poverty statistics often get things backwards, indicating that poverty is getting worse when it is in fact getting better according to a number of other noncontroversial measures of economic well-being:

The official poverty rate is incapable of representing what it was devised to portray: namely, a constant level of absolute need in American society. The biases and flaws in the poverty rate are so severe that it has depicted a great period of general improvements in living standards — three decades from 1973 onward — as a time of increasing prevalence of absolute poverty. We would discard a statistical measure that claimed life expectancy was falling during a time of ever-increasing longevity, or one that asserted our national finances were balanced in a period of rising budget deficits.

Journalists unfortunately tend to take government numbers as gospel, and therefore end up communicating to the public a badly distorted picture of the state of our economy and society. And far too often intellectually savvy commentators who ought to know better repair to government statistics as if they are pure data, untainted by systematic methodological bias. However, far from a neutral picture of empirical economic reality, we get a funhouse mirror. I don’t think there is any intentional bias in these measurement methods. But there sure is ideological resistance to replacing them with more empirically adequate measures. Things really are getting better all the time, but “reality-based” economic measures might get in the way of some people’s pet policies. And we can’t have that! I think we’ll eventually get better official methods for measuring real income and poverty, but not without a fight.

Bad Intelligence—But in Which Direction?

Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is–and in which direction it’s been wrong.

Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat.  Here are just a few assessments:

Late 1991: In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.’  A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these two or three nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”

February 24, 1993: CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”

January 1995: The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”

January 5, 1995: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”

April 29, 1996: Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”

October 21, 1998: General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years.  ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”

January 17, 2000: A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons.  The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

It goes on for four pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure.  But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran’s capability.  Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.