Tag: Thomas Jefferson

Constitution Day

On September 17, 1787, the Framers of the Constitution of the United States of America, having completed their work over that long hot summer, sent the document out to the states with the hope that conventions in the states, pursuant to Article VII, would see fit to ratify it. Nine months later, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so, making the Constitution effective between those states. Shortly thereafter, three more states ratified the document; and Rhode Island, the last, did so on May 29, 1790.

The Constitution was not perfect – what human creation is? – not least in its oblique recognition of slavery, believed necessary to ensure union. But it provided for amendment, as with the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the Civil War Amendments several decades later, which ended slavery and brought the Bill of Rights to bear upon the states. All things considered, especially when we look at the rest of the world, the Constitution has served us well, enabling us to prosper in greater freedom than most have ever enjoyed.

Over the past century, however, we’ve allowed governments at all levels to grow far more than the Framers ever would have imagined the Constitution allowed, until today the modern redistributive and regulatory state is everywhere upon us. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined,” leaving us largely free to plan and live our own lives. If we’re to restore that Constitution of limited government, it will take more than courts and “politics as usual” to do so. We’ve got to take the Constitution seriously not just on Constitution Day but on every day. Fortunately, there are stirrings in the nation today that suggest that ever more Americans are doing so. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Social Conflict

Yesterday, I contended that education tax credits substantially avoid the compulsion inherent in school voucher programs – that vouchers compel all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling (including ones they may strongly object to) whereas tax credits do not.

In his most recent response, NRO’s Robert VerBruggen disagrees. He writes

I don’t see how [tax credits do] anything whatsoever to change this, at least mathematically speaking. Whenever someone earmarks their tax dollars for a certain purpose — in this case, by “donating” to a voucher program and being reimbursed with a tax credit — the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget. Non-”donating” taxpayers, therefore, subsidize the voucher program to the exact same degree they would have if the government funded it directly.

Let’s deal with the core of our disagreement by following the money. Under a voucher program, you pay your taxes as always, the money goes into a big government pot, and it pays for every type of schooling – including some that may violate your convictions. About this sort of thing, I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that:

to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical

(Well, I agree with the tyrannical part, anyway).

Tax credit programs like Arizona’s are different. From the start, taxpayers are given a choice. If they wish, they may donate to any of a wide range of k-12 scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition, and receive a dollar for dollar tax cut to offset the cost. That portion of their money – and only that portion of their money – is then used for scholarships for private schooling. So far, there is no conviction-violating compulsion.

Alternatively, taxpayers may choose not to donate to any scholarship organization, in which case they pay their taxes as always and the money goes into the state treasury. From there, the only k-12 educational uses to which it can be put are funding the secular public and public charter school systems. In this scenario, none of the taxpayer’s money goes to fund religious instruction of any kind.

There is no intermixing of funds between these separate options. There are two different pots of money, and each individual taxpayer decides which pot will receive his money.

It is not true that “the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget,” because the government is no longer financially responsible for the education of children once they accept scholarships. To understand this, we again just have to follow the money.

For example, imagine that half of all taxpayers donate to the scholarship program, and half do not. Are the half that do not make donations “subsidiz[ing] the [scholarship students] to the exact same degree” as if it were a voucher? No. Under a voucher program, every taxpayer would be paying some portion of the cost of the program. With tax credits, the entire cost of the private school scholarships is being borne by those taxpayers who are making the donations. The taxes still being paid by non-donors do not go toward scholarships and they do not go up. On the contrary, if anything, the taxes paid by non-donors go down.

Educating students in private schools via scholarship programs costs less than placing them in government schools. The more students leave the government system for independent schools, the less it costs to operate the government schools. [And anyone out there who thinks that fixed costs are dominant in the public school sector should consult the relevant econometric literature. I and others have done marginal cost estimates of public schooling and found it to be in the 80 to 85 percent range – so when a child leaves the public school system, the system saves almost the entire average per-pupil cost.] And as the cost of the public school system goes down, the amount of revenue that needs to be appropriated for it goes down as well. In most states, state level public school appropriations are tied to enrollment, so appropriations will fall as students leave the government system.

The only scenario in which non-donating taxpayers could be said to have an “increased” tax burden due to an an education tax credit program is one in which there was never a tax-funded government school system in the first place. Then, there would be no savings from moving children out of public schools. But even in that fictional scenario, no taxpayer would be forced to pay for devotional religious instruction. They would always have the choice of donating to secular scholarship organizations, if they so wished.

So credits don’t suffer the same conviction-violating, conflict-generating, compulsion problem that afflicts vouchers.

I should add, of course, that public schools are much worse than vouchers in this regard. The conventional public school system not only forces all taxpayers to fund a single official government organ of education, sparking endless battles over what is taught, it puts huge financial pressure on all families to place their kids in that system, by virtue of its lavish funding monopoly. How a nation founded on liberty was ever lured into adopting such a compulsion-laden, Balkanizing system is a very interesting story of its own.

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

Mr. Jefferson Regrets

Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of public schooling, after a fashion. He knew that an educated public was the only protection against government abuses, and he assumed that a state-run, state-funded school system would provide that essential education. If he could only see public schooling today. 

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute has just released a study on the civics knowledge of that state’s high school students. Matt Ladner, Goldwater’s head of research, administered the same trivial test that’s given to immigrants applying for citizenship, using the same trivial pass/fail threshold. [I know it’s trivial, ‘cause I took it a few years ago.] The results of Goldwater’s little experiment… Oh. My. God. Becky:

     96.5 percent of AZ public high school students failed

Honestly, why did anyone – especially Thomas Jefferson – ever imagine that a government monopoly would be a good way to educate kids about a democratic republic and protect them from abuses of government power?

Will the Government Be the New King of All Media?

Howard Stern swore off free broadcast radio in 2004 in part because of federally mandated decency rules. The self-annointed “king of all media” may have stepped off the throne in doing so. Them’s the breaks in the competitive media marketplace, contorted as it is by government speech controls.

Some would argue that a new king of all media is seeking the mantle of power now that the Obama administration is ensconced and friendly majorities hold the House and Senate. The new pretender is the federal government.

And some would argue that the Free PressChanging Media Summit” held yesterday here in Washington laid the groundwork for a new federal takeover of media and communications.

That person is not me. But I am concerned by the enthusiasm of many groups in Washington to “improve” media (by their reckoning) with government intervention.

Free Press issued a report yesterday entitled Dismantling Digital Deregulation. Even the title is a lot to swallow; have communications and media been deregulated in any meaningful sense? (The title itself prioritizes alliteration over logic — evidence of what may come within.)

Opening the conference, Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, harkened to Thomas Jefferson — well and good — but public subsidies for printers, and a government-run postal system, model his hopes for U.S. government policies to come.

It’s helpful to note what policies found their way into Jefferson’s constitution as absolutes and what were merely permissive. The absolute is found in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Among the permissive is the Article I power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” There’s no mandate to do it and the scope and extent of any law is subject to Congress’ discretion, just like the power to create patents and copyrights, which immediately follows.

I won’t label Free Press and all their efforts a collectivist plot and dismiss it as such — there are some issues on which we probably have common cause — but a crisper expression of “dismantling deregulation” is “re-regulation.”

It’s a very friendly environment for a government takeover of modern-day printing presses: Internet service providers, cable companies, phone companies, broadcasters, and so on.