Another Busted Safety Net

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I like to reflect upon the news about our vaunted safety net pension plans — the crowning jewels of our progressive paradise — as they head off a fiscal cliff. The latest report concerns a rather neglected jewel, the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, created in 1957 during the Eisenhower presidency.

Under this perhaps well-intended program — assuming that any social program is truly well-intended, a dubious assumption, indeed — workers of any age who become disabled or unable to work because of health issues receive federal support. The idea is that all workers pay a small amount into the SSDI fund, so that the few workers stricken by health issues derive a small but reasonable stipend (on average, about $1,100 a month).

Well, the SSDI will have the dubious honor of being the first federal support program to go bust. It will likely run out of funds in four to seven years — which probably means four years. At that point, it will become a pure negative — an explicit draw on tax dollars collected by the feds from hapless taxpayers.

I can hear readers ululating dolorously, “Why? Why? Why?” The reason is this: during the last decade, there has been an explosion of disabled people. In the year 2000, there were 6.6 million people in the program—a remarkable number in itself. But by last year that number had swelled to 10.2 million, an increase of 55%.

That’s the nationwide figure. In a number of states, however, the rate of increase in disability recipients has been even higher. Examples are New Hampshire at 69% and Texas at 85%. But at the top of the list is Puerto Rico. It has nine of the top ten American zip codes for receiving SSDI disability checks. And it has the highest approval rate (63%!) for disability claims. It would appear that there is a large amount of abuse going on in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. As Ivan Gonzalez-Cancel, a local surgeon who is planning on running for governor in 2012, has put it, “The mentality is that it’s ‘big, rich, Uncle Sam’s money.’ ”

The consequence of the explosion of eligibility is that the SSDI program went negative in 2005, and by 2015, the earliest but most likely date, it will be spending $22 billion more in benefits than it takes in. At that point, all of its “reserves” will likely have been exhausted.

Naturally, the program’s advocates have a ready cure: raise SSDI taxes, or hide the deficit in the regular Social Security fund. Of course, what to do when the regular Social Security fund goes bust, they don’t say.




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Is Europe Liberal?

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The EC became the EU in 1992. I lived there at the time, and I wondered if, in socialist Europe, the EU would have a liberal or an illiberal influence. Trade liberalization was an important part of the EC from the beginning, and its successor is still mostly liberal on trade. But then there's everything else, mostly illiberal. And as the EU's powers expand, so does its illiberalism. Although on trade the EU is more liberal than its members, its many new powers are exercised in the interest of the state and its dependents, not in the interest of individual freedoms.

So where does the EU stand on balance? For a long time I wasn't sure. Now I am.

The March 19, 2011 issue of The Economist says that the Euro-zone countries are increasing their bailout of the Euro-basketcase countries, including Ireland and Greece. They lowered the interest rate that they charge to Greece, the country that is most deeply sunk in the basket. But Ireland "received no such concession because it insisted on keeping its low corporate-tax rate." That's right. We are not just a trade union, we are a monetary union; so raise your taxes or suffer the consequences.

On balance, the EU now has an illiberal, anti-libertarian, statist influence on its member states. Taxation and monetary policy are only two examples. There are many more. That little squib in The Economist tipped the scales for me.




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Obama Channels Bush Again

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Obama, who has made his political career bashing George W. Bush, especially on the war on terror, has in office pursed a war on terror policy that more or less exactly clones Bush’s. For example, as Donald Rumsfeld cheekily pointed out, despite Obama and other critics savaging Bush for setting up the detention prison at Guantanamo Bay, and despite all of Obama’s promises to close it, he has kept it open to this day. He apparently has come to Rumsfeld’s conclusion that Gitmo is “the least worst place.”

Then there is the recent announcement that, after having suspended military trials (“tribunals”) by executive fiat two years ago, Obama has decided to resume such trials. He may even bring new charges to the military tribunals shortly. By doing this, he not only confirms Bush’s original decision to give terrorists military rather than civilian trials; he completely repudiates Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give them civilian trials. No doubt the public outcry over Holder’s attempt to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City — an outcry that led to the withdrawal of the idea — helped Obama see the light.

Obama has a fig leaf for his complete reversal: he has added some “due process” rights for the detainees, such as periodic reviews of those held in indefinite custody. But he will now allow the indefinite custody of terrorists. So this is in reality a complete about-face.

It all comes on the heels of last month’s report that Obama had once again signed an extension of the key provisions of the Patriot Act, pending re-passage of the bill in Congress. These provisions include allowing law enforcement to run “roving” wiretaps on several cell phones associated with a target of investigation, allowing law enforcement to get permission from a special court to view the library and business records of suspects in a terrorist investigation, and permitting the FBI to investigate non-American “lone wolf” terrorist suspects.

If Obama had any integrity, or even bipartisanship, he would apologize for statements in the past such as the one that Bush “runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they’re there or what they are charged with.” After all, if that was what Bush was doing (which it wasn’t), Obama is doing the same thing.

If he keeps channeling Bush, Obama may wind up attacking an Arab country that hasn’t attacked us…oh, wait! He just did!

But that is grist for another reflection.




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Dwarfing the State

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I fantasize what the civic society should look like.

Libertarians, at a certain level, see liberal government as the community of peaceful people who would like to be left alone but who also believe that cooperation or agreement will diminish the cost of self-defense against criminals and foreign invaders, the coining of money, and possibly the maintenance of the commons such as roads, bridges, lighthouses and a few others.

These believers in a "grand narrative called government" (using postmodern lingo) are the community of the lawful. Part of enjoying this community is paying taxes in lieu of the perhaps greater cost of buying these services individually.

Those who do not fit into the community of the lawful are outlaws and can be punished or killed if they offend this community. Laws, in this narrative, are formulations that merely mirror the lived lives of the governed, and "legislators" (from the Latin, meaning "bearers of laws") do not make laws, but rather find them in the practices of the peace-loving community.

Note that this civic society encompasses all peaceful citizens in an area or realm of agreement. The key libertarian insight is that they will all agree to only a few things, and that this limits what the government can claim to span. But even this dwarfed government still has to hire officials to formulate and administer laws, and judges to mediate disputes. We in Western societies have adopted "democracy" (really we have a republic) as the mechanism for selecting these administrators, legislators, and judges.

The democratic selection of candidates does not confer on legislators any power to invent new laws, regulations, taxes, impositions, and troubles for the community of the peaceful, if these laws are not already part of the daily practices of the governed. The government should know no more about the citizens than is necessary to collect taxes.

A self-selected portion of the peace-loving citizens can of course voluntarily choose to burden themselves with compulsory healthcare, or a moral code forbidding abortion or abuse of drugs; it can enforce these burdens on consenting adults in the subgroup; but this does not obligate the entire community of peaceful citizens.

We classical liberals disagree with liberals and conservatives about the provenance of what the democratic adventure can claim to do for us. Peace-loving citizens rely on a neutral government to compel members to remit taxes to pay for coinage, a police force, and so on. Other common functions, such as streets, a postal system, and parks can be provided by a government and paid for by fees levied on users, if that be the democratically determined wish; alternatively, they can be provided by profit-making entities. (Streets are merely slits in an ocean of developed private land that landowners need for access. Landlocked land is famously worthless.) In this libertarian cosmos politicking among the peaceful is unnecessary.

The idea and purpose of government, however, have been perverted because significant minorities want help for their special projects, such as wars on concepts (drugs, poverty), foreign misadventures (Iraq), regulations of business, forced contributions for retirement . . . a nearly endless list. Mainstream politicians, anxious to gain election, use their power to appeal to these special constituencies.

As generally peaceful citizens encountered laws and impositions that were foreign to their customs, they realized that they had to shoulder burdens from which they didn’t profit, and more critically, that they too could live out some of their private fantasies if they invested in politics. Government, thus perverted, no longer cultivated agreement among the peaceful. Rather it fostered strife. The community of peace burned itself out in the zero-sum game of politics. Government thus perverted no longer equaled agreement among the peaceful.

In the real world, of course, the libertarian vision of a civic society never really existed, but its opposite, which was articulated by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, has prevailed for millennia. Hobbes deemed life lived in the “state of nature” to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He advocated a sovereign authority to control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical power. For Hobbes, civil society was one in which all individuals had to cede some of their rights to gain protection. In practice, this perpetuated feudalism, with its kings, nobility, privileges, arbitrary laws with capricious enforcement, endless politicking, and discord, for another century.

In 1776, our Declaration of Independence shone a light on this Hobbesian creation and proclaimed a departure. The American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution crafted a restrained government in which the individual was sovereign. “Common law” evolved in courtrooms. Posses supported enforcement of criminal laws. Usual practices among businessmen were formulated in the Uniform Commercial Codes. Producers kept what they created.

However, within a few generations groups and individuals started demanding special favors and rewarded collaborating politicians at the expense of the many. They wrote laws that went beyond what everyone would have agreed to. Privileges, licensing, regulations, foreign entanglements, draconian punishments for synthetic crimes, taxes, programs, disinformation, bullets, breadlines, bribes, and bosses proliferated.

The remaining dwindling majority discovered that it was more profitable to squabble over its fair share of a fixed pie rather than work to increase its own wealth, and have it plundered. Peaceful society, tranquility lost, fragmented into hostile camps of winners and losers, a crapshoot of who was in the majority of the moment. Lawful society had arced back to Hobbes’s form of the feudal social contract and paradoxically a “war of all against all.”




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We're Number One!

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A report from the Tax Foundation gives us the happy news that as of next month, America will be number one in a new field: corporate income taxes.

The combined federal and (average) state US corporate tax is 39.2%. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries — the 34 most prosperous countries, which include all of our major economic competitors — this is exceeded only by Japan, at 39.5%.

During the last decade, nine of the OECD countries cut their corporate tax rates by 10% or more. The biggest tax-cutters were Canada, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Turkey. The average corporate income tax of the OECD nations, excluding the US, has fallen from 38% in 1992 — which was the first year in which the average dropped below the U.S. level — to 25.5% today.

And 75 of the non-OECD countries have also dropped their corporate tax rates since 2006.

Now Japan has announced that effective next month, its corporate tax rate will drop, too. It will fall by 4.5%, to 35%. England is also lowering its rate next month, from the current 28% to 27%, on the way to a scheduled 24% within three years. That will leave the US with the highest rate in the developed world — a full 10% above the non-US OECD average.

If the US wanted to match the OECD average and China’s current rate (the rate was lowered in 2008), it would have to fall to 20% at the federal level. This is most unlikely under Obama’s regime.

So we will remain less competitive, and wonder why our unemployment remains high.




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Libya: Caveat Emptor

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It is admitted by all that the United States government has failed to clarify the political strategy, or even the short-term military strategy, that is supposed to guide our war in Libya. Of course, the administration intends to overthrow or kill Qaddafi; it is an absurd hypocrisy for its spokesmen to disavow these intentions, claiming that it is simply attempting to prevent harm to “civilians” (e.g., people who are in arms against Qaddafi, trying to overthrow or kill him). Yet it is admitted by all that no one in the United States has the faintest idea of what power structures have evolved in the rebel camp, or of what kind of state will replace the Qaddafi dictatorship.

I am not a foe of military action. And I do not believe that the United States should refrain from all military action across its borders, or that foreign states and rulers have some kind of legitimacy and immunity from attack, simply because they are foreign states and rulers. But I do believe that if we intervene in another country, we should know that our intervention is necessary, in our terms; we should be convinced, above all, that if we go to war to overthrow a foreign government, the government that replaces it will not be just as bad, or worse, in our terms.

Qaddafi is a detestable tyrant. Does that mean that the people who are trying to get rid of him will turn out to be apostles of liberty? How is it that a political culture that generated and put up with a Qaddafi is now expected to produce a real republic? I hope that it does — but what’s the evidence? Note that many long-term officials, collaborators, and sycophants of Qaddafi are now prominent among those insisting that we destroy him.

I well remember talking with other Americans during the time when the Shah of Iran was falling from power. They were jubilant: the Shah was a dictator, and he had done cruel things. I asked whether his opponents might not turn out to be worse. I was greeted with sneers by some and pity by others. And immediately, the enemies of the Shah established one of the most dangerous and disgusting regimes on the face of the earth — with strong support from the people.

I hope this doesn’t happen again.

By the way, is it bad manners to make a hint about payment? Have you heard any of Qaddafi’s enemies, at home or abroad, suggesting that a grateful new republic should reimburse its Western saviors for the vast amounts of, yes, money that its liberation will require? No? You haven’t? Then perhaps these people are not responsible republicans after all.

But sorry; I know we’re not supposed to bring this stuff up. Undoubtedly, the Arab League will reimburse us.




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When Extremism Is a Vice

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Those on the religious right get angry when progressives accuse them of being similar to the Taliban. In their more candid moments, almost as a slip, they will protest that they are much milder: “Not that bad.”

How good is “not that bad”? Is the line that divides them from the crazies firmly in place? Does it waver? What makes Islamic extremists worse than Christian extremists? Is it simply a matter of degree, and can we know with certainty that the line cannot shift — perhaps dramatically, in the blink of an eye?

Perhaps I am more concerned about these questions than most people. I’m a doctrinally orthodox, fairly conservative Episcopalian, and a libertarian Republican. I am also a lesbian and a feminist. I am too much the grateful inheritor of both the conservative and the progressive traditions to sacrifice my commitment to either portion of my heritage for the sake of the other. To contemplate cutting myself off from either would be like debating over which of my arms to amputate.

I think it crucial to remember that both the Right and the Left, in America and elsewhere in the West, grew out of the same Judeo-Christian soil. Americans on both the Left and the Right can affirm the same religious faith and claim the same love of country. This is why, to outside observers, our squabbles over who among us is the truer Christian, or the more patriotic citizen, can seem so absurd.

Outsiders see the family resemblance, even if we don’t. If I were not a woman, I would likely not be a feminist. If I were not a lesbian, I would probably not care much about gay rights. But I would still, if born on American soil in what remains at least nominally a Christian nation, share with most of my fellow citizens a concern for the basic human dignity of those whose voices, in many religious countries, are not heard.

Therein lies the difference. In much of the rest of the world, all human beings are not considered fundamentally equal in worth. Here, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one . . .” There, being Jew or Greek, male or female, gay or straight can mean the difference between slavery and freedom, perhaps even life and death. All too often we take that difference for granted and treat our precious inheritance as a universal given.

Goldwater did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance.

Freedom is not like oxygen. It does not flow, unimpeded, over the face of the earth. It is often, just like the air we breathe, so obvious to us that we forget it is invisible. But because it is invisible, and because we cannot simply breathe it in, we often forget that it is there. Or that it matters as much to others as it does to ourselves.

“I would remind you,” a hero of mine, Senator Barry Goldwater, once thundered, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” This is, unfortunately, often quoted by those who would use extremism not to defend liberty but to attack it. They get the part about extremism being no vice, but they lose the rest of it completely.

Senator Goldwater is my hero, at least in part, because he also said, “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.”

Those who quote Barry Goldwater for the purpose of promoting not liberty but their own brand of power — even though they often do so in the name of liberty (their own, never anyone else’s) — almost always seek absolute power. At the very least, they use those words as a rebuke against those who would hold their power in check. We should bear in mind that the senator said extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice. He did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance. Nor have we any reason to conclude that he recommended liberty only to some and not, in equal measure, to others.

The Right has made much of the tendency of some on the Left to regard their familiar heritage with contempt, of the way they sell their western, Judeo-Christian birthright for a mess of multicultural pottage. That birthright should be duly noted and remembered by people who are quick to find fault with America, while neglecting much worse things that happen in other cultures. If it is wrong to fire one gay man from his job because of his sexual orientation, then surely we cannot look the other way, in the name of “tolerance,” when Islamic zealots murder another. If one woman is poked and ogled on an American street because her tank top is revealing, surely it merits no “tolerance” when another is stoned to death because she was the victim of rape.

But there is blindness aplenty on the Right as well. The same hunger for unchecked power burns in the hearts of political fundamentalists, Christian and Islamic alike. There is little to suggest that Christian zealots would not be sorely tempted to extend their own “liberty,” their own power, as far as possible.

“But we’re different,” they plead, and to some degree they’re right. What is not so often duly noted is why. The “secular humanists” they love to denigrate provide the crucial restraining force. The religious ought to thank the nonreligious, for saving them from themselves; but instead they fume. They may even snarl that these heathens ignore the debt they owe to their culture. But they do pay it; they pay it by checking the power of rapacious Christian extremists. The extremists seem not to notice that the rich soil of their own tradition — so honored by them when they find it convenient — is there to hold the humanist heathens firm when the ostentatiously devout betray it.

They can’t get away with what the Islamic extremists do because those damned secular humanists won’t let them — and that, my friends, is nothing less than our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition at work. Thank a godless liberal heathen the next time you see one. He may not realize why he finds homegrown religious tyranny so repugnant. What matters is that even if he knows not why he does what he does, he does it nonetheless.




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The Long, Ugly Road to Libya

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The Arabs and the West Europeans got us into Libya, yet once again we’re the ones who apparently will do most of the heavy lifting.

Airpower has prevented Qaddafi's forces from taking Benghazi and crushing the rebellion. A no-fly zone can be maintained without major losses. However, unless someone close to Qaddafi happens to kill him, he could maintain himself indefinitely in the western half of the country. If he survives, Western advisors, arms, and training will be needed — at a minimum — in addition to air cover, if the rebels are actually to win.

But exactly what will emerge after a rebel victory? That is anybody's guess.

And that’s enough, I think, to be opposed to our intervention.

Now consider Obama's position. The Arab League and America's NATO allies wanted intervention. Critics ranging from John McCain and the buffoons at Fox to insipid leftists like Nick Kristoff were maintaining a drumbeat for intervention, aided by the media generally, which was pumping out stories about the suffering of the innocent rebels and their kin.  Reagan and Eisenhower, and JFK after the Missile Crisis, had the cred to say, "No, not our business." (Whether they would actually have done so about current events in Libya is another matter.) But Obama doesn't. And while I don't believe he's a moral coward, he doesn't have the guts to say that we simply can't afford this.

The basic fact is that the moving forces in our society — in the media, in political circles, and to an extent in the international business and finance community, think we should police the world, or at least those parts of it that they care about.

Funny, isn't it, that there's a civil war in the Congo that has killed more people than any other war fought since World War II, yet nobody discusses doing anything about it. On the other hand, boy Clinton just mentioned that we should have intervened to stop the Rwandan genocide — although he found reasons not to do it when he was president. Left and Right alike in this country want to spend our blood and treasure around the world. They sometimes disagree about where in the world, but the philosophy is the same.

It's a drug we got hooked on after World War II. If there's a problem, we feel an urge to go "solve" it. We’ve never learned the solution to the urge itself: don’t intervene anywhere unless the lives, territory, or truly vital interests of the American people are involved. It's the interventionist philosophy, combined with the thoroughgoing welfare state created by LBJ and his zealous accomplices that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. We spend ourselves  —  economically, emotionally, morally  —  crusading abroad, when we should be conserving our strength and building a better society here at home.




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How to Hunt RINOs

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A valuable lesson in how to purge the Republican party of big spenders of other people's money (aka RINOs, “Republicans in Name Only”) has been taught to us all by the voters in Miami-Dade County, Florida. They just voted to recall their mayor, one Carlos Alvarez, RINO extraordinaire.

Alvarez had been reelected in 2008 by a large majority. What caused the recent shift in voter sentiment? He pulled a typical RINO stunt after his reelection: he agreed to a plan that raised property taxes sharply and gave even more money to unionized public employees. He went along with raising the employees' pay and unfreezing their benefits, and covered it by jacking up property taxes on two-fifths of property owners by an average of 13%.

Alvarez had earlier agreed to hand over copious quantities of taxpayer cash to build a new baseball stadium for the Florida Marlins.

This struck the voters as profligate and insulting, considering that the jobless rate in the county is 12%. The property taxes used to reward the public employee unions, and the multimillionaire athletes and team owners, are coming out of the hides of people struggling to pay their food bills.

The recall campaign was funded in part by a wealthy businessman angered by reckless spending. Alvarez was voted out by 88% of the votes cast. Good riddance to a gross RINO.




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The Liberty Dollar: An Update

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Bernard von NotHaus, creator of the Liberty Dollar, was convicted in federal court in Statesville, N.C., on March 18. The Justice Department said he was found guilty — not of counterfeiting or of fraud, neither of which he was accused of, but “of making coins resembling and similar to United States coins; of issuing, passing, selling, and possessing Liberty Dollar coins; of issuing and passing Liberty Dollar coins intended for use as current money; and of conspiracy against the United States.”

Readers of this story in Liberty (“Attack on the Liberty Dollar,” March 2008) would have had little doubt of the outcome. The federal code, 8 U.S.C. 486, says:

“Whoever, except as authorized by law, makes or utters or passes, or attempts to utter or pass, any coins of gold or silver or other metal, or alloys of metals, intended for use as current money, whether in the resemblance of coins of the United States or of foreign countries, or of original design, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

Von NotHaus always asserted that Liberty Dollars were lawful, arguing that the Constitution’s grant of power to Congress to coin money was not exclusive; that in the 1800s private mints were allowed to issue precious-metal currency, and that Liberty Dollars were not “coins” because they were not legal tender. Given the law cited above, none of these arguments was likely to persuade a federal court. In that sense von NotHaus was much like the tax protesters who argue that the federal income tax is illegal, or unconstitutional, or that it’s voluntary, and who try to win their arguments by asserting in a louder voice and a higher tone that they are right. These people invariably lose. It takes a while, because the government is slow, but it eventually gets them.

In announcing its victory, the Justice Department made its own political statements. According to US Attorney Anne Tompkins, “attempts to undermine the legitimate currency of this country are simply a unique form of domestic terrorism. While these forms of anti-government activities do not involve violence, they are every bit as insidious and represent a clear and present danger to the economic stability of this country. We are determined to meet these threats through infiltration, disruption and dismantling of organizations which seek to challenge the legitimacy of our democratic form of government.”

Trying to trade a privately minted coin of 999 fine silver for goods or services is hardly terrorism. Who would be terrified by it?

Liberty Dollars were indeed an attempt to undermine the public’s faith in US dollars, but they were never a “clear and present danger” to the Treasury, because no bank ever accepted them, and under the regulated system we have, no bank was ever going to accept them.

Von NotHaus’ organization was an economic venture set up to earn money — US-dollar money. It could sell Liberty Dollars at a profit into the collectible market, because the coins are beautiful and are of pure metal, and because of the political statement they make. (Several versions replace Miss Liberty with the head of Rep. Ron Paul.) But as a circulating currency, the Liberty Dollar was a failure. Probably it had the most success around Asheville, NC, where it had a diligent agent who is now facing prosecution as well. But he made such a poor living at it that he had to give up his storefront and operate out of his house.

The Liberty Dollar was a political act, a statement by a libertarian that he would offer the people a currency of valuable metal, now that the Treasury no longer did. Von NotHaus said as much, and he ambitiously named his company the National Organization for the Repeal of the Federal Reserve and Internal Revenue Code. He did this openly. An act of civil disobedience? Yes. But a conspiracy? My dictionary defines conspiracy as “a secret plan to commit a crime or do harm, often for political ends.” There was nothing secret about the Liberty Dollar. Von NotHaus took as much publicity as he could get.

For all the various counts he has been pronounced guilty of, Von NotHaus, 67, could be sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. The federal government is also asking the court for the 16,000 pounds of copper and silver Liberty Dollars and precious metals it seized, said to be worth nearly $7 million.

As I write, the “buy it now” price on eBay for a 1-ounce 999 silver Liberty dollar denominated at $20 is $50.




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