Monday, October 25, 2010

21st Century Jeffersonianism vis-a-vis Libertarianism

The libertarian ideal is that the individual should have the maximum amount of freedom, tempered only by an absolutely minimal amount of interference from government. Some libertarians go so far as to favor the abolition of the state entirely, while others believe that the only legitimate governmental institution is a minimalist judiciary to arbitrate disputes between citizens. Libertarians generally feel that the state has no business regulating the activities of citizens and that everything should be left to the free market.

In some ways, Thomas Jefferson leaned towards libertarianism. Intellectually, at least, he favored a minimalist state that interfered in the lives of its citizens as little as possible. As President, he shrank the government. In his struggles with Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was the champion of local control against those who sought to increase and expand the power of the central government.

So, it is clear that there was a streak of libertarianism that ran through Jefferson's political philosophy. The same is true of 21st Century Jeffersonianism. We believe with the libertarians that the telos, the end towards which we strive, should be for every individual to have the greatest amount of freedom possible. To this end, we believe in a small government that intervenes in the personal lives of the people as little as possible.

But Jefferson, despite efforts by libertarians to claim him as one of their own, would never have gone nearly so far as modern libertarians do. Jefferson understood that, in addition to being a large number of individuals, society is also a collective whole that possessed collective interests, and that government is sometimes the only means to further those collective interests. As a state legislator in Virginia, Jefferson authored laws to regulate those activities of citizens which he thought needed regulation (smallpox inoculations, for example), and while he was certainly a small-government oresident, he would have seen any suggestion that the government be abolished as ludicrous.

The problem with today's libertarians is that they are, by and large, devotees of pure theory, rather than practical men and women who are willing to adjust their beliefs to the realities of the modern world. Some of them are indistinguishable from the most rabid religious fundamentalists, holding up the collected works of Ayn Rand as their Bible. And one of the lessons of history is that when devotees of pure theory are actually handed the reins of power, the results are usually disastrous. One can look at the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the economic meltdowns that have resulted in innumerable countries from religiously-strict adherence to either socialist or capitalist economic philosophies.

If you want a real-world example of what happens to a society without a government, take a look at Somalia.

And then there's the fact that strict adherence to libertarian ideas of individual freedom result in the exploitation of individuals. Consider the case of Michael Clauer of Frisco, Texas. While serving as a National Guard officer in Iraq, bravely fighting for his country, his paid-for home back in Texas was foreclosed on and sold because his wife had accidentally missed a few payments to their local home owners association. She had been suffering from depression due to her husband's absence and had allowed the mail to pile up.

In the libertarian world, this is all a matter of property rights and the sanctity of contracts, and therefore it is quite fitting and proper for Clauer and his family to be kicked out of their home. But the conscience of every decent human being finds this revolting and, more to the point, feels that the rights of the Clauer family have been grossly violated. Surely, one of the roles of government is to protect citizens from being victimized by such exploitation.

Jefferson was, above all else, a man of the Enlightenment, who believed that human reason was the ultimate guide. This freed him from blind adherence to strict ideologies and gave him the ability to adjust his beliefs as to the best courses of action in light of actual circumstances. In this, 21st Century Jeffersonians follow their namesake. While libertarianism has many useful ideas that should be warmly embraced, following its theories to their ultimate conclusions would simply drive us off a cliff. For that matter, the same is true for modern liberalism and modern conservatism.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Legalizing Marijuana Is Basic Common Sense

Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. For 21st Century Jeffersonians, the arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana, but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.

The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. Federalism has also been an issue in the debate, with many questioning if the federal government has any right to regulate such matters, as there it is given no authority in the Constitution for doing so. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.

From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Jefferson reminds us that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this occurs.

That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.

The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been an utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement institutions. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which could easily be accomplished by decriminalizing marijuana, society would be much better off.

Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing to hurt anyone at all, are languishing in prison because they committed an act that is, when you get right down to it, no more serious than holding a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and demand that the laws be overturned.

Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We do easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.

For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars a year could be raised through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments.

It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.

To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana (which, in and of itself, harms no one) would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.

Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then establish a reasonable excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Senatos McCain and Coburn Release List of Ridiculous Uses of Stimulus Money

Ever since President Obama and the Democratic Congress attempted to jump start the economy with their stimulus package early in 2009, Republicans have launched attack after attack on the measure. In doing so, they tend to overlook the fact that the majority of the stimulus consisted of tax cuts (long a Republican priority) and focus instead on the vast injection of federal money into the economy in the form of various infrastructure projects.

21st Century Jeffersonians are not Kenysians and generally distrust any government effort to guide the economy aside from enacting common sense regulations for certain economic activities. Whether the stimulus plan was successful or not depends on which economist you talk to, but there can be no denying the Republican point that a great deal of stimulus money went to projects whose utility is dubious at best and completely nonexistent at worst.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Coburn (R-OK), perhaps the two biggest enemies of pork barrel spending in the entire Senate, have recently released a fasctinating report entitled Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues. As the title suggests, it details 100 individual projects funded by stimulus dollars and raises quite obvious questions as to their usefulness for the country or their positive impact in revitalizing the economy.

Among the projects highlighted by the report:
  • $340,000 to plant plam trees in Fresno, California. If Fresno wants palm trees, shouldn't it pay for them itself?

  • $174,000 for researchers at UCLA to study whether retirement helps or hurts marriages, as if this is any business of the federal government.

  • $435,000 for MIT to develop a smartphone application designed to teach high school kids basic biology. Isn't that what biology teachers are for?

  • $1 million for artwork to be displayed at Los Angeles bus stops. We love art as much as anyone, but think there are perhaps better uses for a million dollars worth of taxpayer money.

  • $293,000 for Cornell University to study "dog domestication".

  • $713,000 for scientists at Northwestern University to invent a machine that tells jokes. If only it were a joke.

  • $1.2 million to market video games for the elderly, which isn't exactly a serious government priority.

And the list goes on...

Some of the projects are, in and of themselves, quite worthwhile and interesting. One item involved funding historical research on the legal structure of the Spanish Empire, which is certainly deserving of support but not the sort of thing that in which the federal government needs to be involved. After all, where federal money goes, federal control inevitably follows, and we should be very wary of placing our nation's humanities scholars in positions where the federal government gets to choose which research projects will get funded and which shall not.

Other projects, including various upkeep efforts at national historical sites (such as President Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park in New York) are also quite worthy of support. But shouldn't the funding for such projects be done through the regular channel of the National Park Service? Why make things more complicated than they have to be by dumping money on them through the stimulus? Similarly, there are some interesting scientific projects on the list, including one involving the study of weather patterns on Neptune. 21st Century Jeffersonians support, with certain qualifications, some government funding for scientific research projects. But again, why were these projects not funded through NASA or the National Science Foundation?

Truth be told, all this money may not amount to much more than a few drops of water in the vast ocean that is the federal budget. But that's not really the point. When we're facing a fiscal crisis that poses a far greater threat to America than any foreign enemy, every penny counts. Plus, the fact that every penny spent on these projects was either taken from a hard-working American taxpayer or, in effect, stolen from our great-grandchildren, there certainly is a moral imperative to justify its need.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Presidential War Powers Must be Clarified and Curtailed

The 55 men who created the United States Constitution, for better or worse, left us with many provisions in the document that are ambiguous and therefore can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In a few cases, however, there are rock solid declarations in the Constitution which are so clear and concise that they are not open for discussion. One such assertion is to be found in Article One, Section Eight: "Congress shall have the power. . . to declare war."

That's as clear as can be. Under the Constitution, Congress has the right to declare war. Not the President, not the Supreme Court, not the States, but Congress, and Congress alone. Of all the provisions of the Constitution, this one has been violated on the most systematic basis, and with the gravest consequences for the country.

Technically speaking, the United States has only declared war against other nations during five conflicts since the Constitution was ratified: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Each of these, of course, were serious conflicts between the United States and either another nation or an alliance of other nations, and which were ended by the signing of a peace treaty with the state or states in question. These were wars that would have been recognizable by Napoleon.

Of course, between 1788 and 1945, there were literally hundreds of small-scale military actions, such as Jefferson's own naval campaign against the Barbary pirates in North Africa or the innumerable military operations (usually misguided and often entirely self-serving) to protect American "interests" in Latin American states. But none of these amounted to a full-scale war against another sovereign state, and Congress either voted their approval of the actions of the President or considered the actions to be generally beneath their notice. If an American warship sends a detachment of Marines ashore in a small country to protect the American consulate from a civil disturbance, it's not really something that Congress needs to get worked up over, provided that previously agreed-upon protocols are followed.

Since the end of the World War II, however, things have changed. On four occasions since 1945, the United States has fought full-scale wars against sovereign states: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The congressional resolutions authorizing military action in Vietnam in 1964 and Iraq in 2002 were based entirely on false pretenses (the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident for Vietnam and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for Iraq). On two other occasions, in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, the President ordered the military to occupy small but independent nations. In 1999, a limited war was fought against Serbia. Each of these conflicts were initiated not by Congress, but by the President, with congressional approval only coming later and often only after a deceptive propaganda effort by the executive branch.

Since the end of World War II, the war powers of the federal government have steadily shifted away from the legislative branch and into the hands of the executive branch. We have entered an age when an American President has the power to launch the nation into a unilateral war. Such power effectively being in the hands of a single individual should chill the blood of all American citizens.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War (which, lest we forget, cost the lives of 58,000 Americans), Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. This requires the President to notify Congress within two days of the beginning of any military action that such an action is taking place, and gives a 60 day window (with an additional 30 days for a withdrawal) for combat operations to last, after which Congress must approve of any further continuation o the operation. Most Presidents have paid little attention, and many scholars believe the resolution to be unconstitutional.

In the nuclear age, it may be that old-fashioned declarations of war have become obsolete. At the very least, however, we need a much more concise and comprehensive legislative clarification of Presidential war powers, by a constitutional amendment if necessary. Firstly, except in rare cases of responded to some sort of surprise attack, the President must be absolutely prohibited from ordering the military into action without congressional approval, even under the authority of United Nations resolutions (for although treaties are part of the supreme law of the land, as specified in Article Six of the Constitution, they cannot override the congressional authority to declare war, which is enshrined in the Constitution itself).

Secondly, any congressional authorization for the use of military force must have a set time limit, after which another congressional vote would be necessary for the President to continue the operation. The alternative is an open-ended resolution that would allow the President to continue military operations indefinitely. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was ostensibly intended to allow the President to retaliate against North Vietnam for an attack on an American warship, but it eventually was twisted into authorization for the deployment of a massive American army of half a million men, fighting in Southeast Asia for years.

Congress must reclaim its constitutional role as the branch of government responsible for deciding whether or not America goes to war. Had it not abandoned its responsibilities after 1945, tens of thousands of Americans who died in the wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East might never have perished. While this issue has been swept under the carpet after President George W. Bush left office, it is still festering within the constitutional framework, and it must be attended to as soon as possible.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reasonable Government Regulation Is a Necessary Evil

In Jefferson's time, the everyday lives of people more closely resembled that of the ancient Greeks and Romans that modern society. It didn't really occur to them that government, on any level, should regulate much activity aside from coordinating trade, handing relations with other nations, and making sure the postal system worked. But even in Jefferson's time, the advance of scientific knowledge was beginning to raise difficult questions which, on occasion, required government to intervene.

Between the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the state legislature. In this capacity, he found himself authoring a bill that regulated the activities of people who were carrying out smallpox inoculations, a new and wonderful procedure that helped to greatly reduce the scourge of the dreaded disease.

The problem was that there were no rules governing who could perform smallpox inoculations or how the procedures should be done. Literally anyone could show up in a town, claim to be a doctor, and start performing the procedures, even if they had not the slightest idea of what were doing. It might be a reputable physician, it might be a well-meaning idiot, or it might be a fraudulent scoundrel who couldn't care less that his activities actually caused become to die of smallpox, so long as he got his money and left town fast.

In order for this kind of problem to be solved, society needed some sort of judge to determine who could and couldn't carry out smallpox inoculations, and how they had to be done. Ideally, individual citizens should do this themselves, but in practice this wouldn't work, because the average Virginian had not the slightest clue as to what smallpox inoculation worked or what it involved. There was only one conceivable answer, and that for the Virginia state government to regulate the practice.

Jefferson, of course, didn't like the idea of government intruding into people's lives, but in such cases as this there simply was no alternative. Failing to have the state government regulate smallpox inoculations would have allowed incompetent and fraudulent practitioners to run amok all over Virginia and cause misery. While it is obvious that the activities of government must always be carefully monitored and strictly limited, it is equally obvious that there are cases in which government intervention is both necessary and desirable.

This fact is even more true for us, as we live in a world vastly more complex than that which Jefferson inhabited. In a time of rapidly advancing science and technology, of instantaneous communications and swift transportation, we must face the question of whether to allow government to intervene much more often than Jefferson did. As the power of humanity expands to heights that would have appeared magical to people of the late 18th Century, we now have the ability to solve human problems that would have astonished our forebears. But with this power come difficult questions regarding the role of government in our lives.

In December of 2003, within less than a week, two equally powerful earthquakes, measuring roughly 6.6 on the Ritcher scale, struck on opposite sides of the world. One hit in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in southern Iran, where it completely obliterated the town of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. A major part of the reason for the difference in damage and casualties was that government regulations regarding building codes were in place in California, but were not in Iran.

Since the beginning of 2010, two events in the United States have highlighted the need for reasonable government regulation: the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were tragedies that cost human lives, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has left the region environmentally devastated. In both cases, the disasters could have been avoided had the regulatory standards already in place been properly enforced.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill also could have been rendered much less damaging had the United States adopted a common sense regulation used by our neighbors in Canada. By law, Canadian offshore oil drillers are required to simultaneously drill relief wells to a near-complete level as they drill their main well, so that in the event of a rupture of the main well, the relief well can quickly be used to stop the damage. Because there was no such regulation in the United States, BP didn't start drilling its relief well until after the leak had begun, resulting in months of uncontrolled erupting of oil into the ocean. Only the most dogmatic members of the Libertarian Party would sincerely assert that we would not be better off had the United States adopted the same rule as Canada before BP started drilling its well.

In a complex world, a reasonable level of government regulation is a necessary evil. The trick is to choose very carefully which areas should be open to government regulation, and then choose very carefully the level of government intervention to be allowed. Certain areas should be completely off-limits to government intervention altogether, and even when we make the decision to allow a role for goverment regulation, we should keep it to the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the required aims. Once the door to government regulation is open, it must citizens must monitor it like a hawk to ensure that the regulation in question does not expand past that point, and terminate it immediately when it is no longer necessary.

The current level of federal regulations is patently ridiculous and intrudes into far too much into the ordinary lives of citizens. In particular, it expands the power of the federal government into areas that are the proper responsibility of state and local governments. Rolling back this tide will be a major task for 21st Century Jeffersonians in the 21st Century.

It would be nice to go back to Jefferson's time in which there was so little need for government intervention that a person might live their entire life without encountering the federal government, or even the state government. But that's not possible, because we no longer live in Jefferson's world. Our task, therefore, is not to abolish government, but to make government the servant, rather than the master, of the people.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fair Elections Now Act

Common Cause is one of the most Jeffersonian organizations in the United States today, laboring against heavy odds to reduce the influence of corporate money in elections and seeking to obtain fundamental reforms in the American electoral system in order to increase democracy. If Jefferson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a card-carrying, dues-paying member of Common Cause.

Teaming up with another excellent organization, Public Campaign, Common Cause is now pushing a national effort to get a piece of legislation called the Fair Elections Now Act enacted into law. The Fair Elections Act would create a system of public financing for federal elections, similar to programs already working with great effectiveness in many of the states. Under the envisioned law, candidates for federal office who agree to accept only donations of $100 or less (therefore eliminating the influence of massive corporate contributions of thousands of dollars) would get $400 in federal matching grants for every $100 raised.

This bill is being sponsored in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Larson (D-CT) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), and in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). These legislators are to be congraulated for their Jeffersonian efforts to limit the influence of corporate money on our electoral process.

The influence of corporate money on federal elections is an acid eating away at American democracy, and it is only going to get worse in the wake of the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which this blog has already discussed. A Jeffersonian republic can only exist if the ideal of "one-citizen-one-vote" exists in actual fact, as opposed to being merely in theory. Technically-speaking, the richest citizen and the poorest citizen each have the same voting power on election day, but anyone who clains that the rich do not have a greater ability to influence the American political process as the poor are either deluding themselves or are outright lying (most likely the latter).

The Fair Elections Now Act would not be a silver bullet that would completely solve the problem, but it would be a big step in the right direction. All 21st Century Jeffersonians should rally around the legislation. They should communicate their strong support of it to their own representatives in the House and Senate, write letters to the editor, and do anything they can think of to help get it enacted into law.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Congress Considers Legalizing, and Taxing, Online Gambling

This New York Times story makes for some interesting reading. Many members of Congress are pushing legislation that would overturn the 2006 ban on online gambling. A major rationale for this effort is the fact that legalizing online gambling would allow the federal government to implement a tax on the activity, thus helping to alleviate the fiscal crisis our country is currently facing.

There is considerable opposition to the move, however, particularly from Republicans that have ties to the Religious Right, which traditionally supports government efforts to ban gambling. It will likely be a difficult fight to get the legislation passed. Nevertheless, lifting the ban is sound public policy and should be done as soon as possible.

Government efforts to prohibit gambling stem from a personal belief among certain groups that gambling is inherently immoral. This ignores the obvious fact that it is not the government's job to enforce public morality. Citizens can hold a wide variety of opinions about the ethics of gambling, but it should not be the government's responsibility to police such activities. We might as well speak of the government passing laws to prohibit lying or the use of profanity.

Furthermore, the 2006 ban on online gambling has been completely ineffective. It prohibits American financial institutions from transferring funds to and from online gambling establishments, but this merely resulted in driving it into the underground economy and did little or nothing to actually stop Americans from using online gambling sites. According to the article, Americans annually spend upwards of $6 billion on online gambling sites. As with the efforts to ban alcohol during Prohibition, and modern efforts to ban to the use of marijuana, such government measures are always doomed to failure.

Indeed, the only real impact such government bans have had is to deny the excise tax revenue that would otherwise be obtained from such activities. Estimates suggest that the federal government could derive $42 billion over the next decade from taxes on online gambling. This may not be all that much when set against the magnitude of the fiscal crisis, but it's $42 billion closer to a solution.

Ultimately, the long-term solution to our budget problems will involve a massive downsizing of the federal government and a less intrusive taxation system than the one which currently exists. A major aspect of a truly Jeffersonian tax policy will be the use of excise taxes on specific products and activities. Online gambling is the kind of activity crying out for an excise tax, and the first step towards obtaining it is, obviously, legalizing it in the first place.