February 2011

February 28, 2011 4:35PM

Senate Reads and Ignores Washington’s Farewell Address

Today in the U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson of Georgia read George Washington’s Farewell Address. Some senator has done so annually since 1896. It’s one of the crueler examples of our leaders celebrating political ideas that they ignore.

We should not adopt positions just because George Washington did. But if the Senate insists on reading a speech mostly about the evils of permanent alliances while almost universally supporting several such alliances, some senator should at least explain the irony.

We remember the address for arguing that confusing our interests with that of other nations would entangle us in foreign controversies, causing us to prepare for or fight wars remote from our interests and therefore to maintain an overgrown military establishment burdensome to economic growth and liberty at home. Almost forgotten is the speech’s furious denunciation of those “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens” that, by confusing other Americans about the difference between their interests and that of an ally, would:

Betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

I wonder how many of our senators realize that those are words Washington would likely have applied to them (albeit privately, as the address was given that way). This is, after all, a Senate that seems to agree with the secretary of state’s recent claim that our military alliances in Asia and Europe should be:

Embedded in the DNA of American foreign policy and not sort of beginning and ending in fits and starts. The engagement has to remain constant… We can’t allow this very big complex world that is so demanding to have the United States absent anywhere.

People are entitled to agree with that opinion, but they should do so without ritual evocation of traditional American ideas about foreign policy that it rejects.

February 28, 2011 4:09PM

Intervention and Its Unintended Consequences

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region. Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:

No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali‐​American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al‐​Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”

…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances. It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

Click here to read the full post.

February 28, 2011 3:15PM

Libertarianism Happens to People

You are probably familiar with the story of Brian Aitken, the responsible gun owner wrongly convicted of violating New Jersey’s draconian gun laws. Governor Chris Christie commuted Aitken’s sentence, and his appeal is still pending.

As Radley Balko often says, libertarianism happens to people. It happened to Brian Aitken:

Aitken never thought of himself as a libertarian, but two years in the clutches of the state system has changed him completely. Before the arrest, the young, apolitical entrepreneur was on his way to a successful career in digital marketing.

“I never considered myself a person who is really interested in politics,” Aitken says. “But after all this happened I am definitely a hardcore libertarian now.”

Read the whole thing.

February 28, 2011 1:44PM

Seattle Times: Legalize Marijuana

When Proposition 19 (an initiative proposal that would have legalized marijuana) was being considered and debated last year in California, virtually every newspaper editorialized against it. Now comes the Seattle Times with a strong editorial calling for legalization in Washington state. The reader response has been very favorable. And the Drug Czar reportedly wants to meet with the editorial board–presumably to secure a retraction. That’s doubtful, but perhaps the editorial board can secure his endorsement or perhaps his resignation.

For Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here. Our latest publication is this address on how the drug war destroys black families.

February 28, 2011 12:25PM

Some ‘Unsung Heroes’ These Colleges Are

Heating and cooling equipment installed upside down. A ramp for the disabled too steep for wheelchairs. A leaning tower of time. A $3.4 million renovation for a theater slated for demolition. Payouts to everyone from airborne videographers to feng shui experts.

Welcome to community college!

These and a litany of other failures and abuses are chronicled in a new Los Angeles Times article on the disaster that has been the Los Angeles Community College District’s decade‐​long, $5.7 billion building orgy. It’s a tale made especially sickening by California college officials’ repeated wailing that state budget cuts are forcing them to dig “deep into bone.” It’s also galling in the face of Washington politicians’ continued berating of for‐​profit schools and blind‐​eye‐​turning toward excess throughout higher ed. And topping it all off, President Obama recently proclaimed community colleges the “unsung heroes” of American education.

They’ve certainly earned the “unsung” part.

February 28, 2011 11:53AM

Obama Offers States ‘Flexibility’ to Adopt Single‐​Payer instead of ObamaCare

The New York Times reports:

Seeking to appease disgruntled governors, President Obama plans to announce on Monday that he supports amending the 2010 health care law to allow states to opt out of its most burdensome requirements three years earlier than currently permitted.

It’s significant that the president is finally acknowledging that ObamaCare is unworkable and will impose enormous burdens on the states. Or is he?

A closer look shows that the president is not lifting the burdensome requirements ObamaCare imposes on states. All he’s doing is proposing to move up, from 2017 to 2014, the date on which states can apply for federal permission to impose a different but equivalently or more coercive plan to expand health insurance coverage. Here’s what the Times says about the legislation Obama will reportedly endorse, which was introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Scott Brown (R-MA):

The legislation would allow states to opt out earlier from various requirements if they could demonstrate that other methods would allow them to cover as many people, with insurance that is as comprehensive and affordable, as provided by the new law. The changes also must not increase the federal deficit.

If states can meet those standards, they can ask to circumvent minimum benefit levels, structural requirements for insurance exchanges and the mandates that most individuals obtain coverage and that employers provide it. Washington would then help finance a state’s individualized health care system with federal money that would otherwise be spent there on insurance subsidies and tax credits.

So states can “opt out” of ObamaCare’s individual mandate if they cover as many people, with as many benefits, and as many government subsidies, as ObamaCare would. The Times quotes “administration officials” on how states might do that:

The administration officials said the so‐​called state innovation waivers in the Wyden‐​Brown bill might allow a state to experiment with ways to entice people to obtain insurance rather than requiring them to buy policies. It also might allow interested states to establish a single‐​payer system in which the government is the sole insurer. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a newly elected Democrat in Vermont, is pursuing such a proposal.

No such state plan can make a dent in the federal laws that are fueling the relentless growth in the cost of health care (see Medicare, the federal tax treatment of health care, etc.). Therefore, the only way that states could cover as many people as ObamaCare does is by using ObamaCare’s tactic of forcing people to buy exorbitantly costly health insurance. And if they’re not going to use an individual mandate, the only remaining option is a single‐​payer health care system.

President Obama’s move is not about giving states more flexibility. It’s about moving the nation even faster toward his ideal of a Canadian‐ or British‐​style single‐​payer health care system.

February 28, 2011 10:25AM

On the Ethics of the Federal Budget

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Addressing the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Speaker John Boehner said that “It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt … and to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.” Can the speaker make an effective case for slashing the budget through religious avenues? And is the budget and the national debt really a moral and religious issue?

My response:

Of course the budget and national debt are moral issues, and for believers whose religious views are consistent with reason‐​based morality, it’s a religious issue too. The federal budget concerns how “we” spend “our” money, and the debt (plus taxes) with how we acquire that money. But those issues don’t arise and play out in a moral vacuum. They do so under our Constitution — or at least they’re supposed to — and that document rests on fundamental moral principles about the rights of individuals and the powers of government.

In barest outline, the Declaration of Independence says that we have a natural (moral) right to be free, and to create government to secure that freedom. The Constitution institutionalized that vision, giving only limited powers to the federal government to secure our liberty, including a limited power to tax and borrow for that end. Thus, it authorizes only a limited, focused public sector, enabling a vast private sector of liberty. And no amendments have since changed that balance.

But with the Progressive Era, the balance began to be destroyed, deliberately — by politics, not law. Today, the federal government exercises vast powers never granted, restricting liberties never surrendered. Bad enough that in doing so it indulges the majoritarian redistributive tyranny that is modern taxation; when the limits of that course are reached, political forces impose the cost of satisfying their appetites on our children through boundless borrowing. There’s a good English word for all of that: it’s “theft” — and it’s immoral.