March 12, 2007 10:55AM

When Governments Lobby Government, Taxpayers Lose

John Fund has a rather depressing article at the Wall Street Journal’s opin​ion​jounal​.com. He explains how governments — including universities and Indian tribes — are exempt from restrictions on lobbying. Yet these are some of the groups that specialize in feeding at the public trough. The real problem, of course, is that government is too big. So long as politicians are confiscating and redistributing about $3 trillion, interest groups will figure out ways of steering other people’s money in their direction:

.…lobbyists visiting Capitol Hill are bound by House and Senate ethics rules that cap most individual gifts at $50 per elected official or staffer, with an annual limit of $100 per recipient from any single source. But local governments, public universities and Indian tribes are exempt from the limit, so they are able to shower members and their staffs with such goodies as luxury skybox tickets to basketball games and front‐​row concert tickets. Having members or their key aides attend such free events in the company of glad‐​handing university presidents and local government officials winds up costing taxpayers a pretty penny. Much of the explosive growth in earmarks has been directed to local governments and universities. …Universities and colleges spent at least $75 million in 2005 on lobbying according to a study by USA Today. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that $2 billion in grants flowed into higher education in 2003. …The same lobbying rules that apply to private‐​sector lobbyists should also apply to taxpayer‐​funded government lobbyists. …Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once told me that he built his lobbying business in such a way that all his major clients were Indian tribes and local governments, in part because he knew he could wine and dine power brokers on Capitol Hill without breaking any laws.

March 12, 2007 9:57AM

Were You Surprised that DC’s Gun Ban Was Declared Unconstitutional?

Last week, a federal appeals court overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban on the grounds that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a functional firearm in her home.


Some were shocked by the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. After all, we’ve heard for years that the prefatory clause of that amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” limits the operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” to instances where arms are used in connection with service in the militia.


Those who follow Second Amendment scholarship, however, were not surprised by the court’s reasoning. For years, scholars have examined the text, history, and context of the Second Amendment. Those scholars built up a large body of evidence demonstrating that the “collective right” interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.


That effort arguably began with Prof. Sanford Levinson’s 1989 Yale Law Journal article, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” where he wrote:

For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members. That will no longer do. It is time for the Second Amendment to enter full scale into the consciousness of the legal academy.

Elsewhere, my colleague Tim Lynch links to reviews of several works that followed. One of the more interesting contributions to this line of scholarship is an article by Prof. Robert J. Cottrol titled, “A Liberal Democrat’s Lament: Gun Control Is Racist, Sexist, and Classist.” That article begins with a forceful quotation from Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey in support of “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms.” Cottrol concludes:

[T]he ultimate civil right is the right to defend one’s own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless, and that without the means of self‐​defense the right to self‐​defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

The majority opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia is evidence that serious scholars heeded that call, a good summary of the debate over the Second Amendment, and a lesson about how honest, careful scholarship can defeat a very appealing myth. 

Hats off to those scholars, the litigants, and their counsel.

March 12, 2007 9:48AM

What if the ‘Surge’ Succeeds?

Robert Kagan, a long-time senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for the Washington Post. On the chance that Kagan's views were not getting enough exposure, the White House helpfully e-mailed the column to me this morning as part of their "Iraq Update: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT" series (ALL CAPS in the original).

It puzzles me that the Post and the White House would want to shine so much attention on Kagan given his long record of faulty predictions with respect to Iraq. After all, one wouldn't expect CNBC, BusinessWeek or Money magazine to be touting financial analysts and stock pickers who were strong advocates of ENRON, WorldCom and Tyco.

And it is not like this is a passing fancy; Kagan has been bullish on war with Iraq for years. Kagan signed the infamous open letter to President Clinton in January 1998 calling for military action against Iraq "in the near term" given that "diplomacy is clearly failing." Less than six months later, he repeated his call for military action in an open letter to then-congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.

One year after the start of the Iraq war, Kagan and frequent co-author William Kristol noted the "obvious success" of the signing of Iraq's interim constitution and "other measures of progress" including "electricity and oil production" and signs of damage to the Baathist-led insurgency. Despite continued violence, Kagan and Kristol cautiously predicted, "We may have turned a corner in terms of security."

Kagan and Kristol were particularly encouraged by the "hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together." Then they took a shot at the Iraq war skeptics, "both here and in Europe" who predicated "that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath."

After compiling a list of Kagan's greatest hits, salon.com's Glenn Greenwald asks "Why would any rational person listen to Robert Kagan?" Of course, Kagan is free to write or opine or do whatever he likes -- and the rest of us are free to ignore him. But it isn't enough to ignore the people who got us into the war, and who now expect us to take them seriously on what to do next. As Greenwald notes, scorn is much more appropriate.

Read the rest of this post »
March 12, 2007 8:11AM

So‐​Called Consumer Protection Law Hurts Consumers

Headline‐​seeking politicians like to enact laws that ostensibly protect consumers from predatory businesses. Item‐​pricing laws are a good example. They supposedly exist to protect consumers from being overcharged by unscrupulous grocery stores, even though research shows that stores are just as likely to make mistakes that benefit consumers. Requiring individual price tags, though, is an unambiguous negative for shoppers, raising prices by as much as 10 percent because of added labor costs. A column in the Wall Street Journal explains:

New York and several other states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island and sometimes in Connecticut) have an “Item Pricing Law” (IPL) requiring that, for most goods in retail stores, each item have its own individual price sticker; in other states a simple price tag on the shelf is considered sufficient. …Prices in IPL stores are 20 cents to 25 cents higher per item than in non‐​IPL stores. …The maximum estimate of the benefit of avoiding overcharges to consumers through IPLs is less that one cent per item. …The laws are a bad deal for consumers. How significant are these price differences — about a quarter per item? The average price of the items in our sample was about $2.50, so there is a 10% difference. This implies that prices of groceries are almost 10% higher in IPL stores. Food represents about 14% of the average family’s budget. IPLs, therefore, reduce the real incomes of families by more than 1% — a nontrivial amount. In sum, our study shows that IPLs impose net costs on consumers much greater than any potential benefit. Jurisdictions without them should not pass them, and jurisdictions with them should repeal them. In New York City, where costs and so prices are already very high, consumers would greatly benefit from a 10% reduction in grocery prices.

March 12, 2007 8:08AM

Net Worth Climbs to Record Level

New figures from the Federal Reserve show that household wealth in America is now more than $55 trillion. This is worth noting, both because it illustrates the tremendous wealth generated by an economy when tax rates are low and the burden of government is modest (at least compared to most of our friends in Europe) and because it should relieve some of the anxiety of people who fret that Americans do not save enough. To be sure, there are many households who do not have assets, and there are many government programs and tax policies that discourage saving, but there is not a crisis of inadequate savings in America. Investors’ Business Daily offers a cheerful assessment of the economy:

In the fourth quarter of 2006, total net worth — that is, everything people own minus what they owe — jumped 7.4% to $55.63 trillion. We’ve added as much wealth in the last decade as we did in our nation’s first 220 years. … the average household in America owns about $487,095 worth of stuff, free and clear. That’s a big jump from recent years. As recently as 2001, average household wealth was $373,170. So in five years we’ve become a third richer — a truly amazing fact. … Unemployment, at just 4.5%, is way below its long‐​term average. Real incomes are rising strongly. Inflation remains tame. Company profits — a measure of how efficient businesses are at using scarce resources — are at all‐​time highs. And, in addition to being richer, we live longer, healthier lives than ever. Even people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder have far more than they did a decade ago.

March 11, 2007 3:41PM

More on the Second Amendment Ruling

The Washington Post has a story today on the plaintiffs in the landmark Second Amendment lawsuit. Among the plaintiffs interviewed is Cato’s Tom Palmer, who once had to use a firearm in self‐​defense.


Cato associate policy analyst, David Kopel, recently did a Second Amendment literature survey [pdf]. Take the list and go directly to Amazon! Buy some for your friends as well. Come to think of it, it’s the perfect graduation gift for third year law students‐​especially those who will be going to work as clerks on the Supreme Court next year!

For those interested in a shortcut through all the legal and historical material, I suggest you listen to this Cato briefing–featuring the key players who masterminded last week’s legal victory.

For more legal posts on last week’s ruling and the Second Amendment generally, visit Instapundit, How Appealing, and the Volokh Conspiracy. For related Cato work, go here.