The Fog of Cover Your Ass

 | 

The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




Share This


The Intelligent Person's Guide to Presidential Politics

 | 

The tradition at Liberty is to introduce every presidential election witha symposium of libertarian views about whom to vote for: the Democrat, the Libertarian, the Republican, and No One at All. This year, we are happy to follow the tradition with commentary by four expert analysts, each well known to our readers: Drew Ferguson, Jon Harrison, Wayland Hunter, and Gary Jason. There's enough here to get anyone's blood boiling. —Stephen Cox

* * *

The Case for Johnson

By Andrew Ferguson

I’m here to exhort you, reader, to vote Libertarian in the upcoming election. Specifically, I’m urging you to vote for Gary Johnson, rather than sitting out the election entirely, or writing in “Donald Duck” or something similarly hilarious.

Since I’m writing to an ostensibly libertarian audience, I assume that those are the options you’re considering. Because your individual vote contributes to the totals about as much as a decent piss does to the ocean, why bother disrupting an otherwise productive day to cast a vote in favor of either major party? They don’t care about your vote; in fact, they go as far out of the way as possible to disclaim any “libertarian” viewpoint or content in their campaigns. And whichever candidate wins, he’s going to screw you more or less in the same way: more taxes to fund more wars; more kickbacks to benefit more cronies; more tariffs to feed nativist ignorance and hike prices for consumer goods . . . in short, more for DC, and less for all the rest of us.

If those were my only two choices — as all the major media seem to believe — I’d certainly exercise my right not to vote. And in fact, I’ve done exactly that in the past two election cycles: with the major-party candidates, as always, being unconscionable, and the LP candidates being, respectively, naïve and loathsome. But this year . . . this year is different.

I am on record saying that Gary Johnson is the strongest candidate the Libertarian Party has ever recruited to head its ticket; likely, he is the strongest candidate who ever will carry the LP torch. I knew this within the first 15 seconds of my interview with him at the LP Convention, when he quickly showed himself to be neither naïve nor loathsome, nor — and this by far the most important — the sort of personality who seeks guru status, or who inspires (and accepts) cultish devotion.

Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance.

Of course, he is in no way a perfect candidate. (Such politicians are illusions, reflections of a better universe, in which each person has the rule of his or her own house alone, and is free there to enact his or her own image of the perfect ruler.) But an America under Gary Johnson would be an America that doesn't maintain or extend its imperial military presence around the world; an America that doesn’t haul off and invade Iran or any other country on someone else’s say-so; an America that doesn’t exude a rhetoric of hatred, fear, and absolute moral certainty. His America wouldn’t lock up hundreds of dissenters or millions of victimless criminals; wouldn’t starve poor countries to prop up farm subsidies; wouldn’t hand economic policy over to Goldman Sachs to impoverish the unconnected; wouldn’t court a new Depression by inciting trade wars and deepening international divides.

Clearly such an America is too badass a country for the cultural elites to allow even a fleeting image to lodge in the minds of most American voters. But if such a vision is to get any foothold in this great land — if we are to pull back from the ledge at any moment before we fling ourselves pell-mell over it — we must show in this election that there is some opposition left, some coherent alternative to wars and prisons and empire.

With every election that goes by, the militaristic oligarchy that controls these United States grows stronger, conducting its business and screening itself from criticism behind the farcical pretense of partisan politics. Whichever party takes the present contest will further the agenda and then, since this will take our nation still closer to bankruptcy, lose big in 2016. The party assuming control at that time will misrepresent a normal response to failure — kicking the bums out — as a “mandate” to enact legislation that does yet more harm. Then matters will repeat in 2020, and 2024, and ever after, until we find out just how much ruin there is in a country — or until we shake things up, and crash the comfortable party.

So let’s get this straight: Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance. This election, don’t waste your vote on the big guys. And don’t let it pass into nothingness. Give it to someone who can actually use it, someone who can channel the voices of millions of Americans who are fed up with the system and its phonies, its cronies, and its crooks. Vote Gary Johnson.

* * *

The Case for Obama

By Jon Harrison

I find this assignment, to make the case for voting for Barack Obama, somewhat distasteful, because I am neither a Democrat nor a strong supporter of the president. I am turned off by both of the major parties — so much so that I haven’t voted in a federal election since 1988. I could perhaps make the case for not voting. I must admit, however, that if my home state of Vermont were in danger of going Republican, I would get out on November 6 and vote for Obama.

I would’ve been happy to make the case for voting Libertarian, because I think the LP’s 2012 ticket is the best it has ever fielded (although John Hospers was a fine choice as the party’s first presidential candidate in 1972), and the party platform is one I can live with although I disagree with some of its planks. But as I believe the LP is an exercise in futility, and that libertarians would do well to devote their energies to working within the major parties in order to transform them into something like true liberty-loving movements, I can’t honestly make the case for voting Libertarian.

I can’t possibly make the case for voting Republican this year, given the manifest danger to liberty the party represents. The party is both beholden to, and largely divided between, two groups of radicals: ultracapitalists on the one hand, and protofascist populists on the other. Establishment Republicans, such as John McCain and David Brooks, are a shrinking minority within the party, and increasingly irrelevant to its deliberations. And even these people tend to hold dangerous neocon views on foreign policy.

Recall that the Republican Party gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, exploding deficits, and two wars financed entirely on credit. Paul Ryan, the party’s candidate for vice president and the darling of the far right, voted for all these things in Congress. And Ryan, like so many Republicans, is a notorious reactionary on social issues, with a 1950s attitude toward homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights. Do we really want such a man a heartbeat away from the presidency? Do we really want a party that contains people like Todd Akin (he of “legitimate rape”) and Allen West (“there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party”) running the country?

The state of the party is such that its candidate, Mitt Romney, had to become a serial liar in order to gain the presidential nomination. Romney is basically the Massachusetts moderate he was accused of being during the Republican primaries. Whatever he may say now, the fact is he pushed through Romneycare in Massachusetts, and he would keep important aspects of Obamacare on the books. He is for progressivity in the tax code. He is in favor of shoring up the welfare state, not radically restricting it. If elected, he will rely upon the Democrats in Congress to keep his own party from moving policy too far to the right.

Romney’s greatest fault is that he lacks the courage of his convictions. He should be denied the presidency because he is a man without principle: he is willing to say and do almost anything to become president, to an extent that puts even Richard Nixon in the shade. Thus we have the Mitt of the 47% recording, and the Mitt of the first presidential debate, both dwelling within the same fleshly envelope. A Janus such as this in the Oval Office would almost certainly create havoc in the body politic. Add to this his formidable ignorance of foreign affairs, and you have a man who simply must be kept from the highest place, lest we descend once more into Bushworld.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one, and yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009.

Now to the current occupant of the White House. The president has been craven on such issues as the deficit and entitlements. He has done nothing to reverse the Bush administration’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs. The former dabbler in illegal substances has shown neither courage nor compassion in dealing with America’s tragically misguided policy toward drug use and abuse. He allowed Congress free rein to craft a stimulus bill that amounted to the biggest pile of pork ever made into law. He responded poorly to the housing crisis, adopting a middle course that proved the worst of all worlds for real estate, and seriously hampered a recovery of the economy. He also temporized with regard to the shenanigans of the big banks, a policy that may eventually prove disastrous. He came into office even more unprepared than the man he was often compared to, John Kennedy, and he has not grown in office to anything like the extent JFK did. And yet . . .

And yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009. I was opposed to Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, yet we must admit that it probably prevented an economic disaster (on this see Bruce Ramsey’s “Assessing the Bailouts”). The American war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is finally being wound down (Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” was a mistake, it now seems clear, yet unavoidable given the pressure he was under from the Republicans and certain quarters of the military). Bin Laden is dead. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been abolished, with no noticeable effect on the morale or combat capability of the military. Above all, we have not plunged into the folly of pulling Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iran. An American war to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be a catastrophe economically, causing energy prices to soar to unprecedented levels. Add to this the cost in blood and dollars of such a campaign, and the growth of radicalism in the Muslim world that it would provoke, and you have a situation even worse than the final years of Bush. We are more likely to avoid such a fate under Obama than Romney.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one. The man, though personally engaging and far more “cerebral” (as former Secy. of Defense Robert Gates put it) than his predecessor, has been a mediocre first executive. Moreover, he appears worn and seems to lack fresh ideas for the future. How then to justify a vote to reelect him?

Bloomberg conducted a poll on the presidential race at the end of September. In its report it quoted a self-described libertarian, one Stephanie Martin of Virginia, who said the following:

If I have to choose between the two, I prefer Barack over Mitt. I think Mitt Romney is just so out of touch. It’s mostly a protest against him and the Republican establishment; it’s not that I think Obama has done such a great job.

Stephanie, I’m with you.

* * *

The Case for Romney

By Gary Jason

I will be cheerfully (though not enthusiastically) voting for Mitt Romney. While I don’t expect the following sketch of my reasons to convince many readers who don’t already favor him, the case is worth stating.

Let me begin by stating the obvious (but not the always recognized): in our system, voting for a third party candidate is almost always just wasting your vote. Since I have written at length on this elsewhere in this journal, let me simply reiterate that while I would favor something like a ranked voting system, in the absence of such a system, to vote for a third party is merely political theater.

Put another way, the reply to “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils” is that when you vote third party (or refuse to vote) you are helping the greater of two evils to triumph. Seems pointless, right?

Moreover, Romney (while admittedly a moderate) has a number of strong points (especially when he is compared with Obama) that make me positively want to vote for him. The most obvious of them include superior managerial competence, deeper economic understanding greater disposition to freedom, more realistic vision, and better character.

Superior managerial competence: Begin with the fact that our nation is in an enduring economic malaise, with unemployment still around 8% even after several years of recovery, and debtlevels soaring. Romney seems clearly more qualified to turn this around.

  • Romney, who earned an MBA from Harvard and had an outstanding career in business, views free market capitalism as the key to prosperity. In contrast, Obama continues his college professor rants against businesses and wealthy people, which only discourages economic expansion. In this Obama recapitulates the errors of his hero FDR, who (as Amity Shlaes has argued in The Forgotten Man) managed to extend the Depression through his class warfare rhetoric.
  • Romney is less likely by far to raise taxes. Obama in a second term would surely use his power to force increases in taxes at least on wealthier citizens.
  • Will Romney lower all tax rates by 20% and eliminate deductions? It will be great if he does, and he did do so when he was governor of Massachusetts. One of the advantages of Romney’s plan is that it would lessen the deduction of state taxes for the wealthy, which I strongly favor even though I live in the tax hell called California, because it is immoral to force citizens of low-tax states to carry part of the burden of state taxes in the irresponsible high-tax states. However, I don’t know whether and to what extent Romney’s party will control Congress, so I don’t know whether he will succeed. If he just keeps the present rates in place that would be enormously helpful.
  • Romney’s masterly handling of Bain Capital and the Olympics showed an innate talent for running organizations competently.

Deeper economic understanding: Romney shows reasonable understanding of the need for free trade, free markets, and free labor mobility — not to as great a degree as I would hope, but surely infinitely better than the economically ignorant Obama.

  • Romney will at least be open to free trade, especially with South America. I have suggested elsewhere that he should start with Brazil. An FTA with Brazil (and one with India) would do wonders. Obama by contrast started trade wars with our close partners Mexico and Canada, stalled for three long years the three FTAs he inherited from Bush, and has taken no steps to enter into FTAs with any other countries.
  • Romney clearly seems to favor free markets in energy. He would end the war on fossil fuel waged by Obama and the environmentalist ideologues he placed in power at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere. Romney will almost surely sign off on the Keystone Pipeline. He will very likely allow more leases on federal land and offshore. He may even succeed — finally — in opening up ANWR, through (again) that will depend upon his control of Congress.
  • More generally, Romney will doubtless lighten up on regulation. Can he repeal and replace Dodd-Frank? God, I hope so — why not just repeal it and reinstitute Glass-Steagall? Again, it depends on Congress. But at least he will not push new regulatory mischief.
  • Romney seems more inclined to allow free mobility of labor, aka immigration reform. He seems sincere when he expresses support for expanding legal immigration of skilled labor, though I am not entirely sure of the depth of his feeling in that regard. But while Obama talks as if he favors comprehensive immigration reform, he really doesn’t. He had complete control of Congress for two years, and never bothered to introduce a bill. At least Romney has promised to increase the H1-B Visa limit for skilled immigrants, which is something.

Greater disposition to freedom: Romney seems to want to roll back the encroachments on freedom imposed by Obama’s expansion of the progressive liberal welfare state.

  • I am very sure that Romney will carry through his promise to try to repeal ObamaCare, and if he succeeds, it will be hugely important. It would be the first major defeat of the ever-advancing progressive welfare state since 1932, and would stop the process of nationalization of healthcare which, when it has happened in other countries, has proven impossible to reverse. It would also prevent a wave of built-in tax increases, such as the new federal tax on the profits from home sales, and the new tax on medical devices.
  • Regarding education, again the choice is clear. Romney favors expanding school choice, while teacher union tool Obama ended the meager DC Voucher program, and did little to expand charter schools.

More realistic vision: Regarding foreign policy, I view Romney as simply more realistic.

  • Yes, both major candidates favor withdrawing from Afghanistan, but Romney seems to recognize that to simply turn the country back over to the Taliban would not prevent future attacks. Taking the time necessary to train a proper Afghan force may take longer, but it saves lives in the long run.
  • I won’t rehash Obama’s policy of being overly attentive to Russia (in canceling the missile defense system we had arranged to put in Poland, for example) and getting nothing in return, or in tossing the tyrant Mubarak under the bus in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood — a huge mistake with ever more disturbing unintended consequences appearing every day (for example, the recent announcementby one of the Brotherhood’s leaders that he favors instituting Sharia law). Just ask the Copts — which will be easy to do, since very soonall of them will live here. And the inconsistency is breathtaking: we aided the Libyan rebels — even though Col. Gaddafi had in fact turned over his weapons of mass destruction (including an advanced nuclear program) to our country the week when Bush invaded Iraq, and ended his support of terrorists, in exchange for our tacit agreement not to invade him — but we have refused to give armed support of the Syrian rebels — even though the government they fight (the Assad regime) is a devoted supporter of Iran, which funds terrorism against us. Go figure.
  • The naiveté and hubris of Obama’s foreign policy has been evident from the day he accepted the Nobel Prize for “peace,” after doing nothing but say that he wanted peace. The sheer dishonesty of his foreign policy is sufficiently exemplified by recent events regarding Libya. Naivete, hubris, and dishonesty are assets to no one, even people who favor the president’s announced goals of peace and international harmony.
  • I can imagine the responses from some readers: You are a dirty neocon! No, in matters of foreign policy I obey a law older than neoconservatism: realism. We can’t withdraw into Fortress America, and we never could. But on the other hand we certainly shouldn’t take on the role of Captain America, world policeman. We need to exercise practical wisdom — what the Greeks called phronesis — to distinguish (among other things): vital national interests from mere national preferences; sending weapons from sending troops; encouraging alliances from establishing empires; supporting the lesser of two evils (such as Mubarak) from supporting the greater of two evils (the Brotherhood); and maintaining peace through free trade from courting war through protectionism.

Better character: Can anyone doubt that Romney has superior character to Obama?

  • Obama has proven himself to be arrogant, snarky, cheap, infantile, and narcissistic. Romney seems none of those things, appearing essentially modest, decent, and generous — actually having given $50 million of his own money to charity — as well as mature.
  • The mainstream media have been trying to dig up dirt on Romney for many months now, and cannot find one iota of dirt to display. Hence their pathetic attempts to use his wealth and Mormonism to attack him.
  • We might also mention Obama’s disgusting corruption — learned no doubt as a community organizer and player in Chicago’s political cesspool. In numerous cases, government loans and grants have gone to companies headed by prominent cronies of Obama. Not a scintilla of this has ever attended Romney’s tenure in any of the enterprises (for-profit, non-profit, or governmental) that he has run. Maybe knowing you can earn a quarter of a billion bucks legally and honestly makes you less inclined to corrupt dealings.

I know many people are nervous about Romney, especially those on the political right. Romney may possibly be lying across the board. Maybe he will not sign Keystone, not try to repeal ObamaCare, let all the tax increases happen, not allow more skilled immigrants in, block free trade agreements, and go all wobbly Green by opposing fossil fuels. Maybe — but the point I would make to the ultra-pure rightists is that Obama has shown that he will do all these things.

Nor am I under any illusion that Romney is Hayek redivivus. He has what seems to be a congenitally moderate nature, one that doesn’t adhere to a purely classically liberal ideology –more’s the pity. So I don’t expect him to get school vouchers enacted nationwide (as Sweden did years ago), or to end all farm subsidies (as New Zealand did years ago), or to enact a truly low flat tax with no deductions allowed (as Russia and numerous other countries did years ago), or to privatize Social Security (much less Medicare), or to create a vast free trade alliance of all democratic countries. I myself deeply desire all of these things, although I believe I will live to see none of them.

For this I won’t blame President Romney but my fellow Americans. They are too addicted to the welfare state, and will only change when the major welfare state programs finally fail. But Romney can do some moderate good in limiting the depth of our decline, instead of willfully accelerating it, and for this he will have my vote.

* * *

The Case for None of the Above

By Wayland Hunter

When I walk past my local polling place, I see people coming out with little stickers on their shirts, saying “I Voted!” As if that were something to be proud of.

I’m not saying that I’ve never voted, or that I feel some kind of quasi-religious objection to the secret ballot, à la 19th-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. I’m not an anarchist. I remember, maybe 30 years ago, Reason ran a poll asking its readers all sorts of things. One of them was, Are you an anarchist? Another was, Do you vote? The results were something like 40% on the first question and 90% on the second. So much, I thought, for libertarian anarchism.

I have no such “principled” objection to voting. If I find an election in which I think my vote matters, in the right way, I’ll go ahead and vote.

But right now, I feel as if I were channeling R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal. I don’t know whether, or how often, Mr. Bradford may have voted. (Seldom, I suppose.) But I recall his exposure of the “handful of votes” myth. He showed, beyond any possibility of confutation, that virtually no elections, however petty, are decided by the proverbial “handful.” The possibility of any election being decided by one vote, your vote, is similar to that of Columbus, Ohio being obliterated by a meteor strike.

There is no practical reason to vote.

But what about the alleged moral reason? Good libertarians remind us, every four years, of the categorical imperative: you must act in such a way that if everyone acted in that way, it would be good, or there would be good effects, or better effects than worse ones, or no really bad effects, or something. In other words, you shouldn’t throw your cigarette onto the sidewalk, because if everyone threw a cigarette onto the sidewalk, what would the sidewalk look like?

If you don’t see how silly that is, I’ll try to explain it, or at least to extend its logic into the absurdity it’s heading for.

Just think: if everyone ate a hamburger at every meal, every day, no cows would survive. If everyone went to the symphony, tickets would be priced out of sight. Don’t become a guitar repairman, because if everyone becomes a guitar repairman, the world will starve to death. If I don’t have children, it means I am decreeing the depopulation of the earth.

Not convinced? But why should you be? It’s a silly idea. If I had a cigarette, I would look for a decent receptacle to put it in. I wouldn’t throw it on the sidewalk. Why? Because littering is wrong in itself. I don’t care how many people do it; it’s ugly and therefore wrong. Now show me why it’s wrong in itself not to vote. Is it only wrong because if everybody else refrained from voting, that would be wrong? Have we gone in a circle here?

One of Obama or Romney will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

But there’s another reason why not voting is not equivalent to littering the gutters. Not voting is not doing something. If nobody voted, well, the parties would have to nominate candidates whom somebody would go ahead and vote for, willingly and unthreatened by false moral theory — and that would be a good thing, right?

To support my view, I don’t need to go in the Randian-anarchist direction and talk about how awful it is to give my “sanction” to some candidate who isn’t ideologically perfect (“moral”) by voting for him or her. All I have to do is point to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One of them will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

Well, what about the Libertarian Party nominee?

Please. When I vote LP, what am I voting for? An organization that, in forty years, has never won a significant election. An organization that occasionally appears to have thrown the election to a Democrat, rather than a Republican. This is not a compelling reason to go to the polls.

Oh, but by voting Libertarian you would be voting for your principles!

Would I? You who say that — have you read the LP party platform? Neither have I. Neither has anyone else — including, I suppose, the people who wrote it. In this case, principles are irrelevant.

I rest my case. If all the paid staff members of the Libertarian Party, and all the unpaid volunteers whom they try to organize, would devote themselves to nonelectoral work for specific libertarian causes, who would deny that more would be accomplished? So if, by not voting, I am somehow objectively voting against the LP — as the old Marxists used to say when arguing that if you don’t participate in the workers’ struggle, then you are objectively in favor of fascism — aso be it. But I don’t think I am voting against the LP. I think I am voting for the LP activists to go out and do something productive. Even the devotees of the categorical imperative should be proud of me for saying that.

And that is all I need to say.



Share This


The Pains of Proflish

 | 

A student taking an advanced degree at a world-renowned institution sent me a news item about a math professor at Michigan State University who (allegedly, always allegedly) took off his clothes in the middle of class and ran around naked, shouting things like, “There is no f*cking God!”

No, I’m not going to claim those words as an invitation to comment on the linguistic habits of scientific atheists. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I could do that, but it would be wrong. But I’m not sure how wrong it would be to take it as a commentary on the linguistic habits of college professors (of the which I am one). It seems to me that during the past 30 years we’ve done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

I can’t say I was surprised by the news my fellow Watcher sent me. What did surprise me was the reported reactions of the professor’s class. (No, I didn’t mean “were the reported reactions”; I meant was; the number of the verb follows that of the subject, which is what, and which is singular.) “We were literally scared for our lives,” one student said. “The police took about 15 minutes to get here, and during this time he continued walking around screaming.” The complaint was echoed by another student: "It took them more than 15 minutes to arrive. It could have turned into something very bad if he had a weapon on him. It was pretty infuriating to have to wait that long." And that second student wasn’t even in the professor’s presence; the professor was out in the hall, by that time, and the student was in a classroom.

The fact that the troubled pedagogue was naked didn’t seem to have allayed these young people’s fears. And as for the 15 minutes: I’m no fan of the police, but look at your watch and picture yourself getting a call, leaving your office, traveling across one of the nation’s largest college campuses, locating the place where an incident is taking place, clambering upstairs, and confronting some nut who’s running around naked . . . Now look at your watch again. Think you could make it in 15 minutes? Think that somebody has a right to complain bitterly at this complete abdication of police responsibility? Think that you and I and a bunch of fit young college kids concerned with a naked, middle-aged man possess a right to have cops show up in less than 15 minutes?

I think I’d rather take off my clothes and run around like a maniac than to utter the complaints of those college students.

But if you’re thinking just about words, and not about guts, the worst part of this report is the eight words that say, “The professor’s name has not yet been released.” Not released by whom? And why not? Everybody on the scene knew who he was. Their reactions were reported at length. A blurry picture of his apprehension was included in the news report. So why not his name?

During the past 30 years we professors have done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

Pity? Perhaps. But this pity, this verbal delicacy and restraint, is by no means evenly distributed. If Joe Blow from Kokomo has a fight with his girlfriend, gets a little drunk, drives down the street, and gets nailed by a passing cop, no one will withhold his name from publicity — or his mugshot either, in some jurisdictions.

The day after the scary incident, anonymous students identified the professor as a certain John McCarthy. The day after that, the really loony thing happened. An article about the affair appeared in the MSU student newspaper. You can tell MSU standards of journalism by contemplating the following sentence, which is about the weekly meeting of the “steering committee” of the university’s president: “At the Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, the conversation turned to mathematics professor John McCarthy, which students said he had a mental breakdown during a class Monday.”

“Which students said he had a mental breakdown . . .” OMG — now we know what kind of grammar MSU is teaching.

Well, let’s see what intellectual level MSU’s president is operating on. For other people, the serious issue introduced by the professor’s actions might be, “Did MSU know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does MSU have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?” But that was not the issue that President Anna K. Simon wished to discuss. For her, we learn, “an incident Monday brings in to [sic] question the impact and role of social media.”

Huh? As far as I can make out from Simon’s murky remarks, murkily reported, the problem is information control: “’The complication of social media, with everyone with a camera and a cell phone, is one that we continue to struggle with in terms of information because the event would not, under (normal) circumstances, trigger one set of alerts,’ Simon said. ‘There’s also the need for more crisp communication about what the outcome was. Whether that would have controlled some of the rumors, tweets and other things, I’m not quite sure.’”

Did Michigan State know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does Michigan State have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?

Let’s look at this in another way. Suppose you’re concerned about the quality of some public institution. You want to find out whether there’s any quality control. You learn that a teacher, policeman, bureaucrat, or other publicly employed personality, may have done something egregiously stupid and wrong, and perhaps illegal, while exercising his or her official duties. She’s said to have told her students to vote for Obama. He’s said to have beaten a homeless person for “resisting” some “order.” She’s accused of making a “questionable” transfer of city funds. He allegedly takes off his clothes in front of his students and runs around screaming.

You’d like more facts. But how long do you have to spend just trying to confirm this person’s name? A week? A month? Three months? Forever? Unless there’s a miracle, the information control artists will keep you from knowing what it is until virtually everyone has forgotten the episode — and then the data will be stored in a closed file, no longer accessible to the public. In the meantime, you will be informed that personnel regulations do not allow release of that information, or, pending possible legal action, the city cannot comment on this case, or some other nonsense that never applies to a normal person in a normal job (or didn’t, until the “standards” of “public service” bureaucracies spread into big private companies). And, to top it off, some CEO will entertain the media by looking at her navel and meditating about how tough the times are, what with all these cameras and phones and computers around, ready to convey the truth to anyone online . . .

So what do you think? What are we supposed to say about that? What are we able to say, since if we do comment we can always be told that we do not have all the facts?

The chair of John McCarthy’s department presumably has all the facts. These facts lead him to be concerned “about the way some people made jokes about the incident. An incident like this often teaches us who we are and what we represent. I hope we can all use what transpired after this incident to reflect on our values and our role as members of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world.”

Gosh, don’t you feel guilty? Your making jokes about a figure of authority at an institution that strives to be among the best of the world has hurt the feelings of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world. Or something.

But to continue with college professors, which I can easily do, considering that I am one, have you been following the curious case of Professor Amy Bishop? She’s the one who was recently convicted of killing three of her colleagues and wounding three others at a meeting of the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. That happened in 2010, and there were plenty of witnesses, because she didn’t manage to kill them all, but it took two and a half years to convict her. I don’t know why, except that it may have something to do with the cultural and verbal universe in which she lived.

Perhaps the EEOC is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health.”

In 1986, in Massachusetts, where’s she’s from, she killed her brother Seth with a shotgun, then went to a local auto dealership and tried to commandeer a car so she could escape. Apparently because of her family’s ties to the local power structure, she wasn’t even questioned about the shooting for 11 days. Then it was called an “accident.” Eight years later, she was implicated in an attempt to pipe bomb an academic supervisor in Boston. He had suggested she was “mentally unstable.” Four months after the attempted bombing, investigators finally showed up at her house. She was uncooperative, and the investigation was inconclusive. It went away. Seven years later, she was arrested after assaulting a woman in a fight over a high chair at an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, MA. She was sentenced to probation and an anger management class (which she probably didn’t take). In the restaurant, she had yelled, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Amy Bishop!”

Now she gets to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where she is known as “difficult” by “some.” A good piece of reporting tells the story. Bishop didn’t publish very much; she listed her children as first and second authors on one of her publications; a student filed a grievance against her; she was detested by almost everyone.

Then, as our reporter says — and this is the cream of the jest:

In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint.

I have been unable to learn whether the federal agency is still looking into it. Perhaps it is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health,” or, in plain terms, insane, bonkers, off her rocker, completely gone, in the zone, out of her skull, a desperate lunatic, and otherwise, well, crazy, or if she is, whether anyone should have said it.

A Martian appears in your kitchen and tells you that the folks back on the slopes of Olympus Mons have been following the Amy Bishop story on their nightly news. He wants to know what is so weird and touchy about that word crazy. He wants to know how somebody who uses it in its clearest and most self-evident application could possibly be investigated by a government of 300 million people (which presumably ought to have other things on its mind), because the word might have been discriminatory against the woman who killed four people. What words would you use to explain this?

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find them, but we professors would — or at least keep anyone else from doing so.

On October 2, I was watching a CNN segment about why more security wasn’t provided to our diplomatic installation in Benghazi, when it was obvious that the place might be in danger from fanatic Muslims. The interviewer asked a professor — or someone who talked so much like a professor that he should immediately be given tenure — what he thought about all the warnings that came in, and apparently were not adequately heeded. Well, he said, “you have to parse the different kinds of violence that were taking place.”

That was his response.

What would you have to do to interpret that for your Martian friend?

I suppose you would start by noting that the key word was “parse.” In normal English, “parse” means to identify the grammatical functions of the words in a sentence. But in Proflish, the professor tongue, which is the status language of planet earth, the language to which all other languages aspire, “parse” means anything you want it to mean. In this case, it appears to mean something like “look at.”

Well, says the Martian, why can’t he just say “look at”?

That’s sort of a puzzler, but I can think of two, related reasons. One, he would be understood immediately, and that is not the goal of anyone speaking Proflish. Two, he would reveal the fact that he is saying nothing. Suppose I do look at or inspect various kinds of violence. Suppose I go further, and distinguish one kind of violence from another. So what? That isn’t enough. I haven’t really said anything. But a word like parse will keep everyone, or at least the interviewer, impressed with me. And that’s the point of talking, see? Ya see?

Yes, says the Martian. I’m parsing it all.


Editor's Note: Word Watch will comment on the presidential and vice presidential debates after the disease has run its course.



Share This


Sticking It to Wall Street

 | 

Hardly a day goes by without President Obama blaming our economic woes on the "failed policies of the past." He has made Wall Street reform a top priority. In contrast to the George Bush economic delinquency that abandoned Main Street, his policies will stick it to Wall Street. He will (allegedly) prevent the financial shocks of credit bubbles and real estate booms. Ever-watchful of deceptive mortgage lenders, he will hold them and all other greedy plutocrats accountable for their financial shenanigans.

In truth, the policies of the past engendered regulations that were ignored, unimplemented, unenforced, and, more recently, applied against the wrong people. This travesty was compounded by politicians, regulators, and DOJ lawyers who failed as well. They failed miserably, yet suffered no consequences. Only the people whom regulations were supposed to protect suffered. But this time, as he campaigns for reelection, Mr. Obama tells us, incessantly, he has our back.

The policies that created the too-big-to-fail banks and the scurrilous practices that collapsed the housing market were enacted in the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was responsible for the 1999 reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had previously separated retail and investment banking. Its repeal legalized the formation of today's giant banking conglomerates. Rubin's successor, Lawrence Summers, then gave us the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), which exempted derivatives from regulation.

With energy derivatives, Enron went on to perpetrate the largest corporate fraud in history. With collateralized debt obligations, giant banking conglomerates (Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.) went on to become giant contributors to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Robert Rubin went on to earn over $126 million at Citigroup for a tenure spanning the company's Enron involvement and "merga-mania" phase and proceeding to its near bankruptcy in 2008. This was around the time when candidate Obama began blaming President Bush for the financial crisis. Obama went on to form an economic team led by people who helped create the crisis — economic geniuses such as Rubin protégésLawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. As Washington Postwriter Steven Pearlstein put it: “The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes.”

As an attorney, Obama represented "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water.

What qualified Obama to assemble a team that would, supposedly, stick it to Wall Street? As the Washington Examiner discovered in its 'The Obama You Don't Know” exposé, it was also during the Clinton years that Obama developed his knowledge of real estate and finance. In the early 1990s, heleft the community organizing business for the housing market — as an attorney representing "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water. This experience no doubt proved invaluable when, as president, he led our nation's efforts to recover from "the worst financial disaster since the Depression" — by selecting and relying on the very people who caused the disaster.

Geithner, who became Obama's treasury secretary, was recruited from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, where, as chairman, he was the principal government official responsible for regulating Citigroup. After years of doing nothing to deter the antics that almost bankrupted that firm, he helped forge a deal (with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, another Rubin colleague) that stuck it to taxpayers: a $45 billion bailout with an additional $306 billion guarantee against toxic assets.

Unfortunately, Geithner wasn't the only regulator asleep at the switch. All of them were. All of the 18 or so financial regulatory agencies charged with protecting us from Wall Street's sordid schemes failed abysmally. And they did so despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration, from April 2001 throughDecember 2007. At least the Bush administration suspected the coming crisis.

Maybe the regulators thought that Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank,the nation's top Wall Street watchdogs, would actually bark. But this fatuous duo thwarted the Bush attempts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Under their feckless supervision, the capital inadequacies of the two government-backed mortgage giants crippled the housing market. And as homeowners and the real estate industry lost trillions of dollars, Barney Frank took it upon himself to cause further damage. In July 2008, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock was selling for $10.25 a share and $9.00 a share, respectively (down from $60 and $67, in January), the ever-vigilant Barney proclaimed, “I think they are in good shape going forward.” How did this ringing endorsement pay off for the many thousands who subsequently scarfed up these stocks? Today, they are selling for about $.25 a share.

For his signature Wall Street reform law, president Obama turned to Messrs Dodd and Frank, entrusting the two who didn't prevent the last crisis with preventing the next one. In a just world, they would have been impeached for the harm caused by their feckless oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But in Obama's world of social justice and economic fairness, they stuck it to us with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — an oppressive 2,300 page regulatory monstrosity that exacerbates the dominance of the "too-big-to-fail" oligopoly, reduces the competitiveness of smaller banks, and passes its immense compliance costs on to consumers. And it exempts from regulation — wait for it — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

Obama brays at the Bush trickle-down policies, but the benefits of Dodd-Frank are illusory, especially to Middle America, which remains stuck in the nightmare of Obama's regulatory trickle down: a stagnant economy, horrific unemployment, and the specter of a returning recession. Regulators are paid obscenely high salaries to protect supposedly powerless investors, bank account holders, and consumers from the wrongdoings of banks and financial institutions. Yet the latter have, in the main, gone unharmed, and so have the regulators. While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

If the bailout wasn’t reward enough for risky Wall Street practices, immunity from prosecution will make up the difference. After over three years of relentless investigation, Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force has not convicted a single Wall Street miscreant of a single crime, even the imaginary crimes that regulators like to invent. Instead of the stereotypical wolves of Wall Street, Eric Holder has chosen to go after the likes of a Connecticut women who allegedly conducted a gifting table Ponzi Scheme, and a Nevada group accused of trying to control condominium home owners’ associations. Scrambling to comply with Dodd-Frank regulations, big banks are firing, not high level executives likely to commit widespread fraud, but thousands of low-level employeeswith jobs far removed from significant transactional crime. For example, Wells Fargo recently fired a 68-year-old customer service representative after discovering that he had been convicted of using a fake dime in a laundromat in 1963. Meanwhile, the legal fees for lawsuits against executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which received over $150 billion in taxpayer bailout money) now exceed $109 million. Those fees are paid by — again, wait for it — the taxpayers.

The banking oligarchy is doing quite well under President Obama. So too is his ever-expanding regulatory leviathan. The rest of us are left to struggle through the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. It is a struggle exacerbated by stifling regulations, unprecedented compliance costs, and the knowledge that none of the people responsible for the financial crisis (certainly corrupt Wall Street executives, but also incompetent politicians and inept regulators) are in jail. All the sticking has been to us. Still, as the election approaches, many believe that Obama is the right man for the job. They fear Mitt Romney, who wants less regulation. Obama, of course, demands still more — especially after the shock that his Dodd-Frank reforms failed to prevent the MF Global and JP Morgan scandals. Evidently, he needs four more years to deal with Wall Street. Perhaps his supporters believe that, with his brilliant legal mind, he will find enough laws to do so. After all, he got the slumlord off with a $50 fine.




Share This


The Shape of Things to Come

 | 

On August 1, the City of San Bernardino, California, filed for protection under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Chapter 9 is designed for municipalities and other local governments; the federal government can’t declare bankruptcy. At least that’s what most bankruptcy experts claim.

City officials gave media outlets the same explanations that CEOs of bankrupt companies often do: the mayor explained that the City would continue to meet its payroll and pay essential bills. He said that the main reason the City was seeking bankruptcy protection was to prevent lawsuits from being filed by a couple of angry creditors.

Asked to explain the cause of the crisis, San Bernardino officials passed the buck. They said that, because of budget shortfalls at the federal and state level, California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature had made changes to vehicle tax money and redevelopment agencies that stripped local governments of hundreds of millions in state funding.

One of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results.

This was true. But not everyone accepted the official explanations as the whole truth. Some conspiracy-minded sorts hinted darkly about criminal wrongdoing in City offices. Others looked through San Bernardino’s filing and pointed to one of its largest creditors: the City owed the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) some $143 million in unfunded pension obligations.

For its part, CalPERS claimed that San Bernardino was using a misleading “actuarial” calculation of its obligation and actually owed something closer to $320 million.

Now, that was a fiscal emergency.

San Bernardino also drew media attention because it was the third California city in as many months to file for bankruptcy protection. In June, Stockton had sought bankruptcy protection because it couldn’t come to agreement with its employee unions on a plan to close the $26-million gap in its general fund; in July, the ski-resort town of Mammoth Lakes had filed bankruptcy (its story was slightly different, though; the Mammoth Lakes meltdown was triggered by a court judgment the town couldn't pay).

Welcome to the late stages of American statism. Government and quasi-governmental agencies battling in bankruptcy court. Political rhetoric piling high. Bureaucrats talking evasively about where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars have gone.

* * *

On July 26, San Bernardino’s Interim City Manager, Andrea Miller, and Director of Finance, Jason Simpson, delivered to the mayor and city council a report called the Budgetary Analysis and Recommendations for Budget Stabilization. The report lays out the City’s problems and various possible solutions — including several that might have avoided bankruptcy. It’s a dense and important document, a harbinger of trouble ahead for spendthrift municipalities and states.

At the start, the report notes:

The City of San Bernardino has been affected by the serious economic recession as have other cities and has taken steps over the last several years to reduce costs. Nevertheless, costs continue to outpace revenue due to increased operational expenses and significant rapid declines in property tax revenues as a result of a drop in property values and decline in sales tax revenue. Deficits of major proportions are projected in all five years of the forecast created as part of this project. To ensure basic operational service levels are maintained and anticipated cash flow requirements are met, steps will be needed immediately to reduce costs. . . . If these measures do not achieve immediate and substantial cost savings, then the City will have to explore other alternatives to deal with its fiscal crisis.

They didn’t. And, less than a week later, the city council decided to declare bankruptcy.

A quick side note: I’ve read Miller and Simpson’s report numerous times in the preparation of this piece; and, each time I read through it, I’m more impressed. It’s an honest assessment of how a municipal government (or, by extension, any government) can stumble into insolvency, despite the best intentions of several generations of leadership — including leadership that fancied itself reform-minded. Indeed, one of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results. That tendency is on full display in the San Bernardino story.

While the report does take off on some tangents of bureaucratic jargon, most of its 49 pages are a fairly common-sense narrative of what happened. And what needs to be done to get the City back on an even financial footing.

This is how the report describes San Bernardino’s financial circumstances:

Reserves in the General Fund were exhausted years ago, reserves in the internal service funds were also depleted and the City has encumbered itself with various debt obligations and labor agreements putting additional and unnecessary risk on the General Fund.

The City has declared numerous fiscal emergencies based on fiscal circumstances and has negotiated and imposed concessions of $10 million per year and has reduced the workforce by 20% over the past 4 years. Yet, the City is still facing the possibility of insolvency due to a variety of issues including accounting errors, deficit spending, lack of revenue growth, and increases in pension and debt costs. . . .

Over the past several years, the City has utilized General Fund reserves, asset sales and one time revenues to maintain City services. To address the projected deficits in previous fiscal years, the City has reduced positions, negotiated compensation reductions, and implemented new revenue measures. Unfortunately, the decline in taxable sales and property values over the last several years has resulted in revenue losses of $10 to $16 million annually.

In other words, it had used the usual one-time, off-budget legerdemain and accounting gimmicks that spendthrift governments — and spendthrift people — instinctively employ when they expect some future windfall to make everything okay. In San Bernardino’s case, the one-time tricks had been played . . . and there was no windfall coming.

According to the report, for the 2012–13 fiscal year, the City’s expenditures would exceed revenues by $45 million. And that annual shortfall would only increase over time.

The report lays out some of the most critical financial weaknesses facing the City:

  • Because the City has used reserve funds to balance previous budgets, there are no reserves in place to balance current and future budgets.
  • Budget choices made in previous years have left the City with high capital lease balances for equipment — and no effective way to refinance or otherwise resolve those expenses.
  • Because of the loss of federal and state redevelopment funds, the City has insufficient economic development programs in place to project stronger tax revenues in the future.
  • Since the City has a current deficit in its General Fund, it does not have sufficient unrestricted cash available to pay its ongoing obligations.
  • The City has an unemployment rate above state and county averages.
  • The City has an unusually high ratio of public safety costs to overall General Fund revenues.
  • The City’s expenses were over budget in FY 2011–12 and would be massively more so in 2012–13 and following.
  • The City’s failure to complete its FY 2010–11 budget audit on time delayed necessary budget reductions, further depleting cash.
  • The starting General Fund balance has been erroneously stated for each the previous two fiscal years.

In mid-July, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office announced that it was involved in a multi-agency criminal investigation of the City government. The sheriff’s announcement didn’t indicate whether the investigation was related directly to the City’s bankruptcy filing. It referred to “allegations of criminal activity within departments of the San Bernardino city government” and confirmed that it would focus on those General Fund balances, which had been “erroneously stated.”

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted [sensible] budget policies” like these. That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

But the City’s financial problems aren’t (or aren’t entirely) the result of malfeasance. Many of its problems are structural. San Bernardino’s population is approximately 211,000; that number has been increasing rapidly since the 1970s. Because the City is a bedroom community and has never had a substantial commercial or industrial base, its population growth has outpaced growth of tax revenues needed to provide essential services.

According to the report, the largest employers in the City — in roughly descending order — are local government agencies, California State University San Bernardino, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and San Bernardino Community Hospital. The common thread? There’re all either government agencies or government-dependent entities, relying directly or indirectly on public money for the majority of the revenues.

* * *

An important strategy for avoiding structural budget deficits is to adopt a budget philosophy that can serve as a meaningful framework for maintaining financial discipline.

This may sound elementary: Reporting on a government entity’s finances clearly and for public discussion is a way for the fiduciary responsibilities of elected officials and executive managers to be understood by the public and organization. But many government entities have become so decadent that they no longer look at financial reporting in that way.

The San Bernardino report describes some “best practices” in public-entity financial management:

  • Structurally Balanced Budget. The annual budgets for all City funds should be structurally balanced throughout the budget process. Ongoing revenue should be equal to or exceed operating expenditures in both the proposed and adopted budgets. If a structural imbalance occurs, a plan should be developed and implemented to bring the budget back into structural balance.
  • Multi-Year Financial Forecasting. To ensure that current budget decisions consider future financial implications, a five-year financial forecast should be utilized by the staff and Council. The annual General Fund proposed budget balancing plan should be presented and discussed in context of the five-year forecast. Any revisions to the proposed budget should include an analysis of the impact on the forecast out years.
  • Use of One-Time Resources. One-time resources (e.g., revenue spikes, budget savings, sale of property, and similar nonrecurring revenue) should not be used for current or new ongoing operating expenses. Examples of appropriate uses of one-time resources include rebuilding reserves, retiring debt early, making capital expenditures (without significant operating and maintenance costs), and other nonrecurring expenditures.
  • Established Reserves. San Bernardino has multiple funds, based on different revenue sources and requirements. Because there are risks (both known and unknown), it is important that reserve levels in all funds be maintained as a hedge against such risks. Without proper reserves, there can be major disruptions in services when unforeseen financial demands emerge, requiring immediate attention.
  • Debt Issuance. A municipality should not issue long-term (over one year) debt to support ongoing operating costs (other than debt service) unless such debt issuance achieves net operating cost savings and such savings are verified by appropriate independent analysis. All debt issuances shall identify the method of repayment (or have a dedicated revenue source) without an impact to operations.
  • Employee Compensation. Negotiations for employee compensation should continue to consider total compensation bargaining concepts and focus on all personnel services cost changes (e.g., step increases and the cost of benefit increases). Compensation costs should be included in the five-year financial forecast to ascertain affordability to the municipality, within context of expected revenues.

Summing up these points, the report concludes:

To resolve its structural budget deficit and prevent a recurrence in the future, the City needs to adopt a budget philosophy similar to the measures above to help elected and appointed officials maintain the financial discipline crucial to a growing community like San Bernardino.

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted budget policies” like these.

That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

* * *

For decades, the City of San Bernardino — like many of its residents — counted on rising real estate prices to subsidize the shortfalls in its day-to-day operations. For the City, these subsidies took the form of sharply increasing property tax revenues; the rising revenues allowed the City’s senior officials to grow sloppy.

Warren Buffett has a famous quote that’s relevant to this sloppiness (though it pains me some to quote such a chiseling crony capitalist): “It’s only when the tide goes outthat you discover who’s been swimming naked.” When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

The report takes a hard look at the City’s prospects for regaining some of the property revenues it lost to the collapsing California real estate bubble:

There are actually two bottoms for housing. The first is new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. The second is sale prices. Sometimes these can happen years apart.

Calculaterisk.com [an economics web site cited by one of the City’s property tax consultants] reports that the first housing bottom was spread over a few years from 2009 until 2011. They believe the second bottom, prices, hit in March 2012. This doesn’t mean prices will increase significantly any time soon. Usually, toward the end of a housing bust, normal prices mostly move sideways for a few more years. Real prices adjusted for inflation could even decline for another 2 or 3 years. . . .

Because we do not anticipate much growth with housing new starts or employment in the near future . . . we should assume construction-related permit activity will also be flat or possibly continue with its decline. Permit activity within most California cities has been very volatile with trends pointing to decreasing activity.

This is an interesting and useful discussion of cycles in the real estate market. But it hints at one of the many problems that come when a government agency tries to “time” a market. If San Bernardino’s consultants are right and a real estate market has a two-part bottom — and if those two parts occur years apart — predicting trends in property tax revenues at or near the bottoms is practically impossible.

In the end, all the report could conclude is: “The rate of revenue growth has not been sufficient to meet the contractual and debt obligations of the City.”

* * *

Every financial crisis — whether it involves a municipality, a company or a family — has two parts: expenses that are too high and revenues that are too low. The drop in property tax revenues was only half the reason for San Bernardino’s lurching deficit. The other half was the City’s expenses. And expenses are the thing bankrupt entities of any sort have to address first when they’re trying to emerge from their crises.

Here’s how the report describes San Bernardino’s expenses:

Roughly half of the annual deficit is attributed to unfunded liabilities in City Retiree Health, Workers’ Compensation and General Liability accounts.

The remaining half is attributed to increasing operational costs and the end of employee concessions. As early as FY 2009–10, expenditures exceeded revenues and the City had begun to utilize prior year fund balances to avoid service cuts or delays in projects. Because expenditures continue to exceed revenues, fund balances have been depleted and have reached a critical point in 2012–13 where the City will begin the year with an actual deficit and significant cash flow constraints.

Put into perspective, this projected deficit in 2012–2013 represents almost 38% of the General Fund budget for that year. The remaining fund balances cannot pay for ongoing operating costs and large sustained reductions will be required. Reducing ongoing expenses must largely come from ongoing reductions in personnel costs since these costs represent about 75% of total General Fund expenditures. Of the personnel costs in the General Fund about 78% are for public safety.

City of San Bernardino Public Safety and Fire expenditures consume the majority of the budget, some 73% of the General Fund in FY 2011–12. And personnel costs in total account for about 85% of the General Fund.

When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

“Public Safety” is, of course, bureaucratese for “police.” The problem that San Bernardino and other bankrupt local governments face is that the most essential service they provide citizens is police and law enforcement. Everything else — education, parks, growth management plans, performing arts centers, and sports stadiums — pales in comparison to keeping cops on the streets. And crime to a minimum.

Here’s the report’s suggestion for cutting the cost of law enforcement in the City:

To substantially reduce costs in the public safety services, the City will need to reduce staffing, or seek out contract opportunities for the City’s Police Department to provide services to adjacent communities. In recent years, several municipal police departments have provided services to others under contracts for service. In fact, its common place for public safety departments to share dispatch services.

This is an important point to consider for the future of local governments. Cities, at least smaller ones, may not be the most efficient mechanism for financing law enforcement. As the report suggests, a regional law-enforcement infrastructure may be more cost-effective. This suggestion won’t sit well with many mayors and city councils, since their authority over the local constabulary is often their strongest source of political power.

But, when a bankrupt city like San Bernardino has three-quarters or more of its financially unsustainable budget dedicated to “public safety” expenses, it has abdicated the political power that comes with being the boss of the cops.

* * *

The San Bernardino report notes that “reductions to the expenditure side of the budget are not going to produce the level of savings that will be needed to balance the budget.” And, to boost revenues, it suggests increases in or additions of the following municipal taxes:

  • Real Property Transfer Tax
  • Utility User Tax
  • Sales Tax
  • Transient Occupancy Tax
  • 911 Communications Fee
  • Fees for Recovering Paramedic Costs

With bureaucratic resentment, the report notes that “all would require voter approval.”

In the meantime, the City has to find other, more immediate, ways to raise money. In this effort, the report circles back to an idea that it’s already admitted is bad for the City’s long-term fiscal health. Even though the report warns against paying for ongoing expenses with one-time transactions, the authors can’t ignore the quick money available from privatizing real estate:

Currently the City [owns] 294 parcels with total book value of $300 million and a likely sale estimate of less than $100 million dollars. Given the City’s 18% of the property assessment, the sale of these parcels would generate roughly $18 million dollars. The City may also wish to explore selling or leasing some of the parcels at below-market rates in order to incentivize developers and other business interests to spur additional economic development and development-related revenues.

Selling assets doesn’t improve the financial prospects of a city — or a business, or an individual — in the long-term. But insolvent entities don’t have the luxury of making the long term a priority. They need to survive the near term. So, they sell things.

The report tries to inject some wisdom into the breathless discussion of raising taxes and selling off real estate. On these matters, it concludes:

. . . the pursuit of new revenue sources and/or increasing existing revenues is a strategy that can no longer be ignored. However, seeking to increase revenues that are subject to large fluctuations should not be treated as a cure-all. As was the case with revenue received during the real estate boom, some increased revenue could be short-lived.

Therein lies the problem. Governments at any level are rarely able to see past the short-term. Even — or especially — when their press releases talk about the importance of long-term vision, statist entities rarely have it. Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. How the mighty have fallen. MITI doesn’t exist any more.

* * *

All of this discussion is really just a warm-up act for the 800-pound gorilla at the center of San Bernardino’s problems: the expanding amount of money required to maintain the pensions owed to retired City employees. Here’s how the report describes this issue:

. . . the City is faced with increasing pension costs, as CalPERS adjusted the investment returns increasing retirement costs to all its members starting in FY 2013.

The City’s costs for employee retirement have increased from $1 million in FY 2006/07 to nearly $1.9 million in FY 2011/12. By FY 2013/14 the annual cost will be over $2.2 million. To put this into perspective, the City was spending about 9% of its General Fund budget on retirement costs in FY 2006/07. In FY 2011/12 it will need to spend 13% of the budget on those costs, and by FY 2015/16 it will require 15% of the budget for retirement obligations. [This] is basically an overhead cost over which the City has little control over in the short term.

California law grants CalPERS extraordinary powers (essentially, taxing powers) by which it can demand payments from cities, counties, schools districts, etc, if it runs short of the money needed to meet its defined-benefit pension distributions. Kind of like a cash call to members of business partnership.

This creates a great deal of moral hazard. The San Bernardino report describes this in painful detail:

To address growing public safety pension obligations, the City issued pension obligation bonds (POBs) in 2005. This is a common strategy to reduce unfunded liabilities through the issuance of fixed-rate bonds. . . . the City’s annual pension costs were reduced by $2 million after the issuance of the bonds. However, at the time of the issuance of bonds and subsequent deposit of bond proceeds into the City’s public safety account, CalPERS lost a significant amount of its pension portfolio. The market losses have negatively impacted the City beyond the losses of its deposited funds and have completely reserved all the saving realized from the issuance of POBs.

So, CalPERS’s shoddy investments negated any advantage for the City in issuing pension bonds. The City is still responsible for paying back its bonds…and CalPERS can demand additional money from the City to make up for CalPERS’s bad investments.

It’s as if you refinance your home mortgage to get a lower interest rate. But, after agreeing to the refi, the bank reneges and raises your interest rate back to where it was before and then increases the principal amount of your loan because it lost money on an investment scheme involving Greek bonds.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Today, MITI no longer exists.

CalPERS divides the payments that it demands — which it calls “rates” but which aren’t “rates” in any insurance or actuarial sense — into two parts: employee rates and employer rates. According to the San Bernardino report:

It has been a common practice for San Bernardino and many other agencies to pay both parts of the rates. However, recently the City was able to negotiate with the employee groups for all new hires after October 2011 to pay the full employee share. . . . The City could negotiate with current employees to pay all or a portion of the employee share. Further, the City could negotiate any level of sharing with its employees and is not limited to [traditional formulas]. Some cities are planning for [their employees to pay] a greater share of PERS costs than what has commonly been referred to as the “employee share.”

This is an overlooked point. CalPERS can raise the “rates” it demands from local governments as much as it needs to; and those local governments can simply pass CalPERS’s higher demands onto their workers. Or file bankruptcy.

In the years leading up to its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino did what conventional wisdom suggested for getting its pension obligations in order. It negotiated a “two-tier” retirement benefit program wherein newly-hired employees receive a smaller retirement benefit than more senior employees. But the effects of these new deals are still years away. According to the report:

Savings under this program will build with workforce turnover, as employees under the current system retire and are replaced by employees at the new rate. Therefore, initial cost reductions are minimal but savings to the City in the long term will be significant.

Long-term solutions for near-term problems — the opposite of what a prudent financial manager should propose. In the meantime, the City was still desperate to cut costs. Immediately.

As California’s local governments downsize their employee bases, even slightly, a shrinking number of remaining employees end up paying CalPERS “rates” to support the pension demands of a growing number of retirees. This system is not sustainable. In fact, it’s a bubble . . . if not a Ponzi scheme.

Some senior elected officials in California — including, to his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown — have started to discuss “pension reform” as a pressing issue for the state. But their talk remains rather academic; in the real world, for San Bernardino, annual pension costs have grown from $1 million in FY 2006-07 to $2.2 million in FY 2012-13. That’s a shocking increase in a sunk cost — and one that’s not affected by anything the City does today, including layoffs, restructurings, assets sales, etc.

As the report notes: “costs are increasing at rapid rates significantly beyond increases in revenue and are no longer affordable to most public agencies.”

* * *

So, downsizing local government workforces is a Gordian knot.

The layoff program used by most local governments and public agencies in California is referred to as the “Golden Handshake,” made available under the California Public Employees Retirement Law (Gov. Code, 20903). The Golden Handshake, also as known as the “CalPERS Two Years Additional Service Credit” benefit, requires a local government to provide two additional years of service credit for the calculation of pension benefits to “employees who retire during a designated window period because of imminent demotions, mandatory transfers or layoffs.” While it can provide some short-term savings, this arrangement adds to a city’s future retirement costs and limits management flexibility. For example, the Golden Handshake requires an employer to establish a “window period of at least 90 days and no more than 180 days” to solicit early retirees.

This is a kind of madness. Cities on the verge of bankruptcy don’t have six months to wait for workers to come forward for early retirement. So CalPERS’s union rules end up being largely irrelevant in the circumstances where action is needed, like the ravings against “greedy corporations” of a 30-year-old graduate student at a bottom-tier university.

As the San Bernardino report notes:

The cost-effectiveness of these programs must be examined within the context of an aging workforce. . . . the program [must] be carefully managed to ensure that the option is only offered in instances where a financial justification exists. If that is not the case, the City could be put itself in a situation where additional layoffs are needed to pay for early retirements.

That last line reads like something out of George Orwell. Or: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Out of this Orwellian muck, the City has to keep streets open and police on them. The essential elements, to most people, of the social contract. So, for the foreseeable future, local governments like San Bernardino will be faced with firing some workers . . . or firing more. Faced with an existential threat to the notion of “city” itself. As the report concludes:

The revenue forecast shows that significantly lower costs will be required for the foreseeable future. During this period of time, it has been noted the that Council, residents and businesses in the City expect and deserve a well well-maintained street network, nice manicured parks, cultural opportunities, well-maintained neighborhoods, in addition to fundamental public safety services. The challenge to the City will be to identify what it can afford and how that relates to the type of community services it wants to provide.

Indeed.

* * *

These problems are only going to get worse in the coming years. As the federal government reaches the limits of its borrowing capacity, it will be forced to cut back on block grants and other disbursements to the states. As the states have to deal with these cuts — and structural problems of their own — they’ll cut payments to cities and counties.

And the cities and counties will go bankrupt.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees in more prosperous (or what seemed like more prosperous) times. According to a February 2012 Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research report, public-employee pension spending in California grew an average of 11.4% a year between 1999 and 2010. That’s twice as fast as spending growth for essential budget items like public safety, health and sanitation.

These problems aren’t limited to California. As Reuters recently noted:

CalPERS has long argued that pension contributions cannot be touched even in a bankruptcy. But firms that insure municipal bonds have strenuously objected to the idea that pension payments should come ahead of bond payments. The outcome of how CalPERS and bondholders are treated as creditors . . . and whether CalPERS receives preferential treatment . . . will have broad implications for local governments around the country.

In the weeks since its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino has slogged along. It made payroll in August and September. Miller and Simpson are still in their jobs, trying to keep things running in some semblance of order.

The City plans to layoff more employees and shut down libraries and has reduced its annual shortfall from about $45 million to $7 or $8 million. But this still isn’t sustainable.

The multi-agency criminal investigation hasn’t produced any results. Yet. Some locals say that it has more to do with political theater (specifically, a feud between San Bernardino’s mayor and city attorney) than any prosecutable crimes.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees.

The real battle remains between San Bernardino and CalPERS. And this is a battle that neither side seems particularly interested in joining. The City, like many bankrupt debtors, seems to believe that the longer it delays a resolution of the money it owes CalPERS, the lower the final number will be. CalPERS, on the other hand, seems to be concerned that the San Bernardino bankruptcy will expose it as another of Warren Buffett’s naked swimmers. Or, more in line with its haughty history, an emperor with no clothes.

CalPERS lawyers can cite statute and weep well-rehearsed tears over pabulum like “fairness” and “austerity” but they can’t get blood — or $320 million — from a turnip.

And the City of San Bernardino is merely the first of many turnips ahead.




Share This


Civil Noncompliance

 | 

As a piano technician I come across many unusual requests, but none so bizarre as one I received some time ago from a man whom I’ll call Mr. Green. Could I, he asked, strip the ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano?

I was appalled. Applying ivory to piano keys is a fine art. The ivory on each key is two separate pieces that have been color matched, cut, and glued together so carefully that there is no visible seam, then clamped exactly over a special wafer of cloth impregnated with white pigment that gives the translucent ivory a white, lustrous hue. To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous. It would be like asking me to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I asked Mr. Green why he wanted me to perform this sacrilege.

His answer was the law demanded it. After searching all over North America, Green had found precisely the right piano for his concert pianist wife. It was located in Canada’s province of British Columbia. As he made arrangements to have it shipped to his home in Connecticut, he learned that the piano would not be allowed into the United States because the ivory of its keys is prohibited by a law that bans the importation of ivory. Hence the need to remove the ivory from the keys.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The piano was made in 1970, twenty years before the ban came into effect. Surely there is an exception for things made before the ban was adopted?”

“I can’t find out about that, it’s really crazy,” he sputtered. “I’ve called and called. I’m going out of my mind, I’m not getting any sleep. It’s a nightmare.”

Unable to get any straight or useful answer from U.S. Customs, he had retained a customs broker, who wasn’t able to find a way around the problem, either. The seller of the piano had, for his part, contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supposedly administers the ban, and had received only a vague and equivocal response. If there was a way of applying for an exception, it was buried so deep in the bowels of bureaucracy as to be inaccessible to human beings. At his wit’s end, Green decided to have the ivory stripped off the keys, ship the piano to Connecticut, and then have the keys recovered with plastic.

The Death of Common Sense

The problem Mr. Green faced is familiar. The accumulated weight of regulation today is so great that we bump into its inane and counterproductive demands all the time. Author Phillip Howard focused on this problem in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. “Modern law,” he says, “has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society.” His book surveys the mountain of regulations that “crushes our goals and deadens our spirits.”

To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous, like asking someone to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Social scientists have also noticed the issue. Their research into the many ways that laws go awry has prompted them to formulate the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This generalization, first popularized by sociologist Robert Merton in 1936, ranks along with death and taxes as one of the few certainties of social life. It holds that every government effort to improve life has unexpected and harmful side effects. In many cases, these harmful effects are so severe as to defeat the original purpose of the law.

The ban on ivory is a good illustration of this dysfunctional pattern. From a distance, the problem seemed simple. Poachers kill elephants for their tusks, thus reducing the numbers of elephants — and, in certain areas, possibly driving them to extinction. The theory was that a law against the importation of ivory would deprive poachers of their market, and the killing of elephants would stop.

Alas, the world is always more complicated than it seems to those who make laws. Now, poaching and overhunting of elephants still takes place, but thanks to scarcity the practice is more lucrative than ever. Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

But this is only part of the problem. Some African countries have too many elephants. These beasts overgraze and destroy the habitat in wildlife preserves, threatening plant and animal species with extinction. In these cases, wildlife experts recommend culling elephants to reduce their numbers. In other places where elephant population is too high, these animals destroy crops of poor farmers. This problem is managed by cooperative arrangements that cull some elephants, and reimburse farmers for crop losses with money gained from selling tusks of the culled animals. A ban on ivory undercuts these arrangements and thus encourages farmers to kill them secretly.

Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

Another point that the ban does not take into account is that ivory has positive, non-substitutable human uses. Piano and organ keys are a case in point. Plastic piano key tops do not give the same feel as ivory. When dry, they are too “sticky,” not allowing the fingertips to slide from note to note. When wet with perspiration, plastic key tops become too slippery. A total ban on ivory, then, means that musical performances at the highest level are compromised.

These are just a few of the complexities that the law against the importation of ivory overlooks. Distant publics and shallow-minded legislators suppose that such a law is like a meat axe, and that one swing will fix, simply and finally, the problem they have in mind. But in its actual operation, it is more like a grenade, doing damage in many different directions that no one could predict when it is first put into effect. That the ivory ban would require the sacrilege of stripping ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano illustrates the kind of unanticipated, harmful side effects that come with every law.

Democratic Dead End

How do we fix this problem of laws that make a mockery of common sense? One answer might be to use the democratic process. That’s what the civics books recommend: if you don’t like a law, then you write a letter to the editor, or to your congressman. This advice might have made sense in an age of small government and few laws, but it is painfully unrealistic today. The mass of regulations now in place represents the accumulation of many decades of lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. The idea that an individual could even be noticed in this quagmire, let alone clear it up, is fanciful.

Furthermore, the democratic process gave us these laws. Politicians promised them as the solutions to problems. Sure, they ignored the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, to gather kudos from a shallow media and curry favor with single-minded pressure groups. Politics has become theatre, where the politician-actor struts upon the stage playing the hero, and the audience applauds his performance.

The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, and to curry favor with single-minded pressure groups.

Thus, within democratic politics, there is no way of stemming the tide of shortsighted laws. If you go to the legislators and point out that a certain law has backfired, they are not going to repeal it. Lawmakers passed the ban on ivory in order to look good. They are hardly going to agree to offend the environmental pressure groups by reversing themselves (Headline: “Senator Endorses Slaying of Elephants”). If the politicians do anything, they will pass additional laws to try to fix the problems they caused with the first law — giving rise, of course, to more unintended consequences.

In the Tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive laws?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau elaborated the principle of civil disobedience, the idea that it is right for an individual to disobey an unjust law. Though a familiar concept for abolitionists and others who objected to government power on religious grounds, Thoreau's work proved revolutionary in separating civil disobedience from specific religious traditions, allowing men to appeal not to any higher power, but to the reason of his fellow man. Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience into a method of political reform. With his mass protests in South Africa and India, Gandhi showed the world that law need not be treated as a god. When laws contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them. Later, Martin Luther King, another of Thoreau’s disciples, grounded the American civil rights movement on the same principle.

Civil disobedience points the way to a tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate in the streets against it.

The problem we face with law in the modern state is that there are tens of thousands of silly regulations, and no single one merits a high-profile campaign. To take Mr. Green’s case, imagine the difficulties we would have in trying to attract crowds, and the media, to a “piano-importing protest” at a U.S. customs check point on the Canadian border. To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances. I call it “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive law by finding a quiet way to evade it. This was what I used to counter the unjust effect of the law on ivory importation affecting Mr. Green.

To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances.

My sister and I drove to Canada for a round of golf. While she played, I visited the home of the seller, took the piano apart, removed the keys and put them in a cardboard box which I put in the back of my station wagon. Then I put the piano back together, ready to be shipped to Mr. Green in the ordinary way, sans ivory. I picked up my sister at the golf course, and drove to the border.

The U.S. customs agent was friendly. What was the purpose of our visit to Canada?

“We played golf.”

“How did you do?”

I said, “Don’t ask!”

He laughed and waved us through. The next day I shipped the keys to Mr. Green, to be put back in the piano when it arrived. Travesty avoided!

The Polite Reform

By calling the tactic “civil” noncompliance, I mean to emphasize the element of social responsibility. I do not advocate disobeying laws just because one can get away with it. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. For example, you shouldn’t run red lights as a general practice. Even if there were no policemen to notice it, that behavior would be both rude and dangerous; that is, uncivil. But if you were driving an injured child to the emergency room late at night when no other cars were about, driving through the red light would be an act of civil noncompliance.

By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with government officials enforcing the law. The idea is to be unnoticed by them, or to receive their tacit support in avoiding a regulation’s requirements. The idea that officials may be willing to “look the other way” is an unusual point, for we are accustomed to portray bureaucrats as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for ordinary people. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most government employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

I’m sure readers can cite cases of officials who helped them evade some destructive regulation. My favorite episode took place years ago in Peru when, as a student, I was applying for a residency visa. After filling out the form, I went to the cashier, who said the charge would be $1,800! Of course I couldn’t pay this astronomical fee (which had been set with oil company executives in mind). I was directed to the head of the agency. After hearing my plight, he looked at my form.

“Since you’re not 21 years old, you only have to pay the fee for a minor of age, which is $25.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I’m over 21,” I replied. “My birthday was—”

“You don’t understand,” he said firmly. “Look here,” he tapped his finger on the form. “See, you’re not 21.”

I finally got it through my thick skull that he was trying to help me. “Oh, yes. I see. Right! Thank you!”

He called over to the cashier and told her, “Es menor de edad.”

She nodded and told me the charge was $25.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies in the tactics of civil noncompliance. In fact, sometimes they can be the leaders. Take the case of wolves in Idaho. The state’s environmentalists, hunters, and ranchers had worked out a modus vivendi for dealing with wolves, a system that involved compensation for ranchers who lose stock to wolves, and some hunting to cull the wolf population. This system ran afoul of the federal courts and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2010 banned wolf hunting in Idaho. That decision no doubt made urban treehuggers happy, but it thoroughly disgusted Idahoans. In response, Idaho governor Butch Otter practiced civil non-compliance: he ordered state officials to stop investigating wolf kills.

A Quiet Revolution

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines.

The political approach to addressing problems and managing social life is running out of steam. Generations ago, idealists believed that politics held the key to building a new society. Candidates, parties, and revolutionary movements — from communists to progressives, fascists to democratic socialists — were energized by the conviction that control of government would give them the power to set the country on the path to their dreamed-of Utopia.

No informed person now looks at politics in this way. Government today is more like an ineffectual goo, a spreading blob of noise and hypocrisy that can be neither directed nor reformed. Journalist Jonathan Rauch made this point in his 1994 book Demosclerosis (revised and expanded in1999 as Government’s End; Why Washington Stopped Working): “Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients, but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

It is also clear that the system cannot be overthrown. At bottom, the public wants big government. Yes, most people are aware that government fails miserably time after time, and they realize that most of the politicians who make the laws are shortsighted and hypocritical (when not downright corrupt). Nevertheless, the public clings to government as an object of worship. Government fills the human longing to believe in a higher power that cares for us, a God-like force that can answer our prayers in troubled times. Government also fills the need for heroes to worship, for famous figures the public can ooh and aah over. Finally, politics provides the excitement of competition for a nation of bored, media-hungry couch potatoes. To get an idea how difficult it would be to do away with big government, imagine trying to abolish God, Santa Claus, and the Super Bowl all at once.

We will have the show of politics, then. We will have candidates promising, lawmakers denouncing, and pressure groups nagging. But as civil noncompliance is increasingly practiced, this posturing will have less effect on the real world. The end point — Utopia, if you will — would be a society where politicians provide entertainment with their posturing, passing laws that promise this and prohibit that. Meanwhile citizens quietly ignore these laws in their daily lives and do what is right and helpful.

Such sensible times may yet be far off. But as I drove away from the customs checkpoint with those ivory piano keys rattling in the back of my car, I thought, I have seen the future, and it works!




Share This


Taking Aim

 | 

What I would like to talk about today is two themes that come together. The first is what is wrong with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the second is what’s wrong with Independence Institute President Jon Caldara.

Michael Bloomberg has created a faux grassroots organization called “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” Financially, it is by far the economic center of the gun prohibition movement in this country today. It is very wealthy and employs lots and lots of lobbyists in DC and in state capitals around the country. George Soros put some money in it as well; they’ve got some bucks.

But it’s not exactly what it seems. There are 12 people who got their names off this list of supposedly “Mayors against illegal guns.” These mayors said, “I never signed up for this; you just put my name on this without asking me. Or you told me his group is against illegal guns. Well, there are not too many people for illegal guns, so I signed up. It turns out you’re just against guns in general.”

There are another 19 mayors, actual members of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” who now have left office because of felony convictions or because they are under indictment or because charges are pending or because they had to resign and the prosecutor was nice and didn’t bring a case. With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

In the interest of truth and advertising, the proper way to refer to this group is “Illegal Mayors Against Guns.”

But I would say they have done one important service. There are a lot of people who wonder if there is an afterlife or not. How could you ever know for sure? Well, one mayor who was in this group and genuinely signed up for it passed away, and yet afterwards “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” was distributing letters from him lobbying on the gun issue — anti-gun letters signed by this deceased mayor. So if there any doubt, well, doesn’t that prove there is an afterlife?

I’m not sure if writing anti-gun letters is the ideal way to spend it. Probably this mayor enjoyed it.

What we consistently see out of Michael Bloomberg and his crowd, including in their attempts to exploit the recent murders in Aurora and Wisconsin, and really every day, is undifferentiated hostility towards gun ownership and especially toward people who own firearms for protection.

With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

This is rather hypocritical because when Michael Bloomberg says people shouldn’t have guns for protection, he must have his fingers crossed or he has a mental reservation. Apparently if you can get an entire New York police security detail carrying machine guns to accompany you every second, that’s OK. Because after all, he isn’t personally owning a gun for protection. So maybe he feels there is some kind of difference there.

And they put out these terrible malicious, libels against people — like when they say the only reason the person would own an AR-15 rifle is because they want to be a mass murderer.

What a horrible thing to say about the literally millions of Americans who have made the AR-15 the most popular, best-selling rifle in the United States of America, and what a malicious falsehood to say about our police who frequently carry an AR-15 in their squad cars for those circumstances where they might need a rifle for backup.

Neither the Americans who use their AR-15 for target shooting, for home defense, for hunting game up to the size of deer (it’s not powerful enough for anything larger than that), nor the police who use AR-15s, want to harm a lot of people. They have these firearms for legitimate purposes and especially for protecting themselves and other people.

At the Independence Institute, in our legal work on the gun issue, we almost always file joint amicus briefs with police organizations. We represented a huge coalition of police organizations in the Supreme Court amicus briefs we filed in Heller and McDonald.

Just last week in Woollard v.Gallagher, in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, our amicus brief was filed not only for the Independence Institute but also for the two major organizations which train law enforcement in firearms use. These are the policemen who are the trainers for all the rest of the police: the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Association and the International Association Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors.

What we consistently say with the police is that there is one key principle which has two manifestations. One is that guns in the wrong hands are very dangerous, and so we need strong laws to try to keep guns out from the wrong hands; and if they get in the wrong hands we need strong laws to punish misuse and to put misusers away so they can no longer endanger innocents.

The second part of the principle is that guns in the right hands protect public safety. They help the police to protect people; they help civilians protect each other; they sometimes civilians help protect the police. So we are also in need of strong laws to make sure there are guns in the right hands, to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase, own, use, and carry firearms.

Forty years ago there were virtually no gun laws of any sort in Colorado or in most of the United States. The reason the gun debate in this country has finally settled down after four decades, as it also has in Colorado, especially after Columbine, is that we’ve come to a Colorado consensus and a national consensus based on a common sense. We have added a lot of laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands and we have added a lot of laws to protect the rights of law-abiding people.

Because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer.

The most important of these laws in Colorado, which is the same thing we are supporting in the Woollard case in Maryland (Maryland being one of the nine holdout states on this issue), is the right to carry. Colorado’s right to carry law was written by the County Sheriffs of Colorado. It insures that a law-abiding adult who passes a fingerprint-based background check and a safety training class can obtain a permit to carry a handgun for lawful protection.

That’s our single most important post-Columbine reform. At the Independence Institute we worked on this issue for a decade to make it become law, and what a difference it’s already made.

You know what happened in December 2007 when an evildoer went into the sanctuary of the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs. Seven thousand people were there. He had already murdered four people, two in Denver, two people in a parking lot, and he went in there intent on mass murder. Because of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer. Pastor Brady Boyd said she saved over a hundred lives that day.

We want laws like that everywhere in the country. We have them in 41 states. Maryland is coming soon. It is essential that the right to bear arms be protected nationally, as all national civil rights should be.

Another thing we are going to be promoting very much at the Independence Institute is stronger laws on mental health. There are lots of ways government spending can be cut, starting with corporate welfare, which is illegal by four different clauses of Colorado constitution. We should cut every penny that goes toward corporate welfare and spend it on proper government services.

At the next session of the legislature we are going to explain the importance of better funding for mental health services — not only because of sensational crimes like in Aurora, but also because of the many homicides that happen and that never get camera crews from other continents out here. In Colorado and around the country there are so many murders perpetrated by people who are seriously mentally ill — people who 30 years ago or 50 years ago would have properly been institutionalized, but today there are no beds for them and no support system. We want to change that. We want to take money out of the hands of corporate welfare, away from special interests and put the money into the community interest of a better, stronger system of mental health in Colorado.

So that’s what’s wrong with Michael Bloomberg on the gun issue, but let me tell you what’s wrong with Jon Caldara, our president at the Independence Institute. In his opening remarks today he referred to the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms we’re celebrating at this party as the “perks of adulthood.” That’s fine to characterize alcohol and tobacco in those terms, but it’s not right on the firearms side.

Let me tell you about two different places in the world. One is Western Australia. There was a study done of aborigines in Western Australia who were in prison for felonies. One group of the imprisoned criminals had misused guns in a crime. The second group also had guns; but they had never misused a gun against a human being.

What was the difference between the two groups? The criminals who never misused a gun against a person had been taught about guns by an older authority figure such as father or an uncle. They had learned about shooting sports and acquired an attitude of treating guns with responsibility. They saw guns as something you use to shoot some game but not something you use to try to harm an innocent person.

Another study comes from Rochester, New York, on the other side of the world. They did a longitudinal study to try to find the 16-year-olds who are the most likely to become juvenile delinquents and then criminals. This means they didn’t study girls at all. If you want to study crime, and you have only so many people you can study, you focus on the males; that’s just a sociological fact. They tracked these young people over the years.

The youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun (maybe they bought a handgun from somebody on the street) had in future years a very high rate of being arrested for serious crimes, including gun crimes. The youths who at 16 legally owned a gun (say they had a shotgun that their parents given them, or went hunting with their dads or rifle shooting with their uncles), they had essentially no crime of any type. So how young people are socialized about guns is hugely important in future outcomes.

Now contrary to this socialization that some of the young people in Western Australia and in Rochester had is the desensitization that comes through too much of our media, particularly television entertainment and movies. The people who produce these horrible grotesque pornographic celebrations of violence, like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, will tell you, “Oh, it doesn’t affect people; movies and TV have no influence on people.”

I’m sure that’s true for the large majority of folks. But if you say that what is on television has no effect on what people do, isn’t it kind of odd that they sell advertising? What a waste of money that must be, because apparently what you see never affects what you do.

How strange it is that these movies and TV shows have sold product placements. Where they say “Oh, if Coca-Cola pays us some money, we will have a character drinking a Coca-Cola.” But apparently on the other hand what the people see on TV and the movies never has any effect on them.

Likewise, in the ongoing culture war against smoking, you’re not supposed to show characters smoking in a movie that young people are going to see. So the producers do think that what people see does have an effect.

So now Hollywood says “We are going to make sure that when a 15 year old goes to a movie he is never going to see somebody lighting up a cigarette, but he is going to see mass violence and gun misuse.”

We’re not for censorship at the Independence Institute. But we are for counter-programming and that’s part of what the ATF Party is about. It is about introducing some of you to shooting sports, giving others the opportunity to participate more often, and hoping that all of you go out and introduce your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors and especially some young people you know to responsible shooting. Which is, as you know, a culture of safety, responsibility, self-control, self-discipline — of so many things that exemplify exactly what’s right about America.

Youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun had in future years a very high gun crime rate. But those who legally owned a gun at 16 committed few crimes of any type.

Some of the things that we are handing out today come from our friends at the NRA. Founded in 1871, the NRA is America’s oldest civil rights organization, and one of America’s oldest mass educational organizations as well. They’ve been teaching people about shooting safety and responsibility, with a special focus on young people, ever since 1871. So there are lots of materials you can take with you.

One of those I especially recommended is the NRA Qualification Program. It’s about the size of a magazine and it shows how you can practice and improve your gun proficiency on your own, whether you like air guns or sporting clays or .22 caliber rifles or revolvers or whatever. The Qualification Program has courses of target shooting you can go through and earn yourself these cool little patches and medals as you work your way up in proficiency. It’s a self-paced thing, so everybody can do it and we encourage you to do it yourself and hope you introduce as many people to it as possible.

On the gun issue we are not only on the pro-choice side; we are on the pro-life side as well. What we are doing on ATF day and what we do every day at the Independence Institute is to fight for those life-saving values of safety, responsibility and American constitutional rights.

We are not just protecting rights in Colorado; in the long term, we are making sure that those rights are protected nationally, as we did in the McDonald case.

We look forward to the day when even the people in the most oppressed parts of the United States — under the sweltering heel of Michael Bloomberg — will regain their rights to smoke a cigarette or a cigar, to drink a Big Gulp soda, and to own and carry a handgun for lawful protection, because it is a civil right of every American.

Thank you.


Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a speech given at the Independence Institute’s 10th annual Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Party. The ATF Party speeches were broadcast on C-SPAN.



Share This


Fighting Uphill

 | 

Shortly after winding down his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman lamented the lack of outside-of-the-box thinking in his party. "Gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forward big, bold, visionary stuff," Huntsman explained during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. He continued, "I see zero evidence of people getting out there and addressing the economic deficit, which is a national security problem, for heaven's sake."

Huntsman suggested that a "third party movement or some alternative voice," which he hopes will "put forward new ideas," could force the GOP's hand. Of course, the suggestion is a nonstarter for most Republicans. Even with the rise of the Tea Party movement, the thinking for many is that it is better to work inside the GOP.

While it seems that Huntsman has decided to stick with the Republican Party, Gary Johnson, who served as Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, has taken a very different path in his bid for the presidency.

In many ways, Johnson is what many Republican voters want in a presidential candidate. He is a proven fiscal conservative. The Cato Institute gave him high marks on economic policy during his two terms in New Mexico. In a white paper on Johnson’s fiscal record, the Club for Growth, an influential DC-based organization promoting free market policies, noted his strong support for cutting taxes and spending, pointing out that he “earn[ed] the title ‘Governor No’ after 742 total vetoes of bills over two terms.”

While other candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination were talking about tepid spending cuts, Johnson said that he will submit a budget to Congress that would cut federal spending 43% in his first year. He wants to scale back regulations that are harming the economy while promoting free trade and school choice, and reforming crippling entitlement programs.

Yet despite his free market principles and proven record of cutting the size of government, frequently using his line-item veto power as governor to cut millions in spending, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media. Johnson appeared in only two of 18 Republican presidential debates and forums, many of which required candidates to reach certain polling requirements for inclusion. He did manage one of the more memorable quotes of this part of the process. Answering a question about Obama’s job record during a GOP debate in Orlando, Johnson humorously explained that his “next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.”

Despite his free market principles, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media.

Efforts to be included in more debates were unsuccessful, despite Johnson’s campaign noting that several polling firms used to determine invitations did not even include him in their surveys of the race. Another problem for Johnson was Ron Paul’s candidacy for the GOP nomination, which took primary voters that could have helped him gain more attention.

Unable to gain traction as a Republican, Johnson decided to run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination in December. Johnson made the rounds at various Libertarian state conventions, winning most straw polls and gaining a small amount of media attention. In May, Johnson easily won the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, taking 70% of the delegates. His handpicked running mate, Judge Jim Gray, won a close race against R. Lee Wrights for the party's vice presidential nod.

While there was an upbeat atmosphere after the convention, the Johnson-Gray ticket is facing problems similar to those that have plagued previous Libertarian presidential campaigns — a lack of money and resources.

An advisor to Johnson’s campaign, who asked not to be named, explained that the campaign is “bringing in around $50,000 per week,” which he said is a much higher pace than before the switch to the Libertarian Party. At the point the campaign is “well past the $1 million mark.”

There are obviously other hurdles beyond money. According to the Johnson advisor, the campaign should appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, though he notes that Democrats and Republicans are trying to create trouble in Michigan and Pennsylvania. One of the major hurdles for third-party candidates had been Oklahoma, which has the worst ballot access law in the country. But by securing the Americans Elect line in the Sooner State, Johnson’s campaign has reached a milestone unattained by other recent Libertarian campaigns.

Another goal for Johnson’s campaign is inclusion in the presidential debates. Past Libertarian Party presidential candidates made noise about appearing in these all-important debates, but were ultimately unsuccessful. In order to appear in the presidential and vice presidential debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates requires that a third-party campaign receive at least 15% of the vote from at least five national polls.

There is an avalanche of polling data right now coming from battleground states, but Johnson’s name only appears in a handful of them. His name is more difficult to locate in national surveys. Johnson’s supporters have called on firms, loudly and often, to include their candidate in their polling, but have seen very limited success. However, Rasmussen Reports, a polling firm that slants toward the Republican Party, measured Johnson nationally against President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, finding that he brings only 1% of the vote. Johnson’s favorability rating is also underwater, with 16% having a favorable view of him and 20% holding an unfavorable view. The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the 63% of voters who have no opinion of Johnson, presumably because they have never heard of him.

With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.

Asked about the debates and the lack of polls including Johnson, a campaign source played coy, not wanting to give away strategy, but added that he expects Johnson to be included in the debates “by the end of September.”

With the discussion on polling, the source also noted that the campaign strategy will be to focus on states in the west, some of which have been more amenable to libertarian positions. Included in the “first-tier states” on which the Johnson campaign will focus their efforts are Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon. With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.

This is a fact that Libertarians know all too well. According to a statement released earlier this month, the Libertarian Party noted that “Governor Johnson’s poll numbers — and his votes this November — may be the critical factor in “Tipping Point” or battleground states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado — where Obama and Romney are 1% to 6% apart.”

But Johnson’s argument all along is that he will “pull votes” away from both Romney and President Obama. Johnson and supporters argue that, while many conservatives are not happy with the Republican nominee on fiscal issues and RomneyCare, there is a faction of liberals who are frustrated with Obama on the further deterioration of civil liberties and what they see as a continuation of George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

For now, at least, Republicans do not seem too worried about Johnson’s effect on their nominee. Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based talk show host and editor of RedState.com, largely agrees with Johnson’s theory. “I think he will pull roughly equally from them, but I think he'll pull slightly more from Barack Obama than Mitt Romney,” wrote Erickson via email. “The overwhelming majority of people who want to beat Barack Obama recognize that a third party election is not going to happen this year and they want Obama gone.”

"He could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”

Erickson believes that a number of “socially left” voters may view Johnson as an acceptable protest vote against President Obama and Romney. But nonetheless he thinks that Johnson’s influence on the race will be limited. He explains that the lack of media attention will prevent Johnson from “expanding on that base of traditional third party support.”

There are ways that Johnson could build on his support, says Erickson. “I think he could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”

The view from Libertarian Party activists is mostly encouraging. One longtime member explained that Johnson’s campaign is the best the party has seen, but conceded that the bar is set low. He explained that he would like to see Johnson tailor his message more to states he is visiting, noting, “Voters in more socially conservative states are not going to express interest in gay marriage.”

A similar criticism was found from an independent voter sympathetic to Johnson’s message. “I feel like they spend more time talking about marijuana than anything else,” he said. “With all the problems we have, it's weed that he seems concerned with.”

Though many other Libertarian activists expressed contentment with Johnson’s message of personal and economic liberty, they were more direct in their criticism of interactions with campaign staff and coordinators. Communication breakdowns and a lack of experience among many volunteers were the most frequent concerns.

“My main problem with them has been communication and event planning with state parties,” explained a frustrated party member. While they understand the criticism, campaign sources explain that they do not have sufficient funds to hire professionals and have to rely on inexperienced part-time volunteers, many of whom work hard with limited resources at their disposal.

What does the future hold for Gary Johnson? He knows the odds are overwhelmingly against him this year, but that is not stopping him from looking ahead. During a recent campaign event in Texas, Johnson said that he would again seek the Libertarian Party nomination in four years. It is far too early to predict whether or not party members would be open to the idea, but Johnson’s message is appeasing most libertarians. But whether or not he can attract new members — and new voters, which is the end goal — is a question that will not be answered until November.


Editor's Note: Disclosure statement: Pye worked as a state director for Gary Johnson from February to June of 2012.



Share This


Irreconcilable Differences

 | 

Like their counterparts on the statist Left, social conservatives use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

In America, the contemporary political Right essentially consists of two factions. Ordinarily one is called social conservative and the other libertarian, though a more accurate way of distinguishing them would be to describe the former as big-government conservative and the latter as small-government conservative.

The only thing that brings the two together — into the marriage of convenience that unites the Right today — is a shared opposition to the statist Left. The Obama administration has kept them together as perhaps nothing else could. It may be all that prevents them from getting their long-overdue divorce. Once Romney is elected, if that indeed happens, all the counseling in the world won’t be enough to save this marriage.

As far back as the ’80s, President Reagan seemed to understand that this was strictly a shotgun wedding. Those who opposed Communist expansionism had to stick together to win the Cold War. There must always be a grand cause — an archenemy to defeat. At the moment, Barack Obama fits the bill.

I, very frankly, am getting tired of being told that I must vote for whichever unprincipled empty suit the Republican Party has chosen to carry its baton. Mitt Romney is particularly hollow. He seems willing to say anything, do anything, pander to anybody, betray anybody to get elected. As the aim is clearly only to wrest power away from the Democrats, this seems to be acceptable to the GOP, which has surrendered all but the flimsiest pretense that it has any principles whatever.

This probably suits big-government conservatives just fine. They are all about power, power, and more power, totally in the thrall of the delusion that if they just get enough of it, they can hang onto it forever. Their small-government counterparts, on the other hand, may just want to think again. How can it further our principles to trust in a party that has none?

We are being told that the Obama administration is a threat to America of apocalyptic proportions. But it hasn’t stopped so-called social conservatives from playing chicken with the rest of us on their favorite issues. To gain the blessing of the GOP establishment, candidate Romney must, for example, voice support for the Federal Marriage Amendment: a poison pill if there ever was one. Its passage would violate at least three, and possibly four, existing constitutional amendments. It would, essentially, make the Constitution contradict itself, thereby weakening it and accelerating its eventual destruction.

So we already know that Mitt Romney cannot be taken seriously. Even before getting the chance to take the oath of office for the presidency, he has as much as admitted that he would damage it. One cannot “preserve, protect, and defend” something that one has indicated a willingness to help destroy.

Romney’s claim to champion small government is also dubious, considering the fact that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he raised taxes every year. Oh, he called them other things — “tax-fees,” the closing of loopholes on an internet sales tax, new laws permitting local governments to hike business property taxes, and a new tax penalty soaking both individuals and small businesses. He claims to be an economic conservative, but that claim can attain credibility only if big-government devotees on the political Right manage to drain the term of meaning in the way they have drained “social conservative.” Defining what any sort of a conservative he is seems a lot like determining what “is” is: an interesting parlor game.

I suppose part of my problem with “social conservatives” is their apparent unwillingness to think through what they mean by using that term to describe themselves. I frequently ask friends who call themselves that to explain it to me. The hostility this evokes is puzzling. It appears that they’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t like having their confusion exposed.

I’m perfectly willing to explain, to anyone who asks, why I call myself a libertarian, or a small-government conservative. I see little sense in using a term — repeatedly — to describe myself, but becoming resentful when asked to elaborate. Social conservatives seem to claim that name not as a descriptor but as a dog-whistle. Like their counterparts on the statist Left, they use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

“Either you are giving your opinion of yourself,” I tell them, “or you are saying something about your philosophy of government. I don’t care about your opinion of yourself . . . that’s your concern, not mine. I may or may not share it, and it’s rather narcissistic of you to assume it interests me as much as it does you.”

If, on the other hand, they are saying something about their philosophy of government — that force should be used, by the state, to make other people comply with their views about how people’s lives ought to be lived — then that is of tremendous concern to me. But I would prefer they drop the self-congratulatory veneer and simply call themselves what they are: advocates of big government. For if they do believe that government should do such things, the task is impossible unless government is big and intrusive. Other than serving as a smokescreen, the term “social conservative” accomplishes nothing, because it reveals nothing. If language does not reveal, then it serves no meaningful purpose.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

But there's another bad thing to mention. The GOP's lack of clear purpose leads its opposition into further intellectual laziness and moral decay. Instead of the parties' improving each other and, by extension, the country — the very reason the two-party system is supposed to exist — everyone gets dragged down. It’s a race to the bottom all the way.

Libertarians and true small-government conservatives are telling the truth about the cause of our national demise and what must be done about it. Big-government conservatives — whatever they want to call themselves — are lying about it. That many of them believe that lie can be chiefly attributed to their lack of willingness to examine whether it’s true. But when one side in a conflict tells the truth and the other lies, there should indeed be a decisive winner and loser.

Truth is not such a relative matter after all. “Social conservatives” fervently claim to believe that. Too bad their behavior so often says something altogether different.




Share This


Prostitution and Coercion

 | 

I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” Dictionary.com defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.