Topic: Political Philosophy

Government Finds New Targets to Regulate

I suppose it should be no surprise that once the Democrats got full control of the federal government, we’d see the feds taking control of every nook and cranny of society, from giving orders to credit card companies to firing automobile company CEOs to demanding a change in the way college football decides its national champion.

Except – wait a minute – it was actually a senior Republican member of the House, one of those right-wing Texans, who issued the most direct threat to the football officials summoned before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection:

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who has introduced legislation that would prevent the NCAA from calling a game a national championship unless it’s the outcome of a playoff, bluntly warned Swofford: “If we don’t see some action in the next two months, on a voluntary switch to a playoff system, then you will see this bill move.”

The federal government is set to spend $3.5 trillion next year, with a deficit expected to hit the unbelievable level of 12 percent of GDP. The president is seeking to impose a “blueprint” for federal takeover of health care, energy, and education. He is acting as a super-CEO for the finance and automobile industries. The country is bogged down in two floundering wars.

And Joe Barton thinks the matter that deserves the attention of the Congress of the United States is how college football designates its “national champion.”

The best thing that can be said for this is that it’s probably actually safer to have Congress screwing around with amateur sports championships than with matters of war, spending, and central planning.

Republicans Tell America: Trust Us with Your National Security Again

The Republican Party hasn’t been doing well as of late.  A botched governing majority, a lost reputation, two lost legislative elections, two lost congressional majorities, a lost presidential election, a lost Pennsylvania senator, and no relief in sight.  So what does the GOP congressional leadership do?  Play the national security card.

Reports the New York Times:

Stymied in so many of their efforts to put President Obama and Democrats on the defensive, Republicans are returning to national security, an issue that has served the purpose well for them in the past.

Trying to raise doubts about Mr. Obama’s ability to protect the nation, they have raised the specter of terror suspects transferred from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to prisons in American communities, issued warnings that the release of memorandums detailing secret interrogation methods has put Americans at risk, and presented a video montage ending with the Pentagon in flames on Sept. 11, 2001, and the question, “Do you feel safer?”

“I think what I’m trying to do here,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said in defending the video he and fellow Republicans have been circulating, “is push the administration to tell us, What is the overarching strategy to take on the terrorists and defeat them and to help keep America safe?”

I have a lot of bad things to say about both parties on foreign as well as domestic policy.  But it’s hard for me to imagine the previous eight years of Republican governance as a golden era for national security.  First there was 9/11.  Perhaps it is too much to expect the Bush administration to have prevented the terrorist atrocity, but the administration did nothing over the Clinton administration to improve American defenses to prevent such attacks.

Then there was diverting troops and attention from Afghanistan before that war was finished, to invade Iraq.  The Iraq debacle occupies a category all its own.  Policy towards North Korea was spectacularly misguided and incompetent:  refusing to talk to the North for years as it generated nuclear materials, before rushing to embrace Pyongyang while offering few immediate benefits to entice the North to change its behavior.  The results of this strategy were, unsurprisingly, negligible.

Refusing to talk to Iran had similar consequences.  Washington refused to engage Syria, even though Israel was willing to talk to Damascus.  The Bush administration further tightened the embargo against Cuba, again achieving nothing.  The administration also continued the Clinton administration’s policy of estranging Russia by expanding NATO ever closer to Moscow, incorporating countries that are security black holes, offering geopolitical conflicts with no corresponding military benefits.

In the midst of all this, the GOP in both the executive and legislative branches led a sustained assault on civil liberties and limited, constitutional government even when doing so did nothing to forestall another terrorist attack.

Given all this, is should surprise no one that the Republicans are no longer in control of government.

The Democrats may prove to be worse on all counts. I’ve long learned not to assume that things could not get worse.  Still, it is hard to take seriously Republican demands that the American people trust them with the nation’s security.  After all, look at what the Republicans did when they actually held power.

Adam Smith Goes to Somalia: “Competition Keeps Prices Low”

Many people would agree that modern-day Somalia represents a Hobbesian state of nature. But could anarchy strengthen Somalia’s private sector? This article is certainly very old, but I came across it yesterday and thought the argument would be of interest to political theorists and classical liberals:

…local businesspeople find it easier to do business in a country where there is no government. “There is no need to obtain licences and, in contrast with many other parts of Africa, there is no state-run monopoly that prevents new competitors setting up. Keeping price low is helped by the absence of any need to pay taxes.”

Of course, the absence of a stable and legitimate political and judicial system, compounded by unyielding internecine violence, means individual and private property rights can never be fully protected and we aren’t likely to see foreign businesses flocking to this chaotic country in the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, the proper role of government is to protect individual rights. But the proper role of our government – abroad – should be limited to instances when our national sovereignty or territorial integrity is at risk.  As exemplified in Somalia, America’s attempts to stabilize failed states or pacify foreign populations usually fail, exacerbate already disastrous situations, and are, in principle, gratuitous abuses of American power [See: the calamitous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia].

One Small Step for Private Airports

The New York Times reports that the nation’s only privately financed commercial airport is set to open in Branson, Missouri.

Unlike government transportation projects such as the Big Dig, this private project has gone well so far: “ ‘I think it’s some kind of record,’ Jeff Bourk, executive director of the airport, said of the speed of the construction. ‘On other projects I’ve been involved in, there’s a lot more red tape.’”

On the broader issue of America’s airports, the Times notes:

Every one of the 552 airports providing commercial air service in the United States receives some kind of federal money, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and these airports are owned by public entities, municipalities, transportation districts or airport authorities.

In airports, America embraces socialism, while free enterprise has taken hold abroad. Many major cities around the world have privatized their airports in recent decades, as I discuss here.

The growth in private airports faces a number of hurdles in America. One problem is that government airports receive federal, state, and local subsidies, which makes it hard for private companies to compete. Another problem is the tax-deductibility of state/local (“muni”) bonds, which gives government facilities a financing advantage over private projects.

Thus, two reforms are obvious: end all federal subsidies for state/local infrastructure and repeal the tax deductibility of muni bonds. (Note that the Branson airport found an interesting way around the second problem).

Over time, these two steps would likely create a giant leap forward for privatized infrastructure in America.

Hat tip: Harrison Moar.

Yes, California, There Is an Individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, at least in the home for self-defense.  Here’s our own Bob Levy, who masterminded the Heller litigation, talking about that decision:

While the Court’s ruling was a watershed in constitutional interpretation, it technically applied only to D.C., striking down the District’s draconian gun ban but not having a direct effect in the rest of the country.

Well, today the Ninth Circuit (the federal appellate court covering most Western states) ruled that the Second Amendment restricts the power of state and local governments to interfere with individual right to have guns for personal use.  That is, the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporates” the Second Amendment against the states, as the Supreme Court has found it to do for most of the Bill of Rights.  I rarely get a chance to say this, but the Ninth Circuit gets it exactly right.

Here’s the key part of Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain’s opinion:

We therefore conclude that the right to keep and bear arms is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”  Colonial revolutionaries, the Founders, and a host of commentators and lawmakers living during the first one hundred years of the Republic all insisted on the fundamental nature of the right. It has long been regarded as the “true palladium of liberty.” Colonists relied on it to assert and to win their independence, and the victorious Union sought to prevent a recalcitrant South from abridging it less than a century later.  The crucial role this deeply rooted right has played in our birth and history compels us to recognize that it is indeed fundamental, that it is necessary to the Anglo-American conception of ordered liberty that we have inherited.  We are therefore persuaded that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment and applies it against the states and local governments.

In short, residents of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now join D.C. residents in having their Second Amendment rights protected.  And courts covering other parts of the country – most immediately the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago – will have their chance to make the same interpretation in due course.

Just as interesting – and potentially equally significant – is the footnote Judge O’Scannlain drops at the end of the above text in response to arguments that the right to keep and bear arms, regardless of its provenance as a fundamental natural right, is now controversial:

But we do not measure the protection the Constitution affords a right by the values of our own times. If contemporary desuetude sufficed to read rights out of the Constitution, then there would be little benefit to a written statement of them.   Some may disagree with the decision of the Founders to enshrine a given right in the Constitution.  If so, then the people can amend the document.  But such amendments are not for the courts to ordain.

Quite right.

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

Pirates as Proto-Governments? You Bet!

I have to confess I don’t understand why Roger Pilon and Ilya Shapiro are criticizing our colleagues Ben Friedman and Peter Van Doren below.  At the risk of being cast as yet another cog in the insidious piratofascist fifth column, I’d like to defend Ben and Peter.

Roger and Ilya reproach Ben and Peter for likening pirates to “pseudo-governments” and mount an impassioned defense of the nation-state as deserving a place in a different category from pirates.

On the distinction between the two, they write: “A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure…”  To be sure, indeed!  There’s a term for charging people for an unevenly distributed and unwanted service.  It’s called racketeering.  Their description of taxation could apply quite well to a mafia.

Roger and Ilya would prefer to keep pirates and governments in two discrete categories but provide little reason why other than the above.  But if they dislike the analogy, their problem is not with Ben or Peter or Noam Chomsky or St. Augustine, but rather with a body of well-developed academic literature.  In particular, one of the preeminent scholars of the formation of national states, the late Charles Tilly, wrote a famous book titled Coercion, Capital, and European States that would help color in the gaps for them.  The short version is that European elites came to form national states as a means for protecting their fiefdoms from other proto-states, which frequently had predatory aims, and that this process sometimes had the incidental effect of protecting the populaces that lived under state jurisdiction and could be used as means for making war against the neighbors.

Tilly also wrote a well-known essay titled “War Making and State Making As Organized Crime” that makes the following claim: “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum.” Tilly went on:

In retrospect, the pacification, cooptation, or elimination of fractious rivals to the sovereign seems an awesome, noble, prescient enterprise, destined to bring peace to a people; yet it followed almost ineluctably from the logic of expanding power. If a power holder was to gain from the provision of protection, his competitors had to yield. As economic historian Frederic Lane put it twenty-five years ago, governments are in the business of selling protection … whether people want it or not.

Governments and pirates both “put the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements – his freedom and his property.”  In the literature on state formation, this isn’t a controversial point.  I’m really surprised to see that it is for two libertarians.