August 1, 2013 4:55PM

U.N. Disabled‐​Rights Treaty Is Back — And So Are Its Myths

In its lame duck session late last year, the Senate failed to provide the needed votes to ratify the U.N.-sponsored Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (Our commentary at the time is here, here, and here.) Reports are that the treaty may be brought back to the Senate floor later this year, and the New York Times recently editorialized in favor of the measure under the title "A second chance for the world's disabled."

Unfortunately, the Times perpetuates myths about the convention that I had hoped by now would have been laid to rest. In particular, it suggests that the treaty's provisions would not "be binding on the federal or state governments" and would do no more than "match the standards set by the United States in the Americans With Disabilities Act." This is incorrect on both counts. 

The treaty is full of language mandatory on ratifying states, not advisory: the word "shall" appears more than 150 times over its 50 sections. State governments? Article 4, Sec. 5 says "The provisions of the present Convention shall extend to all parts of federal states without any limitations or exceptions." Some have spoken of excusing the U.S. from obligatory compliance through "reservations" adopted as part of ratification, but Article 46 reads as follows: "Reservations incompatible with the object and purpose of the present Convention shall not be permitted."

Nor is it accurate to imply that the CRPD does no more than match the provisions of the ADA in domestic U.S. law. In regulating the workplace, for example, the ADA exempts small employers as well as many not-for-profit entities, and it protects "qualified" individuals with disabilities, an important legal term of art.

The CRPD by contrast decrees (Article 4, 1(e)) that ratifying states must "eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability by any person, organization or private enterprise," a far broader sweep. Similarly, the CRPD, going far beyond the ADA's prescriptions, requires (Article 20) ratifying states to "ensure" access to "affordable" personal mobility methods. Other examples could be multiplied. Article 8 obliges ratifying states to "combat stereotypes, prejudices, and harmful practices" regarding the disabled and instructs them to undertake "public awareness campaigns."

If the United States Senate is to take up a debate on ratification, it should inform itself clearly of what the treaty does. If that happens, I suspect the treaty will again fail.

August 1, 2013 2:54PM

Obama Administration’s Accidental Support for Unilateral Free Trade

The U.S. Trade Representative issued a statement yesterday lamenting Congress’s failure to extend tariff breaks for imports from poor countries. In defense of the program, known as the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), the statement makes a wonderfully succinct case for unilateral free trade.

GSP is a 37-year-old trade preference program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by providing preferential, duty-free entry for up to 5,000 products when imported from one of 127 designated beneficiary countries and territories.

GSP also supports U.S. jobs: U.S. businesses imported $19.9 billion worth of products under the program in 2012, including many raw materials, parts or components,  and machinery and equipment used by U.S. companies to manufacture goods in the United States for domestic consumption or for export.  The program also helps to support American jobs associated with moving GSP imports from the docks to farmers, manufacturers, and retail shelves. 

“Beginning August 1, U.S. businesses and consumers will pay more for thousands of goods imported under the GSP program, including many inputs for U.S. manufacturing,” said Ambassador Froman.  “The Obama Administration urges Congress to extend this important trade program, which increases U.S. competitiveness, keeps costs low for U.S. consumers, and benefits some of the world’s poorest countries.” [emphasis in original]

And that’s just 5000 products from 127 countries. Imagine if all products from all countries were allowed to enter the United States without paying import duties. Raw materials for manufacturing! American jobs in the supply chain! Increased U.S. competitiveness! Low prices for consumers! Opportunity for the poorest people in the world!

These are the benefits of open trade, and none of them depends on expanding export markets for U.S. goods. Unfortunately, the entire edifice of U.S. trade policy stands in defiance of that simple truth. Imports are seen as losses in the great game of trade and should be accepted only in exchange for an equal number of exports. Ambassador Froman certainly has no intention of challenging that paradigm. But the truth is there for those willing to see it, and it managed to shine through a little bit yesterday from an unlikely source.

August 1, 2013 2:37PM

Americans Are Far More Compassionate than “Socially Conscious” Europeans

When I'm in Europe giving speeches and participating in conferences, it's quite common that folks on the left will attempt to discredit my views by asserting that Americans are selfish and greedy.

Since I'm generally sympathetic to Ayn Rand's writings, I don't see anything wrong with people striving to make themselves better off. Moreover, Adam Smith noted back in 1776 that the desire to earn more money leads other people to make our lives better. One of his most famous observations is that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

But, for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise of my statist friends in Europe and simply look at whether their assertion is correct. Are Americans more selfish and greedy that their counterparts across the ocean?

The most obvious way of testing this proposition is to compare rates and levels of voluntary charity. Selfish and greedy people presumably will cling to their money, while compassionate and socially conscious people will share their blessings with others.

So how does the United State compare to other nations? Well, I'm not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but the bureaucrats in Paris are quite good at collecting statistics from member nations and producing apples-to-apples comparisons.

And if you look at rates of "voluntary private social expenditure" among nations, it turns out that Americans are easily the most generous people in the developed world.

Voluntary Social Expenditure in OECD Nations

Wow, people in the United States are so generous that their voluntary giving amounts to 10.2 percent of gross domestic product. The only other nations that even crack 5 percent of GDP are the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Most of the supposedly compassionate welfare states have dismal levels of charitable giving. Voluntary social expenditure in major European nations such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain averages less than 2 percent of GDP.

It's also worth noting that these numbers actually understate the charity gap between Americans and folks from other nations. Economic output in the United States is about 30 percent higher than it is in the rest of the developed world, so charitable giving by Americans actually represents a much bigger slice of a much bigger pie.

Media Name: aic-oecd-g-7.jpg

Statists might respond by asserting that Europeans express their generosity through the public sector. I reject that comparison since - as I explained when criticizing a Michael Gerson column - it's wrong to equate government coercion with private charity.

But even if you have the European mindset that government should be a vehicle for redistribution, the OECD numbers show that there's not much difference between the United States and other developed nations. According to the OECD data, government redistributes 20 percent of GDP in America compared to an average of 21.9 percent of GDP for all OECD nations. And since there's strong evidence that government redistribution undermines progress in the fight against poverty, I actually wish there was a big gap between America and other nations!

Media Name: failed-war-on-poverty.jpg

And don't forget, by the way, that 20 percent of U.S. GDP is a lot more money than 21.9 percent of GDP in other nations, so government in the United States spends more on redistribution, on average, than other OECD governments. Indeed, I've already shared healthcare numbers making that same point.

P.S. It's also worth sharing the data showing that proponents of small government in the United States are far more generous than those who favor a big welfare state.

August 1, 2013 2:33PM

Please — Enough with the ‘Gridlock’ Lament

National politicians and commentators are once again worrying that “political gridlock” is preventing government from “fixing the nation’s problems.”

President Obama began this lament’s latest chorus last week during his economy snoozer speech at Knox College in Illinois. “[O]ver the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse,” he said, vowing, “I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way.” Earlier this week the New York Times asked Obama, “Do you worry that [a stalled agenda] could end up being your legacy because of the obstruction … and the gridlock that doesn’t seem to end?” That prompted National Journal writer Ron Fournier to claim that the current gridlock is the result of a lack of will by political leaders: “At the White House and in Congress, most Democrats and Republicans have abandoned hope of fixing the nation's problems.”

Many Republicans may be asking, “What gridlock?” After all, President Obama has had little trouble advancing his agenda, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the subsequent series of fiscal stimulus and “jobs” bills, to the Dodd-Frank Act and creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), to tax increases. The GOPers would argue that the president’s setbacks have been few, temporary, and/or small. As evidence that he doesn’t feel too fettered by gridlock, they might point to his “compromise offer” to raise corporate taxes in exchange for increasing government spending.

But the Republicans are wrong. Washington is severely constrained by gridlock, and that is harming Americans’ standard of living, health, and financial security, and exacerbating unemployment, income equality, and our children’s education and future well-being. Right now, political obstructionism is blocking numerous policy ideas and legislative proposals that would greatly benefit Americans. Among them:

And many, many more.

But maybe you disagree with those proposals and are pleased that they’re gridlocked (though I tell you sincerely that people would be much better off if they were implemented). That’s the thing: there are a lot of Americans who agree with me, and a lot who agree with President Obama’s proposals, and a lot who support other policy ideas. (And no, these different groups aren’t "1-percenters" on one side and “working Americans” on the other.)

Evidence and analysis don’t demonstrate clearly that just one set of proposals is “right” and all others are “wrong,” nor does morality show that just one set is virtuous and all others are wicked. Rather, the many unknowns of human existence, the individual preferences and concerns of different people, and the diversity of specific circumstances across the United States result in individuals favoring different policies and opposing different policies.

In such a world, “political gridlock” is not a problem—rather, it’s the natural and appropriate result of a representative government that foolishly tries to impose national solutions for private, local, and regional problems in an incredibly diverse and large nation of 315+ million people.

Hopefully, our gridlock hand-wringers will one day abandon the naïve, provincial idea that a few congressional votes can “fix the nation’s problems,” and instead appreciate the genius of individual liberty and subsidiarity.

August 1, 2013 8:00AM

Pro‐​Marriage‐​Equality, Pro‐​Religious Liberty

Ryan T. Anderson, one of the most articulate advocates for the "traditional" view of marriage, points out at NRO that extending marriage to same-sex couples potentially endangers the religious liberty of those who disagree with such a policy. Particularly given a Supreme Court ruling stating that the only purpose and effect of differing treatment of same-sex relationships is to "degrade," "demean," "disparage," and "injure" them, those who believe in "traditional" marriage--let alone those who think homosexuality is morally wrong--may rightly fear legal marginalization.

While I obviously disagree with Anderson's views on gay marriage, his concerns about a slippery slope from equal protection to an enforced political correctness are not unfounded. It wouldn't be the first time that overzealous "equality" advocates invaded individual liberty.  Senator Ted Cruz recently alluded to severe consequences from other countries' thought police.  “Christian pastors who decline to perform gay marriages," he warned, "who speak out and preach Biblical truths on marriage” may be prosecuted for hate speech. We don't have to look far to see such trends; take Canada's human rights commissions (please!).

And even in these United States, Anderson notes:

The New Mexico Human Rights Commission prosecuted a photographer for declining to photograph a same-sex “commitment ceremony.” Doctors in California were successfully sued for declining to perform an artificial insemination on a woman in a same-sex relationship. Owners of a bed-and-breakfast in Illinois who declined to rent their facility for a same-sex civil-union ceremony and reception were sued for violating the state nondiscrimination law.

This is absurd. Neither the federal nor state governments have any business punishing or rewarding Americans based on their beliefs, and private individuals should not be forced to behave in a way that violates their constitutional rights -- or to have to choose between, say, their medical license and their conscience. Even if you hold, as I do, that states, if they're involved in the marriage business, should be required to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, not only should clergymen not be required to perform same-sex marriages but private businesses shouldn't be forced to be involved in them either.

Along with religious institutions, businesses that require expressive activity on the part of the service provider are easy cases--as Cato argued in its amicus brief in the case of that New Mexico wedding photographer.  But "non-expressive" organizations don't check their religious (or other) liberties at the for-profit door--as we're finding with Obamacare's contraceptive-mandate litigation.

Now, it's a different case where the government is involved: as with marriage itself, the government (and its agents) has to treat all citizens equally under the law. It can't refuse contracts or employment to people who are opposed to same-sex marriage, but it can require its contractors not to discriminate against gay couples in the services that they provide. That is, if a private organization, even one with an explicitly religious mission, voluntarily takes public money to serve the public at large, the government doesn't violate its religious freedom when it requires that they provide those services in an egalitarian manner. This is similar to the idea that the government can indeed limit the speech rights of policemen or soldiers or other public employees.

That does lead to some unfortunate results, like the CDC-funded wellness counselor who was fired after she referred someone in a same-sex relationship to another counselor--or, more famously, Catholic Charities of Boston getting out of the adoption business because the state of Massachusetts required it to place children with gay couples.  (There seems to be some factual controversy on the latter; my point relates to taxpayer funding: if Catholic Charities could've operated its adoption program without government funding, it should've been allowed to, and indeed Massachusetts should encourage a plethora of private adoption agencies.)

Of course, that brings us to the ever-present concern about the government creating problems by growing too large and crowding out civil society. As I wrote about the contraceptive-mandate cases earlier this year:

This is just the latest example of the difficulties in turning health care — or increasing parts of our economy more broadly — over to the government. As my colleague Roger Pilon has written, when health care (or anything) is socialized or treated as a public utility, we’re forced to fight for every “carve-out” of liberty. . . .

The more government controls — whether health care, education, or even marriage — the greater the battles over conflicting values. With certain things, such as national defense, basic infrastructure, clean air and water and other “public goods,” we largely agree, at least inside reasonable margins. But we have vast disagreements about social programs, economic regulation and so much else that government now dominates at the expense of individual liberty

But whether government is big or small, individuals and private organizations who aren't at its trough should never be limited in how they express their beliefs--no matter how much Justice Kennedy (or Cato, or anyone else) disagrees with them.