Tag Archives: government

Freedom Under Law

Last night the Senate failed to advance an extension of the Patriot Act’s Section 215. Rand Paul objected to Mitch McConnell’s efforts at passing any short-term extensions and suddenly it looks like the legal authority for the Patriot Act’s phone metadata collection program may actually expire June 1st.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now, and I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”

So said Rand Paul at the outset of his 11 hour pseudo filibuster on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to be moved by the language. If there is a quality I admire most about the Senator from Kentucky it is his maniacal obsession with restoring checks and balances to our government. In order to have any success at reining in executive power the public must first agree with the premise on which the reform rests. If you’ve paid attention to Paul in the Senate you know the thread that runs through his speeches and through his marathon performances on the Senate floor is the separation of powers. Drones and NSA spying were not background concerns per se, but neither were they the true focus of the filibusters. At root is a fundamental objection with the flagrant expansion of executive power under every administration since World War II, but especially since 9/11.

Why are separation of powers so important? To hear Paul tell it, the sanctity of divvied powers was eloquently championed by French philosopher Montesquieu, who warned how tyranny would ensue whenever the executive moved to legislate. Likewise, separating the judicial branch from both executive and legislative was imperative for the security of habeus corpus and other natural liberties. Embedded in small government philosophy is a staunch suspicion of planning and expertise, a wariness born during The Enlightenment and which reflected the conflict between the regal old guards and the new class of individual-minded bourgeoisie. For eons the word of the state was the final word on society; decrees from on high carried down to the masses for them to follow. However, the individual conscience rights that began taking shape in the Middle Ages became more widely disseminated during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. With the expansion of knowledge and individual agency the feudal system gradually gave rise to market economies fueled by spontaneous order. The consequent loss of power and influence for the aristocracy was a product of capitalism providing the vehicle for political participation by ordinary folk. Schumpeter’s insight that “the princess was always able to wear silk stockings, but it took capitalism to put them within reach of the shop girl” put the lie to the Marxist conceit that free enterprise would destroy the middle class. Voluntary exchange under a legal framework that respects the individual and cherishes his right to profit from his own labor is what created the middle class.

As the Western world moved methodically toward social appreciation for the citizen’s sovereignty over the state, the question of democracy became crucial: how to organize a free society of, by and for the people when for so long power and authority were hereditary and monarchical? Fortunately the British and ultimately the Americans did not need cast about in search of a guiding principle. We already got one and it’s called Magna Carta. The great charter signed at Runnymede marks its 800th anniversary this year and yet remains relevant as ever. Habeus corpus, jury trials, property rights and a common law that precedes and preempts man-made law; these natural rights discovered by our English forebears provided the blueprint for the individual based free society. They also declared for the first time in history real restrictions on the power of the state or king, which would prove a launching point for our founders as they set to establishing a government that would pit ambition against ambition as a means of separating and counterbalancing the powers of the state. The best encapsulation of this radical vision for upending centuries of authoritarian rule is inscribed on the monument commemorating Magna Carta: “freedom under law.”

Freedom under law is what the entire debate over NSA and executive power overreach is all about. National security state defenders will often say there’s no evidence of abuse currently and besides, don’t you want to be safe? But that is not the point. The point of a freedom secured by law is that the law is the law, and it is supreme. John Adams said we strove to institute a “government of laws, not men.” When executive authority runs afoul of the law it is supposed to be a big deal. When successive administrations of different parties expand executive power to the degree that natural rights are abused, it is supposed to be a huge deal. But in the name of fighting terror and keeping the country safe the Bush and Obama administrations have treated the 4th amendment like so much garbage.

In attempting to take Rand Paul to task Andrew McCarthy of National Review runs the gamut of talking points before insisting that “the depiction of national-security agents who are trying to protect American lives as seventies-style rogues tearing the Constitution to bits is a smear.” But Paul is not doing that; instead he is arguing that the Patriot Act and its especially problematic provisions open the door for abuse at any time. It may not be now, or in the next administration or the next but the point of freedom under law is that we eliminate this risk altogether by forcing fallible men and women to swear oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. The founders were explicit about making the law supreme and they further divided power to guard against the transient passions and fears that inevitably come to challenge man and his commitment to law. As challenging and daunting as it is, the jihadist threat of modern times is exactly the kind of passionate, fearful moment in time the founders knew would inevitably materialize. If they knew that only two hundred some odd years later American political discourse would include such penetrating insights as Chris Christie’s you can’t enjoy your civil rights from a coffin, they would have folded up shop and abandoned the revolutionary project full stop.

The Patriot Act is what happens when laws are passed out of fear instead of sober deliberation. Freedom under law was always meant to keep that from happening, like the abstract, intangible version of standing athwart history yelling stop. The founders knew too well the propensity of man to govern arbitrarily; thus the principle aim of the new republic was to build a system that takes arbitrary and consolidated power out of the equation and lifts the Constitution up as the final arbiter on what government can do.

How to Help the Poor

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum laments the Democrats’ worrying trend with working class white voters and traces the discontent to lingering unhappiness with the Democratic tax and spend welfare state model. Drum accurately highlights how liberal obsession with food stamps, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and Obamacare can alienate working class whites as they see more and more assistance going to their marginally less well-off neighbors while they get nothing. Personally I think race has very little to do with what is really an economic and a government problem, but since the left can’t tie their shoes without noting the latent racism involved in shoelace production, they have to identify their middle and working class voter problem as one to do with the “white working class.” Fine. Whatever gets them to any level of introspection is only good news for the debate going forward.

In getting to his conclusion that he has no conclusion for how to solve this electoral dilemma, Drum offers this precious piece of liberal self-congratulation:

“Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it.”

I wonder if the left will ever understand observable reality and change its mind on what constitutes helping the poor. Everyone with a conscience, left or right, wishes to see the plight of the poor improve, the question is how to achieve improvement. I (kinda, sorta) accept Drum and liberals at their word that their aim is true when they advocate for these government programs for the poor; my problem is with their stubborn refusal to be accountable and admit that the ambitious War on Poverty was a failure, especially if viewed in terms of trajectories – American poverty was steadily declining between 1945 and 1965, only to flatten after the Great Society was introduced. The line has remained flat for a generation.

us poverty graph

It is an insult to basic intelligence to suggest these programs were successful at eradicating American poverty. Possessing noble intentions does not automatically translate into good policy, but seeking well-intended results through government is guaranteed to create bad policy because government is inherently inefficient (and likely inherently stupid too).

Whatever merits progressives assign to the Great Society are dwarfed by the incontrovertible fact that its biggest legacy is likely to be the destruction of the black family in America. And not just the black family, either. One of the more fundamental disagreements between left and right is over the matter of incentives. The left doesn’t bother with incentives because, if I may be so bold, they typically don’t care about how their policies cause people to behave; they just care that a policy they came up with is made binding on others. Or if you want to be more generous: the left doesn’t focus on behavioral incentives in law because they don’t believe such things exist. Since most leftists come from academia, they are used to theoretical models that deal in static data. The real world, however, deals in dynamic data, in that there is no way to account for the variable known as “human behavior” in academic models of society or the economy.

Laws create behavioral incentives because humans are not robots. Just because it makes sense on paper to increase government spending in order to stimulate aggregate demand does not mean such policy will work in practice. In fact, we know it does not work because rudimentary market economics informs us that government intervention into the economy only creates distortions and mis-allocation of resources. The left has never understood this basic premise when it comes to – well, everything – but especially when it comes to helping the poor.

By aggressively inserting itself into the lives of inner city and rural constituencies the federal government has wildly distorted the markets for labor, education, spouse and dignity in America’s poverty-stricken regions. Government intrusions in the form of food stamps, unemployment and Medicaid sound benign at the outset. But consider how these benefits alter incentives for the beneficiary. Is a worker in the inner city more or less likely to ardently search for work when 99 weeks of unemployment are on the table? Is a struggling shop-owner looking to hire two extra workers on the cheap (offering them an opportunity out of poverty, perhaps) going to be more or less likely to do so when the price of labor is arbitrarily raised on him via a minimum-wage increase? Most crucially, are a couple with children more or less likely to stay together when there are no consequences to family dissolution thanks to the ubiquitous welfare state that allows single mothers to collect plenty of money with none of the dignity attached.

The $64,000 question is whether the American left, facing its worst political moment in a century (the 1920’s were the last time the party had so few seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the state legislatures – they were wiped out the last two midterms), chooses to double down on welfare statism or decides to speak honestly and culpably about the failures of their grand experiment in leveraging the public sector to fix poverty. If Democrats really want to speak to the white working class again, or for that matter, the poor and underclass who they today purport to serve, they need to accept that there is one – and only one – proven tool for lifting masses of people out of dismal economic conditions: capitalism.

So that’s where we are. The left’s future as I see it depends on their developing a non-transparent and believable appreciation for what makes economies grow. The fact that the global poverty rate fell from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006 due primarily to the introduction of free enterprise and free trade to the rest of the world is entirely lost on the inhabitants of America’s faculty lounges. If they are even aware of this remarkable 80% decline they shrug and attribute it to government aid or something (seriously). Empowering individuals through trade and entrepreneurship is not some fashionable dream concocted by libertarians but the cold hard reality of the how wealth and prosperity are made. The middle and working classes in America aren’t eager to join the poor in the ranks of the dependent class. The poor themselves do not wish to be pandered to and showered with candy while no observable improvements are made in their communities. People are ready for something different, above all in the country’s approach to economics, employment and welfare.

The good news is that, for all the lefty hand-wringing (and really, there ought to be more than there is) over losing the white working class, there is no way they are going to suddenly become champions of capitalism and that means the right is well positioned to cast some much needed light on the plight of overlooked and left behind Americans.

world poverty since 1970

It’s a Hoax

John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel and inevitable pariah of the climate crazed left, has come out and flatly declared global warming to be a hoax:

“The ocean is not rising significantly. The polar ice is increasing, not melting away. Polar Bears are increasing in number. Heat waves have actually diminished, not increased. There is not an uptick in the number or strength of storms (in fact storms are diminishing). I have studied this topic seriously for years. It has become a political and environment agenda item, but the science is not valid.”

“The science is not valid.”

What about the “97% of scientists” canard which is routinely trotted out in service of the cause as a cudgel to silence critics. What rational person wants to associate with the meager three percent of the population who aren’t with the scientists? Better to go with the flow and trust that the sacred consensus is genuine.

But the consensus is not a consensus, and is far from genuine anyway. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana has done heroic work in exposing the fraud that is at the foundation of the climate industry in this scathing new report, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.”

Central to the many findings in the report is the account of how billionaire leftists align with the federal bureaucracy to quietly, discreetly, and under cover of media darkness configure the debate on their preferred terms. The myriad 501(c)(4) nonprofit “philanthropy” and “social welfare” environmental groups benefit from substantial funds from the billionaires, who make sure that their tracks are covered and no one ever really knows their level of involvement with shady and militant environmental activism.

The ease with which this cabal (Vitter’s term) hides its machinations from the public is not hard to understand. The EPA and it’s 90,000 employees does not overfloweth with small government libertarians. The federal bureaucracy as a whole can be characterized much the same way. There just aren’t a lot of federal bureaucrats who aren’t progressives. Given that the green movement wishes to see government expand, ostensibly to combat climate change but in reality because they are communists/socialists/Marxists (I don’t care what you call them, as long you appreciate that they are driven foremost and forever by anti-capitalism, not love for Gaia), it stands to reason they would find a willing partner in federal bureaucrats. Thus has the Vitter report exposed the byzantine maze of money funneling between billionaire donors and activists and their federally sanctioned 501(c)(4)s. The green lobbying industry and the EPA act as a revolving door while national progressives like Elizabeth Warren inveigh against cronyism. As national media walks in ideological lock-step with cause, they are loathe to shine light on the massive amount of lucre running the climate change circus from afar, which would be merely annoying if progressives didn’t routinely make the same charge about conservatives and dark money and the Koch Brothers. It is the left that is running shady secretive money schemes in this country. The schemes are purposefully kept from public view, as most rational Americans would balk at the idea of European gas prices, yet the left still has the hubris to project that sin on to their opponents, and with a straight face.

Needless to say, the left don’t like being called out on this issue, but it’s interesting that they usually resort to smug snark rather than persuasive argument, and as The Nation’s Lee Fang proves, they cannot let go of the narrative of dark money:

“Now, they have a second chance. As dark-money groups and Super PACs backed by millions of dollars from the fossil-fuel industry are propelling Republicans to a Senate majority, climate science–denying politicians are likely to seize control of key committee chairmanships, a coup for companies seeking to pollute the atmosphere with impunity. What’s more, Inhofe is slated to become chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, with oversight of the EPA.”

You see it’s the fossil fuel companies and conservative Super PACs who are dealing in nefarious dark money, whereas the pure as the driven snow environmentalists are just sober empiricists desperate to take drastic, planetary-saving action now, now, now! By deploying the “climate science-denying politicians” slur, Fang is not making an argument; rather he is just flashing a gang sign to signal his membership in the tribe. The use of the “denier” charge, beyond its execrable Holocaust-denier connotation, is meant to silence debate. It conveys a sense of superiority and implies, “science is on our side, get bent.” On that very science, Coleman again:

““There is no significant man-made global warming at this time, there has been none in the past and there is no reason to fear any in the future,” Coleman writes. “Efforts to prove the theory that carbon dioxide is a significant greenhouse gas and pollutant causing significant warming or weather effects have failed.

“There has been no warming over 18 years.”

The narrative persists anyway.

To wit, it is difficult to imagine a more cynical political movement than the climate alarmists. Every single one of their policy prescriptions calls for more socialism, more regulation, and more government control over society. Folks like Robert Kennedy, Jr. now publicly opine about the need to incarcerate those who do not believe in their great big hoax. Understandably, article after article after article is penned on the burgeoning liberal gulag on the left. It’s hard to come up with a more illiberal movement than environmentalism today. Their science is forged, coerced, generated via groupthink. But their methods have more in common with tyranny than with healthy democratic debate. And when the debate proceeds in a manner not to their liking, they demand the “deniers” shut up or go to jail.

Do not collect $200.

 

Solvency of the States

If you had to guess which American states currently enjoy long-run projections of fiscal solvency and which do not, the answer you give probably depends on what you think of the chasm between red state and blue state governance; particularly of their competing approaches to budgets and balance sheets. If you’re a sane person with a modicum of economic comprehension, you are likely to know the right answer (the red states are more solvent), whereas a progressive is sure to proclaim with the same certainty as Harold Camping predicting the apocalypse that the blue states are the winners.

One of the unfortunate drawbacks of the digital revolution is the way it created fast tracks to confirmation bias. With seemingly all the information at our fingertips, it’s increasingly easy to find support on the web for one’s pre-existing biases, in the form of a snappy infographic, statistic or article. I’m sure I am guilty of this myself on occasion. On matters from the minimum wage to energy to Keynesian multipliers, policy debates in the 21st century that should be “winnable” are instead given to endless harangues by both sides as the crux of the issue at hand gets distorted to the point of incoherence. Like ships passing in the night, points and counterpoints are hurled into the dark like aimless projectiles from blind cannons. No one trusts anything that emanates from the enemy.

Of course I blame the left for most, if not all of this. For it is our leftist friends who adhere to the relatavist dogma that says truth is essentially nothing more than a social construct. In other words, truth is whatever society deems it to be. The entire field of macroeconomics can be boiled down as an exercise in giving fanciful collectivism a scientific veneer. A modern political philosophy that scorns individualism and exalts egalitarianism is going to need a shiny veneer if it’s to attract converts, given history’s rather convincing verdict on the matter. Because nearly every consequential epoch of human history since the Middle Ages was premised on the primacy of the individual over that of the Church or the State, it’s a bold endeavor to preach egalitarianism to Americans. The notion that fairness is paramount to our national conscience is apt if we’re talking about opportunity. It is anathema to the free society however, if we’re talking about outcome. And yet progressives really are interested in equal outcomes, much as they know they can’t get away espousing as much in such blatantly socialist language. So the trick is to muddy the waters, cloud the issue, fog the lens. The trick is to erect an army of fact checkers, truth police and Vox Medias in order to keep the ambitious young stenographers active and engaged. This way no sound economic takedown of exhausted Keynesianism can be allowed to stand without some minion somewhere penning a brave defense of bureaucracy and having it picked up by HuffPo and distributed through media channels as DNC talking points.

So it is with that long-winded introduction that I offer this banal piece of data on state budget solvency, from Real Clear Politics. This is funny because even I would not have guessed that the results drew as clear a distinction between red state and blue as these rankings show. The fact that states with smaller governments and fewer impediments to market entry and participation have brighter fiscal outlooks and rosier balance sheets than those of those benevolent blue staters who just want to do right by the poor and downtrodden should come as a shock to no one. But it is still jarring to see such comprehensive success and failure at the front and back ends of the list bifurcated so as to be so ideologically distinguishable. So without further ado, the five most solvent states followed by the five least solvent.

Most Solvent

1. Alaska
2. South Dakota
3. North Dakota
4. Nebraska
5. Wyoming

Least Solvent

46. California
47. Massachusetts
48. Connecticutt
49. Illinois
50. New Jersey

In case you are still under the misapprehension that large public sector workforces financed by high taxation and regulation are the way to go, all one need look to is domestic migration patterns in the U.S. and try to come away with any conclusion other than blue state policies amount to a pathway to citizens shipping out.

Rand Paul’s Filibuster

One year ago today, Rand Paul captivated much of the country with his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA. The 13 hour marathon went spectacularly viral on social media and was responsible for CSPAN’s largest ratings in a while. By now very few Americans are unfamiliar with the Kentucky senator’s passionate rebuke of our clandestine drone program, and that is due to Paul’s political instinct for latching on to broad populist concerns that generally transcend partisan lines. Whether it’s reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, advocating government (state and federal) exit from marriage contracts, suing the NSA for domestic spying or championing drug war reform and felon voting rights, Paul has shown he is virtually peerless at applying his libertarian message to issues that garner broad support and thus enhance the appeal of libertarian ideas overall. Still, for all his policy entrepreneurship in just three years in the Senate, Paul is known most for his stance on drones.

As much as the filibuster was about drones, it was also about much more. It was about the wider War on Terror, as well as a plea for a restored reverence for the Bill of Rights, especially the fifth amendment. Most of all though, the filibuster was a disquisition on checks and balances and constitutional separation of powers. Rand used the hypothetical threat of an American being killed via drone strike on American soil without due process as a vivid entry point through which his audience could begin to appreciate the distorted power distribution within the branches of government.

Since Woodrow Wilson progressives have believed that government power should be concentrated in the executive branch and that the presidency demanded a “vision.” George Will describes the Wilsonian impulse as a desire for the president to interpret the constitution in a way that comports with the wishes and wants of the people and to be the voice that affirms these wants. Wilson’s view of the American founding and of separation of powers would become the legacy sentiment of the American left for a hundred years: not good enough. For Wilson and his ascendant progressive cohort, science was becoming the dominant and indisputable truth; bolstered by Darwin’s theory of evolution in biology, they set out to apply the science of evolution to human behavior. Wilson believed that government’s purpose was to efficiently guide humanity towards its inevitable endpoint of societal evolution. The perfect society would be attainable once the experts were put in charge. You know, top men

F.A. Hayek famously disparaged this inclination to impose scientific plans on a society the fatal conceit. The idea that you can acquire enough knowledge to plan an economy through the expertise of administrators is essentially the definition of hubris. That you would attempt such a project in a polity expressly founded in opposition to this conceit is nigh treasonous. And yet there was Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to directly challenge the very nature of our government’s structure and the idea that power should be diffuse and majorities neutered. Our Madisonian construct is meant to consist of constantly shifting majorities among competing segments of government, while factions are to be constrained by being discouraged on large scales, the idea being that the inevitable rise of small factions within civil society would harness productive resolutions among competing interests. Wilson and the progressives declared all this nonsense, said “Hail Science!” and went to work on a century long project to gradually erode checks and balances by growing the executive to a scale fit to house a legion of expert administrators, aka “unelected bureaucrats.”

This was the subversive message of Rand Paul’s filibuster. The crucial issue he really meant to highlight was embedded inside his bombastic portrayal of an immediate threat to our natural rights posed by drones. That is not to say that Paul was not sincere about his clarion call for reform to both overseas and domestic drone protocols. Rand is nothing if not a rabid defender of all of the Bill of Rights, and his alarm at the vague guidelines, oversight and legality of the government’s drone program was about protecting various parts of our fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights. More than anything to do with drones though, the crux of the filibuster was about drawing attention to the bipartisan abuse of executive power.

Paul is fond of quoting Montesquieu (really, who isn’t?), the French political philosopher whose principal contribution to politics was the idea of separation of powers. A merger between executive and legislative branches would mean no liberty, according to Montesquieu’s revolutionary tripartite concept under which our government was conceived. Likewise, as Paul offered repeatedly throughout his filibuster, a combination of the executive and the judiciary can yield no justice. Paul was rightly tying the concern over due process and extrajudicial assassinations to the broader discussion of an overreaching executive. The presidency has simply become too big, with too many agencies and bureaucracies under its aegis. Congress has gradually and steadily forfeited much of its authority to the executive on everything from war powers to educational administration (as if that should be a role of the federal government at all). I believe Rand Paul was sincere when he said he would have stood and raised the same objections regardless of who was occupying the White House. This was not a partisan attack on Barack Obama, but a larger critique of the subtle degradation to our constitutional prerogative to live under three coequal branches of government.

Before Wilson, Congress had far more authority than it enjoys today and the roles of the branches were unambiguous: the legislature writes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws, and the judicial branch determines the constitutionality of the laws. But with the rise of our imperial presidency – brought to you unapologetically and enthusiastically by progressives and their presidential “visionaries” – the executive branch has become Leviathan, buttressed by unaccountable battalions of expertise known as executive agencies, able to cast the tentacled nets of the administrative state across the land, unimpeded and with little input from the other branches. Our government as currently construed is not very far from completing the progressive vision of having a benign dictator administer an expert plan for the country. As the executive branch grows and grows, and with it the number of petty authoritarians manning the cubicles at EPA, IRS, DOE, HHS, and wherever else the executive agencies have usurped power, the ability of Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively check its authority diminishes. We know who is responsible for this. Paul’s meta-narrative was not to affix blame for the bloated, corrupt, too-powerful presidency, but to cast a bright shining light on it and to spend thirteen hours subtly lamenting the fact that not enough Americans in the 21st century seem to care that government today is not functioning as it was designed.

And what better way to jar Americans out of complacency than to warn them that an unchecked executive might drop a drone through their roof. That was the real point of the filibuster, to wake Americans up to the perils of absolute power.