Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneNot Even Close
Posted at 1:25 am on June 21, 2011, by John W. Payne

Sometimes an article comes along that is so blindingly stupid and misinformed that the mind reels in a vain attempt to understand how such a thing could be published by any semi-reputable organization. In my personal experience, these articles often discuss the history of the libertarian movement or libertarian ideas. I’m certainly not contending that this is the only subject that attracts wildly inaccurate commentary like a picnic attracts ants, but it’s the one where I can spot these stories most easily.

Today’s entry is this deeply confused article on the supposedly baleful influence of philosopher Robert Nozick and his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The only proper response to a piece this nonsensical is something like this:

Nonetheless, I am going to attempt to correct some of author Stephen Metcalf’s more glaring errors.

First, the central conceit of the article–or at least the subtitle–is flat out wrong. Nozick did write that “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate.” Metcalf assumes that this statement is a renunciation of libertarianism, but that’s not what Nozick meant, as Nozick himself explained in an interview shortly before his death:

What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the “Core Principle of Ethics.”

Sadly, it doesn’t get any better from there. Metcalf quotes Keynes as highly critical of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, claiming that Keynes scribbled in the margins of his copy, “An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.” Again, Keynes did write that and about Hayek no less, but the line appeared in his review of the dense economic tome Prices and Production. Liberal economist Brad Delong first blogged this error and goes on to note that Keynes was actually quite found of The Road to Serfdom, calling it ” a grand book….Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”

Even more importantly, Metcalf drastically overstates Nozick’s importance:

I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ’75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.

Metcalf may like to think that, but that doesn’t make it true. Don’t get me wrong–Nozick was one of the intellectual giants of libertarianism and made the philosophy a somewhat respectable position among academic philosophers. That’s a very insular group, however, and Metcalf presents no evidence that it was Nozick’s popularity that propelled Hayek and Friedman to their Nobel Prizes. Probably because that evidence doesn’t exist.

A more plausible explanation for the Sveriges Riksbank’s recognition of Hayek and Friedman is that the Keynesian consensus was collapsing in the mid-1970s, and Hayek and Friedman offered alternative theories. The combination of slow economic growth and high inflation known as stagflation is essentially impossible under classic Keynesian models, but both the British and American economies seemed cursed with it in the 1970s. Contrary to Metcalf’s nostalgia, the 1970s were a terrible decade economically, and Keynesian economics proved inadequate to address the problems we faced. I don’t deny that Nozick was a powerful advocate for libertarianism, but the economic crisis did more to shift people’s views on economic policy in a more market oriented direction than any single thinker.

Furthermore, although Nozick played an important role in the history of libertarian ideas, I believe he has been less influential than any of the other big names, by which I mean Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. I’ve been active in libertarian circles for nearly a decade now. I work for a free market think tank. I probably know around 1,000 libertarians personally. Yet I have not heard even a single person credit Robert Nozick for making them a libertarian. I’ve heard all the others–more times than I can count–but Nozick comes up only occasionally as an influence and never as the decisive one. I readily concede that this is not a scientific measure of Nozick’s influence among libertarians, but this is not a huge movement, and after working within it for this long, I think I have a pretty good sense of who the big influences are…or at least a better sense than Stephen Metcalf.

All this might be forgivable if Metcalf’s assault on Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment–which occupies a huge chunk of the article–was accurate and interesting. Unfortunately, Metcalf only engages with a strawman version of Nozick’s argument. Metcalf seems to think that Nozick intended for the Wilt Chamberlain example to be some kind of allegory for the economy as a whole. Instead, Nozick was simply showing why a specific pattern of wealth distribution is impossible to maintain without constant government intervention. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long explained in a 2002 article commemorating Nozick’s life and work:

ASU‘s most famous argument–the “Wilt Chamberlain example”–is also its most misunderstood. Criticizing “patterned” theories of justice–that is, those that regard the distribution of resources in society as just only if it fits some preconceived pattern (say, equality)–Nozick asked us to imagine a society that in fact realizes the desired pattern. He pointed out that if people are free to transfer their resources as they wish, the society will quickly deviate from the established pattern, as some individuals, like basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, become wealthy as a result of the voluntary decisions of other members of society who are willing to purchase the exercise of their talents.

If the original pattern is to be maintained at all costs, then the government must “continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish”; hence no patterned theory of justice can be implemented without “continuous interference in people’s lives” (p. 163). Nozick thus rejected patterned theories in favor of a “historical” theory, according to which a given distribution of resources, regardless of what pattern it fits, is legitimate so long as it arose through a process involving no violations of anybody’s rights.

Metcalf’s abuse of the facts are by no means limited to those detailed here, but going through all of them would require an article far longer than his original. In fact, if Slate removed everything that is incorrect or misleading in the article, they’d soon be left with nothing but prepositions. For that reason, I believe Slate’s editors should retract this piece. Not because I disagree with many of Metcalf’s philosophical principles, although that does appear to be the case, but because even with heavy editing and correction, this article is so fallacious that it detracts from public discourse.


Filed under: Philosophy, Property Rights
Comments: 13 Comments
 

John W. PayneTough Luck for (Un)elected Officials, The Beast Ya See Got Fifty Eyes
Posted at 1:44 am on February 5, 2011, by John W. Payne

I used to follow foreign policy with a passion that bordered on obsession. I’ve always been a news junkie, but, like many Americans, my focus shifted to foreign affairs after 9/11. But after about five or six years, I started drifting away from it somewhat, I think mainly because it just got too damn depressing. However, the wave of protests that has erupted in the Arab world over the past two months has not only rekindled my interest in the region but also given me some hope that its political problems are not completely intractable.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of all this is that it seems to be a legitimate groundswell of popular opposition to all the repressive regimes from Yemen to Algeria. The most obvious historical parallel is to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I in 1916, but that was primarily composed of Bedouins from the Arab peninsula–not a truly pan-Arab phenomenon. To find a similar string of uprisings across many nations, you would have to go back to the Revolutions of 1848 that swept almost all of Europe and spread the idea of national self-determination far and wide. Like the protests we see today, those revolutions were all driven by local problems and concerns, but participants frequently drew inspiration and solidarity from the knowledge that similar events were unfolding in neighboring countries.

Of course, bottom-up political change does not square with accepted faith of partisan hacks–both Democratic and Republican–that Washington is the prime mover in all earthly (and, in all likelihood, cosmic) affairs. It has been amusing to watch people absurdly attribute the millions of people gathered in Tahrir Square to Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009. Even more outlandish is the view endorsed by a few neoconservatives that recent events have somehow vindicated George Bush’s foreign policy of implementing democracy at the end of a bayonet. Left unsaid is that part of Bush’s (and Obama’s) foreign policy was propping up dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak with billions of dollars in foreign aid. Moreover, I hate to break it to them, but the rest of the world does not revolve around the United States (and the United States does not revolve around Washington D.C.), and you can’t centrally plan and export a revolution. The protesters have a variety of reasons for their actions, but a speech by an American president and an eight-year-old war hundreds of miles away are probably way down the list.

These revolutions are spontaneous orders–like markets or civil society–which governments do not respond to well, both because they frequently demonstrate how unnecessary the government is and they lack formal hierarchies. Most people believe that without government, society immediately turns into pandemonium, but despite the fact that the Egyptian government has been effectively shut down, the Egyptian people themselves are coming together to provide the services they need. In this video, Egyptians volunteer to clean up the streets, deliver medical care, and distribute free food to demonstrators. The New York Times also ran a superb article on Monday describing how regular Egyptians are keeping their society functioning even in the midst of great turmoil:

Out of these humble beginnings, the Popular Committee for the Protection of Properties and Organization of Traffic was born. “What we tried to do first was protect the electricity, water, gas — even the state-owned ones,” Mr. Mardini said, his voice a hoarse whisper after starting on the street at 8 in the morning on Sunday and finishing at 6:30 a.m. Monday, with a two-hour nap before hitting the road again. His stubble is gaining on his soul patch, and if he does not shave soon he will have a full beard.

Compared with the chaos in Cairo, Alexandria has seemed relatively orderly, though only relatively. In some neighborhoods the only building that has been destroyed is the police station, though there has been looting in others. The streets are filled with volunteers.

“We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,” said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. “It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,” he said, “we all have the same goal.”

[…]

The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.

Though others refer to him as the head of the committee, Mr. Mardini said: “We don’t have a leader. This is our country, and we all have to protect it.”

And being leaderless is is actually one of the revolution’s great strengths. If there was a leader or small group of leaders, Mubarak could attempt to co-opt them with money or positions of power. In fact, this is precisely what he is attempting to do with the army by appointing General Omar Suleiman to the vice presidency. A government can deal with another hierarchical institution, but an amorphous blob consisting of millions of pissed off people is utterly confounding.

There is only one thing Mubarak or any other government can do to retain power in such a situation, and it is best explained by an Egyptian quoted in that Times article:

“I am glad, that they [the citizen volunteers] are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,” said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. “We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.”

Mubarak’s government has been exposed as malevolent and unnecessary, so he has little choice but to create the problem he purports to solve. Many Egyptians are reporting that when caught, looters frequently turn out to be plainclothes police officers loyal to Mubarak. When it comes down to it, there is really only one tool in government’s toolbox: a big fucking club, and Mubarak is using it to spread fear and instigate violence, which he hopes will make people submit to his rule once more.

The revolts in Egypt and elsewhere could still go terribly, terribly wrong. Mubarak could weather the storm and rule the country until his death. Or a radical Muslim faction could take power and institute a theocracy. Or a new government could start another war with Israel. Although I’m guardedly hopeful, I know that these things usually end in tears. That said, what these protests have already shown Egypt, the Middle East, and the whole world is that people do not need a strongman; they do not need a government. Society is an organic process, and it gets along pretty well without leaders. The lesson is there, but whether enough people will listen remains to be seen.

Headline reference here.


Filed under: Foreign Policy, Spontaneous Order
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneWhat’s the Biggest Problem for Blacks in America?
Posted at 1:37 am on January 4, 2011, by John W. Payne

Linguist John McWhorter argues that it’s the drug war, and I’m inclined to agree:

…[W]ith no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on, which is why I am devoting my last TNR post of 2010 to the issue. The black malaise in the U.S. is currently like a card house; the Drug War is a single card which, if pulled out, would collapse the whole thing.

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.

There would be a new black community in which all able-bodied men had legal work even in less well-off communities—i.e. what even poor black America was like before the ’70s; this is no fantasy. Those who say that this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods would be, again, wrong. That explanation for black poverty is full of holes. Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception.

And in this new black community, young black men, much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence—and thus stay in the lives of their children. The black male community would no longer include a massive segment of underskilled, drug-addicted ex-cons churning in and out by the thousands year after year, and thus black boys growing up in these communities would not see this life as a norm. They would grow up to get jobs, period.

And something else these boys would not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police—and thus whites—as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood.

That’s from McWhorter’s latest piece in The New Republic, and the whole thing is well worth reading. It should come as little surprise that policies created and implemented as a cudgel against minorities have disproportionately harmed them, and it’s long overdue that Americans admit to themselves that the drug war has never been about public health or safety but about persecuting cultural groups that middle class whites didn’t care for.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Law Enforcement, Nanny State
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneThe Beginning of the End
Posted at 11:30 pm on December 8, 2010, by John W. Payne

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange turned himself over to British authorities, but it actually makes little difference what happens to Assange personally at this point–his victory is already assured. Assange’s situation reminds me of what Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader in Star Wars: “if you strike me down now, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Assange and WikiLeaks are the first to disrupt the monopoly information systems of world governments and powerful corporations in a major way, but they will be far from the last, and I don’t think most people fully understand the implications of this.

One person who seems to have a rough grasp on what WikiLeaks means in the long run is legendary New Leftist Todd Gitlin. Writing in The New Republic, Gitlin compares Assange unfavorably to Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, because Assange is seeking to cause “system-wide cognitive decline” in the government, and Gitlin understands what that means:

To value “system-wide cognitive decline” is to insist that the state is illegitimate. It should not be pressed to do better what it already does poorly. It should not be smarter. Assange says it should not be.

Gitlin clearly disagrees with Assange’s almost wholly negative view of the state, but what I don’t think even Gitlin understands is that this is ultimately not about ideology or value judgments anymore. As information becomes easier to disseminate, secrets will become harder to keep, and it doesn’t matter whether Assange is free or imprisoned, alive or dead, someone will leak information to the public, and the government’s ability to communicate will be further eroded. In short, system-wide cognitive decline will continue apace.

Assange certainly seems to understand what he’s doing, and zunguzungu offers the best summary of Assange’s apparent strategy to undermine the conspiracies that call themselves governments:

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

“If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.”

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

(That’s an important excerpt, but, seriously, do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. The rest of this post will still be here when you get back, I promise.)

The politicians seem to be dimly aware of the threat an open flow of information poses to them and their power, but the only means they have of striking back is killing the messenger, literally, but they can’t fight the future. As a side note, if you believe that the politicians like Joseph Lieberman and John McCain who have called for Assange’s head are doing so because they believe it will help the average American or anyone but themselves, you are deeply deluded. One of the new WikiLeaks cables reveals that DynCorp, a Texas-based company, has been using taxpayer dollars to buy child sex slaves for powerful Afghan men. No federal politicians have called for investigations into DynCorp, and I almost guarantee that they won’t. They don’t care that tax money is spent to subsidize child rape; they only care that the public found out about it. And that’s why they must try to silence Assange, because he reveals the government as the callous, incompetent organization that it is.

What Assange is ushering in is nothing short of the death spiral of the nation-state. Nation-states are masters of centralization, and they thrived in an industrial era when centralization seemed to be the most efficient means of administration–both in political and business affairs. However, in an era based upon information, decentralization is a far more powerful method for generating and using important data, for reasons explained by Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” over 65 years ago. Once the government’s monopoly on its own information is cracked by Assange and others, the need and likely even the desire for its centralized bureaucracy vanishes.

I don’t pretend to know what will replace the nation-state as an agent of administration, military power, diplomatic relations, etc. As a libertarian, I hope it’s some kind of polycentric government or competing agencies, but that’s far from guaranteed. Despite fighting my entire adult life against the nation-state, I concede that an even worse system could arise from its ashes. However, I am confident that the central mode of governance in the Western World for over two centuries is now on the wane and will begin to disappear over the next thirty to fifty years. Good riddance.


Filed under: Economic Theory, Internet, Politics
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneAll Your Property Are Belong to Us
Posted at 1:31 pm on November 17, 2010, by John W. Payne

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Missouri Highway Patrol are attempting to seize a large tract of land in central Missouri known as Camp Zoe. The land is owned by Jimmy Tebeau, front man for The Schwag, the band that gives name to the Schwagstock festivals held on the property several times a year. The DEA and highway patrol allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs on the property, but Tebeau has not been charged with any crime. Such charges are not necessary, however, because under the rules of civil asset forfeiture, it is the property — not the person, who has all sorts of troublesome rights — that is charged with the crime.

This procedure is rooted in medieval superstition — essentially, people believed that property used to commit a crime was haunted — and it biases the outcome in the government’s favor in a number of ways. First and foremost, in a civil case the government can win with a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to the much higher burden of a reasonable doubt necessary to convict a person of a crime. Also, because there is no person on trial, the owner has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and anything he says could be used later if criminal charges are ever brought.

Under Missouri state law, this seizure would be impossible because Missouri requires the owner to be convicted of a related felony before the property can be forfeited to the state. The feds are involved, though, so that minor detail becomes unnecessary. The Missouri Highway Patrol also stands to profit handsomely from pursuing forfeiture at the federal level instead of the state level, should they be successful. That’s because under the rules of equitable sharing, the federal agency will kick back up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the forfeiture, which — assuming Zoe sold at its $600,000 assessed value — would give the highway patrol up to $480,000. Property forfeited through Missouri state law must be given to a state fund for school construction in order to eliminate any incentive for police to enrich themselves by confiscating property, but the federal government has given them an easy way of working around the obvious intent of state forfeiture reforms.

The police allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs at Camp Zoe. That’s a difficult allegation to prove, because unless they have proof that he was involved in dealing drugs — which seems doubtful, considering the lack of a criminal charge — it would require knowing his mental states. However, according to the official statements of the DEA and the Highway Patrol, the law enforcement agents deliberately allowed and contributed to the sale of drugs on the property. This highlights a contradiction in law enforcement goals caused by asset forfeiture. It seems that the police were pursuing the property instead of trying to prevent crimes. Undercover agents buying drugs could have arrested any dealers that sold to them on the property and made a show of it to deter other people from doing the same, but instead they chose to pursue a forfeiture case, in which they stand to gain over half a million dollars, by allowing people to sell drugs for four years.

Finally, I wonder how much property the feds could seize under the rationale that drugs are sold there by visitors. I think we can safely include every venue ever played by the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, the Flaming Lips, Government Mule, Phish, and Moe, among others. Furthermore, even land already owned by the federal government would not seem to be immune. Rainbow gatherings are held regularly on national forest land, and the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held is federal property. I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the government doesn’t know what sorts of illicit activities can occur at these events. Simply put, if these are the legal standards, massive amounts of private property are subject to seizure anytime the DEA, or another federal regulatory agency, decides to investigate.

(Headline reference here for any of you who don’t remember the early 2000s.)


Filed under: Drug Policy, Law Enforcement, Property Rights
Comments: 4 Comments
 

John W. PayneProtecting Us to Death
Posted at 12:51 am on November 16, 2010, by John W. Payne

Many people are complaining bitterly (and rightly, in my opinion) about the new airport body scanners that show TSA screeners the naked bodies of every passenger that goes through them. If you refuse to go through the scanner, the TSA helpfully provides you the alternative of being felt up by a complete stranger. Some people are even pledging not to fly as long as the scanners are in use. Internet polls are obviously not scientific, but 96% of respondents to this Reuters poll say that they are less likely to fly because of the new, invasive procedures. Of course, it’s a lot easier to say you aren’t going to fly than to actually do it, but I think it’s safe to assume that at the margin, the scanners will push people to drive instead of fly (or simply not travel at all), and this means that the scanners might cause more deaths than they prevent.

It’s debatable whether the scanners will even help prevent terrorism.  Security expert Bruce Schneier points out that terrorists can simply switch targets to public locations that don’t have scanners like malls, stadiums, trains, etc. Furthermore, the scanners don’t always catch dangerous items such as when this physicist showed how to sneak bomb components past the devices. But even if the scanners do save some lives through thwarting would-be terrorists, if more people choose to drive than fly, there will be more traffic deaths as a result of the new policies. In 2003, The American Scientist estimated that driving is 65 times riskier than flying the same distance. By making flying intolerable in the name of safety, the government is not only invading people’s privacy, they are making us less safe.


Filed under: Unintended Consequences
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John W. PayneLegalize Federalism
Posted at 1:57 am on November 9, 2010, by John W. Payne

The most disappointing outcome from last Tuesday’s election was the failure of Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana in the state. Admittedly, the proposition was flawed. Legalization proponent and Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron argues that a provision that would have prevented employers from firing or disciplining employees for marijuana use unless it “actually impairs job performance”  frightened voters with the idea of a half baked labor force (like it isn’t already), and the failure to define how marijuana would be taxed left a fog of uncertainty hanging over the proposition. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government would continue to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws likely gave many voters the mistaken impression that a Prop 19 victory would not change anything. That (mostly empty) threat just a few weeks prior to the election tracks pretty closely to when the polls turned against legalizing marijuana, and I think it was probably a decisive factor in Prop 19?s demise.

This debacle highlights the need for greater federalism in our political system. If the feds have to sign off on every state law, the drug war will continue forever because Lord knows there are only a handful of politicians at the federal level of either party willing to challenge the status quo. And, for many liberals, that’s just fine.

Take blogger Josh Marshall, for example. Marshall writes that he would have voted against the measure for two reasons: 1) Because he’s over 40 (translation: he doesn’t smoke anymore, and his friends who do are professionals who don’t have to worry much about arrest) and 2) because “unless I’m missing something, it amounts to nullification.”

Marshall is missing something because if Prop 19 amounted to nullification it would have demanded that state officials prevent federal law enforcement from enforcing federal laws. The proposition did no such thing; it simply would have removed state penalties for marijuana and left the DEA to try and enforce federal law as best they could. Regardless, Marshall’s centralist mindset reveals something very disturbing about many modern American liberals: they’d rather have a federal government of nearly unlimited powers rather than one with a defined and limited role, even when, by their own admission, the federal government’s policies harm millions of Americans.

Shortly after Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul won the Republican primary back in May, he made a controversial remark about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, essentially saying that the federal government should not prohibit private businesses from engaging in racial discrimination. This was almost immediately followed by a firestorm of liberal criticism that charged Paul with trying to thrust the country back to the Jim Crow South. I’m not interested in defending Paul’s statement at the moment, but I think it’s fair to say that even if that portion of the Civil Rights Act were repealed tomorrow, only a tiny fraction of businesses would attempt to return to racial segregation, and they would almost certainly be subjected to boycotts, protests, and all manner of bad press–and rightfully so.

There are, however, a set of policies known as the drug war, which serve to put literally millions of minorities in cages and turn inner cities into war zones. The best hope to challenge those policies is at the state level with reforms like Prop 19, but many liberal pundits seem more interested in preserving the overwhelming power of the federal government to enact countless utopian schemes than in ending this new Jim Crow.

There may have been a time when federal action was the only remedy for the horrors of segregation, but that danger is by and large in the past. Now the federal government is far more likely to imprison a young black man than to protect his right to vote from the Klan. If we want to destroy the system that is oppressing people in the here and now, we have to abandon the idea that the federal government is the primary protector of our rights, for it is the most powerful enemy any of us could ever know.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Federalism, Politics
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneSome People Are Just Assholes
Posted at 9:44 pm on October 1, 2010, by John W. Payne

I’m sure by now many of you have heard the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcasted him making out with another man. A video by Ellen DeGeneres speaking out against the bullying and mistreatment that apparently led to the suicide of Clementi and three other gay teens in the past month has been making the rounds on Facebook the past couple days. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei, another student who allegedly assisted Ravi in spying on Clementi, have been charged with invasion of privacy, and police are considering bringing hate crime charges if the two appear to have been motivated by anti-gay bigotry. Some of Ravi’s friends have claimed that Ravi is not a bigot:

“I think he’s a good person,” said Michael Zhuang, 17, a neighbor and former classmate. “I don’t think he’s a homophobe. It would’ve been no different if it was a girl in the room.”
Let’s take Zhuang’s statement at face value. Does that make what Ravi did any less reprehensible? I actually think it makes it worse because that means that Ravi doesn’t discriminate–he’s just an asshole to everyone. Granted, there is a high correlation between being an asshole and being anti-gay, but there are plenty of assholes out there who aren’t particularly anti-gay, just as there are quite a few anti-gay people who aren’t complete assholes. And that’s the rub.
Assholes are vicious monsters to anyone and everyone provided they believe they can get away with it, which means they will lash out at individuals and groups who are marginalized by society. Fifty years ago, that usually meant harassing racial minorities, but in most parts of the country, those views are now thankfully considered unacceptable by almost the entire non-asshole population. If an asshole calls someone a “nigger” or “kyke” these days, he immediately reveals himself for what he is. However, it is still acceptable to bash gays–both verbally and physically–to huge swaths of the American populace (25%? 30%? More?), and that is what allows this kind of abuse to go on. Assholes are the only ones who do things that are this malicious, but it’s the tacit acceptance of certain kinds of hate that enables them to hide amongst us.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom is sold to Simon Legree–the epitome of an evil slave master–and Southerner attempts to defend the institution of slavery to a Northerner on the grounds that most slave owners treat their slaves well, to which the Northerner responds,
Granted…but in my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as [Legree] the whole thing would go down like a mill-stone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.
The same can be said today about the respectable and even kindhearted people that nevertheless condemn gays as wicked. They are good people and may even love their gay neighbors as themselves, but their soft bigotry makes gays a target for the truly wicked and depraved.
Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Culture
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John W. PayneAgainst Citizenship
Posted at 5:52 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

Many conservatives have been kicking up a fuss over birthright citizenship, which automatically makes any child born on American soil an American citizen regardless of whether the child’s parents are American citizens. These conservatives complain that so-called “anchor babies” allow immigrants stay in the country illegally and take jobs from “real” Americans. I agree that these children did nothing to deserve American citizenship, but I find the conservatives’ selectivity repugnant. After all, the children of American citizens did nothing to deserve their citizenship either.

So here’s what I propose: no one should get American citizenship at birth. Everyone in America, citizen or not, should still have all the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but if someone wants to vote or run for public office, it is completely reasonable to demand that they have a working knowledge of American government. When an immigrant seeks naturalized citizenship, he has to take a test that covers American history and civics–vital information for being an informed participant in the democratic process–and I fail to see, at least in principle, why we shouldn’t all potential voters to pass the same test.

Pundits constantly bemoan the fact that the electorate is uninformed or, even worse, misinformed. This would remedy that problem to some degree and could very well lead to better policy outcomes. In The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I discussed in my last post, Bryan Caplan shows that the informed public is far more likely to agree with economists on issues like free trade and immigration (i.e. more supportive of both) than the general public. I’m under no illusion that restricting the franchise to the informed would usher in my libertarian utopia, but it might lead to fewer obviously stupid policies like protective tariffs.

My one reservation about this plan is that there would be an incentive for a powerful interest group to game the test and systematically exclude certain sets of people, and I think that’s worrisome enough that I’m not adamantly in favor of implementing such a system. Nonetheless, in principle I think the idea is sound. Democracy should not be an end in itself. It is only good if it produces good policies, and there are numerous (and mostly obvious) reasons to think that an informed public would vote for better policies than the ones we currently live under. It would be nice if all Americans were well informed about our government and public policy, but that’s never going to happen–the incentives just aren’t there–so why not limit the electorate to those who actually care enough to know what they are doing when they vote?

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.


Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 5 Comments
 

John W. PayneAt the Risk of Being Unpopular, This Economist Places the Blame for All This Squarely on You, the Voter!
Posted at 5:50 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

I’m currently reading The Myth of the Rational Voter by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, and his basic thesis is that democracies enact bad policies not because the democratic process is take over by self-interested elites but because the people are ignorant and biased and get precisely the bad policies they want. I’m certainly inclined to agree with this as I believe that, by and large, the people are stupid, vicious, and evil (not you, dear reader; you take the time to listen to what I have to say), but I think Caplan errs when he literally marginalizes the role of special interests:

Politicians’ wiggle room creates opportunities for special interest groups–private and public, lobbyists and bureaucrats–to get their way. On my account, though, interest groups are unlikely to to directly “subvert” the democratic process. Politicians rarely stick their necks out for unpopular policies because an interest group begs them–or pays them–to do so. Their careers are on the line; it is not worth the risk. Instead, interest groups push along the margins of public indifference. If the public has no strong feelings about how to reduce dependence on foreign old, ethanol producers might finagle a tax credit for themselves. No matter how hard they lobbied, though, they would fail to ban gasoline. (Emphasis in original.)

I think this explains much if not most of public policy, but there are some glaring exceptions where special interests have persuaded Congress, by comfortable majorities, to override public opinion. To take a recent example, solid majorities opposed bailing out GM and Chrysler, and the public followed the issue about as closely as any in the last two years, yet it still passed Congress with bipartisan support. Similarly, although the TARP was initially popular, by the time the second round of funding was set to be released, the public had turned overwhelmingly against it, but there was never a realistic possibility Congress would rescind the funding.

Now, I’m sure these votes will come back to hurt some Congressmen in November but not all that many, and I think this is where Caplan’s theory falters. Congressional districts are so heavily gerrymandered that most incumbents never face a serious challenge regardless of their voting record. Nancy Pelosi could kill and eat a hobo in the Haight-Ashbury, and the people of San Francisco would still return her to Congress. Members of Congress from safe districts, which is about 70-80 percent of the House, are essentially free to indulge whatever special interests they please, so when basically every lobbyist in Washington starts telling them that the sky will fall if they don’t start shoveling money into the yawning mouths of failing banks and auto companies, they willingly complied without regard to public opinion.

Although I’m only about forty pages into the book, Caplan’s theory of democratic failure seems relatively sound, but he should take into account how non-competitive most elections are.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.


Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments
 

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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