Lynching, The Rule Of Law, and America’s Past

In connection with his new book The Libertarian Mind, my colleague David Boaz wrote a piece last week on how the struggle to abolish slavery was a defining episode for classical liberals and proto-libertarians of the past, indeed arguably their greatest accomplishment. In America, libertarian history and black history cannot be separated. 

We also know that after the end of slavery, the racial subjugation of American blacks did not end, but took new forms. As a new generation of historians has helped the nation remember, the “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws that spread across the South after Reconstruction were part of an interlocking array of practices that at its worst succeeded in recreating “slavery by another name.” Some of those laws were explicitly racial–and “segregation” is wholly inadequate as a description of the racial subordination they enforced–but others worked through theoretically race-neutral legal institutions, including convict-leasing combined with steep penalties for minor or pretended offenses, debt peonage for tenant farmers, and laws prohibiting “vagrancy” (i.e., unemployment) or walking away from a labor contract, among other offenses.  

The other main branch of legalized racial oppression after the Civil War was, if anything, even more difficult yet necessary to confront: sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state, symbolized by the practice of lynching. Last week the Equal Justice Initiative released a report (summary here) that was written up in the New York Times and has drawn attention from commentators including conservative Rod Dreher.

The details–be warned that they are gruesome in the extreme–include burnings alive and public tortures and mutilations carried out before crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of persons. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

Diet Change and Climate Change

A draft set of new dietary guidelines released yesterday by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was backed by a 571-page scientific report from the 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee (DGAC) that was assembled by the Obama administration.

The Washington Post reports that, for the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines took into consideration the environmental impacts of food production in recommending that Americans decrease their consumption of red meat and increase their intake of plant-based food.

This is from the DGAC’s Executive Summary (emphasis added):

The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.

Among the environmental considerations is greenhouse gas emissions, which are significant for one reason only: climate change (despite the DGAC report explicitly stating it did not take into account climate change).

This is another example of the breadth of Obama’s Climate Action Plan—although one not announced as such … yet.

In anticipation, I wanted to see just what kind of a climate change impact these dietary guidelines could potentially avert.

My calculations are admittedly rough, but you’ll see once you get to the end, that it hardly makes much of difference even if I am off my an order of magnitude.

Evidenced-based Sea Level Rise Projections Remain Low

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

When it comes right down to it, the biggest potential threat from a warming climate is a large and rapid sea level rise. Everything else that a changing climate may bring we’ve seen before (or at least the likes of it), recovered from, and are better off for it (i.e., gained experience, learned lessons, developed new technologies, etc.). In fact, the more often extreme weather occurs, the more adaptive is our response (see for example, decreasing mortality in heat waves). So in that sense, climate change may hasten our adaptive response and reduce our overall vulnerability to it.

A large and rapid sea level rise is a bit of a different story—although perhaps not entirely so.

While we do have a large amount of infrastructure (e.g., big cities) in low-lying coastal regions, it is completely wrong to show them underwater in the future—a typical device used by climate activists. What will happen is that we will act to protect the most valued portions of that infrastructure, as shown in a recent report from leading experts (including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) on sea level rise and response.

But, while targeted action will save our big cities, there is still a lot of real estate that will be lost if sea level rises a large amount in a short amount of time (say, by more than a meter [a little more than 3 feet] by the end of the 21st century).

We therefore keep a vigilant eye on sea level rise research. And what we’ve concluded is that sea level rise by the year 2100 is very likely to be quite modest, say about 15 inches—an amount that should allay concerns of a catastrophe. We’ve detailed literature in support of our conclusions here, there, and elsewhere.

This week, a new paper has come to our attention that further supports our synthesis.

Interventionist Wreckage: Kosovo and Libya

Proving that hawks never seem to learn, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the other usual suspects are advocating more substantial U.S. involvement in the civil wars convulsing such places as Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. Before we head down that road again, we ought to insist that proponents of U.S. military crusades defend the results of their previous ventures. That exercise would cause all except the most reckless interventionists to hesitate.

It’s not merely the catastrophic outcomes of the Afghan and Iraq wars, which were pursued at enormous cost in both blood and treasure. The magnitude of those debacles is recognized by virtually everyone who is not an alumnus of George W. Bush’s administration. But even the less notorious interventions of the past two decades have produced results that should humble would-be nation builders. The current situations in Kosovo and Libya are case studies in the folly of U.S. meddling.

The United States led its NATO allies in a 78-day air war against Serbia to force that country to relinquish its disgruntled, predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. In early 2008, the Western powers bypassed the United Nations Security Council and facilitated Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. But today’s Kosovo is far from being a success story. In the past few months, there has been a surge of refugees leaving the country, fleeing a dysfunctional economy and mounting social tensions. Despite a massive inflow of foreign aid since the 1999 war, a third of the working-age population are unemployed, and an estimated 40 percent of the people live in dire poverty. Tens of thousands of Kosovars are now seeking to migrate to the European Union, ironically by traveling through arch-nemesis Serbia to reach European Union member Hungary.

Economic misery is hardly the only problem in the independent Kosovo that the United States and its allies helped create. Persecution of the lingering Serb minority and the desecration of Christian churches, monasteries, and other sites is a serious problem. Kosovo has also become a major center for organized crime, including drug and human trafficking.

Yet Kosovo is an advertisement for successful U.S.-led military crusades compared to the outcome in Libya. The Obama administration boasted of its “kinetic military action” (primarily cruise missile strikes) as part of the NATO mission to help insurgents oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today, Libya is a chaotic mess. Once a major global oil producer, the country’s pervasive disorder has so thoroughly disrupted production that Libya faces financial ruin. Not only is Libya teetering on the brink of full-scale civil war, much of the country has become the plaything of rival militias, including an affiliate of ISIS. Journalist Glenn Greenwald concludes correctly that the Libyan intervention, which was supposed to show the effectiveness of international military action for humanitarian goals, has demonstrated the opposite.

Such sobering experiences confirm that U.S.-led interventions can often make bad situations even worse. Serbia’s control of Kosovo was hardly an example of enlightened governance, and Gaddafi was a corrupt thug who looted Libya. But as bad as the status quo was in both of those arenas, Western military meddling created far worse situations. That is the lesson that should be kept firmly in mind the next time armchair warhawks in Congress or the news media prod Washington to lead yet another ill-conceived crusade.

The Libertarian Reader Presents the Best Thinking about Liberty over Three Millennia

The Libertarian ReaderSimon & Schuster has just published The Libertarian Reader: Classic & Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, which I edited. Buy it now from any good bookseller!

Just look at some of the great thinkers included in The Libertarian Reader:

  • Lao-Tzu
  • Richard Overton
  • John Locke
  • Adam Smith
  • David Hume
  • Thomas Paine
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Frederic Bastiat
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Angelina Grimke
  • Herbert Spencer
  • Ludwig von Mises
  • F. A. Hayek
  • Ayn Rand
  • Murray Rothbard
  • Milton Friedman
  • Robert Nozick
  • Richard Epstein
  • Mario Vargas Llosa

When the first edition was published in 1997, Laissez Faire Books called it “The most magnificent collection of libertarian writings ever published.” In this edition, Tom G. Palmer’s magisterial guide to “The Literature of Liberty” has been updated to include important libertarian books published in the 21st century. That essay alone is worth the price of the book!

Buy it together with The Libertarian Mind at an incredible discount.

How the NSA Stole the Keys to Your Phone

A blockbuster story at The Intercept Thursday revealed that a joint team of hackers from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), broke into the systems of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cell phone SIM cards in order to steal the encryption keys that secure wireless communications for hundreds of mobile carriers—including companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint.  To effect the heist, the agencies targeted employees of the Dutch company Gemalto, scouring e-mails and Facebook messages for information that would enable them to compromise the SIM manufacturer’s networks in order to make surreptitious copies of the keys before they were transmitted to the carriers. Many aspects of this ought to be extremely disturbing.

First, this is a concrete reminder that, as former NSA director Michael Hayden recently acknowledged, intelligence agencies don’t spy on “bad people”; they spy on “interesting people.”  In this case, they spied extensively on law-abiding technicians employed by a law-abiding foreign corporation, then hacked that corporation in apparent  violation of Dutch law. We know this was hardly a unique case—one NSA hacker boasted in Snowden documents diclosed nearly a year ago about “hunting sysadmins”—but it seems particularly poetic coming on the heels of the recent Sony hack, properly condemned by the U.S. government.  Dutch legislators quoted in the story are outraged, as well they should be.  Peaceful private citizens and companies in allied nations, engaged in no wrongdoing, should not have to worry that the United States is trying to break into their computers.

Second, indiscriminate theft of mobile encryption keys bypasses one of the few checks on government surveillance by enabling wiretaps without the assistance of mobile carriers. On the typical model for wiretaps, a government presents the carrier with some form of legal process specifying which accounts or lines are targeted for surveillance, and the company then provides those communications to the government.  As the European telecom Vodaphone disclosed last summer, however, some governments insist on being granted “direct access” to the stream of communications so that they can conduct their wiretaps without going through the carrier.  The latter architecture, of course, is far more susceptible to abuse, because it removes the only truly independent, nongovernmental layer of review from the collection process. A spy agency that wished to abuse its power under the former model—by conducting wiretaps without legal authority or inventing pretexts to target political opponents—would at least have to worry that lawyers or technicians at the telecommunications provider might detect something amiss. But any entity armed with mobile encryption keys effectively enjoys direct access: they can vacuum up cellular signals out of the air and listen to any or all of the calls they intercept, subject only to internal checks or safeguards. 

There are, to be sure, times when going to the target’s carrier with legal process is not a viable option—because the company is outside the jurisdiction of the United States or our allies. Stealing phone keys in bulk is certainly a much easier solution to that problem than crafting interception strategies tailored to either the specific target or specific uncooperative foreign carriers. Unfortunately, the most convenient solution in this case is also a solution that gives the United States (or at least its intelligence community) a vested interest in the systematic insecurity of global communications infrastructure. We hear a great deal lately about the value of information sharing in cybersecurity: Well, here’s a case where NSA had information that the technology American citizens and companies rely on to protect their communications was not only vulnerable, but had in fact been compromised. Their mission is supposed to be to help us secure our communications networks—but having chosen the easy solution to the problem of conducting cellular wiretaps, their institutional incentives are to do just the opposite.

Finally, this is one more demonstration that proposals to require telecommunications providers and device manufacturers to build law enforcement backdoors in their products are a terrible, terrible idea. As security experts have rightly insisted all along, requiring companies to keep a repository of keys to unlock those backdoors makes the key repository itself a prime target for the most sophisticated attackers—like NSA and GCHQ. It would be both arrogant and foolhardy in the extreme to suppose that only “good” attackers will be successful in these efforts. 

2015: The Year of Educational Choice

The Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new school choice laws or expanded existing ones. By that measure, 2015 could be “The Year of Educational Choice” as at least 10 state legislatures consider new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs) in addition to at least 11 states considering new or expanded scholarship tax credits.

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarships, the nonprofit scholarship organizations that also issue scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I explained in the most recent edition of National Affairs, there are several reasons to believe that Florida’s model holds advantages over Arizona’s:

First, the non-profit scholarship organizations are less likely to be captured by opponents than is a government agency. The non-profits are dedicated to the scholarships, and the idea of school choice is built into their mission. Second, awarding scholarships is the primary mission of a scholarship organization but only an ancillary function of a state education agency — which means that not only will they be more dedicated to the concept but they can generate and retain best practices more easily. Third, scholarship organizations have the ability and incentives to be more flexible in their operation than government agencies, and therefore more responsive to the needs of families. The Arizona education department did not offer workshops for parents outside of regular business hours because employees were not paid for those hours. Non-profits can more easily implement policies like flextime.

While both Arizona and Florida redirect public funds into the ESAs, a state could create an ESA that is funded through tax credits, which would minimize the threat of overregulation and avoid coercing people into supporting the teaching of ideas that they dislike. New Hampshire’s scholarship tax credit law already has an ESA-style provision that allows homeschoolers to use scholarship funds for a wide variety of educational expenses. 

Several state legislatures are moving fast to enact ESA laws this year. Both the Mississippi Senate and Virginia Assembly passed ESA bills last week. This week, the Virginia Senate’s Education Committee and Oklahoma Senate education subcommittee both approved ESA bills and a Florida Senate panel approved an expansion of their state’s ESA law. Arizona is also considering expanding eligibility for its ESA law.

Other states considering a new ESA law include Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Montana, and Oregon. Additionally, Politico reported that Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas are likely to take up ESA bills as well. States considering new or expanded scholarship tax credit laws include Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. In addition, two state senate committees in Colorado have approved a personal-use education tax credit.

There’s no guarantee that any of these bills will become law, but the number of state legislatures exploring educational choice is encouraging.

[Updated to include Oregon’s ESA bill.]