Good News: No Eminent Domain for Flight 93 Memorial

Whether the federal government should be building a $58 million memorial to the heroic passengers on United flight 93, who thwarted the plot to crash a fourth plane on September 11, is a question that has yet to be asked in Washington.  But it clearly is improper for the authorities to acquire land for the memorial through eminent domain.

Thankfully, Washington has backed down from its plans to seize the property. 

Reports Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Yesterday, the U.S. government announced that it wouldn’t resort to eminent domain to seize land in Somerset, Pa for the proposed Flight 93 memorial. This is good news for fans of the concept of private property. When the National Park Service announced that it would seize the land from the seven property owners for the memorial rather than pay the landowners what they were asking for the lots, you didn’t have to be a libertarian to know something unjust was happening. The National Park Service was engaging in behavior that was fundamentally un-American, anti-democratic and an affront to the concept of property rights. Sure, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the government’s right to do such a thing in the name of the public good, but it was questionable whether a memorial to a plane load of heroes that crashed in a field on 9-11 outweighs the rights of the current owners to use the land as they see fit. Fortunately, the government has declined to grab the final 500 acres it needs for its $58 million, 2,200 acre 9-11 memorial and national park.

The United 93 passengers embody the best of America.  Commemorating their heroism should be done in a manner that best reflects the values they were defending.

End War—At Least the Drug War

War is an awful thing.  Yet, to show they are serious, politicians constantly use the “war” analogy.  A “war on poverty.”  An “energy war.”  The “drug war.”

Yet militarizing these and other issues is precisely the wrong way to deal with them.  So it is with the drug war, which has come most to resemble a real war.  Indeed, more Mexicans have been dying in their “drug war” than Americans have been dying in Iraq.

It’s time to call a truce.  Writes Sherwood Ross:

Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has renounced even the use of the phrase “War on Drugs” on grounds it favors incarceration of offenders rather than treatment. But talk is no substitute for action.

To his credit, Obama has long appeared to be open to a fresh approach. In an address at Howard University on Sept. 28, 2007, then Sen. Obama said, “I think it’s time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades.” 

“We will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior,” he added. “So let’s reform this system. Let’s do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.”
And as prison overcrowding worsens and governors currently whine they can’t balance budgets, the public might get some real relief.

Last year, more than 700,000 of the country’s 20-million pot smokers were arrested for marijuana possession, according to NORML, an advocacy lobby that works for decriminalization. Over the past decade, 5-million folks got arrested on marijuana charges, 90% of which were for “simple possession, not trafficking or sale,” NORML says.

“Regardless of whether one is a ‘drug warrior’ or a ‘drug legalizer,” writes Bob Barr in the May 25 Atlanta Journal Constitution, “it is difficult if not impossible to defend the 38-year old war on drugs as a success.”

Drug abuse is a serious social problem.  But so is alcoholism.  And many other social (mis)behaviors.  We should start treating it as a social, health, and moral problem, not as a matter for the criminal law.  

President Obama:  End this war!

War Is the Health of the State, Redux

Randolph Bourne warned us nearly a century ago that “war is the health of the state.”  There may be no better present evidence of the danger of promiscuous war-making comes than a new article by columnist Ralph Peters.  Faced with the inevitable horror of war, he says embrace the horror rather than forgo the war.

Argues Peters:

While the essence of warfare never changes—it will always be about killing the enemy until he acquiesces in our desires or is exterminated—its topical manifestations evolve and its dimensions expand. Today, the United States and its allies will never face a lone enemy on the battlefield. There will always be a hostile third party in the fight, but one which we not only refrain from attacking but are hesitant to annoy: the media.

While this brief essay cannot undertake to analyze the psychological dysfunctions that lead many among the most privileged Westerners to attack their own civilization and those who defend it, we can acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that, to most media practitioners, our troops are always guilty (even if proven innocent), while our barbaric enemies are innocent (even if proven guilty). The phenomenon of Western and world journalists championing the “rights” and causes of blood-drenched butchers who, given the opportunity, would torture and slaughter them, disproves the notion—were any additional proof required—that human beings are rational creatures. Indeed, the passionate belief of so much of the intelligentsia that our civilization is evil and only the savage is noble looks rather like an anemic version of the self-delusions of the terrorists themselves. And, of course, there is a penalty for the intellectual’s dismissal of religion: humans need to believe in something greater than themselves, even if they have a degree from Harvard. Rejecting the god of their fathers, the neo-pagans who dominate the media serve as lackeys at the terrorists’ bloody altar.

Of course, the media have shaped the outcome of conflicts for centuries, from the European wars of religion through Vietnam. More recently, though, the media have determined the outcomes of conflicts. While journalists and editors ultimately failed to defeat the U.S. government in Iraq, video cameras and biased reporting guaranteed that Hezbollah would survive the 2006 war with Israel and, as of this writing, they appear to have saved Hamas from destruction in Gaza.

Pretending to be impartial, the self-segregating personalities drawn to media careers overwhelmingly take a side, and that side is rarely ours. Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media. Perceiving themselves as superior beings, journalists have positioned themselves as protected-species combatants. But freedom of the press stops when its abuse kills our soldiers and strengthens our enemies. Such a view arouses disdain today, but a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom.

Sometimes war will be inevitable, but America’s many economic, geographic, and political advantages allow us to more easily avoid it.  The cost to our people, foreign peoples, and our domestic freedoms are all good reasons to treat war as the last resort rather than the first tool of choice by Washington policymakers.

“There Is No Gain to Keep Them”

Thus explained Khmer Rouge apparatchiks on why children of perceived regime enemies were killed.

In the midst of America’s political and economic mess, it is worth remembering how blessed we are and how deep humanity can fall.  Cambodia is in the process of trying the former commandant of Tuol Sleng, a prison that specialized in torture and murder, and from which only a handful of prisoners emerged alive.

Reports the Associated Press:

The Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s killed babies and toddlers — sometimes by holding their legs and smashing their heads against trees — so they would not seek revenge later in life, the group’s former chief jailer said Monday.

Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, commanded the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison, where as many as 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been tortured before being sent to their deaths.

Duch, 66, is being tried by a U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal for crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under the 1975-79 communist Khmer Rouge regime from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions.

Duch recounted a Khmer Rouge policy on detained children: “There is no gain to keep them, and they might take revenge on you,” which he said was told to him by the regime’s former defense minister, Son Sen.

Today Tuol Sleng is a museum.  I visited it several years ago, along with the “killing fields,” in which thousands of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were buried.  Seeing the former prison is an experience simultaneously moving, sobering, chilling, and depressing.  It offers a tragic reminder of the horrors that result when sinful human beings take control of powerful state institutions and seek to remake society.  No wonder liberty is so precious.

Social Control as a Profit Center

Here’s an idea that should be killed in the crib: scanning automobiles for up-to-date insurance.

Says Gizmodo (via ars technica and the Chicago Sun-Times):

The system is anticipated to raise yearly earnings “well in excess” of $100 million (possibly even double that figure or more), with InsureNet taking a modest 30% for their services. Of course, all of this cash would be contingent on uninsured drivers actually paying their fines.

There will be thousands more reasons like this put forward for mass public surveillance. The answer should almost always be no because of the accumulations of data about law-abiding citizens such programs would collect in government (and government-contractor) databases.

Week in Review: Health Care Battles, Pay Caps and North Korean Prisoners

Will Obama Raise Middle-Class Taxes to Fund Health Care?

President Obama is promoting an expansion in federal health care spending, and Democratic leaders are scrambling to find ways to pay for it. The plan is expected to cost about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, but the administration has promised that health care legislation won’t add to already huge federal budget deficits. In a new paper, Cato scholars Michael D. Tanner and Chris Edwards argue that expanding government health care will likely involve huge tax increases on the middle class.

Tanner warns of “Obamacare” to come, saying that Obama’s new health care plan will give “government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and over some of the most important, personal, and private decisions in Americans’ lives.” Don’t miss Tanner’s in-depth analysis of the new health care plan that is making its way through Congress, which “would dramatically transform the American health care system in a way that would harm taxpayers, health care providers, and — most importantly — the quality and range of care given to patients.”

A part of the plan would include “public option” (read: government-run) health care, which would allow the government to compete against private health care providers. Tanner says it would be the first step toward wiping out the private insurance market as we know it:

Regardless of how it is structured or administered, such a plan would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace because it would ultimately be subsidized by taxpayers. It could, for instance, keep its premiums artificially low or offer extra benefits, then turn to the U.S. Treasury to cover any shortfalls. Consumers would naturally be attracted to the lower-cost, higher-benefit government program.

…It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents. That would be a disaster for American taxpayers, physicians, and—most importantly—patients.

Treasury Seeks to Control Executive Pay Across the Private Sector

Fox Business reports, “The Treasury Department on Wednesday took new steps to rein in executive compensation, saying the Obama Administration would introduce legislation that could create stricter limits on pay; it also appointed an official to head up efforts on the issue.”

In a 2008 Policy Analysis Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten explain the misconceptions many people have about executive pay, and why the market is a better arbiter than any bureaucrat in Washington:

Such populist sentiments are often based on misunderstandings about the role of corporate executives in the economy and the vigorous competition that exists for these highly skilled leaders. In the past, federal regulatory efforts based on such misunderstandings have generated unintended consequences, which have damaged the economy and hurt the ability of the market for executives to self-regulate over time.

The labor market for executives and the associated pay levels are already subject to high levels of regulation. Indeed, U.S. corporations are subject to more stringent executive pay disclosure requirements than corporations anywhere else in the world. Before additional regulatory and legislative efforts are unleashed, policymakers should examine the rationale for current pay structures and the strong links between executive pay and corporate performance.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Alan Reynolds says efforts to cap executive pay are wholly misguided:

Congressional hearings to barbecue Wall Street executives are as fun as a circus, but with more clowns. Presidential politics is now taking such political distractions to a lower level.

…Most top executives who were actually in charge during the craze of overinvestment in mortgage-backed securities have been fired. Executives who are fired are not in a position to be “giving themselves” anything.

In reality, top executives are mainly paid by accumulating a big stockpile of company stock and stock options. Estimates of annual CEO pay that Congress and the press have been focusing on look as high as they do only because of the high value of restricted stock or stock options at the time.

Writing in 2007 (before the first round of major bailouts), Cato scholars Jerry Taylor and Jagadeesh Gokhale took it a step further: “Pay Bosses More!”:

Excessive executive compensation harms no one but perhaps the stockholders who put up with it. And stockholders put up with it because there’s good reason to believe that sizable CEO compensation packages help – not harm – corporate performance, which redounds to their benefit, and that of the firms’ workers.

Companies pay workers what they must to deliver their products and services to the market, and supply and demand establishes executive compensation packages the same way it establishes consumer prices. Any overcompensation comes out of the firm’s bottom line – at a loss to the shareholders, not the workers.

North Korea Sentences Two U.S. Journalists to 12 Years Hard Labor

Two American journalists were convicted of entering North Korea illegally while on assignment, and exhibiting “hostility toward the Korean people.” This week, a North Korean court sentenced them to 12 years in a labor prison.

Cato scholar Doug Bandow comments:

Washington should publicly downplay the controversy and present the issue to the Kim regime as a humanitarian matter. The Obama administration should indicate its willingness to open a broader dialogue with North Korea, but indicate that positive results will be possible only if Pyongyang responds with cooperation instead of confrontation. Releasing the two journalists obviously would provide evidence of the former.

Regrettably, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are political pawns. As such, Washington’s best strategy to achieve their release is to simultaneously reduce their perceived value to Pyongyang and ease tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Patience may be the Obama administration’s highest virtue and Ling’s and Lee’s greatest hope.

In a Cato Daily Podcast, Bandow discusses what can be done for the American prisoners, and how the U.S. government should react.

Money in Politics, Virigina Edition

Bruce Bartlett has a good opinion piece on money in politics in Forbes.  He mostly focuses on self-funding candidates who rarely win even when they contribute large sums to their own campaigns.  The recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, which Bartlett mentions, saw Terry McAuliffe spend over $7 million and lose badly.  McAuliffe financed his bid in the usual way by attracting contributions. His success at fundraising may have cost him votes in the end.

Despite the McAuliffe example and others mentioned by Bartlett, people still believe “only money matters in politics” or “money buys elections.” The truth is, money matters but not all that much. Other factors, like circumstances, partisanship and the quality of  the candidate, have more effect on the outcome of any election. It is true that incumbent members of Congress generally raise more than their challengers and almost always defeat them. But if you take into account the quality of a challenger, money has little effect on the outcome of a race.

We hear little these days about money buying elections. The people who complain about the power of money to subvert democracy are almost always on the left. If money buys elections, is Obama’s presidency a subversion of democracy? After all, the current president is the most successful fundraiser in American history, and not all of his money came from small contributors. But Obama didn’t buy the election of 2008. He was running against an unpopular administration with the economy mired in a deep recession. Obama was a skillful candidate who ran an effective campaign. John McCain could have matched Obama’s fundraising and the Republican still would have lost.

Money is overrated in politics. Just ask Terry McAuliffe.