24 February 2011

Why democracy?

Over the last month or so, people have been throwing off, or trying to throw off, the shackles of their oppressive governments. It started in Tunsia, spread to Egypt, then Yemen, Bahrain, and now Libya. In every instance, though, the protestors have been calling for democracy. I suppose that's understandable; the grass on democracy's side of the fence probably looks and probably is a lot greener than that on the dictatorial side. I'm probably underselling democracy with that statement. After all, democracy is often held out as the gold standard for (good) government. Winston Churchill endorsed it, saying, "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others". Despite the actual wording, when reading or hearing Churchill's statement, people often "hear" that democracy is the best form of government. In reality, we can rightly infer from the statement that all forms of government are terrible. In Churchill's opinion, democracy is just the least terrible.

Democracy is often referred to as "tyranny of the majority" and Lysander Spooner explained, very eloquently, why:
[O]ther men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two.
Democracy is a very seductive mistress because it promises the people control of the government. It gives the illusion of self-governance and individual rights. It implies that no injustice can be done so long as the "will of the people" is done. It provides nothing of the sort, though. As explained, when the people vote, a majority may and does impose its will upon the minority. "Will of the people" is rightly replaced with "will of the majority". This can be seen most prominently in the struggle in the U.S. for gay rights, and more specifically, gay marriage. In California, in 2008, 52% of the population denied gay people the right to marry. Proposition 19 last year, also in California, is another example where barely more than half of the population (53.5%) used their majority position to deny the use of marijuana -- the actual use of which affects no one other than the user -- to the rest.

There is also the problem that democracy doesn't scale. The founders knew this when they set up the U.S. House of Representatives. That is, it is not practical to hold a vote among the entire population for every matter to come before the U.S. federal government, so instead the population elects representatives to act in their stead. These representatives then practice democracy amongst themselves. This is even worse, though. Each representative currently represents just under 700,000 people. How can one person adequately represent the diverse views of almost three quarters of a million people?
Choosing between two candidates is analogous [to] going to Walmart and being presented with two shopping carts already filled with items. Everyone will leave the store with the same cart of goods. Each cart contains products that a person may want and products that one wouldn't choose to have, but the voter is not able to take anything out of either cart.
Not only that, but:
[E]ven though the voters are promised a particular set of goods in the shopping cart that won the election, that doesn't mean that the voters will receive that set of goods. The candidate could promise to deliver a specific set of policies, but after the election, the office holder is free to deliver a different set of policies to the voters, either because the candidate changed his position on some issues or because he was being deceitful during the campaign in order to gain political support.
The same can be said at other levels of government, even down to the city level, where a handful of elected officials make decisions on behalf of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. So, the question should not be "why democracy", but "why government". At the federal level, we have things like  TSA body scanners, highway checkpoints, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, extra-judicial assassinations, and indefinite detentions. At the state level, we have the aforementioned denial of gay rights and marijuana use, prohibitive gun laws, and smoking bans. At the city level, we've got Happy Meal "bans" and watering limits and landscaping restrictions. And at all levels, we have taxes and police. You may be inclined to agree with some or all of these items, but that's not the point. The point is that some person or group who you may or may not have voted for or even heard of is, in one way or another controlling you. So, perhaps the question should really be, "why do people choose to be ruled".

Whether they know it or not, most people are Hobbesians, by which I mean that they believe or are fearful that the natural state of humanity is "war of all against all". They may very well be right, and in order to protect themselves from this "war", people institute governments and cede the use of force to said government, presumably to prevent the use of force amongst the people themselves. Locke argued that people do not even have the ability to cede this power in the first place, but nevertheless, ceding this power to a government presents a clear contradiction. If all people by their very nature would war with all others, why would anyone cede to anyone else the legal use of violence? James Madison touched on this idea in The Federalist, No. 51 when he said that if men were angels, there would be no need for government. He argued further that because men are not angels, pitting them against each other within government was the best that we could do. Men, competing with each other, from different branches of government, would restrain each other.

But what kind of person runs for public office? Madison failed to foresee that even the so-called "separation of powers" could not restrain men forever. Entry into politics does not require any particular skill or morality. It simply requires some combination of money, connections, personality, and a desire to rule others, particularly the last one. In fact, that last reason is probably the main reason that anyone runs for office. The idea that the world would be a better place if <insert your name here> was in charge is probably not foreign to anyone. To succeed in government, however, involves backroom deals and "compromises" ensuring that only the least moral and most willing to deal away their principles will rise to the top. Thus, government will ultimately be populated with the worst people in society, and it is only a matter of time before they decide to work together to turn their legal authority to use force on the people themselves. It turns out that government is really a sort of Faustian bargain. Government is instituted to protect people from those in society who would do harm, but how much worse is it when those who would do harm wield the power of the state?

The people of the revolting Middle Eastern and African nations now have a rare opportunity to truly be free. I fear, though, that like many before them, they will make the mistake of putting in place a government that will ultimately betray them and once again oppress them. If they are lucky, it will be to a lesser degree.

18 February 2011

Democrats flee Wisconsin

The Democrats have fled the Wisconsin capital to avoid an upcoming vote to deny collective bargaining rights to government workers. I think the Democrats are right but probably for a different reason. The first amendment (supposedly) protects free speech and the right of the people to peaceably assemble. A union is, at its core, a group of people exercising those rights. The fourteenth amendment applies the first to the states -- really, the Supreme Court applied the first to the states, but that's another discussion -- so in my mind, an attempt by the government to bar unions is unconstitutional (keep in mind that I'm no lawyer).

In the particular case of Wisconsin, and really governments in general right now, government incomes are falling (unemployment) and expenses are rising (healthcare, welfare, etc.). Like a business, they need to cut costs, raise revenues, or declare bankruptcy. The latter two are politically untenable, which leaves cost cutting. Hence, the governor wants to cut workers' salaries and benefits. The union is simply trying to prevent that. I'll let you draw your own conclusion about whether or not the union is in the right.

I'm willing to give the Democrats the benefit of the doubt and assume that part of their reasoning in leaving the state was defending constitutionally protected freedoms, as I described above, but I believe much of it to be predicated on the pro-worker position(s) of the Democratic party and the idea that the government workers in question deserve "fair" compensation. The idea of "fair" compensation is murky, at best, when dealing with governments, though. There's a tendency to compare government salaries to private sector salaries and assume that they should be similar (at least) in the cases where the job functions are the same. If government salaries are too low as compared to those in the private sector, government can raise taxes to raise its workers' salaries. This would likely have a negative effect on private sector workers, though, as they would see less "take-home" pay, and employers may even begin to pay less as well. As private sector salaries decreased, government could lower its workers' salaries and, in turn, taxes. In theory, this would reach equilibrium at some point, and we could all claim that "the market works". (Also, keep in mind that I'm no economist.)

In reality, this would probably never actually happen because the union would fight tooth and nail to prevent the government from lowering its workers' salaries, much like what is happening now. The other problem is that it's not the market at work. In a truly free market, people would determine the workers' salaries indirectly by voluntarily paying for the product produced by the workers. The government isn't subject to market forces, though, because its revenues come in the form of taxes. People, in general, don't pay their taxes because they want a product that the government produces; they pay them because the alternative is prison.

I don't mean to sound anti-union; I'm not against them, per se. Like anything else, they can be good, and they can be bad. For interested readers, Henry Hazlitt gives a much fuller and better treatment of the subject.

16 February 2011

Against the PATRIOT Act but for it's provisions

I've been out of town for the past few days, but I read that the House passed the PATRIOT Act extensions I wrote about last week. This morning, I read that the Senate passed them as well. I didn't set out to pick on the "Tea Party", but I thought it would be interesting to look at the final vote in the House just to bring closure to my postings about the issue. Not a single member mentioned in my previous post, changed his/her vote. It turns out, it wasn't very interesting.

Most of the responses I received to my previous posts were from people in districts whose members had voted for the extension of the PATRIOT Act provisions. They told me that they were disappointed in their congressperson's vote or that their congressperson was never really a member of the Tea Party movement but simply rode the Tea Party wave of outrage into office by being less bad than the "other guy". I did receive one email, though, from a gentleman defending his congressman's "yea" vote. I found this particular email especially distressing because the signature line in the email identified the writer as the Chairman of the Tea Party in his county. I have not asked permission from the gentleman to reprint his email, but in summary, he claimed that I misrepresented what the bill was about in the house and forwarded me a note written by his congressman, Jeff Duncan (R, SC-3), and posted to Facebook. Here was my response:
I don't feel that I misrepresented it at all. The first sentence of the article reads "The House of Representatives failed to extend the PATRIOT Act provisions that I wrote about a few days ago." The words "PATRIOT Act provisions" linked to this page containing the article I wrote a few days ago which was also published on lewrockwell.com. In it, I described the three provisions at issue as well as linked from that article to the ACLU's website which contains a fuller description. Both articles linked to news stories detailing exactly what was happening, what was being voted on, and how. With all of that information, the "uninformed reader" would be willfully so.

If anything, Mr. Duncan is misrepresenting things. How can he simultaneously say that he will vote against the PATRIOT Act while voting for its provisions. As to the specific provisions, I urge you to read what the ACLU has to say about the provisions at issue and square that against Mr. Duncan's rosy picture of what the government is doing.

Mr. Duncan also says that he favors congressional oversight of the use of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act. Aside from the fact that congressional oversight is simply an opportunity for congressmembers to grandstand and almost never, if ever, results in any kind of punishment for or reform of abuses, this bill contains NO provisions for oversight of any kind.

This bill would simply have extended the provisions in question until December, period. Congress performed the same stunt -- extending the provisions -- last year in order to facilitate a fuller debate about the merits of the provisions at issue, failed to have that debate, and now wants to extend it again. Given actions like Mr. Duncan's -- saying he's against the PATRIOT Act and favors congressional oversight while voting for the PATRIOT Act without said oversight -- I see no reason to believe that the act won't simply be extended again and again until the political willpower exists to extend it permanently.
Another emailed because she was unsure exactly where I stood on the PATRIOT Act. Here was my response to her:
I think the whole thing ought to be scrapped (along with the people who wrote and voted for it).

On a related note, I thought this article on Mises Daily was really good today.

09 February 2011

How did (tea party) patriots act?

The House of Representatives failed to extend the PATRIOT Act provisions that I wrote about a few days ago. This is good news, but the fight is not over.
The Patriot Act was moved to the floor under suspension of the rules — a provision that requires two-thirds majority (290 votes) to pass and is often used for noncontroversial legislation. After holding the vote open well past the 15-minute window, it failed 277 to 148 with five Republicans and four Democrats not voting.

Republican leaders will bring the bill back to the floor under a rule, where it will almost certainly secure the 218-vote threshold.


Twenty-six Republicans voted against the Patriot Act extension, but only eight were freshmen — Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Randy Hultgren (Ill.), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Bobby Schilling (Ill.), Dave Schweikert (Ariz.) and Rob Woodall (Ga.).
Of those eight freshmen, it appears that all were Tea Party-supported candidates. It's encouraging to see these officials stick to their professed ideals. I hope that this is a continuing phenomenon. According to this article at MSNBC, though, at least forty house seats went to Tea Party-backed candidates. Cross-referencing the list at MSNBC and the outcome of the vote, the following is a list of Tea Party-backed candidates voting for the bill:
Tim Griffin (AR-2), Paul Gosar (AZ-1), Steve Southerland (FL-2), Allen West (FL-22), Sandy Adams (FL-24), Bob Dold (IL-10), Adam Kinzinger (IL-11), Marlin Stutzman (IN-3), Todd Young (IN-9), Jeff Landry (LA-3), Dan Benishek (MI-1), Tim Walberg (MI-7), Michelle Bachmann (MN-6), Vicky Hartzler (MO-4), Renee Ellmers (NC-2), Frank Guinta (NH-1), Joe Heck (NV-3), Michael Grimm (NY-13), Steven Chabot (OH-1), Bill Johnson (OH-6), Steve Stivers (OH-15), Jim Renacci (OH-16), Tim Scott (SC-1), Jeff Duncan (SC-3), Trey Gowdy (SC-4), Mick Mulvaney (SC-5), Scott DesJarlais (TN-4), Bill Flores (TX-17), H. Morgan Griffith (VA-9), Sean Duffy (WI-7), Reid Ribble (WI-8), David McKinley (WV-1)
That's thirty-one out of forty voting for the bill (77.5%), eight voting against, and one no-vote. Despite the eight nay votes, Tea Party-backed candidates overwhelmingly supported an extension of the PATRIOT Act. That's not good for anybody.

07 February 2011

How will (tea party) patriots act?

Here's another story that isn't getting a lot of attention. Sections of the PATRIOT Act are up for renewal this month. A renewal was introduced in the senate at the end of January by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to extend this unconstitutional legislation. Last week, James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced a renewal to much the same effect, proving once again that statism is endemic to both parties.

A quick summary of the provisions at issue from the ACLU:
  • Section 215: of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain "any tangible thing" relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no showing that the "thing" pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities
  • Section 206: of the Patriot Act, also known as "roving John Doe wiretap" provision, permits the government to obtain intelligence surveillance orders that identify neither the person nor the facility to be tapped.
  • Section 6001: of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or the so-called "Lone Wolf" provision, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-US persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization.
Where is the outrage at this sweeping government power? Where are the news stories warning us that the 4th amendment, among others, no longer has any teeth? Where are the Tea Party activists who screamed so loudly for a smaller federal government, the abolition of Big Brother, and the restoration of our rights, not to mention our dignities? There are some who are fighting the good fight, even if in words only:
[...] Laura Boatright, a tea-party organizer in Ontario, Calif., says the act is "unconstitutional," adding, "We can have national security in other ways, without making all the American people relinquish their liberty."
I'm suspicious of Ms. Boatright's "other ways", but acknowledgment of the PATRIOT Act as unconstitutional is a plus in my book. The Tea Party doesn't appear to be immune to statism and the lure of big government, though:
Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer and tea-party organizer, says he believes the act has helped curb terrorism and "the movement should remain agnostic."
Right. Agnostic. Nothing to see here; things are fine just the way they are. How did this guy get involved with a group of people that supposedly adores the constitution and limited government? Oh, that's right. They all simply want power and control, and trotting out the idea of the big, bad terrorists will keep the people in fear and, more importantly, maintain their acquiescence. The Republicans have certainly wasted no time in peddling that fear:
"The intelligence and law enforcement communities that are responsible for preventing terrorist attacks need to know that the tools they rely on to keep the American people safe will not be weakened or allowed to expire," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas).
And with that, we should all be prepared for the Tea Party to betray its constituents and all citizens after going the way of every other politician: seduced by power, greed, and the desire for re-election to perpetuate those aims.
A House bill would extend the law without change through Dec. 8. Republican aides say such a move is the most likely outcome to give lawmakers more time to debate the issue.
No matter, though, the executive branch is prepared to carry on even without congressional approval:
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Obama administration [...] plans to put many of the safeguards in place even without passage of the law.

04 February 2011

Do as we say, not as we do

Why isn't this story getting more play?

For those who don't want to watch the two minutes of video, here's a similar story from the L.A Times:
"The people of Egypt have rights that are universal," Obama said. "That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights and the United States will stand up for them everywhere.

"I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they've taken to interfere with access to the Internet, with cellphone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century."
Apparently, the United States will stand up for those "human rights" everywhere except in the United States:
Legislation granting the president internet-killing powers is to be re-introduced soon to a Senate committee, the proposal’s chief sponsor told Wired.com on Friday [Jan. 28, 2011].
Kimberly Dvorak, writing for examiner.com, writes:
Leading the charge are Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) who point to WikiLeaks as a reason to control the Internet cyber space. The bill titled, "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act," would give the president the authority to track critical cyber-infrastructure lists. This legislation would give the president the ability to turn off the Internet without any judicial review. Something the world is now witnessing in Egypt.

However, Senator Collins claims the "switch" would be different in the United States. "It would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency," she explained. "It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant treat."
In fairness to the president, I haven't seen him publicly calling for this legislation, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will sign it if it reaches his desk.

02 February 2011

TSA in the news

John Pistole has put the kibosh on privatization (h/t Jonathan Adler) of airport screening. I suppose this was inevitable. The best way for the government to maintain it's tight-fisted control of the traveling public and, by extension, the citizens is to make sure the operation is entirely government run from top to bottom.

I'm all for privatization of screening so long as the private sector is solely in charge of it and the TSA/FAA/etc. is out of the picture. I thought I had written about privatization under TSA direction before, but I must be remembering a message sent to a staffer in my congressman's office. The short version is that privatization under TSA direction is possibly the worst possible outcome. In this situation, airline travelers would have their privacy violated by a private entity. Even though this would be at the government's direction, I believe the courts would not look favorably on a 4th amendment infringement claim because the government, itself, is not conducting the search. With the government performing the screening, a 4th amendment claim is still a viable option. Though, making that claim would be an uphill battle.


The TSA is "upgrading" its body scanners:
The Transportation Security Administration's new software made its debut on Tuesday at Las Vegas airport, and produces a grey 'cookie cutter' outline of the passenger, rather than the embarrassingly anatomical images that gave the devices the nickname 'porno scanners'.

Suspicious items detected by the scanner are highlighted on the operator's screen as little red boxes. Hands-on traditionalists will be pleased to note that passengers who trigger the alerts will still be subject to the very rigorous frisking that caused most of the complaints in the first place.


Kate Hanni, founder of the California-based group FlyersRights, called the new software "a great step forward."

"We're grateful to the TSA for addressing these issues that were of concern to so many people," Hanni said. "But privacy was our secondary issue. Our primary concern about the body scanners is that they are ineffective. We're also concerned about the possibility of surges in radiation."
I got the chance to speak with Kate a number of times and was interviewed with her during my TSA run-in. She's doing good work continuing to draw attention to the TSA, but I have to disagree with her on this. The TSA's "change" does nothing to address privacy. The government is still conducting suspicion-less, warrant-less searches of people at the airport, and when the result isn't to its liking, passengers will still be subjected to a groping. If anything, this is a "great step" backward because the change will likely mollify the masses. With their naked pictures no longer being seen by someone, they'll likely forget all about the fact that they're still giving up their privacy rights (supposedly) protected by the 4th amendment.

The three branches of government

This was too good to pass up.

Chuck's been in congress for over 30 years and he still doesn't understand the basic setup of the federal government. Or perhaps, he doesn't want to. That pesky judiciary is always telling congress what it can and can't do. Though over the years, it would seem that the judiciary has done little to check the power of the executive and legislative branches. Maybe old Chuckie understands better than me the way it works and is just telling it like it is.