Urging vague and unconstrained government power is not how responsible citizens of a free society ought to act. It’s a bad habit and it’s dangerous and irresponsible to promote it.
This is not an abstract or hypothetical point. We live in a country in which arbitrary power is routinely abused, usually to the detriment of the least powerful and the most abused among us. We live in a country in which we have been panicked into giving the government more and more power to protect us from harm, and that power is most often not used for the things we were told, but to solidify and expand previously existing government power. We live in a country where the government uses the power we’ve already given it as a rationale for giving it more: “how can we not ban x when we’ve already banned y?” We live in a country where vague laws are used arbitrarily and capriciously.
Ken White, “In Support Of A Total Ban on Civilians Owning Firearms”, Popehat, 2016-06-16.
June 27, 2016
June 25, 2016
June 3, 2016
I don’t make statements like this a lot, and I don’t really feel like engaging in a huge debate. But there’s something I need to say regarding Charlie Hebdo.
God knows I have little in common with the folks who died. I doubt we’d have agreed on very much. Looking over some of their work, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot.
But I do agree on at least one matter with them — they should be free to speak their minds without fear.
I saw this tweet attached to one of the cartoons responding to the massacre:
“Still mortified about our fallen cartoonist colleagues, but free speech will always win.”
No it won’t.
The history of the human race demonstrates /very/ convincingly that free speech is the /exception/ to the human condition, not the rule. For millennia, those who spoke out were imprisoned or killed. Hell, you could say something that wasn’t even subversive, just inept and stupid, and be destroyed for committing the crime of lese majeste.
Make no mistake. What we have today is a level of freedom and self-determination on a scale unparalleled in the history of our species. We live in what is, in many ways, a golden age. So much so that we give tremendous credit to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
But everyone always forgets the first half of that quote:
“Under the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I’m not sure I know of anyplace that’s ruled by anyone “entirely great.” That adage wasn’t a statement of philosophy, as it was originally used: it was a statement of irony.
Don’t believe me? Look around. Notice that everywhere you go in the world, whoever happens to be ruling seems to have a great many swords.
Still, the idea contained within the quote is a powerful one — that intangible ideas, thoughts, and beliefs can have tremendous power. And that’s why we should be paying close attention.
After all, intangible fear can be mightier than the sword, too. Hell, it has been for quite a while now. Don’t believe me? Try getting on an airplane without taking your shoes off in the security line. While you’re doing that, try cracking a joke about having a knife.
That’s the power of fear, guys.
We. Are. In. Danger.
Jim Butcher, “Freedom v Fear”, jimbutcher, 2015-01-07.
May 27, 2016
A wise and cynical friend of mine once described the motivation behind puritanism as “the fear that someone might be fucking and getting away with it”. I think the subtext of the periodic public panics about teen sex has always been resentment that sexy young things just might be getting away with it — enjoying each others’ bodies thoughtlessly, without consequences, without pregnancy, without marriage, without “meaningful relationships”, without guilt, without sin.
The traditional rationalizations for adult panic about teen sex are teen pregnancy and STDs. But if teen pregnancy really had much to do with adult panic, anti-sex rhetoric would have changed significantly after reliable contraception became available. It hasn’t. Similarly, we don’t hear a lot of adult demand for STD testing in high schools. No; something else is going on here, something more emotional and deeper than pragmatic fears.
Conservatives and liberals alike are attached to the idea that sex ought to be controlled, be heavy, have consequences. The Judeo-Christian tradition of repression, which yokes sex to marriage and reproduction, is still powerful among conservatives. Liberals have replaced it with an ethic in which sex is OK when it is harnessed to building relationships or personal growth or therapy, but must always be undertaken with adult mindfulness.
Both camps are terrified of mindless sex, of hedonism, of the pure friction fuck. Lurking beneath both Judeo-Christian and secularized taboos is a fear that too much pleasure will damn us — or reduce us to the status of animals, so fixated on the drug of orgasm that we will become unfit for marriage and society and adult responsibility. What has not changed beneath contingent worries about pregnancy and STDs is the more fundamental fear that pleasure corrupts.
And beneath that fear lurks something uglier — the envy that dares not speak its name. The unpalatable truth is that a teenager’s “immature” hormone-pumped capacity to have lots of mindless sex makes adults jealous. The conscious line is that the kids have got to be stopped before they have more sex than is good for them — the unconscious line is that they’ve got to be stopped before they have more fun than we can stand.
Eric S. Raymond, “Teen Sex vs. Adult Resentment”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-05-29.
May 26, 2016
The strange American ardor for passing laws, the insane belief in regulation and punishment, plays into the hands of the reformers, most of them quacks themselves. Their efforts, even when honest, seldom accomplish any appreciable good. The Harrison Act, despite its cruel provisions, has not diminished drug addiction in the slightest. The Mormons, after years of persecution, are still Mormons, and one of them is now a power in the Senate. Socialism in the United States was not laid by the Espionage Act; it was laid by the fact that the socialists, during the war, got their fair share of the loot. Nor was the stately progress of osteopathy and chiropractic halted by the early efforts to put them down. Oppressive laws do not destroy minorities; they simply make bootleggers.
H.L. Mencken, Editorial in The American Mercury, 1924-05.
May 20, 2016
Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.
It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their own private profit. The Fathers, in framing it, did not have powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain language, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go. The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, decided that it was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional law.
H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930-05.
April 29, 2016
The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.
H.L. Mencken, The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind, 1920.
February 3, 2016
In Reason, J.D. Tuccille explains why the usual media coverage of underage/trafficked/sex slave prostitutes being shipped in to cater to the depraved masses at the Super Bowl are so much hysterical nonsense:
When the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off in San Francisco, experts warn us to expect Cam Newton and Peyton Manning to face burial under a tidal wave of human flesh — not the opposing team’s defensive line, as you might expect, but a writhing mass of sex slaves inundating the Super Bowl and the Bay Area.
Or so government officials and moral panic types would have it.
“Super Bowl host cities typically see a jump not just in tourists, but also in some crimes, including human trafficking and prostitution,” San Francisco’s KGO warned earlier this month on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, an annual event held every January 11.
“The good news is that we are continuing our efforts to fight human trafficking,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the same day. “The bad news is that the problem continues to increase.”
Gascón made his comments at a press conference deliberately tied to the big game, in anticipation of a wave of “trafficked” sex workers descending on the area.
That term – not “prostitution,” but “trafficking” — is a deliberate choice, selected to confuse people accustomed to the plain language established over the long history of the buying and selling of sexual services. The reason why is obvious. While the trade in sex was once frowned upon in itself, that’s no longer necessarily the case. A YouGov poll published this past September found Americans almost evenly divided, with 44 percent favoring legalization of prostitution, and 46 percent opposed. That’s up from 38 percent support for legalization in 2012. Amnesty International is among the organizations seeking to recognize people’s right to, in the organization’s words, “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.”
Opponents of commercial sex find themselves on the wrong side of shifting public opinion, so they pull a little rhetorical sleight of hand to get around that inconvenient word “consensual.” The implication of the “trafficking” terminology is that prostitutes are slaves — and they’re being hustled off to a major sporting event near you.
“Coercion is much rarer than ‘trafficking’ fetishists pretend it is,” insists Reason contributor and former call girl Maggie McNeill. “The term ‘trafficking’ is used to describe many different things along a broad spectrum running from absolutely coercive to absolutely not coercive, yet all of them are shoehorned into a lurid, melodramatic and highly-stereotyped narrative.”
January 18, 2016
Joseph Bottum reviews Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol:
We all know the story: At the beginning of the 20th century, a handful of killjoys, prudes, and pinch-faced puritans began to campaign against liquor. And in 1920, against all odds, they managed to sneak through a law that banned alcohol in the United States. Thirteen years, it took, before we managed to rid ourselves of the absurd regulation, as the corrupting money of gangsters and the intransigence of true-believers — the famous pro-regulation combination of Bootleggers and Baptists — colluded to keep the nation in loony land.
At last, however, we did return to sanity. The forces of right-thinking liberalism in America finally shook off the influence of its nativist bigots and pleasure-hating schoolmarms, and Prohibition was overturned in 1933 to great celebration — celebration so great, so overwhelming, that never again have the conservative know-nothings and religious troglodytes succeeded in forcing the nation to take such an enormous step backward.
It’s a great story, both a cautionary tale in its beginning and uplifting proof of liberation in its conclusion. The only trouble is that it’s completely wrong. Is there another American story, another account of a major American era, that has been so completely hijacked and turned against its actual history?
The truth is that Prohibition, in its essence, was a deeply progressive movement. Thus, for example, the forces of women’s liberation backed Prohibition — and the suffragettes were backed in turn by the Temperance Union, whose support (in the certainty that women would vote to outlaw liquor) helped gain women the vote. The goo-goos, the good-government types, similarly aided Prohibition, seeking to purge the rows of rowdy saloons that cluttered the major cities of America — and they enlisted the help of the Prohibitionists to create a national income tax, ending the federal government’s dependence on liquor taxes.
The health fanatics, the social-service providers in the churches and city governments, the Protestant elite of the Social Gospel movement: Prohibition was supported by majorities in all the social groups who today would be faithful allies of the left. Combine that with rural Protestants, who saw the big cities as dens of Satan, and nativists, who saw drunkenness as an Irish sin, and Prohibition was a moral juggernaut rolling through the nation — as unfathomable as it was unstoppable.
January 13, 2016
ESR has a theory on the rapid decline of the duelling culture that had lasted hundreds of years until the mid-19th century:
I’ve read all the scholarship on the history of dueling I can find in English. There isn’t much, and what there is mostly doesn’t seem to me to be very good. I’ve also read primary sources like dueling codes, and paid a historian’s attention to period literature.
I’m bringing this up now because I want to put a stake in the ground. I have a personal theory about why Europo-American dueling largely (though not entirely) died out between 1850 and 1900 that I think is at least as well justified as the conventional account, and I want to put it on record.
First, the undisputed facts: dueling began a steep decline in the early 1840s and was effectively extinct in English-speaking countries by 1870, with a partial exception for American frontier regions where it lasted two decades longer. Elsewhere in Europe the code duello retained some social force until World War I.
This was actually a rather swift end for a body of custom that had emerged in its modern form around 1500 but had roots in the judicial duels of the Dark Ages a thousand years before. The conventional accounts attribute it to a mix of two causes: (a) a broad change in moral sentiments about violence and civilized behavior, and (b) increasing assertion of a state monopoly on legal violence.
I don’t think these factors were entirely negligible, but I think there was something else going on that was at least as important, if not more so, and has been entirely missed by (other) historians. I first got to it when I noticed that the date of the early-Victorian law forbidding dueling by British military officers – 1844 – almost coincided with (following by perhaps a year or two) the general availability of percussion-cap pistols.
The dominant weapons of the “modern” duel of honor, as it emerged in the Renaissance from judicial and chivalric dueling, had always been swords and pistols. To get why percussion-cap pistols were a big deal, you have to understand that loose-powder pistols were terribly unreliable in damp weather and had a serious charge-containment problem that limited the amount of oomph they could put behind the ball.
This is why early-modern swashbucklers carried both swords and pistols; your danged pistol might very well simply not fire after exposure to damp northern European weather. It’s also why percussion-cap pistols, which seal the powder charge inside a brass casing, were first developed for naval use, the prototype being Sea Service pistols of the Napoleonic era. But there was a serious cost issue with those: each cap had to be made by hand at eye-watering expense.
Then, in the early 1840s, enterprising gunsmiths figured out how to mass-produce percussion caps with machines. And this, I believe, is what actually killed the duel. Here’s how it happened…
January 7, 2016
Some advice for the beleaguered and backward states of Illinois, Massachusetts, et al.: If police are not obliged to ask our permission before recording their public encounters with us, then we should not be obliged to ask their permission before recording our public encounters with them. That states generally dominated by so-called progressives should be so insistent upon asymmetric police powers and special privileges for government’s armed agents is surprising only to those who do not understand the basic but seldom-spoken truth about progressivism: The welfare state is the police state.
Why Illinois Republicans are on board is another matter, bringing up the eternal question that conservatives can expect to be revisiting frequently after January: What, exactly, is the point of the Republican party?
Illinois is attempting to resurrect what the state’s politicians pretend is a privacy-protecting anti-surveillance law; in reality, it is the nearly identical reincarnation of the state’s earlier anti-recording law, the main purpose of which was to charge people who record police encounters with a felony, an obvious and heavy-handed means of discouraging such recording. Illinois’s state supreme court threw the law out on the grounds that police do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when carrying out their duties, though police and politicians argued the contrary — apparently, some part of the meaning of the phrase “public servants” eludes them. The new/old law is, by design, maddeningly vague, and will leave Illinois residents unsure of which encounters may be legally recorded and which may not.
Here is the solution: Pass a law explicitly recognizing the right of citizens to record police officers. It is important to note that such a law would recognize a right rather than create one: Government has no legitimate power to forbid free people from using cameras, audio-recording devices, or telephones in public to document the business of government employees. The statute would only clarify that Americans — even in Illinois — already are entitled to that right.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Prairie State Police State”, National Review, 2014-12-10.
December 29, 2015
Should we consider mandatory graphic warning labels on bottles of booze? Our science reporter Tom Blackwell reviewed various Canadian discussions of the idea in these pages yesterday, suggesting that it is being looked at behind the scenes by addiction researchers. Labels with colour images of diseased esophagi on liquor labels would, of course, mimic the approach Canada has already taken toward cigarettes. So, well, why not? They say if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail: by a similar token, if your field is addiction, no doubt everything that has addictive qualities looks like an unsolved problem.
But there is one very obvious way in which liquor is not like cigarettes: scientists are reasonably sure that light drinking has positive public-health consequences. If you don’t believe me, you can look up articles like the one I have in front of me here from a 2013 issue of Annals of Oncology: its title is “Light Drinking Has Positive Public Health Consequences.” As a layman I obviously can’t be certain I have summarized this editorial correctly, but you’ll have to trust me.
Colby Cosh, “The real problem with liquor warning labels — there’s such a thing as good drinking”, National Post, 2015-12-17.
December 28, 2015
It takes a while, sometimes, for news to reach me from Kampala, Uganda. But a correspondent alerts me, this morning, to the result of the Review Conference of the International Criminal Court, declared on Saturday, 12th June, 2010. It is big news indeed: signatories have agreed to make starting a war into a grave international criminal offence. Henceforth, anyone who starts one goes straight to The Hague, to be disciplined for his improper behaviour. This means he could face years of hearings. Surely, knowing that will stop aggressors dead in their tracks.
How relieved one feels, to know there will be no more wars.
As my correspondent mentions, this may seem a small thing in the labour of ages. But it is a first step, a “baby step,” decisively in the right direction.
I entirely agree, and look forward to further efforts by the United Nations, on behalf of the ICC. For I think they should also have laws against earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes.
David Warren, “Nuremberg revised”, DavidWarrenOnline.com, 2014-12-05.
December 24, 2015
Scott Greenfield on an important legal quirk:
The inclusion of a specific mens rea requirement is common in criminal laws. For example, first degree murder usually requires the “intent to kill,” whereas lesser degree murders or manslaughters may only require “recklessness.”
So why do some laws lack a mens rea requirement? They tend (though are hardly so limited) to be regulatory laws that are backed up by criminal sanctions. There are tens of thousands of laws that demand people do or not do some remarkably inconsequential act, such as not throwing undersized fish over the side of a boat.
The way Congress compels compliance with these trivial regulations is to enforce it with a criminal sanction, such as “failure to do X is a felony punishable by up to seven million years imprisonment.” And there are, literally, tens of thousands of opportunities to visit Club Fed.
These laws have been subject to strict liability, not because they are so evil and harmful, as they are almost invariably malum prohibitum laws, wrongs only because Congress says so, not because they reflect some inherent immorality. The problem, as was made clear in the fish case or the Gibson guitar case, is that no one knows all the tens of thousands of regulations the government enacts, creating a trap for the unwary when there is no rational reason to believe that conduct is wrong, no less criminal.
Of course, as the DoJ points out, the maxim that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” (except if you’re a cop) has been around for centuries. What hasn’t been around for centuries, however, are the tens of thousands of trivial regulations that can land someone’s butt in prison just as well as a nice drug conspiracy. So Main Justice didn’t show Sensenbrenner’s bill the love.
If the bill passes, the result will be clear, said Melanie Newman, the Justice Department spokeswoman. “Countless defendants who caused harm would escape criminal liability by arguing that they did not know their conduct was illegal” she said.
By “countless,” she means too few to count. Or she means nothing other than a new law would limit prosecutors to only those defendants who deserved to be prosecuted. That would cause sad prosecutor tears.
December 20, 2015
In the town of Rotherham, the local police have been effectively hiding a massive criminal conspiracy for fear of being accused of racism:
Fifteen years ago, when these crimes were just beginning, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry into the conduct of the British police was made by Sir William Macpherson a High Court judge. The immediate occasion had been a murder in which the victim was black, the perpetrators white, and the behaviour of the investigating police lax and possibly prejudiced. The report accused the police – not just those involved in the case, but the entire police force of the country – of ‘institutionalised racism’. This piece of sociological newspeak was, at the time, very popular with leftist sociologists. For it made an accusation which could not be refuted by anyone who had the misfortune to be accused of it.
However well you behaved, however scrupulously you treated people of different races and without regard to their ethnic identity or the colour of their skin, you would be guilty of ‘institutionalised racism’, simply on account of the institution to which you belonged and on behalf of which you were acting. Not surprisingly, sociologists and social workers, the vast majority of whom are professionally disposed to believe that middle class society is incurably racist, latched on to the expression. MacPherson too climbed onto the bandwagon since, at the time, it was the easiest and safest way to wash your hands in public, to say that I, at least, am not guilty of the only crime that is universally recognised and everywhere in evidence.
The result of this has been that police forces lean over backwards to avoid the accusation of racism, while social workers will hesitate to intervene in any case in which they could be accused of discriminating against ethnic minorities. Matters are made worse by the rise of militant Islam, which has added to the old crime of racism the new crime of ‘Islamophobia’. No social worker today will risk being accused of this crime. In Rotherham a social worker would be mad, and a police officer barely less so, to set out to investigate cases of suspected sexual abuse, when the perpetrators are Asian Muslims and the victims ethnically English. Best to sweep it under the carpet, find ways of accusing the victims or their parents or the surrounding culture of institutionalised racism, and attending to more urgent matters such as the housing needs of recent immigrants, or the traffic offences committed by those racist middle classes.
Americans too are familiar with this syndrome. Political correctness among sociologists comes from socialist convictions and the tired old theories that produce them. But among ordinary people it comes from fear. The people of Rotherham know that it is unsafe for a girl to take a taxi-ride from someone with Asian features; they know that Pakistani Muslims often do not treat white girls with the respect that they treat girls from their own community. They know, and have known over fifteen years, that there are gangs of predators on the look-out for vulnerable girls, and that the gangs are for the most part Asian young men who see English society not as the community to which they belong, but as a sexual hunting ground. But they dare not express this knowledge, in either words or deed. Still less do they dare to do so if their job is that of social worker or police officer. Let slip the mere hint that Pakistani Muslims are more likely than indigenous Englishmen to commit sexual crimes and you will be branded as a racist and an Islamophobe, to be ostracised in the workplace and put henceforth under observation.